Sunday, 13 March 2011

Drinking our way round Cyprus

Drinking our way round Cyprus
a true account
by
Maggie Knutson

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Just can’t help it! Half an hour before landing, have my nose pressed against the window, despite the thick-black outside, until I see flickers of light shining like beacons just for me, and I called out in childlike excitement There’s Cyprus!

 I’m returning after twenty-five years!

The Alexander the Great Hotel in Paphos is super - a four-star complex facing the sea and harbour, friendly staff, several swimming pools and numerous cats, which animal-lovers like me feed surreptitiously. It even has its own archaeological tomb! Archaeology is big in Cyprus and sites are preserved with reverence, unlike Winchester (our home town), which has a tendency to bulldoze, its Roman finds to make way for ‘modernity’ i.e. shops.

The maid has left a raspberry sponge cake and two large balloons (it’s my birthday) in our room (a cabana, separate from the main building, and so much more intimate) and I arrange my cards around this steadily shrinking calorific delight. It would be a crime to ignore it after the hotel has gone to so much trouble!

V. disappointed with Paphos harbour, which we reach after a short walk along a coastal path surrounded by pink and yellow flowers and sea-like green foliage. The harbour used to be quiet and charming and just a delight. The Pelican Restaurant is still there (plus two live pelicans – probably not the same ones, though) but it’s hemmed in by new restaurants, ice-cream parlours, kiosks selling tat, even a candy floss stall. It’s like Scarborough without the rain. 'Pelican' food still pretty damn good, though, and Cyprus wine is now definitely drinkable.

Next morning and thank God for Starbucks! The hotel coffee is foul! (I think they use sterilised milk.) But there’s a Starbucks nearby and John (husband) trots off before breakfast to get large regular double-shot and skinny decaf lattes. Waiters aren’t too impressed but, as Rhett Butler famously said …

Check out and head (in groovy little Beetle convertible hire-car) to the Troodos mountains and the village of Kakopetria to visit my ex and his second family at their restaurant. Have to stop at Platres (charming mountain village) for double brandy and ciggie for Dutch Courage. Afternoon goes surprisingly well, though. We’re warmly greeted, join in the family meal: fresh trout, steffado (beef casserole), village salad, Cypriot dips and fabulous bread. Delicious. Wine for John but I stick to diet coke ‘cause I want to be on my best behaviour.

Head off for the capital, Nicosia, and check into a dinky little room at The Centrum Hotel with a charming view opposite a concrete wall. Later, drink a bottle of red (v. tasty) with a non-descript meal in a ‘tourist restaurant’ with ‘Zorba the Greek’ blaring out (please!). Then Five Kings brandy in the room, me hanging out of the window to have a fag.

Next day, visit the Observatory Tower at the top of Debenehams, and am horrified to see, as part of the panoramic view, massive etchings of the Turkish flag on the Kantara Mountains, which are now part of the Turkish occupied northern Cyprus. These flags are a constant ‘two fingers up’ to all those who were refugeed from that area in 1974, including me!

Have lunch at a little restaurant next to the Green Line (part of the medieval city walls that separate Greek and Turkish Cypriot areas). The narrow streets are flanked by interesting old houses and churches. We sit outside, opposite a row of lovingly tended plants in metal tins and with several cages of noisy parrots behind us. We have a bottle of white (musty) with our meal of Greek rice (couscous with fragile strips of chicken and onion cooked in stock), and tavas (lamb with potatoes).

V. hot now and we stagger back to our hotel and sleep all afternoon.

At five, meet ex sister-in-law, Patsy, in hotel lobby. We recognise each other instantly and hug for a very long time. She’s the most loving, warm-hearted, generous person I’ve ever met and I’m so glad that, at long last, I’ve felt ready to make this visit. We pick up where we left off, twenty-five years ago, chatting ten to the dozen. Luckily, her English is excellent because my Greek is etsy-getsy. She adores John already.

On the way to Patsy’s house, we zoom up the long, sweeping drive to the Presidential Palace in her rattling little Ford Fiesta, and she and I sweet-talk the guard into describing the storming of the Palace at the beginning of the Greek Cypriot coup in 1974, which sparked off the Turkish Invasion. I’m writing a novel set during that time and want to get as many details right as possible. Patsy calls him darling (she’s reached the age, she says, when she’s entitled to do that) and we describe how, during the war, the Turkish phantom jets screeched over-head and how we prayed that we’d hear the bombs explode because that meant they hadn’t landed right on top of us. You see, we mature women can still teach these youngsters a thing or two.

Patsy’s new home, paid mainly from a refugee loan, is a two storey white house with large balconies, an immaculately clean courtyard, pots of scarlet geraniums, and a sturdy tree planted as a sapling only a few years ago. Inside, she has a display of family photographs, including her lovely daughter, Louisa, who died last year. (It was phone calls with Patsy during Louisa’s illness that persuaded me to return.)

