November 8, 2016

Our Cypriot Affair

We needed a vacation - a week away from the routine of work life, glares of the city lights and the never ending chores. We googled, researched, spoke to friends and Bingo!!There it was - Cyprus! This is the place we needed to holiday.

(Ah well, I know this write up comes pretty late - it's been a year now. Blame it on our laziness or whatever other excuses we could possibly give.)

Here it is, Cyprus through our eyes.

Out we set to a small yet beautiful country enshrouded in mystery yet filled with a bunch of happy go lucky people.
Our holidays began by the seaside-a picture perfect postcard like view!! We were to spend the first part of our vacation by the sea before moving to the Troodos mountains. We landed in the afternoon at Larnaca airport. A long drive from Larnaca to Ayia Napa with a taxi driver who succeeded in scaring us out of our wits -his huge, straight out of the Hollywood villain look with bludgeoning muscles, a clean shaven head, thick white mouche till the chin, in whites, and a booming voice. Both of us put together wouldn't reach his size. (A word of caution to all Cyprus travelers-if you plan to take a taxi out of the airport -you don't have a choice but go with the rates they quote!! Unless you get a bunch of tourists heading to the same place whom you could share your taxi with.)

Our initial fear turned to fascination and enthusiasm as we moved along the highway towards Ayia Napa. So, now our Hollywood villain starts chatting. He talks of the Turkish invasion and how he belonged to a place in Cyprus where he cannot even set his foot now for the fear of being shot dead.
Turks are believed to have invaded Cyprus in the 1970's violating a previous pact. One fine morning, Cypriots woke up to Turkish soldiers marching down their streets and asking them to leave their houses for the love of life. The Cypriots, taken aback by the invasion had no choice but move out of their houses to newer areas. The Turkish occupied Cyprus is off limits to the Cypriots with Turk soldiers on guards. The houses even today remain unoccupied -just like life has been brought to a standstill at the blink of an eye. The town now. is referred to as the ghost town. This sowed the seeds of hatred between the two nations and the story continues.

By the time we were through the history, we had already set foot in Ayia Napa. It was about 45 mins drive. We had booked our stay at a hotel which is in the Ayia Napa stretch and close to Nissi beach. Upon arrival, we were made to wait for a while. Apparently there was some confusion, and as we had read about numerous booking reviews and feared, they told us our booking had not shown up! But they were kind enough to arrange accommodation in their sister hotel, Dome Beach hotel, which was apparently a star above, and with much more amenities, and along the shores of Macronissos Beach. So we were, in fact, lucky! Nissi beach is the more crowded of the beaches with a lot of sporting activities, Macronissos is the quieter of the lot. Like mentioned earlier, the beach was just picture perfect!! 

 'The endless blue sky  meeting the equally blue expanses of the ocean making it a perfect spot to view the magnanimity of the sun rise and the sunset which we did not miss each of the three days we spent there.' ( I was just trying to sound like some poets who describe the beauty of the nature)

The postcard view
We had made it a point to watch the sunrise and sunset every day we were there.  We always did want to spend the dawn by the beach. Tiny ripples lashing against the rocks, an occasional parasailing couple, kids building sand forts and hand in hand we walked taking in each moment and each breath enjoying it to the brim. (Well, if we ignore the fact that we were the most clothed on the beach.)

Nothing beats the perfection of creation by the Almighty!
We had opted for half board at the hotel, hoping that we would spend our afternoons out in the city exploring and we could have our dig at the local cuisines. By now, you do definitely know that we are hardcore foodies - any day, any time we are at the beck and call of food. We checked in, and after relaxing for a while, and taking in the views from the balcony, we set out to wander.

 An area of historic importance are the graves of Macronissos adjacent to the beach. Upon entry, the burial site gives a eerie feel. One look at the site gives you a feeling that you are entering a desert amidst the sea. As you move further, you notice excavations on the ground with steps leading to the door of the tombs. The tombs date back to the Roman Era. The dead were placed along with valuables. Over the years, the tombs were said to be raided and all that remains is the structure. A quick look around and we turned back - it was getting darker and creepier.

The harbour
Ayia Napa is more of a commercial place with lots of tourists flocking in from the neighboring countries- trust me Cyprus is quite friendly on your pockets. We opted for a boat cruise for the next day. A cruise is a must do part of the Ayia Napa experience. We zipped  on our rented scooter along the town to the Ayia Napa harbour. We were given a choice to select from amongst the three available cruises - Captain Marko cruise, The Black Pearl and the Aphrodite. We chose Captain Marko simply because the reviews were too good to ignore. (Choose Back Pearl in case you are travelling with kids - they do have a range of activities). It starts at 11 am and gets you back by 4 pm.

