Cyprus: Jeep thrills and other pleasures
We take a trek into to the mountains to uncover the other side of a fascinating country.
The hillside village of Vouni in Cyprus’ Troodos Mountains
Did you hear the one about the Roman Catholic who became a Jew, whose Jewish daughter then became Greek Orthodox? There's no punchline here. Just a very confusing story, relayed to me by a burly Cypriot during a jeep safari through the Troodos mountains, near Paphos, in Cyprus.
George - the said burly Cypriot - discovered that I was Jewish, so he told me the story of his wife, born to a convert to Judaism, who then became Christian to marry him back in the early '90s. George chuckled, "And the nun who taught her, she used to be Jew as well!" Trying to process all of this oddness, I searched for rationale. "Did she become a nun because of the Nazis?" I asked. George seemed nonplussed. "No, no, she just really like Jesus."
It was best not to pry further. George was an ex-frogman in the marines and so manly that the air around him was thick with testosterone. Not fancying a fight with a great big bear of an ex-soldier, I kept my mouth shut.
George was our gateway to the side of Cyprus that most English visitors don't get to experience. And with a story for everything and knowledge on everything, he was the ideal guide - and a convivial one at that.
He drove us through mountain village after mountain village and every time we passed someone, the jeep would stop and George would have a noisy chat with them. We even stopped at a dairy factory which had just opened so that we could see some local food being produced. The famous Cypriot hospitality was on display here; the owner of the dairy and his wife prepared a spread of fruit, halloumi cheese, tomatoes and olives for us quicker than you can say, "No really, I just had breakfast."
Things were more tranquil in the forest we stopped in afterwards. We stood by a clear brook in the sunshine, with russet-coloured leaves on the trees forming a canopy above us.
George's jeep was as tough as he was so it was able to penetrate the countryside in a way that a hire car just could not , so if you fancy a trawl through the mountains and valleys, take a professional jeep tour.
We stopped for an authentic taverna lunch in the hills. Like many Cypriot tavernas, this one had no menu. As the Greek alphabet is impenetrable to all but those who learned Greek at school, this isn't that much of a hindrance.
Although the Cypriot diet is very meat-heavy, vegetarians won't starve, as long as you ring ahead wherever you're dining to check that there will be something appropriate on the menu. In this taverna, I had chopped trachana - a mix of flour and goat's cheese, dried in the sun and much nicer than it sounds - with a tomatoey sauce, along with really fresh salad. It was simple but tasty, a fitting description for much of the food you'll eat. I finished my countryside lunch with a frappé, a deliciously frothy Cypriot take on iced coffee.
Our tour took most of the day. George was a biologist by trade. He stopped to grab fruit off trees to share with us, and drove slowly so that we could observe a herd of goats and sheep walking across the valley. All of the animals seemed to be getting on fine apart from one lame goat at the back, who was limping along, injured leg flailing in the air, with no assistance from his fellow animals. Seemed like little goatie needed some of that famous Cypriot hospitality too - or at least some crutches. George wasn't too bothered about the goat; perhaps it was something to do with his circuitous route to becoming a biologist. He used to make catapults as a boy and his brothers used them to shoot birds, apparently starting a lifelong fascination with wildlife.
Things were a lot more luxurious back at our accommodation. The Azia Resort and Spa in Paphos, was our shiny home. It pretty much fits the template of how you'd expect a five-star resort to look. Bright green grass and palm trees set the scene while the large swimming pool is delightfully interrupted by a bar in the middle, complete with friendly barman.
Azia describes itself as a three-in-one boutique hotel and is, accordingly, split into three parts. The Club and Spa, where I stayed, is, according to its owners, "ideal for privacy and indulgence". My large and beautiful room was about the same size as my London flat, and its balcony even had its own hot tub.
Relaxation is also on offer in the spa, where I sampled a couple of treatments. The full body massage was a welcome treat after a day of travelling, although I realised that I had been rather bold when I asked for "a really deep massage". After I'd uttered two involuntary squeaks and one "ouch", the massage therapist said that she felt she ought to go softer. The result was most soothing, as was the full body scrub and massage the next day. Incorporating a mini facial, this treatment sloughs off dead skin cells using a scrub and body balm, with a nice hot shower in the middle. Bliss. The treatments are suitable for both women and men - even George.
It wasn't all relaxing and being driven around. No, there was more eating to be done too. Azia has its own restaurant - necessary, as there aren't many in the vicinity - with delightful staff.
One starter on offer was the mysterious-sounding "courgette and egg salad". It turned out to be a bit like scrambled egg with cooked, sweet-tasting courgette on a bed of dressed lettuce - much more delicious than we'd anticipated.
Next was grilled tsipoura, a delicious Greek fish much like seabass, served with vegetables dressed, somewhat unsurprisingly, in olive oil. It would have been rude not to tuck into some traditional Greek desserts afterwards and so we dutifully demolished a plate of baklava along with its cousin kataifi, which looks like a cross between Shredded Wheat and an accident in a honey factory. Both pastries were sugary, delicious and best accompanied by some strong coffee and a good dentist.
Not learning my lesson, I had vegetarian moussaka and tiramisu the following night. They were both delicious but I thought that my diaphragm might implode through over-eating.
It was fortuitous, therefore, that there was a yoga lesson on offer the next day. At last, a chance to burn off some guilt and calories. Anastasia, our teacher, took us through a difficult series of postures, giving me an insight into what my body's going to be like when it reaches 80. At the end of the lesson, we did a Tibetan exercise where you sit on the floor opposite a mirror, look into your own eyes without moving and, as Anastasia said "let your emotions come up". I actually started to retch, not at the sentiment, but because I was feeling physically sick. Anastasia's diagnosis? "I feel that you have a lot of ideas in your head that you are trying to throw up." I was too polite to suggest that last night's tiramisu might actually be the culprit.
Hours later, before we left the sunshine, we sat on the terrace enjoying pitta with humous, tzatziki and tahini. Azia is a popular resort for weddings and, as we ate, we watched one happy couple and their party toast each other. As the sun set off the Cyprus coast, the bride had a fag hanging out of her mouth and the groom was holding an ashtray for her.
Now that's what I call love.
Seven nights at the Azia Resort and Spa (www.aziaresort.com; 00357 268 45200) cost from 420¤ per person (£351) including breakfast. There is a 15 per cent early-booking discount for all bookings made before March 31. Louise Scodie stayed in a Club & Spa Bungalow Junior Suite with Jacuzzi, which costs from 147 Euros (£123) per night, or £826 per person for seven nights, with breakfast. Thomsonfly (www.thomsonfly.com; 0871 231 4787) offers flights to Paphos from 14 UK airports from £235 per person return. To book a jeep safari contact the Cyprus Tourist Organisation (www.visitcyprus.com).
Jews have lived in Cyprus at least since Roman times. In 1901 the Jewish population was around 120.
After the rise of the Nazis, hundreds of Jews escaped to Cyprus and during World War II, Cyprus was a refuge for European Jews.
In 1946, the British set up a detention camp in Cyprus for Holocaust survivors trying to enter Palestine.
Today, the Jewish community numbers under 50, supplemented by Israelis and holiday-home owners. There is a Chabad Centre which holds services and offers kosher meals
Info on services and kosher food at www.jewishcyprus.com.