A Cypriot introduction


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Middle East » Cyprus » Nicosia » Pedoulas
April 30th 2011
Published: May 16th 2011EDIT THIS ENTRY

We arrive at Larnaca airport at 2am, one of the worst possible times to land somewhere. First thing we do is compare car rental agencies, good that six of them are there and operating at this time of the night. We choose not the cheapest one, but the one with the most competent and trustworthy salesman, who offers us a decent package for six days. Our car is an orange Kia Picanto, and despite my initial scepticism, it turns out to be an alright car for our purposes.

Getting used to left-hand driving again takes maybe 10 minutes, during which I have a mild freak-out, further fueled by heavy fatigue. When I have to make the first turn, I get confused and start screaming: "Aaarrrgggh!!! WHERE DO I GO??? WHAT DO I DO???? WHERE AM I?????" Then I manage to flick a switch deep inside my brain, and everything's fine again.

It's not only driving on the wrong side that makes me feel like being back in Australia; it's also the wide-open spaces, the feeling of distance, the colour and look of road signs. If I didn't know better, I'd think we'd be driving on some highway in the Perth suburbs.

We take the road down to Limassol, less than 50km from Larnaca airport. From there, we turn onto the Troödos mountain road, a surreal place to drive in the dead of the night. There's no street lighting except for some reflectors, and our car is already struggling with the steep ascents and the narrow bends. I can only assume what dramatic views linger in the black sea that encases everything beyond the traffic barriers. Feels like being in a David Lynch-film. My thoughts start drifting off, and I can sense the dark swallowing me. I stop for a little nap before I fall asleep at the wheel.

At dawn, we stop at a small roadside bakery. When we are about to help ourselves with baked goods off the shelves, the shop owner says something in Greek and motions for us to go inside to get the freshly baked stuff directly off the baking trays. We get some little parcels filled with spinach and onion, and a big yeasty roll, not unlike a cinnamon bun, filled with a sugary paste, still warm and delicious.

At 7am we arrive at our hotel in Pedoulas, a small village
Wild flowerWild flowerWild flower

If you happen to know the species, enlighten me please
deep inside the Troödos mountains' Marathasa Valley. The morning air is crisp and fresh. A shivering middle-aged lady, covering her shoulders with a shawl, welcomes us and shows us to our room. After a much-need rest, we go back up for breakfast. The lady serves us fried eggs, toasted bread, yellow cheese, butter, jam, tomatoes, halloumi and a pot of English tea with a cannikin of warm milk on the side. The halloumi is one of the things I was looking forward to in Cyprus. Now that we have it, I'm delighted, chewing merrily on the salty cheese, Cyprus's national dish, so squeaky and rubbery between one's teeth.


***


Back in our room, we relax a bit more from the short night and the long drive. We turn on the TV, and see that Prince William's and Kate's wedding is broadcast on four of the five channels. I'm quite baffled that every woman attending the wedding wears some type of outrageously silly-looking hat, some in strange colours, most with feathers. It appears to be the most important accessory of a lady's wardrobe, almost as if showing up without one would be an unforgivable social faux-pas, guaranteeing non-consideration for any future royal nuptials. Am I so out of touch with reality that I've never realized that English people dress like that? Or do these hats just sit somewhere in the cupboard, gathering dust, waiting to be take out for special occasions like this one?

Also, I find it very admirable and brave of the Queen not to join in for 'God Save the Queen'. The ensuing endless God-lecturing and let-us-pray shit, though, I find rather annoying. They've just married, for fuck's sake, leave them alone already!


***


We go out for a walk to get a sense of orientation and have a closer look at the big Orthodox church that dominates the view from our hotel. A bit further down a small alley, however, there's an infinitely more interesting and culturally important church, the 15th-century Arhangelos Mihail, one of ten churches that make up the UNESCO World Heritage Site 'Painted Churches in the Troödos Region'. The frescoes inside are indeed intricate and magnificent, and remind me of the ones inside the Orthodox churches of Kosovo and Macedonia. On the outside, the roof structure, sloped on one side, is what is most striking and distinctive about the architecture.