The name says it all - our cruise
The cruise takes you along the shores till the ghost town of Famagusta with about 2 stops in the blue to take a swim in the ocean. I do not know swimming and hence chose to stay on board while Shibin did have a dip in the sea. (which made him realise swimming pools are a better choice for swimming than the deep blue sea at least you have a choice to touch your feet to the ground and still have your head over the water:)) Our cruise did have a lot of elderly people and it amazed us to see them jump into the blue sea and paddle around like it is no big deal. Oh and they did serve some yummy food - chicken roast with baked potatoes, salad and Greek yogurt. It did taste heavenly especially since we were charred out in the sweltering heat atop the boat. ( Carry tons of sunscreen - you need it). 

Enjoying a swim in the blue

That's my husband trying to get his perfect shots - it is not often that he gets models for his photography other than the food I cook

That is the 'Black Pearl' coming right at us!

Did we forget to mention that Cyprus beaches are very rocky??

The yummy baked chicken with salad, potatoes and greek yogurt

There are truckloads of activities at the beach and we chose scuba diving for the third morning. Not knowing swimming is not a constraint - well, it is said that it is better you don't. We took the beginner course and were trained on the basics - the equipment and communication. We adorned our suits and had the oxygen cylinder strapped on our backs by our cheery comedian instructor - reminded us of Robin Williams! As if the cylinders were any lighter, we had weights tied  across our waists to help us sink. In water, these may seem light but definitely not on the shore. Suits adorned and flippers in hand, we walked across the beach to the waters. After a few practice sessions, our instructor guided us into the deep having strapped the flippers. It was a whole new world - a new world under the deep blue sea. We set off exploring the new life, conscious to never let go off the instructors hand. Tiny fishes swam by and we saw a beautiful world out there as clear as crystal much more beautiful than we ever imagined it to be. I would love another go at it some day provided I do not have sharks enjoying a swim around me. After the scuba diving stint, we headed to the town to visit the Ayia Napa monastery and Square, and also to inquire about the public transport for the next phase of our holiday.
Our Scuba diving adventure
Ayia Napa derived its name from a Venetian Monastery. The monastery is built around a cave and got its name from an icon of Virgin Mary that was discovered here centuries back, Even today, various programmes are hosted in this monastery and it serves as a perfect location for those looking for a traditional Venetian wedding. Although, we did not get to see a wedding, we did witness a bride adorned in beautiful white awaiting her groom. There is a peace and tranquility in the cave that surpasses all your thoughts and brings in calmness and serenity. Adjacent to the monastery is the Ayia Napa Square. The Square, consisting of a lot of clubs, is calm by the day and turns into the party center by night.

The hotel we stayed was decent - there was a wide array of food on the buffet table. However, it was more of a global cuisine than Cypriot. We also tried a local resto which wasn't that great either. Ayia Napa is a commercial tourist destination than a place where you would find authentic Cypriots or Cypriot cuisine. The Ayia Napa street leading to the square and harbour is not a very huge stretch of land. Yet, travelling by foot would be bit of a long shot. You have places to rent motor bikes, scooters, quad bikes and buggies. You need to submit the license copy of your home country for hiring them in exchange for a challan that serves as a proof document ( in case the police stops you!) and the rentals are nominal. However, if you need to rent a car you would need an international license. If you intend to move around in Ayia Napa alone - a bike is good enough which was our mode of transportation for the 3 days. If you feel to crank it up a notch, get a buggy!

On the fourth morning , we packed and rushed to catch the bus to Limassol from where we were to begin the tour of the Troodos mountain regions. We had to get down at Finikoudes bus stop in Larnaca, and hop on another bus for the next leg to Limassol. A detailed scramble through before setting out on this holiday, had directed us to what we wanted - a cottage on the quiet Lofou village which was to be our home for the next four days. We realised later that four days was a tad too much. Lofou is one of the many villages in the Troodos mountains. We had couple of email exchanges with the cottage owner Mr. Xenios who happened to be a Fireman:) His responses were prompt and he had all our queries answered.  He went out of his way to have his cousin pick us up from the Limassol bus stop and also invited us to join the 'name day' feast of his aunt. This was probably the best moment for us - we got to experience Cypriot hospitality and their flavorful cuisines like mousakka, stiffado, tavas to name a few.  All sorts of meat were marinated and barbecued and taken upstairs for the widespread buffet that was laid out. Despite language constraints (except for youngsters most of them spoke only Greek) they managed to keep us engaged and made us feel a part of their family.

