By Ron Bernthal
“The beauty that is Cyprus, its colors, its history, the passion of the people, it is all still here,” says Andreas Charalambidis, a well known Cypriot painter, as he gazes at the ancient harbor of Paphos, a 2,000-year old city on the Mediterranean Sea.
“Yes, we have many tourists in this part of Cyprus, but if you look beyond the visitors, past the concrete hotels along the beach, you will see a softer island. This is what we are about,”
Charalambidis says, pointing towards the hills above the town, where stone villages cling to a sun-baked landscape, and vineyards and orchards shimmer under the hot yellow haze.
We are sitting at Charalambidis’ harbor-side cafe, La Boite 67, which he opened 20 years ago, when Paphos was still a sleepy provincial fishing village on Cyprus’ southwest coast. At that time the rent on this 19th-century brick building was only $6 a month, and Charalambidis made his own tables and chairs from the local hardwood. A fresco by the artist adorns a side wall and, although the once brilliant colors have faded to pastels, he captures the essence of the Cypriot landscape – the flowers, the sea and the proud, handsome faces of its people.
Crowds of sunburned British and German tourists flow past the other nearby cafes like schools of fish, stopping here and there to nibble some grilled halloumi cheese, black and green olives, or a bite of loukanika, the tasty smoked Cyprus sausage.
Charalambidis, 57 years old, with graying hair and beard, does not mind the tourists anymore; tourism is the island’s biggest industry, and business is good at the cafe. With his paintings now selling for thousands of dollars each in London and New York galleries, he is no longer the starving Cypriot artist from the 1960′s.
“We are a passionate people,” he says, lifting a glass of white wine and toasting a luncheon plate filled with a half-dozen red mullet, their little bodies glistening with olive oil and lemon juice. “We love to dance, to eat, to make love.” If the Cypriots of Paphos possess an innate sensuality, t is not arbitrary, for the area is known in Greek mythology as the birthplace of Aphrodite, goddess of love and sexual desire. Today, hundreds of tourists visit the Baths of Aphrodite, a small, crystal-clear pool of water in the mountains north of Paphos, on the Akamas peninsula.
Busloads of elderly Europeans crowd around the baths, fantasizing a naked Aphrodite frolicking in the natural pool with her lover, Akamas. After a few minutes of such reverie, the seniors are herded back onto their motorcoach, and the baths become quiet again, except for a few warblers singing in the nearby fig trees.
One night I have dinner with Yioula Sarika at Demokritos Restaurant, in Kato Paphos. Kato (lower) Paphos is the tourist area near the harbor, a jumble of streets filled with eateries such as The Flintstones Snack Bar, Pizza Hut, Wimpy, and the Pit-Stop Pub.
Demokritos is a popular open-air taverna, filled with tourists and locals, with a large stage for entertainment and dancing. Mrs. Sarika, with her blond hair and accent, reminds me of the late Greek actress and Minister of Culture, Melina Mercouri. She’s also the wife of Paphos’s mayor, so our reserved table is right up front, near the stage. I sense a set-up.
Naturally, in the middle of our meze – a meal composed of two dozen small dishes of Cypriot delicacies – I am pulled from the table by a trio of muscular musicians and hauled onto the dance floor to participate in the embarrassing ritual of Greek dancing. Eventually, a conga line forms, winding its way out the restaurant, up the street, around parked cars, and through neighboring bars and cafes, before returning to Demokritos and to the cheers of Mrs. Sarika and the lucky diners who got left behind.
“You are a Cypriot now, yes?” Mrs. Sarika says, giving me a kiss on both cheeks, European-style, her hair falling across my eyelashes and smelling of oleander, the large sweet-smelling pink flower that brings summer color to the parched Cypriot landscape. A local photographer rushes over and snaps our photo as kisses are exchanged, leaving me wondering about the jealousy of Greek husbands.
The coast road moves eastward from Paphos, hugging the cliffs above the Mediterranean. Behind the cliffs, in the interior of Cyprus, are five mountainous areas, often called simply the Troodos region.
During the months of February and March there can be skiing on the slopes of Mount Olympus, a 6,000-foot mountain that was once the spiritual center of the island. But early in the 20th century a road was constructed to its summit and, later, a small ski center was established, creating a novelty for a Mediterranean island, but diminishing the mountain’s spirituality for the Cypriots of today.
It is not so much the landscape that draws visitors to the Troodos region, but the small villages tucked away in the valleys, each with its cluster of painted medieval churches, where frescoes date from the 12th to 16th centuries.
Some of the villages, like Kakopetria, Omodos, and Pano (upper) Platres, were once magnificent stone villages where the clear, brisk air drew vacationing British civil servants during their administration of the island from the 1920′s till independence in 1960.
Today, however, the proliferation of tourist shops and small hotels, and the presence of motorcoach tours from the coastal resorts, has dimmed the luster of these traditional Cypriot mountain villages.
Some villages, however, have retained their charm, and are participating in a unique government-sponsored program called agrotourism. A dozen of the most traditional villages, in different parts of the island, have received funds to renovate centuries-old stone houses as tourist accommodations. Other villages are slated to join in as money becomes available.
The program offers visitors an extraordinary experience – the opportunity to live within a Cypriot village, in their own apartment with modern conveniences, and at affordable rates.
