The mountain steps are getting steeper and crumblier, and the top of the castle appears way above. It is hot: real heat that you stop noticing and just become - it takes too much energy to react. I have slowed down and can hear the insects. Up ahead my husband Gareth is carrying our 15-month-old son River, his blue hat thankfully still on. My four-year-old daughter Phoebe, who never wants to walk anywhere and is always begging her father 'carry me carry me', has found her mountain legs and is gleefully calling out ‘to the top top top’.
We are visiting St Hilarion Castle near Girne (Kyrenia) in North Cyprus. A friend suggested kids would love it due to a connection with the story of Snow White – apparently Walt Disney Studios found its fairytale architecture inspiring and used St Hilarion as muse for the animated film. I am wondering if this was such a great idea after all, but the picture of Snow White on the pamphlet is enough to convince Phoebe, who went to bed early last night on the promise of visiting her ‘home’ the next day and is fascinated by the crumbling ruins, wondering where the dwarves' house must be.
There’s no dwarves’ house, but the writer Rose Macaulay did describe St Hilarion as ‘a picture-book castle for elf-kings’. Named after a hermit monk who lived and died in a cave on the mountain, it was built high to protect the Cypriots from Arab attack and was made up of three main sections, steadily reaching the summit some 723m from sea level.
My mother, in her sixties, turns back after seeing only the servants’ and soldiers’ quarters, while the baby has to be carried down and up the steepest steps, which are flagged up by the warning figure of a falling man. My husband, the donkey, is thankfully fit and fascinated, taking it all in good humour. I am the grumpy one, already dreading the descent, when Phoebe must surely run out of batteries. We have also run out of water.
‘To the top top top!’ Phoebe and Gareth chant.
I stay behind with River, at the base of the third level, in the shade of some pine-scented trees. I wander over to what were the royal rooms. Gothic-style windows frame the most beautiful view of the valley below, the coast crammed with colourful houses and the Mediterranean spread out and seamlessly meeting sky. River pokes the dusty ground with a stick. The spell is broken as I worry about Phoebe, and my mother waiting far below.
‘Gareth! Phoebe! Come on!’ I call to the rising distance.
They made it to the summit and have the photo to prove it, but Phoebe has a little stumble, and so, as I fated, River is hoisted on my hip as I navigate tumbly stone steps while Gareth carries Phoebe. Thankfully, as with most travel, the journey back seems shorter, and halfway down we find that the second-level café is open. After a Cornetto, Phoebe is able to walk again; the rest of us quench our thirst with water.
Back in the car and Phoebe declares ‘let’s find another castle!’ She has discovered history and I have discovered her spirit of adventure. Five minutes later both kids are asleep. It wasn't such a bad idea after all.