At the Name Day Feast with Mr. Xenios and his family
The porch
After a delightful lunch, we were chauffeured to our cottage in Lofou by Mr. Xenios' wife  - a charming lady. She handed us the keys and showed us around the cottage. It is just one big all encompassing room with an attached bath and a porch but in it there is everything you need. Bed, TV, washing machine, cooking range, dishwasher, a bowl of fresh fruits ( I loved them), a loaf of  freshly baked cake ( recipe already on the blog), refrigerator filled with basic ingredients for cooking, shelf full of cutlery and utensils and an array of jams and spreads to choose from, local antiques adorning the wall. It looked very cosy.  We could not have asked for any better.

our cosy room

The story of the village marveled us. We expected it to be a quiet and serene village but not as silent and sometimes eerie as we experienced. Nights were too silent!  Lofou is listed by UNESCO as a heritage site. The village welcomes you with cobbled stones - every lane has a cobbled path and every house has a similar architecture of stones - unharvested ripe pomegranates adorning the front yards. The locked gates of the houses compound the mystery of the silence that engulfs the village.

The cobbled path

Unharvested pomegranates in the yards

The only good souls you come across here are octogenarians who gather around  a local coffee shop over coffee shots, talks and laughter. They speak Greek, hence we were not able to make out much of what was said. When I say shots of coffee - I really mean it. Cypriot coffee is very strong and served in a small cup with half of it being the coffee powder residue. You are expected to drink only half the cup. The first taste was ridiculously strong for me and I could not stand another go at it. But we invariably came back for more. We slowly fell in love with it. The environment and the coffee created the feel as we had wanted. Serenity, happiness, calmness, no worries, no egos - just us and a happy community. The lady who ran the coffee shop was extremely kind - she showed us the olives she had plucked and gave us pomegranates which we offered to pay for  but she politely declined. The conversation was mainly sign language, few words and smiles. Two coffee, sugar, please, medium, thank you!   One evening, her husband came to us with two plates of honeycomb which had been freshly taken out from the trees ( Do not ask me how?) We were not sure how this was to be eaten - he tried explaining it to us - YES!! It was literally Greek to us. So he got out a plate of his own and showed us how to eat - taking bites of the honeycomb - chewing on it, enjoying the honey and spitting out the remains. I am not sure how they earn a living out of their coffee shop - but their love and hospitality was much more than we could pay for.

Honeycomb down and close without bees flocking around

I could have a cup of the Cypriot coffee right now

Looks like Shibin was trying to learn Greek!!

Lofou village, built on the Troodos mountains, was once a farming village. It is a terraced village on the mountain slope with a good percentage of annual rainfall making it an ideal location for farming. As the political situations grew tense in Cyprus, farming no longer seemed to be option. Villagers were forced to sell their properties at low prices and move to the cities in search of better earning means. Few of the people have chosen to just have their houses locked and to return to Lofou for retirement. This speaks zillions about this village built of stones and even today any renovations are required to maintain the same style of architecture. The village seemed to have not more than 20 people with the only young guy we saw was the friendly chap running the local tavern which serves delicious meals.  You need to rent a vehicle to get to Lofou or have someone chauffeuring you around because there is no means of public transport to this village. Tourists arrive at Lofou village as a part of the day trips as well. They take a walk across the cobbled path that leads to a nature trail - in addition to a stop by the coffee shop or the local tavern.

The second day here, after a lazy morning and into the late afternoon, we decided to explore the nature trail. There are sign boards that lead you to the trail. Somehow, we overlooked one of those boards and ended up climbing the mountain through thorns and bushes. After a 15 minute walk, we reached a dead end and were contemplating on what next? Could this be it? We turned back disappointed at what the nature trail had to offer with bruises from thorns on our hands and legs. Only on exiting this path did we realise that we had actually taken the wrong route. Not wasting any time further - we set out on our nature trip. It is an approximately half an hour climb down the mountains through the trees and bushes with occasional signs of the bio life boards and warnings of possible wild life. The climb up the hill oozed out every bit of our energy. It took us nearly an hour and half to get back to the top of the mountains! The curving path was carved along the mountain sides. After navigating curve after curve and picking up a handful of pine cones to decorate for Christmas and emptying the water bottle we had - we managed to reach the mountain top before the darkness set in.

