Monday, August 15, 2016

The Cypriot Odyssey, June 16

Parts of Cyprus are crass to the extreme. Holiday villas and hotels piled one on top of another,
crammed into available space between bars and restaurants that serve their occupants during the long Cypriot summer and lie dormant the rest of the year. Casinos and car rentals, satellite televisions, rampant development displacing history and rurality. Beaches made characterless crammed with plastic furniture for roasting tourists. And everywhere, in your face, billboards and lighting displays, and time to take it all in as aging ancient infrastructure through old city streets brings traffic to a standstill, cars overheating, tourists lost and angry with the locals. Locals inflicting the maximum financial damage on the interlopers.

Get caught up in it and you might think the whole island is like that. Drive east along the north coast from Girne and you’d be forgiven for thinking there’s no end to the cooker cutter cottages plonked at roughly equal intervals across the ground, racing outwards like an embarrassing rash, lying largely occupant free, unattended and uncared for. Drive west along the south coast, you might be similarly dismayed.

But there’s another Cyprus, even during the busiest times of the year, the peak of the tourist season, not that hard to find, and not that hard to enjoy. 

Our Cyprus holiday broke into three parts, with a fourth part tacked on the end: 
1     .       The west
2     .       The extreme north east
3     .       The centre

And then, reduced by one in number,
4     .       The tennis academy
The south west of Cyprus, around Paphos, is perhaps the best known and crassest location on the island. We went there only once, to the archaeological site near the centre of Paphos town, to view old buildings and fantastic mosaics depicting scenes from Greek mythology.

Forty minutes north west of Paphos is Polis, the town that serves Crysochou Bay – its name more properly Poli Crysochous. Here, the Cypriots come for their weekends, their island holidays, and though foreign tourists still encroach, the atmosphere is relaxed, welcoming, genuine.

The small town of Pomos lies at the very top of the bay almost fifteen kilometres north of Polis, and eight kilometres north of the last piece of beachside bicycle track that somehow marks the end of the tourist district. Here was found the famous ‘idol’, a fertility symbol five thousand years old. Its discovery failed to transform Pomos. The museum of natural history, open 7am till 2pm most days, also serves as the post office. A woman we met in the local shop gave us litres of olive oil she’d made herself, refusing all offers of payment, after we suggested a preference for local rather than branded produce.

The village of Agia Marina is three kilometres south of Pomos back towards Polis. ‘Agia’ means ‘saint’ and many villages are named for the church that lies at their centre. Here, we rented Olga’s beach villa, really nice house, great location, strange furniture – that holiday house phenomena, the cast-off furniture that doesn’t really suit the location and often doesn’t even fit properly. The beach in front of the house wasn’t for swimming, but great for watching the sunset from a rock, and listening at night to the sounds of the pebbles rolling up and down with the waves. To compensate for the unsuitability of the beach for swimming, Olga has a swimming pool, small but sufficient. 

The village has a tavern, a well-stocked shop and post office, and some nice people. And a woman who arrives the same time every afternoon with an ice-cream van. Traditional, self-sufficiency oriented agricultural practice is still in evidence, especially as you move away from the coast. Closer to the coast, agriculture is more commercial – fields of watermelons for example. In the old days, people would live mostly in the security of a hill village, but each hill village also has a fishing village, and today, people seem to spend more time there. The older folk seem a little disoriented, as the practices of their lifetimes, pickling and salting, fixing nets and shoes, season by season are overrun by the money that comes from tourists and jobs and commercial activity.

We spent a week at Olga’s, and from there made forays around the west of the island, including one aforementioned into the heart of Paphos to view the antiquities.

Cyprus is Aphrodite’s island, and we checked out her ‘bath’, a natural spring a few hundred metres from a beautiful beach on the north side of the Akamas peninsula – the western extremity of Cyprus. Legend has Adonis’ own spring nearby as well. Our nine year old expert in Greek mythology was able to explain to us how the baths had changed since the time of the ancients!

