I love Cyprus in the springtime
Lodges in the pine forests, Roman villas by the sea, wood smoke drifting over ski slopes: spring is the perfect time to explore the parts of Greek Cyprus most tourists never dream of, says John Torode
Saturday 25 March 1995
So, a couple of weeks ago, I decided to spend a week seeking out the hidden Cyprus. To follow my route you need a hire car (between C£5 and C£20 a day; C£1 is equivalent to about 70p) and steady nerves to navigate narrow mountain roads which are constantly under repair.
Holidaymakers seldom bother with Nicosia. They should. Start with a couple of days in the sleepy walled city, the world's last partitioned capital. Since the Turkish military "intervention" of 1974, a misleadingly named Green Line slashes across the centre of Nicosia. It is an ugly but fascinating affair of breeze blocks, rusting barbed-wire, decaying oil drums and gun- toting kids from the National Guard. At the end of Ledra Street (the Murder Mile of the 1950s when teenage EOKA freedom fighters shot British soldiers then dashed back to school to continue working for their A-levels) you climb a makeshift viewing platform to peer over the barricade. You stare down into an urban No Man's Land, and the Turkish occupied areas beyond.
Ledra Street, newly pedestrianised, is the place to buy your bargain leather goods. Haggle in antiquated grocers' stores for herbs, spices and khiromeri: luxurious, hard, black, chimney-smoked hams, far more tasty than the Parma variety.
From Ledra Street it is a five-minute stroll to the award-winning Powerhouse cultural centre. Converted from an old electricity station, it includes a massive exhibition area, a cinema, a classy restaurant where Nicosia's intellectual lite hangs out, and a coffee shop which attracts a nice mix of beatniks and yuppies. Round the corner in a peaceful square lies the new Archbishopric, a vast monument to Levantine vulgarism and the colossal wealth and power of the Orthodox church in Cyprus. It dwarfs the diminutive but lovely medieval palace which is now a folk museum. Next door is the equally diminutive Cathedral of St John, more like a village church.
The redeeming feature of the new Archbishopric is its Byzantine museum, built around icons collected by Archbishop (later President) Makarios, and others brought here for safety by refugees as the Turkish army advanced on their villages. The collection is among the finest in the world and has great emotional value for the people, many of whom are exiles in their own land. The museum also contains mosaics looted from churches in the occupied area, sold illegally in New York and then rescued.
Cyprus is proud of those (relatively few) who died in the anti-British troubles more than 40 years ago. The National Struggle Museum in one corner of the square is moving in its amateurish simplicity rather than any lingering prejudice, and that is as it should be, given that a third of the population of the island have made their homes happily in Britain.
It is only minutes from here to the massive 16th-century Venetian city wall, with its 11 bastions projecting into a broad moat. The wall is well worth walking because of the stunning views and because each bastion has some unique point of interest. The Famagusta Gate, in effect a mini- castle, is a venue for fine art exhibitions and classical concerts. The next, Podcataro, bears an abandoned but scrupulously maintained mosque.
Opposite the Tripoli gate, the old Kennedy hotel - the only one within the walls - has been transformed into a Holiday Inn. Stay here if you can afford the prices. If not, try Tony's, a small but immaculate 13- bedroom pension on 13 Solon Street. Otherwise Nicosia's hotels are mainly modern, undistinguished and stuck way out in the suburbs.
Spring comes early, and it was T-shirt and shorts weather as we left the capital. But rumour had it that snow was thick and skiable on the Troodos Mountains. First we crossed plains ablaze with marigolds and poppies. Then came rolling hills covered in almond trees heavy with blossom.
Of course, we paused at Kakopetria, just below the snowline. We stopped for coffee with Eleni Hierodotus who makes her living selling zivonia, an illegal hootch rather likegrappa only with a more serious kick. It comes in anonymous bottles at perhaps C£1.50 a time, depending on her mood. She will also sell you preserved mushrooms and sticky preserved fruits, which are served with water and Turkish coffee.