When I arrived in the village of Tochni (population 700), in the foothills of the Troodos, yet just a 10-minute drive from the sea, it was early evening and a soft rosy glow had settled over the stone houses. A sultry Mediterranean breeze blew through the orange and mandarin groves, and the village was still and quiet.
The reception office of a company called Cyprus Villages was closed, but an envelope had been left outside the door, with directions to my accommodations. I walked up a narrow cobblestone street, turned onto a steep footpath, and, at the top of a hill overlooking the town, found my furnished apartment. The key was left in the front door, flowers in a vase on the kitchen table, and a comfortable four-poster looked inviting in the bedroom.
The apartment, similar to 30 others that the company rents in Tochni, and in the neighboring village of Kalavasos (pop. 1,200), had a modern bathroom, straw baskets and stone carvings scattered about the shelves, and original paintings of the surrounding landscape. Guests have use of the swimming pool at the nearby Tochni Taverna, a lovely hilltop restaurant and bar.
As darkness approached I sat outside on the terrace with a bottle of the local red wine, some fruit, and a thick loaf of village bread. From somewhere behind the house I heard goats rummaging in an empty field. Occasionally the sound of a motor scooter would echo through the streets below, and the faint buzz of crickets emanated from the dark groves of olive and carob trees outside of the village.
In the distance the lights of Zygi, a small fishing village on the coast, twinkled on the black horizon. Beyond that, the dark Mediterranean stretched south towards the not too distant coastlines of Lebanon and Israel. Here, on the terrace in Tochni, was the soft Cyprus that Charalambidis had told me about.
“We have tried to renovate the buildings so they will blend in with the style and architecture of the villages,” said Sofronis Potamitis, owner of Cyprus Villages Traditional Houses, Ltd. “We use only materials from Cyprus, and local craftsmen do the carpentry and mason work.”
Potamitis began renovating houses in Tochni, and in his home village of Kalavasos, 10 years ago when the government’s agrotourism initiative got off the ground. He got the idea of developing an ecotourism concept for his village during his last year at the University of California at Berkeley, when he designed the economic model as part of his thesis.
“I was lucky to be able to apply my knowledge and experience here in my home country,” Potamitis said, as we strolled past the main square of Kalavasos one afternoon. At the cafe, the men of the village were drinking cups of strong Cypriot coffee, children played in the shade of narrow streets, and mixture of earthy smells – olive oil, vine leaves, cooked lamb – drifted out of small kitchen windows.
“Many Cypriots go off the island to get a good education at universities abroad, but there are few opportunities here for them if they want to live in the villages,” Potamitis said.
The Cyprus agrotourism program is a win-win situation for everyone. Visitors receive comfortable, inexpensive accommodations in traditional Cypriot villages. The residents are provided with work in construction and maintenance of the houses, and local businesses such as the taverna, the small fruit and vegetable shops, and the old women who sell hand-made lace receive income from the tourists who stay in the villages.
It is a warm Friday night in Larnaca and the seaside promenade is crowded with families and young couples enjoying the Kataklysmos Day festival, a celebration of Noah’s survival of the flood. Larnaca, site of Cyprus’ international airport, has more than 3,000 years of urban history behind it but this weekend the major event in the city’s history is the opening of the island’s first McDonalds outlet, a modern, multi-story building facing the Mediterranean. A long queue has formed and security guards try to control the frenzied crowds.
Down the street, at Larnaca Fort, a 1625 structure built by the Ottoman governor, a children’s concert is being presented under the stars. And along the promenade vendors have set up booths hawking games and toys, nuts and candy. The biggest seller seems to be a long, sausage shaped sweet called shoushouko, made from nuts, grape juice and flour. Families are buying them by the dozen, as well as bags of loukoumades, little balls of fried dough, sprinkled with powdered sugar.
I walk past the hubbub of the festival and continue along the quiet coastal road to the old Turkish quarter. The Mediterranean breaks gently against the seawall here and several open-air fish restaurants line the street, with menus promoting fresh grilled tsipoura (sea bass) and kalamari (battered and deep fried squid).
Along the southern coast of Cyprus it is difficult to resist these unpretentious seaside tavernas and it is, after all, my last evening on the island.
Near my table a large group of about 20 Cypriots have pulled together tables and chairs and seem to be having a family party. There is much laughter, drinking and singing. Of course, an American dining alone is not accepted here, especially since they see so few of us. Germans, yes, British, yes, Swiss, of course. Even the sun-starved Russians and Poles are coming. But Americans? Perhaps 5,000 or 10,000 out of 2 million tourists each year.
After repeated overtures from the group, I bring my food and wine to the party table and sit amongst them, the conversation turning from Greek to English, and then a combination of both.
Out on the dark sea the lights of fishing boats are strung out along the horizon. Closer to shore, where spear fishermen have taken their flashlights underwater, the sea glows with circles of turquoise light. And to the north, along the curvature of Larnaca Bay, a string of beach resorts forms a necklace of white pearls against the night sky.
Partying with the Cypriots is a good way to end the trip. It cements the relationship between one’s self and the destination as names and cards are exchanged, toasts are made and everyone comments on their hopes for peace.