Afterwards, we all go to a kebab shop and have a fabulous half-meze (lamb chops, sausages, kebabs, salad, bread, dips) plus a bottle of mature red. We eat, talk, laugh and drink until we exhaust ourselves. I’m so glad we met up again.

Had such great plans for our visit to the occupied north, which was to drive to Kyrenia on the north coast (a tourist favourite) then take the winding road up the Kantara Mountains, past Bellapais Monastery (made famous by Gerald Durrell’s book ‘Bitter Lemons’) and right to the top, where there’s a breathtakingly spectacular view: you can see the Mediterranean on two sides, shimmering beyond pine trees, rocky crags and plains, one way towards Kyrenia, the other to Famagusta (where I used to live) on the east coast. But our car insurance won’t cover this so we compromise and decide to take a taxi to Kyrenia ‘cause I’ve been warned Don’t go to Famagusta, you’ll just cry ‘cause it’s a ghost town, inhabited by rats and snakes and I accept that, this time, too much, too soon could be foolhardy.

We walk through the buffer zone, past the Ledra Palace Hotel, once the best hotel in Nicosia. This was where the world’s media based themselves after the coup, like vultures waiting to feed off the carnage… but a week later, the Turkish army invaded the island and fighting was so fierce round here that all those reporters, cameramen and photographers were stuck in the hotel’s basement and couldn’t report a darn thing. I know they had a job to do but… for us poor sods living here, it did seem as if it served them jolly well right! Now the hotel, still riddled with bullet holes, is headquarters to humanitarian agencies and a multitude of flags wave at us from balconies. There are still several severely shot-up houses nearby, with the original sandbags at the windows, and it’s like walking through a World War Two movie set. To the right are the massive city walls of the Green Line from which a couple of Turkish flags fly defiantly, whilst two small dark-haired Turkish children watch shyly from the battlement tops.

At the Turkish checkpoint there’s just the quick filling in of temporary visas, a haggle with a taxi driver for a good price and thirty minutes later we’re in Kyrenia. After all those years of waiting, it’s that simple.

The harbour is just as I remember it: a semi-circle of tall, brightly coloured buildings (mainly restaurants) and, half way along, The Harbour Club (there’s always been a strong ex-pat presence in Kyrenia) with tables and chairs under an Acacia tree. And opposite the restaurants, the inviting setting of tables and chairs next to the water. The only difference that I can see is that all the boats boast Turkish flags instead of the very international flags pre-1974.

We walk along the harbour, ignoring the persistent invitations to taste the best fish in Cyprus, and make our way to The Dome Hotel, once the hotel in Cyprus. Before having drinks in the bar, I show John the swimming pool hewn out of rock and filled by the sea. When I first came here on holiday with my mum in 1970 (it was my twenty-first birthday present), there was a retired British Intelligence Officer called Frank who lived in the hotel and swam in that forbidding pool every day. Legend had it that he had been on his way back to Britain from the Middle East, had stayed at The Dome overnight, fallen in love with the place, and stayed. To a twenty-one year old, it was all so very exciting. But Cyprus was like that. Things happened. Interesting and unusual people lived here. It was not a boring place.

Have lunch outside by the water, surrounded by an army of hungry cats. We have fish, chips and village salad. Quite scrummy. (Cyprus potatoes make the best chips I’ve ever tasted.) Get through a bottle of chilled white. Wander round the town for a while but the shops here are also full of tourist tat but do find a splendid cake shop and buy some honeyed pastries to take home. I ask the Turkish Cypriot assistant if she comes from Kyrenia and she says Yes and I say I hope the island will be re-united soon and she agrees.

Return to Nicosia exhausted and sunburnt, but very content. I feel no anger. People are people whoever they are; it’s when the politicians get their claws in that things go pear shaped. I just feel a deep sadness that we all had to suffer so much (Greek and Turkish Cypriots and people like me who got caught in the cross-fire.)

Walk back through the checkpoint feeling emotionally lighter. Greek customs are suspicious of the pastry box but I say You’re not having these! and we walk on.

Next day, it’s off to the port of Limassol, now a horrendously massive tourist resort with white high-rise buildings sprawling haphazardly along the coast and up into the foothills. There are some fantastic hotels here, really deluxe, but the traffic is noisy and the inevitable building works (yet more hotels and flats) pound away relentlessly. And it has too many traffic lights. There’s no beach to speak of, mainly rocks, but most hotels have pools and Ladies Mile, just a few miles away and next to the British army base of Akrotiri, has oodles of beautiful soft sand but it means a drive to get there and there are too many traffic lights to negotiate.

We’re staying at the Miramare Hotel, which I already knew was pretty pucker. There’s a complimentary bottle of red in our room plus an enormous basket of fresh fruit so things are looking good! From the balcony, we watch tankers waiting patiently to dock and all we can hear is the soothing song of the Mediterranean. The blues of the sky and sea are like Prozac to me.

