Beyond the beach bars and bikinis, there’s a green heart of Cyprus that beats with the rich and varied heritage of this colourful island.
An oft-overlooked element of the third largest island in the Mediterranean, rural Cyprus is home to an emerging agrotourism scene.
Home-stays, which have seen old farmhouses and traditional homes converted sympathetically into quaint holiday accommodation, are springing up in the villages which cling to the lush green valleys of the pine-clad Troodos mountains - and for the visitors who are looking for more than just a shot of ouzo on their holiday they’re an ideal location.
Here, you can experience Cyprus Cypriot-style, whether it be watching heavenly halloumi being made before your eyes, marvelling at the Byzantine churches which punctuate the villages in all their domed splendour or visiting a local bakery for your daily bread.
1. The Food
Where to begin with the food!
Surrounded by three continents and with centuries of invaders landing on its shores who left behind culinary souvenirs, Cyprus is a true melting pot of flavours. From the heady herbs and spices of the Middle East to the blow-your-socks-off coffee as favoured in Greece, to the staple Cypriot ingredients which date back to antiquity, such as figs, chickpeas, olives and more, there’s a rich abundance of flavours on offer. The climate means the growing season is long here and the island produces a wealth of produce, from oranges as big as your head to rich red roses, the extract of which is used for everything from beauty products to flavouring.
Then, of course, there’s the halloumi, the national cheese, which is to Cyprus what bread is to butter. You’ll be hard pushed to find a menu on the island without it, and you can even watch it being made from goat’s milk in the cottage industries which have existed - and changed little - for centuries in the mountains. A turbulent past meant that villages became self-sufficient and many villagers still produce most of what they need themselves.
Mezedes is another must and even tiny tavernas manage to conjure up magnificent meze spreads of small plates which take your tastebuds on a real voyage of rich textures and flavours.
2. The Drink
Cypriots like to drink alcohol while they eat (these are my kind of people), so much so, that the island can lay claim to being the birthplace of the world’s oldest wine. Commandaria is still made in the same way it was 6,000 years ago and with its heavy sweetness is not for the faint-hearted. If you’re feeling extra brave, try the 45% proof Zivania which is strong enough to put hairs on your chest.
Though its traditional drinks are still widely available, Cyprus is also home to a burgeoning wine export scene. From its 15 hectares of vineyards which has indigenous grapes, such as Mavro and Xynisteri, as well as imported varieties, the Tsiakkas Winery in Pelendri village, in the Limassol region, offers a fascinating insight into how Cyprus is trying to change its wine perceptions globally, where it’s sometimes regarded as ‘cheap plonk’. Owner Costas Tsiakkas left a well-paid job in banking in the late ‘80s to follow his dreams of running a winery and today they produce 180,000 bottles a year. He’s a proud and charismatic flag bearer for Cypriot wine and it’s worth booking a tour of the winery just to hear him impart his knowledge of his craft alone.
3. The Tranquillity
Aside from the twitterings of the dawn chorus, it was the utter peace and quiet I noticed first when waking up to my first morning in the Eveleos Traditional Houses in Tochni village. Tucked away from the hullabaloo of the beach resorts, these holiday homes are some of the many in the island that have seen new life breathed into traditional structures. As such, they’re teeming with character, and offer something a little different from the more obvious tourist traps. Though it’s gloriously rustic, Eveleos suites come with all the mod cons you need for your stay, as well as a swimming pool where you can take in the mountain views. Wander down the hill to the village and you can eat as the Cypriots do in tavernas, such as Nostos, a charming little find where traditional foods are lovingly made from scratch. So much so, I doubt the kitchen even has a microwave.
Though these places certainly encourage tourists, it’s not a place teeming with them and as we travelled deeper into the Troodos mountains, the peace continued at our second home stay at the Ambelikos houses in Potamitissa, a village of just 60 residents. Living quarters have been turned into private rooms where you’re met by the intense hues and pure air of the mountains as you walk out on to your balcony. Many of the agrotourism home stays, such as this, also have their own restaurant areas where you can refuel with a melt-in-the-mouth kleftiko after a day exploring the mountains. Wine, of course, flows freely too. In Cyprus you’re never more than an arm’s reach away from a carafe.