Afterwards we pass by a tiny Kafeneio, the village coffee shops mostly populated by old men drinking coffee and playing backgammon. I want to go in immediately, for it looks very authentic and 'local', but Jaclyn is a bit reluctant, seeing that, corresponding to the cliché, there's only male oldtimers inside, no women. After much hesitation, we walk cautiously towards the door, but our apprehension is disspelled when the owner gets up, opens the door and welcomes us in. We say our 'kali meras' to everybody while the cordial owner ushers us to two chairs at his table.

He asks what we want to drink; we say we want coffee; he asks if we want Nescafé; no, we say, real coffee; ah, he says, Cyprus coffee; exactly. He goes to the stove to cook it in the same way that Turkish coffee is prepared: he boils the coffee powder with water and sugar in a special pot, locally known as briki. It is then served in tiny cups with a glass of water on the side.

When he carries it over, the other old guy sitting at our table chucks a coin towards the owner, who proceeds to inform us that the gentleman has paid for our coffee. We thank him many times in Greek and English, unsure of how to properly deliver our gratefulness, but he uses a hand gesture that seems to express 'Don't bother' anyway.

We start chatting a bit, he asks where we're from, what we do, how we like Cyprus, things like that. "In this coffee shop, every day the same 6-8 people. But in summer it's full with the locals who come here for the tourist season." We ask him why so many houses in Pedoulas are falling apart or looking abandoned.

"30-40 years ago Pedoulas was so full there wasn't enough accommodation for the locals. Everybody was living off tourism or cherries. Now many places are empty, the cherry trees are neglected, owners just lock the doors of their houses and leave. The cherry prices have dropped, there's no more money in it. You can't live off cherries alone, once the season is over, what do you do? There's still many tourists, but only in summer. Many people just moved to Limassol or Nicosia. The ones who stay are the old people. Look around, only old people here, only old people in the whole village. There's nothing for young folks here, they get bored."

The other old fellas just nod their heads gravely, their eyes getting that far-away look that seems to indicate they're reminiscing about better times.

The owner says he used to be a policeman, stationed all over Cyprus, three years here, three years there. Then he moved to the UK to work as a driving instructor. Most of them seem to have worked in the UK, one as a taxi driver, the other as a fireman. According to the owner, the former cabbie lived in London for 30 years before returning back to his hometown. He says they used to be neighbours 60 years ago, and that "this man taught me how to ride a bicycle. One day we were out somewhere in the fields, and I had a bad accident with the bike. He went off to find me some dirty old clothes to wash away the blood and bandage my wounds. After that, every morning I went up to him and shook his hand and kissed his hand. I have a lot of respect for this
Arhangelos MihailArhangelos MihailArhangelos Mihail

One of the 10 UNESCO-listed churches in the Troödos
man."

The ex-cabbie, a small moustachioed man wearing a type of beret, just smiles and nods and keeps flicking prayer beads in his right hand.

"To repay him for helping me", the owner continues, "I helped my friend out whenever he was chased from home by his strict father. I took him home and my mother took him in and fed him and gave him a place to sleep until his father calmed down, and he could go back to his home. Now, do you know what this man does?" He's pointing at his friend with his right thumb. I find it funny how he talks about him as though he's not here. "He sings in the church choir. Hahaha!" The other guy smiles and starts singing a random song. His singing voice is actually quite deep and impressive.

Our coffee is medium-sweet and extremely strong. Somehow I manage again to swallow a bit of the thick layer of sludge at the bottom of the cup, despite having had this type of coffee many times during my trip through the Balkans and Turkey.

