When Father Dionysios spoke his voice croaked and cracked like he was on the verge of tears. Years of breathing in fumes from the restoration work being done on the monastery’s icons were thought to have affected his throat. This didn’t stop him from welcoming his guests though, nattering away as he showed us the monastery and its accompanying museum, winery and conference centre cum art gallery. He insisted we stay for our first taste of Cypriot coffee, a delicately roasted bean best served in small terracotta cups with an accompanying glass of cold water. The Monastery of Chrysorrogiatissa is not a bad location to enjoy a coffee break. Sitting on a bench facing the silent hills of Cyprus, Father Dionysius told us the in-house joke – when monks from the monastery pass away and knock on the doors of heaven they are turned around and sent back from where they came, for this is heaven right here.
Cyprus is well known for its coastal resorts that attract families and young partygoers alike – we’ve all heard of Ayia Napa right? This was the only side of Cyprus I knew; at 16 I took my first ever holiday without my parents and Cyprus was the island of choice. We wanted sunshine, nightlife and good value, and Limassol provided all of the above. But returning last week, after 12 long years, I discovered that on my first trip I may have completely missed the point. For the true charm of Cyprus lies not on its coast, but is hidden in its hills.
The traditional village of Omodos lies in the foothills of the Troodos Mountains. An unevenly cobbled square and narrow off-shooting lanes provide an insight into Cypriot village life. Stalls sell the linen and lace you can see decorating the white-walled and blue-shuttered homes of the villagers, the old ladies waiting patiently for passers-by to show interest in their handmade items.
One of the village’s main attractions is the central Monastery of the Holy Cross, named after the parts of the original Holy Cross which are said to be housed there. The majority of Cypriots are raised as Greek Orthodox Christians and chandelier-draped monasteries, such as Chrysorrogiatissa and the Holy Cross, are places they can pray, make offerings and kiss the icons they hold dear.
Also found in Omodos is an enormous traditional wooden wine press surrounded by images explaining how it was used in past times. Wine is a big part of the Cypriot hills; you can hire a car and drive the wine routes that criss-cross through the mountains. Wineries like Vouni Panagia offer tours from just €3 and hold group tasting events, even Father Dionysius’ monastery produces their own tipple that visitors can buy.
Casale Panayiotis has done something very unique with the traditional village of Kalopanayiotis; the rustic village buildings nestled in the Troodos Mountains have been turned into 5 star hotel accommodation. It was hard for me to imagine what we would find before we arrived here and I have no doubt my explanation now will not do it the justice it deserves. As we arrived at Casale Panayiotis it looked like any other picture perfect village we had passed in the hills on the winding road to get there. But as soon as you peek your head around the first barn-like structure you spot something unexpected, the high end décor of a 5 star hotel reception. Village houses have been turned into studio rooms with private courtyards, an old stable and wine press make up part of the resort’s spa and in the hotel’s restaurant further down the hill, an attractive Cypriot female chef produces some of the finest food I have ever tasted. Think: grilled haloumi drizzled in fig and honey, warm salads sprinkled with carob oil and nuts, stuffed vine leaves, red wine sausages, miraculous concoctions with aubergines, beef and chicken and something which resembled a mac and cheese but was far, far better. Everything you need for an indulgent retreat is right here; there is even a Byzantine painted Monastery ( the UNESCO-listed St John Lampadistis with frescoes from the 11th Century) just across the road.
There was another side to Limassol I hadn’t seen on previous trip either. The bar and fast food outlet strewn coastal road is where young tourists tend to traverse. But behind this lies the Old Town, an area which has seen much renovation in recent years. By day, the restored municipal market area around Saripolou Street is a great place to browse the local food produce and sip a Cypriot coffee or two. Of an evening, the coffee shops convert into vibrant bars and the balmy temperatures means the pavements become the perfect location to try a local beer or four!
In Limassol’s Old Port, the area surrounding the city’s Medieval Castle is now filled with high-end eateries and classy pavement cafes. The old Carob Mill houses a variety of modern restaurants offering local and international cuisine and the dressy locals seem to love it here. Some of the area’s other municipal buildings have been converted into university premises; funky cafes and street art have sprung up to accompany them. The result is a fresh, edgy vibe to this tourist-attracting town that I wasn’t expecting to find but certainly appreciated.
I found myself charmed by the cultured and classy side of Cyprus hidden away from the coast. But there is one overwhelming reason for you to head to the sea. Legend has it that if you swim around the rock known as the birthplace of Aphrodite you will have love and beauty forever. I thought it was worth a try!
I visited Cyprus as a guest of Cyprus Tourism. Thanks to Cyprus Airways for providing the flights. Cyprus Airways operates two daily flights from London Heathrow to Larnaca, with return flights from £220 (inclusive VAT) per person. As Cyprus’ national carrier, it has been operating since 1947 and has played a significant role in the country’s economy.