That was the end of the trail and beginning of the upward trek

Can you see the winding white curves behind us - Yes!! we climbed up the whole way

The not so happening part of the trip probably was the day bus tour we opted for the third day, along with a group of tourists. The tour took us to different parts of Cyprus but we never actually got time to spend anywhere. We started off at Lefkara - a village known for laces. Lefkaritiko lace making as it is called has been popularized by the women folk of this village and is passed generation on.  As the legend has it, painter Leonardo da Vinci visited Cyprus and carried the Lefkara laces to be placed in the Cathedral in Rome. The lace design on the table cloth of his Last Supper Painting is also believed to have been inspired from the Lefkara laces. The laces and other silver artifacts of this village are definitely not a cheap buy. We opted to stay away. Our next stop was Kykkos Monastery in the mountains. If you are an art lover - you would love the intricate paintings on the walls and the museum. However almost everything is written in Greek. Although you see the artifacts at the museum - you would have absolutely no idea what it represents unless you know Greek. The stops worth mentioning in this trip was our lunch stop at Pegasos restaurant, where we had the famous meze, and the shopping spree at Omodos village.  Omodos village is yet another picturesque village nestled amidst the mountains known for their ancient churches, museum, wineries and the shopping area. The narrow alleys of the village offer an excellent shopping arena for souvenirs at bargain prices. Lace works, jewellery, condiments, silverware etc are in abundant display. Half an hour was too short a time for our shopping spree that we came back the next day  to continue our shopping.

Kykkos Monasatry

Right before the shopping spree at Omodos village

After another final stop at a winery for a wine tasting session, and getting our bottle of the Commandaria wine, we returned back. For dinner, we headed to the local tavern which was very close to our stay. The chap running the tavern was very friendly and he even gave us a few complimentary dishes to try. We had a delicious dinner, and were stuffed!

Digging into the food at the local tavern

That was a lot for dinner after the very heavy Meze lunch. We were sampling dishes out there.

Treading the less trodden path is always an experience - our guide for the last day Mr. Pedros did exactly the same for us. The best is usually saved for the last. Mr. Pedros is a friend of our cottage owner and  had kindly arranged Mr Pedros to take us around on our last day at Lofou. All we told him was to take us to the lesser known places and he charted out the itinerary. He first took us to a small village in the mountains where his friend owned a winery. He showed us how wine and other beverages were made from the freshly harvested grapes, how it was stored - the older the wine the better the taste and also the various machinery they used to reach the desired level of alcoholic consistency for the various beverages. He also showed us how Shoushoukos were made. We also took a quick stroll by the ancient village - again not many soul inhabited this village - only the very few who carried out the family business of winery.

The vine courtyards

Mr Pedros is posing while I am trying to figure out what is in the barel!

Come on, its not my fault. Those boards are GREEK!!

Our next stop was by the Kelefos bridge - a quaint venetian bridge over a narrow stream once home to a lot of aquatic life. It is an ideal camping and picnic spot. A trek along the sides of the stream can give you a glimpse of the crabs - I thought crabs were only in sea and I was wrong!!Although the weather was quite sunny, the shade provided by the tall trees, the sound of running water and the breeze swept us off our feet to their rhythms. Mr. Pedros recounted the childhood days he had spent by this stream and how it used to be a haven for aquatic life. Things changed during a particular epidemic of malaria and the streams were sprayed with some medicines that completely destroyed the marine life. Sadly life is yet to roll back to normal in the waters but Mr. Pedros was positive that all the fishes which once swarmed the stream will find its way back in due course.

Kelefos bridge - picturesque ain't it?

That is the crab posing for a pic

With our energetic guide. 