Behind the bath, the peninsula, currently a nature park with limited access and facilities, has only been part of the state of Cyprus a few years, and was previously a firing range for the British military. Debate now rages as how best to develop it – the centre and north of the park are not extraordinary by any means, but the surrounding waters, blue and clear, and beaches are glorious, and it would be a great shame were they spoiled the way much of the south west has been. 

The south side of the peninsula has more to recommend it as a nature park. Throughout the summer, beaches there are littered with the nests of Green and Loggerhead turtles, carefully protected by park rangers and respected by beachgoers seeking a more pristine location.

Tucked into the rolling hillside a kilometre back from the southern beaches, Avakas Gorge is a spectacular walk/scramble, with vertical sides soaring overhead, running water, and bird and animal life in abundance amongst the thick green foliage.

The island of Cyprus is built up around two distinct mountain ranges, one soaring above the  middle and west of the south, and the other along the north coast – simultaneously creating the long peninsula that runs to the north west extreme. Much of the southern range, including Cyprus’ highest peaks, is covered with forests (and snow in winter) and impassable to vehicles. This, together with a political situation that until recently rules out driving around the range’s north, has tended to isolate the Pomos region.

We’d head up the western side of the range in the afternoon, leaving the kids to do their thing at the house. We could only go so far before the roads turned into tracks, but nevertheless enjoyed the forest and its fruits. We stumbled across an abandoned archaeological dig at a crusader era monastery, lost more than 500 years and rediscovered only recently.

Most mornings we converged on a beach just north of Pomos. Above the beach, the clifftops are a precinct of empty mansions, holiday homes for the world’s wealthy – Greek, Chinese, Russian, etc. But driving slowly north, we spotted a small sign ‘To the Dragon’s Cave’, and turned down a track between the mansions, found a place to park, followed a path down between the fences surrounding the private properties, and clambered down the rocks to a pebbly beach, littered with caves (and largely free of other litter). Beautiful clear water, with or without waves, depending on tides and wind, rocks to leap into the water from, caves to explore, plenty of shade if needed. Magical. Our own private (public) beach.
 We explored the old town of Polis, and met a few local characters. Be warned: despite marketing itself as a place famous for seafood, seafood in Cyprus is not impressive, and for the most part not local either. Best place we ate around Polis was a tavern on Latsi beach, just west of the port. Here, you can enjoy traditional Greek cuisine as the sun sets and the kids race around on the grass or go for a last paddle, white water lifting the last of the evening’s rays.
The hills between Paphos and Polis are criss-crossed by roads following the old cart tracks, intersecting in villages. Even in the hills, there’s an ‘upper’ and ‘lower’ component to each village – perhaps it’s more of a seasonal than security thing. Honestly, the ancient, twisted trees and villages are a lot more interesting than the wineries and ‘agro-tourism’.

Cyprus is a divided island, with most of the island, to the south, ‘Greek’, and the northern third of the island ‘Turkish’, with smaller sovereign British territories in the east and south. The island was conquered a thousand years ago by the English king Richard I, then batted around between regimes until it settled into the Ottoman Empire, only to gradually slip into British hands again in the late 19th, early 20th centuries as Western powers undermined and carved up the Ottoman empire, until it became (except for the bits the Brits hung on to for military stuff) independent in the mid-20th century, falling apart not long after that. It’s been this way for the last fifty years. The south is recognised by the international community, is part of the European Union and is more developed than the north. However, as the bickering older politicians move on, the division is increasingly irrelevant to the young, especially those regularly moving back and forth, and may collapse completely in the not too distant future. Certainly in the last ten years, with the easing of travel and political restrictions, economic development has picked up in the north (and as a consequence in the south as well).

After a week in the very west of the island, we headed north, across the political divide, to our next stop, near the very end of the peninsula that juts out to the north east. The state of the roads, the route we chose, meant the 200+km journey entailed around 5 hours driving time. Pretty much an all day trip what with loading up in the morning, stopping here and there, and so on.

