Helen Moat roamed the hidden corners of rural Cyprus and discovered a land where life continues as it has for centuries – with a focus on fabulous food, generous hospitality and a love of nature
The 100 or so restored traditional houses in the Troodos foothills and mountain villages, and along the coast of Larnaka and Paphos, are ideal for experiencing authentic Cypriot life – combining rustic charm with all the comforts of modern living. Many have courtyard gardens and patios, balconies and swimming pools.
In these rural settlements it's easy to slow down to the pace of the locals, who are naturally welcoming and hospitable. Chances are, you'll be greeted with a glass of commandaria (the world's oldest wine) on arrival, or a Cypriot coffee accompanied by glyko, 'spoon sweets' made from sugary fruit: almonds, walnuts, peaches, cherries, dates and orange peel.
Tochni makes a great starting point for a trip through rural Cyprus (just off the motorway and an hour from Paphos airport) with its delightful Eveleos Traditional Houses and superb Nostos Tavern serving up aromatic Cypriot dishes.
In spring, the Troodos foothills and valleys are dappled with the cream and pink blossoms of apple and peach trees. Orange and lemon groves are laden with fruit, while roadside and pathway verges carry the aromatic scent of rosemary, oregano and fennel. Olive groves and vineyards stripe the countryside. No wonder the Cypriots are passionate about food: it's everywhere!
Dishes are prepared with locally-grown ingredients: salads picked fresh from the garden; wild herbs gathered from the hillsides; and fruits bottled, preserved or simply eaten straight from the trees.
The island, which is wedged into the easternmost corner of the Mediterranean, uses a range of ingredients associated with the Middle East, Europe and North Africa. Cypriot dishes are full of flavour: cinnamon-flavoured moussaka, spicy loukanika sausages, and mouth-watering meze dishes. Food and wine is revered in Cyprus, with a religiosity to match the Orthodox church.
Because of Cyprus's strategic position in the Mediterranean, it has been occupied across the centuries by invading powers who have left behind a wealth of cultural treasures. Visitors will find Greek and Roman theatres; Byzantine and Latin churches and monasteries; Venetian walls, Ottoman mosques and colonial buildings.
Isolated mountain villages and valleys have countless Orthodox churches filled with richly-coloured frescos and biblical artefacts preserved in hand-crafted silver boxes. More down to earth, the village bakeries and delicatessens offer a rich bounty of foods.
If you're passionate about wines, take one of the wine routes through the Troodos mountains and enjoy a wine-tasting session – with Tsiakkas Winery literally at the top of the bill as the highest vineyard in Cyprus. It offers award-winning labels for sampling.
Villages are stuffed into river valleys or cling to vertiginous hillsides. George's Bakery, in the mountain village of Omodos, offers customers samples of breads, sweets and dried fruits. In nearby alleyways, beautiful lace and needlework is displayed in shop windows, while the monastery of Timios Stavros – found in the wide, cobbled square – is filled with ecclesiastical treasures (including, it's claimed, the bloodied crucifixion rope of Jesus, brought to Cyprus by St Helen).
In Marathasa Valley, the near-derelict village of Kalopanayiotis has been brought back to life by an entrepreneurial local. Now shops, museums, holiday homes, boutique hotels and restaurants line the streets. In this volcanic valley of hot springs and pools, the state-of-the-art Myrianthousa Spa Hotel has an array of tempting treatments.
East of Kalopanayiotis, Kakopetria – the highest village in the orchard-filled Solea valley – is a maze of alleyways, where the houses' protruding wooden balconies almost touch. Nearby Agios Nikolaos tis Stegis (a 'church of two roofs') is a UNESCO World Heritage site of story-filled frescoes that date back to the Middle Ages.
While the foothills and valleys of the Troodos Mountains are filled with fruit orchards, olive groves and vineyards, the higher reaches of the mountain range are covered in scented pines and cedars and rocky outcrops. Here the air is pure and cool – perfect for short rambles or more energetic climbs.
Much of the southwest coast of Cyprus is developed, but there are still quiet corners to be enjoyed. The Akamas Peninsula National Park, a protected area rich in flora, is surrounded by the sea on two sides. In springtime, tulips and orchids grow alongside wild herbs. You can take a bumpy 4WD trip across the peninsula's unpaved roads, combining the drive with lunch and a boat trip to the magical Blue Lagoon. Alternatively, follow the sign-posted trails through the park on foot, taking time to savour your surroundings.