Travel beyond the coastal resorts, and be immersed in traditional village life
They fluttered and swayed in the warm Mediterranean breeze like giant feathers; movement that flowed across the hillside in an almost otherworldly way; as if the trees were dancing. This fairy-tale sight greeted me as I passed through the renowned Cedar Valley, in the Troödos Mountains. In less than a few hours of leaving the coast, I was already in the very heart of southern Cyprus. Paphos Forest, a protected area of pine forest and rare cedar trees, is where three of the island’s principal districts meet; Paphos (Pafos), Nicosia (Lefkosia), and Limassol (Lemesos). I was eager to reach my destination before it was dark. Yet the sight of the perfectly horizontal branches of these graceful cedar trees moving in waves of almost choreographed dance, was beautiful and mesmerising.
These majestic trees are related to the famous Cedars of Lebanon, a country just a few hundred kilometres to the east. It is this eastern Mediterranean location, south of Turkey, and south east of Greece, that affords Cyprus such a dry, sunny climate. This means that the three million annual visitors to Cyprus can be pretty much assured great weather for much of the year.
The popular resorts and family villas are on the coast – offering the classic sun, sea and beach holiday. Yet over the last decade or more Cyprus has been reinventing itself. Evolving into a destination with broader appeal. I was on my way to discover part of that story, a once hidden corner of Cyprus, now revitalised thanks to low impact tourism.
As the sun began to dip behind the mountains, we arrived at the hilltop village of Kalopanayiotis. It was that golden hour, probably one of the most beautiful times of the day in the Mediterranean. The small hamlet was bathed in warm light, with long shadows falling on the narrow road. We had stopped at the edge of the hillside, taking in the view of row upon row of village homes built on terraces leading down to the river. Facing me, almost hidden in the shade cast by the mountain, was the ancient Agios Ioannis Lampadistis Monastery. I later discovered this is a UNESCO World Heritage Site of three churches, renowned for their exceptional frescoes and Italo-Byzantine paintings in the country.
It all made for a peaceful, somewhat magical setting.
Mountain Village Life
I’m greeted by a local; he chatted in Greek whilst guiding me to the shiny new funicular-style lift that was to gently lower us down part of the hillside to the rural hotel below.
It was a short walk from the lift to the hotel’s reception, found in a historic village house. Outside the air was filled with the calming scent of Mediterranean herbs, and the sound of evening birdsong. Inside vintage crystal chandeliers added a sparkling warmth to the rustic chic interior. It felt good to have arrived. I was finally at Casale Panayiotis – a village hotel that is a flagship project of agrotourism and village renewal in Cyprus.
Following a period of political instability, in July and August of 1974 the island was invaded by Turkey, which resulted in the partition of Cyprus along what is now the UN-monitored buffer zone, the so-called Green Line. The northern 40 per cent of the island remains to this day under Turkish occupation. The events of the 1970s had a huge social and economic impact upon Cyprus – with many villages like Kalopanayiotis, in the picturesque Troödos mountains, becoming depopulated and unsustainable.
Yet, with the vision and investment of international businessmen John Papadouris, who grew up in the village, this decline has been reversed. Papadouris made his fortune in engineering in the UK and the Middles East, so when he returned to his village to see it in such decay he was compelled to make a difference.
For visitors and residents that difference is remarkable. The Casale Panayiotis hotel has renovated abandoned homes, retaining their rural charm, yet updating them for the 21st century hospitality. Unique and historic houses are now guest suites; a library; restaurants; bars; and even a luxury spa. Old fruit orchards are being restored too, and with the growth in popularity of the wine routes of Cyprus’ interior, the village plans to replant its vineyards.
It’s a way of life that was all but lost. Yet the influx of tourism, instead of eroding traditions and culture, has in fact has supported the village creating once again a viable community, where the younger generation can find employment.
Visitors are not just from northern Europe; rural tourism is from cities on the island and from neighbouring countries like Greece too. Contrary to perceived wisdom, Cyprus is not part of Greece. The Republic of Cyprus is an independent nation, and a member of the European Union which recognises the entire island as a member, and all residents, including those in the occupied north, have EU rights. However, the south is very much aligned culturally with Greece.
Yet there is of course plenty of shared history with the Turkish culture too. Head to the island’s divided capital of Nicosia, and one will see the influence of the Ottoman Turks. Not far from the Green Line, in the non-occupied part of the city, remain 16th buildings from the Ottoman period, including the stylish Hamam Omerye. This original Ottoman bath house built from honey-coloured sandstone is still in use and is a captivating place to relax and unwind within historic, authentic surroundings. Even though much of the capital now looks and feels like any other European city with international high street retailers filling the streets, there are still a few historic corners, where you can discover former Ottoman mansion houses, with heavy carved wooden doors.
The Brits have also been very much part of the island’s’ history too and therefore its little wonder that Cyprus is a national favourite as a summer holiday destination. English is still widely taught in public schools, so locals can typically switch easily between Greek and English, making a visit here particularly easy. That’s most definitely true on the southern coast, where since the invasion, seaside towns have grown significantly serving decades of tourism that used to be attracted to the now abandoned beach resorts of the occupied north.
If you’re looking for a family-friendly hotel or some luxury, then Paphos has emerged as the compelling destination, with some world-class resorts and hotels. This once sleepy seaside town is renovating its centre, and harbour; whilst access is also being improved to the many ancient archaeological sites throughout the municipal area.
Limassol is also continuing to reinvent itself. Wealth in recent years has come here from European and Russian visitors and expats. Even after the hard-hitting 2013 financial ‘hair-cut’ demanded by the EU bailout of Cyprus, the city has maintained its focus on regeneration. One of the most interesting districts, away from the all-inclusive resorts, is the old quarter. Left abandoned for many years, the old buildings and warehouses are now being renovated by young entrepreneurs, creating a vibrant, gentrified area that combines a real sense of history and place together with the energy and creativity of modern urban Cypriot culture. Wonder the pedestrianised streets and you’ll discover theatre and music venues, small, independent bars and restaurants, and quirky stores selling art and fashion.
Yet for the hidden Cyprus – to walk amongst ancient cedars, to discover tiny Byzantine chapels, and to experience a once forgotten way of village life – well that means braving those winding roads of the Troödos Mountains to Kalopanayiotis.
As the golden tones of the last sunlight gave way to the rich dark blue hue of night, it was time to get immersed in some local culture. For my first night in the village that meant a Cyprus brandy sour cocktail, and an abundant Cypriot meze of local seasonal dishes.
(This appeared in The Sur in English newspaper 2018)