Have lunch at a nearby restaurant (there are more than enough to choose from) and whilst waiting for my kleftiko (lamb cooked in a clay oven) and John’s spare ribs, sample a very fine rose and chat with the owner. To our mutual surprise, we have a shared experience. During an air raid, all those years ago, he was sheltering in the basement of the hotel opposite my ex’s pub in Famagusta at exactly the same time as my ex and I were fleeing the area in our open-topped land rover. We were straffed by a Turkish phantom jet, whilst a bomb skimmed over the hotel’s swimming pool and crashed into the basement (to the dismay of the hapless people hiding there). But, miracle of miracles, the bomb didn’t go off and my ex and I escaped unhurt! We were so lucky! the restaurant owner says and I think Yes, we jolly well were!

In the evening, take a taxi to Jane’s fish restaurant (ex sister-in-law). The Petroktisto. It’s an old stone house, recently renovated. No one knows we’re coming so I’m apprehensive. There’s a young woman having a smoke in the entrance lobby and I say Have you any tables? and she says Yes and I say Who are you? and she says Eva and I say Well, I’m Maggie, your aunt from England and she shrieks Oh my God! Maggiemou! and we hug and cry. Jane comes out and stares at me in disbelief, and then she smiles a beautiful smile, like the sun emerging from behind clouds, and we go through the hugs and kisses routine again, John as well. As we make our way inside, customers are watching with such affection (Jane is very popular) that this reunion could have come straight out of a Charles Dickens novel. We meet two more of Jane’s grown-up children: the beautiful Julie and brother, Adonis, who is an absolute hunk. They are all so obviously delighted to see us that more tears come easily. Why you take so long to come back, Maggie? Jane asks Because I thought it would be hard I reply and she hugs me again. Don’t wait another twenty-five years she laughs Because I’ll be dead!

We order fish meze and as we eat the most amazing fish dishes I’ve ever tasted, each cooked in a different way (didn’t know that fish could be so versatile), and drink our wine (two bottles of white!), each of the family drift in and chat, Eva in particular, who is so spunky I’m laughing most of the time. She’s lived in Boston for nine years and trained first as an accountant and then as a masseur (accountancy is so boring! she explains). And after I’ve told her that Lou, my daughter, has lost weight, she e-mails her and says So, you’re skinny bitch now! And I just love that. And she calls me crazy aunt and I cry again because they’re my long lost family and I just adore being called crazy aunt.

After a good night’s sleep, a swim in the pool, and a coffee at Starbucks, head off back to Paphos via the coast road, instead of the newish motorway. I love this countryside: stark, uninhabitable hills and the blue, blue Mediterranean Sea glistening as if a billion silver sun-rays are dancing on the surface.

We drive through the British camp of Episkopi with its neat white houses and English road names but mainly there’s nothing, not even much traffic, except us and raw nature. Later, we stop at a lay-by and take photographs of Aphrodite’s Rock way below us. According to legend, Aphrodite came out of the sea here. Since it’s very rocky, I guess she didn’t look too dignified but it’s picture postcard beautiful: rocks jutting out from the sea and steep hills rising up to the road and beyond, towards the crisp blue sky.

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But it’s getting late and the handover between day and night begins in its spectacular manner and the sky becomes a palette of reds and pinks and before you know it, it’s dusk- grey and the car lights need to go on.

Back at the Alexander The Great Palace and Sod’s Law rules! Why did I put the pastry box in with the dirty washing? Getting honey out of clothes is not easy! After hand-washing what garments I can and leaving them to dry like surreal sunbathers on our loungers, we head out along the coast road towards the southwest of the island, past the monstrosity of Coral Bay (so ugly in its overdevelopment), until we fork left onto a bumpy road close by the sea. We don’t know what to expect but we’re hopeful that whatever we find will include food and drink.

And we find it!

A lone restaurant, snug between two hills and in a protected game reserve area. We sit on the balcony underneath hands of bright yellow bananas, still on the stalks, which dangle from the ceiling. There are murals of mermaids and fish and Greek Gods, amateurish but charming; the salt is still in the shop container, the price still showing; the tablecloths a dull beige plastic. But the food, of course, is superb: grilled fish for John and lamb chops for me. The wine (white) is full-bodied i.e. deliciously strong. Afterwards, I sneak some bread out for the horse that stands stubbornly in the middle of the road, like the Dick Turpin of the horsy world, trying to blag food from passers-by. This is the old Cyprus I love so much!

Next day and home time and am never doing a late flight again. One is so tempted to drink on an empty stomach - which is not a good idea - but I did make it to the loo just in time.

Epilogue

Are we coming back next year? You bet we are! I want to re-visit my lovely ex relatives, soak in the sun, have fish meze at Jane’s, and see my lost home in Famagusta. And, naturally, sample some more of that remarkable wine!



Maggie Knutson Ó2006
Maggie Knutson has asserted her right to be identified as the author of this work.
First British Serial Rights Offered




1 comment:

northern-cyprus said...

Really beautiful and priceless place to see amazing landscapes and museum, thank you for posting