The coast road north twists between the ocean and the range. Crossing the division between north and south was uncomplicated, even with a hire car. (We rented from Petsas and Sons, a local firm in business since a very long time ago. Petsas has sons, I have sons, I could sense a synergy there. Later, in Nicosia, I meet one of the sons at the office – considerably older than me by then.)

Some things are different immediately on crossing to the north. The culture, certainly in rural areas, is less ‘modern’, more ‘traditional’. Women are less apparent in public places. 

I had in my pocket a few Turkish lira from a visit to Istanbul years ago, and while it was several lira less than the guy in the tumbledown roadside stall wanted for a bucket of beautiful strawberries, he was happy enough to take all the lira for the bucket, and turned down my offer of supplementary Euros. A strawberry feast, a brilliant start to any trip.

Roadsigns can be confusing in Cyprus. Sometimes the place name is Greek, sometimes Turkish – sometimes they sound the same, sometimes they don’t. Sometimes the names are the English ones, derived from Italian ones (‘Nicosia’, for example, the common international name for the biggest town, derived from the name its long departed Venetian overlords once gave it, is called ‘Lefkosia’ in both Greek and Turkish cultures.) Sometimes the signs are in Cyrillic script.

Initially, we’d planned to take in some cultural sights along the way – the old fort at Girne (or Kyrenia if you prefer the Greek appellation), a castle or two. But the roads, once we reached the north coast, were chaotic and confusing – especially after we decided not to drive in to the centre of Girne as it got increasingly choked, and consequently found ourselves amongst a horde of other similarly minded travellers twisting through unmarked lanes barely a car-width wide, hoping no-one would come the other way before it opened out again, guided by the principal of ‘water to the left, mountains to the right’. We were fortunate in emerging onto the coast road, never having had to back up.

Mysteriously, the European maps I have for my GPS (a Garmin), despite including Turkey, do not cover Cyprus at all.
So we pushed on to the east, only occasionally taking a wrong turn. Through hours of countryside despoiled in the last decade by rampant and unregulated development, everywhere fields of tacky freestanding ‘villas’, and much of the coastline overrun as well.

Eventually, that falls away, and we’re out on the peninsula, a hundred kilometres long and never more than ten wide. It’s relaxed, much more sparsely populated, much less developed. A new road that covers most of the length of the peninsula is creating the incentive for change, and indeed it may all change in the years to come, as the rash of rubbishy holiday homes for fickle foreigners spreads further and further east.

But not yet.

Our destination is The Oasis, a hotel of only eight rooms behind the ruins of an ancient church, built over the site of the village and harbourside that once promoted the church. The hotel could be run a whole lot better, but after seeing the effect of corporatisation and business models on much of the north coast during our journey east, well, who cares?

The Oasis is on a small bay, three kilometres north of the village of DipKarpaz. Roadsigns to the hotel around the village helpfully send the tired traveller in circles, and or up a hill to a dead end. Perhaps best to ask for directions.

The tip of the Karpaz, as the peninsula is known, becomes a nature park as well, famous for its wild donkeys, unspoiled beyond the occasional single storey beachside accommodation development, the largest of which seemed to cater only to monks. At the very tip, giant Turkish and Turkish Cypriot flags proclaim a sovereignty. 

Just back from the tip on the south side, the famous Golden Beach. Years ago, we had seen it and missed the chance to swim there, but promised to return some day. And so we did. The sand is in fact golden, the water as clear as any and on the day we were there as smooth and still as a swimming pool. Only four other people on the beach in the late afternoon. Magic. Left the camera in the car - the photo from the top of the hill doesn't do it justice.