4. The History
The history of Cyprus is chequered to say the very least. But the tumultuous times have fostered a fierce patriotism and passion for keeping its heritage alive. The villages that pepper the Troodos mountains are home to traditional cottage industries where skills have been passed on through generations. For a real insight into traditional Cyprus head to Omodos in the Limassol district. Wander the winding cobbled streets, marvel at the rustic blue doors which punctuate the sun-drenched buildings, and discover more about traditional bread making at George’s bakery, such as apkatena which is made with ingredients including chickpeas, cinnamon, nutmeg and citrus peel to give it a distinctive taste of Cypriot. Also make sure to pay a visit to the lace shops where hand-made lace, so fine it could float, is crafted into everything from table mats to parasols.
Even new business doffs its cap to the past, especially in Kalopanayiotis village in the Marathasa Valley of the Nicosia district. Here, you can indulge in the award-winning Myrianthousa spa, carved into an ancient mountain range, at the Casale Panayiotis hotel which uses the natural sulphur spring spa water of the village in luxurious, contemporary surroundings. Follow a treatment up with a meal in the hotel’s restaurant which uses local ingredients, many made just a stone’s throw away, which are served on local pottery. Even the wine comes from a new winery which is part of the recent revival of the village. Every building has meaning here, one that can be traced back centuries. Stay in one of the hotel’s rooms which are dotted about the village, and you’re likely to be staying next to the local beekeeper or pottery artist. Agrotourism has been a massive boost to this village, bringing sustainability to its cottage industries, while providing jobs for its young people who no longer need to head to the cities for work.
5. The People
A million Brits flock to Cyprus each year, slightly more than the entire population of the Republic of Cyprus. As an island where tourism is key, the hospitality is second to none. The Kouyiouka bakery and restaurant, near Yiolou village in the Paphos district, is a shining example of this. Welcomes are as warm as the Cypriot sun at this centre which is dedicated to the spirit and folklore of the country. The 200-year-old water mill has been renovated to its former glory where they still make bread, olive oil and wine in the traditional way. Here we were met by a sprightly 80-year-old grandma who, despite not speaking a world of English, couldn’t be more delighted to make us some bread whilst singing traditional love poems. Baking is in her blood and her passion for making daily bread had us wanting to roll up our sleeves and get stuck in too.
And Cypriot characters don’t come much bigger than George who runs a jeep excursion business around the Laona villages and Akamas peninsula. Hop in the back and hold on tight as he off roads through this rustic landscape - just be prepared to come to a halt as herds of goats, complete with jangling bells, make their way across the roads. It’s not always a rough ride though, George makes plenty of pit stops along the way, whether it be to take in the scent of the orange trees or to enjoy a cup of Cypriot coffee. Served espresso-style, it’s extra strong and isn’t for wimps!
6. The Beauty
Rising 1,952metres above sea level, the Troodos Mountains, home to Mount Olympus, is as majestic as it sounds.
Hike, cycle or drive (they drive on the same side of the road as Britain, which is handy) through this undulating landscape and you’ll uncover traditional houses and villages, studded with striking Byzantine architecture, that cling to the fertile valley slopes. For remarkably well preserved frescos head to the tranquil glade which houses the Church of Agios Nikolaos tis Stegis in the Solea Valley. A Unesco World Heritage site, this charming little church dates back to the 11th century and houses wall paintings dating back to its inception.
On our final day we headed down the winding mountain roads to the more traditionally touristic areas of Polis and Paphos on the west coast where you can get your beach fix at the azure blue coastline. At the popular Paphos harbour you can pop into the archeological park to marvel at the intricate detail of the mosaics of a Roman house unearthed by a farmer only decades ago. Though the harbour is more known for the hustle and bustle of tourists, like the rest of Cyprus, history is never far away.
For more information, visit the Cyprus Tourism Organisation: www.visitcyprus.com
Easyjet operates flights to Paphos from London Gatwick and Manchester airport with fares starting from £26.49 one way. For further information or to book visit http://www.easyjet.com/en/cheap-flights/cyprus
In peak season there are also regular flights from Newcastle Airport.