We say our goodbyes, and off we are back to our hotel. Our first dinner at the hotel is a three-course meal, starting with a mushroom soup for Jaclyn and a village salad with creamy feta for me. Her main course is grilled vegetables: tomatoes, aubergine, capsicum and onions with homemade chips. They really know what they're doing here, even for the vegetarians: the smoky flavour of the grill makes the veggies extremely tasty and succulent. I get zucchini fried with egg and chips, pretty good as well, but I'm determined to go for the grilled veggies next time. I drink my first Cypriot beer, a 63cl-bottle of Keo, surprisingly a really nice and smooth lager.


***


In the morning, via the pretty little village of Moutoullas, we drive down an extremely windy and narrow road, dominated by hair-raising hairpin bends, towards Kalopanayiotis, to visit another one of the painted churches. The Agios Ionnis Lambadistis Monastery lies on the other side of a ravine, accessible via a small bridge. When we get there, we find all doors locked and no sign of the caretaker. At the local kafeneio, they have no idea where he is and it is suggested we wait for him, he'd show up soon. While walking
Front view of Arhangelos Mihail churchFront view of Arhangelos Mihail churchFront view of Arhangelos Mihail church

Note the conspicuous roof structure, typical for churches in the region
to and fro, a car driven by an elderly bearded man, who looks suspiciously like he could be the village priest-cum-caretaker, passes us twice, but the man doesn't respond to our signalling, and neither does he stop to open the monastery.

We decide not to waste our time any longer, and drive to the village of Troödos, about 20km from Pedoulas on the road to Limassol, to go on a hike. The 7km Artemis trail, taking you around the summit of Mt Olympus, at 1952m the highest peak in the Troödos Massif, seems to be the most appealing and scenic one on offer. At a local shop, we buy rice crackers, fig cake, a carob-chocolate bar and some dates for the hike.

The sky is growing increasingly cloudy as we're about to depart. Along the ridge of Mt Olympus, the scenery is absolutely gorgeous, consisting mostly of black pine forest, in some parts intermingled with rocks, to create a typical Mediterranean landscape. The comparative darkness and descending mist lends it a very mystic touch. In fact, as we walk, the mist is coming down so rapidly that you can see it creeping in front of your eyes from top to bottom and left to right. It appears to have its own character, haughty and relentless, as it enshrouds the trees and obnubilates the mountain.

After 3km we pass a rusty-looking ski lift and a hut with broken windows. The fact that we haven't met anyone since commencing the trail adds even more to the solitary atmosphere of the place. As we walk on, it starts drizzling, then hailing slightly. We keep walking, but when it starts pouring down and finally hailing massively, we seek shelter under a tree. There we crouch, nibbling on rice crackers like little monkeys, watching the macadamia nut-sized hailstones bounce off the ground.

When the hail abates and the rain diminishes back to a drizzle, we battle on. It's freezingly cold, and I kick myself for only bringing one pair of shorts and a light jumper on the trip, expecting Cyprus to be all warm and cozy. Jaclyn's hands are frozen, so I rub and squeeze and massage some life back into them as we walk. Our shoes and calves are muddy and the clothes soaked. Thermals and rain jackets would have been more appropriate, plus warm gloves and beanies. Despite the
The double-headed eagle makes its returnThe double-headed eagle makes its returnThe double-headed eagle makes its return

This one is on the front of the Byzantine Museum of Pedoulas
odds, I thoroughly enjoy the hike and the landscape.

We pass another non-functional ski lift, follow the trail a bit further up Mt Olympus and then through a denser forest for the last few kilometres, until we arrive back at the parking lot.


***


Back at our hotel, there's loads of Cypriots eating a late buffet-style lunch. I have no idea where they suddenly came from, for the night before, we were the only people in the hotel, but it's Saturday, so they might be day-trippers from Nicosia or Limassol. We go and change our clothes, warm up a bit, then go back up to drink a pot of tea and read. By now, it's pouring down outside.