Just up the lane from Eleni's is the modest Galini (Serenity) guesthouse; six double rooms with balconies overhanging a rushing stream, and looking on to pine forests and the snow-covered peak of Mount Olympus. If I ever have another honeymoon, I shall spend it holed up at the Galini.
An hour later - in good time for an afternoon's skiing - we were on the mountain. Equipment can be hired, there are four T-lifts and, according to the Cyprus Ski Club, advanced and off-piste skiing is to be had until the end of March. The biting cold is wonderful, as is the clean air, the isolation and the smell of wood fires wafting through deserted pine forests. Walking is also a pleasure, and nature trails are clearly marked. Deep in the woods I came across an Anglican church, tin- roofed and tiny.
The Troodos Hotel - Swiss chalet meets British colonial house - was our overnight base. Almost empty during the week, this friendly, informal lodge fills up at weekends. I spent my midweek evening in front of a giant log fire, drinking strong red village wine with the local chief of police who departed for a hard night's work at about midnight. I could hardly stagger to bed. When I awoke, it was to open curtains and a view across 40 miles of snow-covered pine forests.
Three hours later, after a hair-raising drive, I was swimming in the sea at Paphos. Once a tiny fishing port with a couple of tavernas on the beach, it now boasts a corniche and dozens of four- and five-star hotels. But the real glory of Paphos is that it was built on a Roman city destroyed by earthquakes in the 4th century.
Within 10 minutes' stroll from the corniche (a stroll few tourists bother to take) are the remains of lavish villas with the finest in situ mosaics of their period in the world. And, down a side street just behind the corniche is the great Kryssopolitissa basilica of the same period - deserted, yet designated a World Heritage Site. Legend has it that St Paul preached here, and locals will point out the pillar to which he was, they claim, tied and flogged by the Romans for his cheek.
Eat supper, or just drink, at the unromantically named European Steak House, in fact a neighbourhood taverna overlooking the site.
Next day take a leisurely, 40-mile drive across the rolling hills of the Akamas national park to the furthest point west, Aphrodite's Baths. The baths lie beyond the unspoilt fishing village of Lachi where, on the shore in front of the Porto Fish Restaurant, I had the largest and finest fish meze of my life.
The Baths are a crystal-clear pool cut in prehistoric times into a cliff face. Here Aphrodite came to bathe, and here pilgrims still come to seek blessing from her, hanging as a signs of supplication, strips of white cloth or paper in the surrounding trees.
Now, the Department of Antiquities has put up an ugly great notice reading "Hanging of papers or anything else on the trees is prohibited". Yet, elsewhere on the island this pleasant pagan custom has been absorbed by the Orthodox church. Offerings are made to local saints, and, incidentally, to Archbishop Makarios who is interred in style in his home monastery, Kykko.
Much of the impoverished and depopulated region between Lachi and Paphos isbeing sensitively reinvigorated by the Laona Project - with the aim of promoting green tourism, traditional crafts, and "sustainable developments": lots of weaving, potteries, basket-making and the like. Buy your souvenirs here.
Stay overnight in the former monastery of Ayii Anargyri, outside the village of Miliou. It is now a modest hotel built over sulphur springs, said to be good for elderly bones and bad backs. Or get a list of B&Bs from the Laona Project offices in Paphos. The cost will be embarrassingly small and the welcome overwhelming.
From Miliou it is an easy four-hour drive along the coast road to Larnaca airport. You have to drive through the British Sovereign Base of Akrotiri. Marvel at the miles of up-market Home Counties estates built to house the military's officer class, and the lush green playing fields which are forever England - and which must consume a wholly disproportionate share of that precious commodity, water. British taxpayers foot the bill for this secretive military Club Mditerrane. No wonder the the Military Police move you on sharpish if you dare to linger enviously.
As you settle down for the flight home, you can recall that during your week off the beaten track, you will have hardly come into contact with the other 999,999 British tourists expected in Cyprus this year. Most them them, alas, will concentrate on going round to come to the same places.
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