We continued our journey uphill - there are no roads but all dusty paths ideal for jeeps and not the hatchback we traveled in. We held on our breaths hoping that the road do not take a toll on our vehicle. We were on look out for mountain goats. May be they heard us coming, we were not lucky enough to spot one. For lunch, we stopped at yet another village where we had Sheftalia and got to hear the story of Kleftiko. (explained at the end of the blog)

Our next stop was by the one of the nature trails at Arsos village- one that is hardly visited. We walked along abandoned apple orchards, vineyards to reach a watershed. The bushes and trees along the path were overgrown and bears testimony to the fact that people hardly pass by this trail now. The watershed is small structure made of stones which harvests the water flowing from the mountains and stores it in tanks made of stones. The water even today, flows in to these tanks and due to non - usage it is all covered with moss and is slippery. Do not step in if you do not want to break your bones! Once upon a time, people carried water from here for the vineyards, had their clothes and cattle washed here. Today it is only a reminiscent of how life was few decades ago. We once again made a pit stop at Omodos village for further shopping before winding up the fantastic trip

The watershed

An abandoned olive mill

Terraced mountain slopes which once hosted vine yards

The day ended with dinner at the home of Mr. Xenios. Mr. Pedros too joined us and we discussed into the night. They were curious about Indian culture, cuisine and also about Dubai which now is our home. We were equally inquisitive about their lives and culture. A good dinner and a lot of stories to take back home. That brought us to the end of our trip and we carried home a lot of memories and new friendships.

Cypriot Cuisine

I am at my favorite part of the travelogue - the cuisines. A simple and humble advice from us - find the local taverns and enjoy the delicacies there than the bigger restaurants. Here is a sneak peak into few of the delicacies and what we do know about them.

Meze is a selection of many dishes served with pita bread/rice, Tahina and salads. It is a Cypriot version of the Indian Thali. If you want to try various Cypriot cuisines in one go - Meze is what you could order in for.

Meze - Kleftiko, Tavas, Afelia and stiffado
  • Cyprus coffee - very similar to Turkish coffee. It is quite strong and leaves a bitter after taste but you could get used to it if you go for a second shot.
  • Tavas - I have already shared the recipe on the blog. It is a Cypriot version of Indian curry slow baked along with lamb, potato, onions and tomato seasoned with cumin and pepper.
  • Kleftiko - a very interesting cuisine with a ever more interesting history. It is made in a specially designed mud pot. History states that during the 19th century, the common theft was that of food. The thief cooked the stolen meat in a earthen pot buried in the ground under the burning fire. This way, they escaped from the lawmakers who were on prowl in search of them and at the same time the food gets cooked. This preparation came to be called kleftiko and kleftiko mean stolen meat. Today special earthenware is made to cook the Kleftiko.
  • Loukaniko - popular pork sausage.
  • Glyko - or the sweet preserves also called the spoon sweet is fruits or vegetables preserved in honey or sugar syrup and served on spoons or forks. We have tasted the egg plant and walnut glyko. The egg plant glyko was definitely something to die for. It is said to have originated in those days when refrigerator was not an option for storage. 
Walnut Glyko
  • Cheese - Halloumi and Anari are the popular cheese varieties. They do have lot of innovative dishes prepared around Halloumi. At the local tavern, we got to taste fried halloumi immersed grape syrup with seasoned with sesame which was quite scintillating.
Fried Halloumi
  • Shoushoukos - A cypriot sweet made of nuts and grape juice. The grape juice is boiled and solidifying agent is added which thickens the juice. Nuts threaded on a twine is inserted to this mix and hung for drying. Once dry, the twine is pulled out.
Threaded Shoushoukos hung for drying
  • Stiffado - it is a kind of beef stew
  • Afelia - pork cooked in red wine seasoned with crushed corriander seeds
  • Koupepia - stuffed wine leaves
  • Sheftalia - Lamb and pork sausage enclosed in caul fat cooked over live fire
  • Moussaka - layered dish with egg plant, minced meat and pasta which is then baked with various seasoning

Most of the anecdotes/ historical facts listed above have been narrated to us by the people we met at Cyprus. I have heard of people being hospitable but Cypriots are truly that. I keep stressing that they are a group of happy go lucky people. Mr Xenios and his family who were always ready to entertain us, Mr Pedros who made the trip memorable for us, the shopkeeper who gave us a goodwill doll, the family running the coffee shop - all of them carved in us deep impression. This is just a sneak peak into our experiences at Cyprus that now dates to a year back.

A few tidbits -

  • Public transport is not great - hence it is recommend that you rent a car. 
  • Extremely pocket friendly in comparison with European countries.
  • Cuisines are mainly meat based - so if you do not eat beef/ pork - be careful.
  • We visited Cyprus in October and we found the climate good. Certain parts of Cyprus along the mountains experience snow and sudden rainfall.

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