Where the air is as sweet as the oozing bunches of black and green fruit

The roads are precipitous, but with its pine-clad mountains and vine-covered terraces, taking a trip to the heart of western Cyprus is worth the effort, writes David Foster
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The Independent Travel
WE CAME during the grape harvest, when great bunches of black and green fruit oozed from the terraces and foothills of the Troodos mountains. Small villages tumbled down the hillsides; tight huddles of houses, each with a vine-draped pergola shading its small patio or roof garden. At Alona, the road itself was submerged under a short tunnel of vines, filtering the morning sunshine through the bright green foliage.

Here, in the very heart of western Cyprus, a compact, tightly folded landscape soars out of the coastal plain. Blink, and you could be in the Himalayas, gazing into the distance as ridge upon ridge marches towards the far horizon, slotted into the landscape like the cardboard scenery in a toy theatre. Precipitous mountain roads clamber through interminable switchbacks, and a light scattering of monasteries are wrapped in the folded valleys.

Starting from Agros, on the eastern side of the massif, we climbed steeply through forests of pine and golden oak, our lungs clutching greedily at the sweetly scented mountain air. Our guide, Philios Phylaktis, paused for a moment under a pine tree and pointed northwards, beyond the UN-patrolled occupation line, to a grey smear on the landscape. "That's Morfou, my mother's town, the place where I was born. You can see it is surrounded by trees; those are the citrus orchards. The Turks took the best land, and left the arid mountain area to the Greeks."

A graduate from the London School of Economics, Philios speaks calmly about a situation which still remains unacceptable to the Greek community. At the time of the Turkish invasion in 1974, his family had been working in the little town of Kyrenia, on the northern coast. Now, like 40 per cent of Greek Cypriots, they remain refugees in their own country, driven south before the advancing troops.

Back on the path, the going became easier, and we dropped down through terraced vineyards towards Lagoudera. Almonds, walnuts and pomegranates mingled with the grapevines as we approached the village where, in front of his house, a man was washing a bunch of black grapes under a hose. Seeing us, he held them out, motioning for us to sample his crop. Deliciously sweet, crisp and soft-skinned, these were the freshest grapes I had ever tasted.

Around the corner, at Mrs Maroula's roadside taverna, we sampled the end-product, washing down a substantial meal with plenty of thick, locally made reddish-black wine. At the next table, a French party was taking a break from their ABC tour of the local Byzantine churches. ABC? "A Beautiful Church, Another Beautiful Church," laughed Mrs Maroula, before suggesting: "Again the Bloody Coach!".

Driving back to our hotel in Pedoulas, we pass within sight of the occupation line; and later, in Moutoullas, a UN vehicle stops to let us through the narrow village road. It is a small reminder that, almost a quarter of a century after the Turkish invasion, Cyprus remains a divided country.

But it is peaceful enough on the slopes of Mount Olympus, and the only surprise is finding a ski lift basking in the Mediterranean sunshine. At just over 1,950m, this is the highest point on the island, and it is snow-capped each winter. We set off down waymarked trails towards Troodos Square and the Kaledonia Falls; at this altitude the landscape is more barren, though the trails are punctuated with juniper, whitebeam and cotoneaster, in addition to the ubiquitous black pine trees. There are wide views and, beyond the wine-growing area of the Kommandaria, we can just make out the vast salt lake near the British base at Akrotiri, 25 miles to the south.

It is downhill, too, to the Pitsilia Winery in nearby Pelendria village. As we sit with our host, Costas Tsiakkas, sampling a bottle of his 1996 vintage, he is suddenly called away. At the back of the building, the local priest has arrived with a pick-up truck full of his own produce; the grapes, he insists, must be pressed at once. For Costas, this is inconvenient but, in a small community, he knows he must keep his suppliers happy.

The Tsiakkas family has been making wine in the foothills of the Troodos for almost a hundred years but, despite the picturesque location, this is a modern business with modern problems. The winery's theoretical profit is constantly being reinvested, says Costas, pointing to a row of giant stainless-steel vats costing more than pounds 2,000 each. But then he smiles, and refills our glasses. There will be no more walking today.

Next morning, our minibus bounced slowly up the twisting mountain track. For almost half an hour, no valley, no fold in the hillside lay unexplored as we rounded

the succession of switchbacks climbing onwards and upwards through the wooded foothills of Mount Tripylos, more than 12 miles inland. At the end of the road, Philios swung the vehicle on to a verge and pulled on the brake. "From here to the coast," he co nfided, "there are no more villages. This is Cyprus's wilderness." It was time to get out and walk. An hour's long, steady pull brought us to the summit of Mount Tripylos, at the head of the Cedar Valley, a huge natural reserve where the native mouflon sheep, once hunted to the verge of extinction, now graze safely. A fire lookout offers commanding vie ws across the mountains to the Bay of Morfou, and a simple shelter shades the single picnic table. But why take a picnic? In the valley bottom, we kept a rendezvous at Stavros tis Psokas, the small cluster of timber buildings that forms the Forestry Department's local HQ. Sitting in the warm sunshine outside the foresters' cafeteria, we devoured huge platefuls of chicken, r oast potatoes and Greek salad garnished with fresh coriander. Naturally, there were bottles of wine. A mouflon dozed quietly under the table like a dog, and all around us, the forest cosied up like a thick, protective blanket. But it was time to move on, and we dropped down through Simou and Agia Paraskevi to the Baths of Aphrodite on Cyprus's westernmost landfall, the Akamas peninsula. Here, the naked love-goddess first set eyes on Adonis and, according to legend, these bubbl ing waters impart youthful virility to all who drink them. "BEWARE," warns the more prosaic modern guidebook, "the water is not potable." It was a bitter blow, and we adjourned for the evening to nearby Droushia, to drown our sorrows in zivania, the loca l schnapps-like spirit distilled from grape pressings. From Droushia, it is but a stone's-throw to the coast at Lara Bay. In high summer, loggerhead and green turtles, among the oldest species on earth, home in on Lara from their distant feeding grounds, and heave themselves laboriously up this beach to bury their eggs in the warm sand. More than 40 miles from Agros, we too had reached the beach. Lara was journey's end.

Fact File wALKING IN CYPRUS Getting there David Foster travelled with Waymark Walking Holidays (tel: 01753 516477). Packages start at pounds 485 for seven nights, rising to pounds 765 for a 14-night cross-country trek (based on sharing a twin room, and including half board, scheduled flights, transfers, and a trek leader.

Getting around Most villages have a daily bus to the nearest town, and all major centres are linked by daily services. Taxis are widely available but, in rural areas, must usually be hired from their base station.

Further information Maps have been restricted since the Turkish invasion, and the official 1/50,000 series is now out of date. Full details of public transport and self-drive rentals are included in the Cyprus Travellers Handbook from the Cyprus Tourist Office (tel: 0171-734 9822).

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