When the sun comes out again, we go for another little stroll through the parts of Pedoulas we haven't seen. The sheer amount of abandoned and ruined houses is staggering, and sad in a way. The village is larger than expected, seeing that it was officially quoted as having a mere 190 inhabitants. The signs of former habitation are clearly visible wherever we tread, and occasionally we come across a house with a smoking chimney or laundry hung out to dry. We pass a nice colonial-style building, very elegant as it basks in the afternoon sunlight. It must have housed an important local British clerk or magistrate more than half a century ago. Good to see that at least someone seems to take care of it, as it's in a much better state than most other buildings.

At the big church there's a service in progress, with sombre chanting, not unlike a muezzin's wailing, audible from the outside. I think about going in to take a peek, but decide not to, as I don't want to intrude on their ritual.


***


That night, I dream that Jesus leaves me a comment on one my blog entries in response to a reference that I made to 'Lord Satan'. He writes it was a very funny blog, but also grossly insensitive and offensive, which pretty much sums up my blog quite well. I spend the rest of the dream wondering what to write back, and decide to send him a non-committal email, neither apologizing nor aggravating him further, for you never know when you might need his help in the future.


***


Our last breakfast in Pedoulas features an enormous slab of deliciously grilled halloumi with herbs and the usual bread, butter, tomato and tea. We kindly asked the lady to leave out the eggs and give us more tomatoes and halloumi instead. She happily obliged. The Cypriot national cheese is something that deserves to occur as a regular in my diet from now on.

We check out and drive deeper into the Troödos, to Kakopetria, the main village of the Solea Valley. Closeby, set picturesquely in a field a bit off the road, are two more of the Troödos churches, Panagia Theotokou and Panagia tis Podythou, just next to each other. More interesting to us than the locked churches are the myriad wild flowers, lizards and olive trees. We are lucky, for the caretakers of Podythou arrive just when we're about to depart. Thus we get the chance to enter the church and marvel at the Renaissance-influenced early 16th-century frescoes. One of the caretakers, both of which are well-dressed, white-haired, dignified elderly men, tells us not to take any pictures, and watches our every move like a sentinel. When we leave without a donation, they look slightly
Local polar bear-dogsLocal polar bear-dogsLocal polar bear-dogs

They looked so miserable on top of this roof; they were dirty and had infected wounds that needed a lot more care; don't know who the owners were, but it's pretty sad to see dogs neglected like that
unhappy with us.

We drive onwards via Limassol to Kolossi Castle, a crusader stronghold dating from the 13th century. There's not all that much to say about the castle, more like a tower and a bit, it perches quaintly between the vineyards of the otherwise burnt South Coast and the scenery extending down the British-owned Akrotiri Peninsula. You get a good view from the top of the tower, and the courtyard ruins are nice to look at as well.

Our next stop is Ancient Kourion, one of Cyprus' most important archaeological sites, dating back to the 13th century BC. The ruins are spread out over a vast territory, and include an early Christian basilica, a massive reconstructed amphitheatre and the Annexe of Eustolios, a private residence from the 5th century sporting well-preserved mosaic floors. The views of Kourion Beach and the southern coast are magnificent, though somewhat tarnished by the haze.

We take our time wandering about, enjoying the warmer coastal temperatures and the scenery, stopping here and there to take pictures or laugh at the dull tourists and their spoiled little whingy brats. A bit further afield, the House of Gladiators and the House of Achilles mark the end of the complex, and after taking a peek at the cool mosaics inside, we get on our way.

The final destination for today is the town of Polis, close to the Eastern end of the island. From Kourion the road meanders along the coast towards Paphos, where we turn inland for the last stretch, another 35km. The distances on Cyprus may not be the biggest, but once you get used to the small size of the island, 35km feels like a lot, especially after a long day of driving and sightseeing. I can hardly keep myself from falling asleep, and have to take a break or two in order not to crash the car. In the end, we make it to Polis before the sun sets. What happened there? Soon!















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