At the very tip, I couldn’t help but look east towards Latakia, less than a hundred kilometres straight across the water, and contrast the turmoil and suffering there with the glorious days of ours. While travelling east earlier in the week, at a café on the outskirts of Girne, we overheard a ‘people smuggler’ discussing options, prices, timeframes, with a couple making their way west. His suggestion was that instead of paying him many thousands of Euros to potentially get them to mainland Europe and status as ‘refugees’ that instead for just a small fee he lead them from the north into the south, where they live and work as illegal migrants for a few years before seeking to formalise their status there, becoming Cypriots and by default EU citizens.

The beaches here are covered with turtle tracks in early summer, as the giant sea animals drag themselves up the sand to lay eggs. Come back in late summer to see their progeny tumbling and tipping, racing back down the beach for the relative safety of the water. One afternoon, we spotted two turtles together, four hundred metres off the beach, and I waited in vain on the beach that night for one to come ashore.

Not a lot to do on the Karpaz, swim, eat, enjoy, relax, talk. Weather in June is ideal, water is beautiful, locals amenable to outsiders. Best to check with a restaurant earlier in the day whether or not they’ll be there that night – it could make all the difference. 

The predominant religion in the north of the island is Islam, but a very laid back Islam, secular, devoid of overt social pressures on dress, behaviour, consumption.

Next stop: Nicosia

The old town is surrounded by city walls, designed and built by the Venetians, complete just a few years before they ceded control to the Ottomans. The walls form a circle with eleven buttresses jutting out into what was once a large moat. Elegant, but no impediment to the expanding eastern empire.

Today, the old town itself is divided roughly in half along the east west axis, with Turkish and Greek Cypriot forces facing off, in most places a UN no-man’s land between, all very lackadaisical. The south of course is where the action is, along the tourist axis of Ledras Street. Old Nicosia is a cultured place, and walks will guide you to places of interest, the walls, the gates, the museums. The municipal museum in an old doctor’s residence is worth a look. You can also walk along the south side of the barrier between north and south, and discover art galleries, coffee shops, bars, music venues, even a red light over an open doorway.

Cafe, sandbag, barbed wire, de-militarised zone
At night, the town has a laidback feel. The north, in places deserted and ghostly at night. Cypriots will not walk if they could get in their car and park it somewhere closer to wherever they’re going. The old town is a maze, and walking through it, be prepared to press yourself against a wall to allow passage of yet another vehicle, driver’s eyes scanning left and right looking for the elusive best possible park. We had parking outside the house we rented, but often, I’d just park on the outskirts of the old town, and we’d walk the last 400m. Sometimes I’d drop kids, shopping etc at the house and then head back out. There was a church on the opposite side of the lane, and a wedding held there turned the area for several hundred metres around into a jam. And an arts centre at the end of the street held concerts every couple of nights, causing similar traffic and parking bedlam.
The house we rented, if we opened the front door onto the lane and looked right, at the end of the lane was a military position on the barrier. Similarly, look left, another position. We were on the Greek side, just. To get to the home of a friend who lived a few hundred metres away in the north, we had to walk a kilometre west to the crossing on Ledras Street, present our passports, then make our way back east. And of course, in Nicosia, the floor under the kitchen was an archaeological site - there's an ancient roadway on the right, and pottery shards piled up on the left.

Our house was in the small part of the south of the old town in which people still live, most of the town overrun by commercial and tourist activity. Even so, even this part is increasingly gentrified, with a host of arts centres and galleries, bars, venues and restaurants. Not so gentrific, but very much in keeping with the Cypriot character, a large part of the area is closed to traffic on Sunday nights, covered with plastic furniture, and then filled with locals playing outdoor bingo. Locals lament how much longer they’ll be able to persist with their way of life. They could always move to the north, of course, where accommodation is still a primary function.

Outside the old town, Nicosia is becoming a modern European city, though perhaps more distributed than the norm – if you’re looking to purchase one thing, you go to one part of the city, for something else, somewhere else. There are ‘malls’, but they don’t really work, filled with over-priced brand name clothing boutiques, a supermarket, a food hall and a vacuum. Each of the malls has perhaps one useful shop – one has a great supermarket, another a ‘home improvement’ store – but mostly they’re places to avoid.

The city had built up a new commercial centre, but with an economy closely linked to Greece, the upmarket ‘downtown’ area pretty much collapsed with the Greek economy during the GFC, and while it didn’t fall as far as the Greek, it fell far enough to bring down much of the new enterprise. Without a bubbling economy, the restaurants and coffee shops and other froth just blew off, and is now re-asserting itself in more low-rent locales, closer to the old town.

From Nicosia to the very peak of Mt Olympus, in the heart of Paphos forest and the Troodos mountains, the southern range, is a ninety minute drive. With an avid Percy Jackson fan in the back seat, we headed for Olympus, only to discover the peak is a closed military zone. To compensate, we took a circular walk (one of several on clearly defined paths each at a single altitude) around the mountain, observing changes in vegetation and landscape depending on orientation to the sun, the seasons, etc. And then another walk to the famous and beautiful Caledonia falls for a view and a dip in the snow melt pools above and below.

The beauty and pleasure of Caledonia inspired us to return to the mountains a week later, and walk a couple of hours deep into a valley to the equally beautiful and less well known (to tourists) Chantara falls.

That second trip was made without mum, who had to return to work, abandoning the boys to their own devices. How quickly kids can learn their way from the house to Ledras street if there’s an ice-cream on offer at the best ice-cream store in Cyprus, or to the bar where they’re allowed to drag their chairs over in front of the big screen and watch tonight’s UEFA 2016 match. 

Our plan for the ten days we stayed on alone was built around the Masters Tennis Academy. Each morning, the boys took a private lesson. Each afternoon, they joined a small group for a second lesson. In between, they relaxed, watched movies, read books, wrote postcards. We did lots of the kind of shopping it’s hard to do in India, for clothes, shoes, sports gear, food. Ate ice-creams. Met friends at their favourite places.

In India, with a cook and a cleaner, the boys are not weighed upon to undertake a lot of domestic work. In Nicosia, they shared a lot of the cooking, cleaning and washing duties, with relatively little complaint (and that which there was more about how duties might be equitably shared rather than whether or not they should be done). A re-assuring experience for the long run.

 How many different ways can you read a book on a ladder? Why not use a chair?

 On the days without tennis, we headed out of town, once to Chantara, and once to the ‘Waterworld themed water park’ at Agia Napa in the east of south Cyprus.

The Greek Cypriots, ascendant in the south, take the whole Greek thing very seriously, what with the birthplace of Aphrodite, their very own Mount Olympus, and so on. At the ‘themed water park’, once inside, the theme is obvious: the Greek heroes of mythology and literature. Rides are dedicated to Hercules (the most powerful ride), Medusa (the one with lots of similar bits snaking down from a single head), the Minotaur, and so on.

We had ‘Homer Burgers’ for lunch. These were named, not for Homer Simpson, but for the Homer of yore, the poet and author of the Iliad, the Odyssey.

We arrived not long after opening time, and the boys tried all the rides before the queues started to build up. Not the most exciting park they’ve been to, but a solid four hours entertainment, and home mid-afternoon without a spot of sunburn.

Almost four weeks after we arrived, the last of us said goodbye to friends and departed the Island of Aphrodite, with our tennis game improved, our bags packed with new gear and loaded with Mediterranean delicacies – cheeses, sausages, olives, and more.

Cyprus was an excellent holiday destination, a balance of novelty, discovery, fun and relaxation that outlasted our time there. We had help from friends making plans, and were guided towards the right locations – Polis and Pomos in the west, The Oasis in the east, the old city of Nicosia, and the world-class Masters Tennis Academy. On the ground, we found for ourselves a holiday and activities to suit.

1 comment:

  1. A well written piece, certainly gave me an insight to the area. Of course I mostly look at pics of you all to see that you're healthy! Checking out Aiden reading on the ladder... then to see how he read on the chair, I do remember a young RIC doing the same thing in much the same position....