So, how lucky can you get? Not only did we, quite fortuitously, choose to go to Cyprus over the Greek Orthodox Easter weekend, but we also hit a Cypriot heat wave which took the average daily temperatures up from a pleasantish, but cloudy, 15-17˚C to a sun-blasted – but breeze-cooled – 25˚. A perfect antidote to a sun-starved, freezing winter.
We had opted for a stay in Casale Panayiotis, an eco-hotel (for much more on this see the next blog) in the village of Kalopanayiotis, 700 metres up in the mountains over looking the Marasthasa valley. The plan was to chill, read a large pile books, go for the occasional gentle wander up a mountain and eat some nice food. That was before we discovered Easter…
The large and deliciously shady terrace outside our room looked not only over the valley but over the village church. Greek Orthodox Easter starts on Maundy Thursday (the day we arrived) and runs until the following Tuesday and each and every stage of every celebration is marked by the tolling of the church bells. Either our own village church, just below our room, or the one immediately across the valley, or just down the valley at the next village, Oikos. Delightful – except possibly at 2am on Easter Sunday morning when the priests were still going strong!
The Troodos mountains are justly famous for their Byzantine monasteries and churches, dotted around the peaks often with stunning views across the mountains and many with UNESCO ‘World Heritage’ wall paintings dating from the 11th to 15th centuries.
These are just a very few of the paintings that cover the walls and roof of Kalapanyiotis’ very own monastery, Agios Ionnis Lambadistis, a charming, higgledy piggledy building made up of three churches built side on to each other over four centuries from 1100 onwards.
Agios Ionnis Lambadistis is, sadly, no longer used for the Easter services or, as far as we could see, for any other public services although there are monks still resident in the monastery.
Other monastery buildings are newer – Troodos monasteries seem to have rather a habit of getting burnt down although, given the number of candles brandished by not only the celebrants but the congregation during the services, maybe that is not that surprising.
However, unlike so many churches in the UK, most of the monasteries seem to be not only very active, but well funded and well kept. These are the busy monks at the monastery of Kykkos, perched at over 1300 metres on a mountain peak – one of the richest and most lavish of the monasteries (it, apparently owns large chunks of Nicosia real estate) and the burial place of Archbishop Makarios of independence fame. Victim of several fires, the current buildings are lavish but relatively recent although the monastery does house one of three icons attributed to St Luke the Evangelist.
Back in Kalopanayioptis, the Easter services got into full swing on Good Friday, working up to a three hour peak starting at 11pm on Saturday and running till 2am. (Being practical people, it seems that the Cypriots decided that rather than go to bed after the midnight service and then have to get up again early the following morning for the Sunday service, they should just keep on rolling after the midnight service and sleep in the following morning.)
We had already been provided with candles by the Casale, and invited to a midnight Easter supper after the service – the first break in the seven week Lenten fast – traditional chicken soup with lemon, chicken joints, red hard-boiled eggs (red for the blood of Christ) and a pie filled with a sort of baked egg custard.
We arrived, summoned by the bell, at 11pm to find a sprinkling of elderly people in the church and the priest and respondents already in full chant. Assuming that the service would be as sparsely attended as a similar event might be in the UK, we were amazed to see more, and more, and more people file into the church, each bearing their decorated, but as yet unlit, candle. Although the permanent inhabitants of the village now number no more than a few hundred, Easter is great visiting time, so the few hundred had been swollen to around a thousand by their families and friends who had poured in from all over Cyprus – and, no doubt, further afield. Forty five minutes and much chanting later, with new worshippers still filing in, the first candle was lit and the flame passed around the congregation – after which we all gradually filed out of the church for some further chanting and bell ringing and then a general melée of friends and greetings and gossip and chat before heading off for our supper.
We had assumed that that would be the end of the Easter celebrations but…
The day after we had arrived we had been asked by a visiting BBC journalist doing a piece on Kalopanayioitis and its mayor (see the following blog) whether we would mind being interviewed about our visit. We said we were happy to help and in the course of arranging the interview spent some time chatting both to the journalist and to the mayor, John Papadouris, a native of Kalopanayiotis who, having made a substantial fortune as a civil engineer in Dubai, is responsible for the regeneration of the village. We also visited his orchards (to do the interview) and, on subsequent evenings, spent several hours chatting with him and other village returnees made good – including the now Professor Emeritus of Educational Policy Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who was born in the house which now houses the ‘library’ of the Casale!
On Easter Monday the mayor invited us to accompany him to the special Easter Tuesday service which takes place in a tiny chapel, up a dirt road high in the mountains, built to celebrate the miraculous powers of the icon which had been found on the site.
Worshippers come from all of the surrounding villages, bringing with them plastic chairs and the wherewithal to provide everyone with a slap up breakfast, including Cypriot coffee!
The tiny chapel with its beautiful local stonework, was not only famous for its icon, but for the headless skeletons recently been discovered lying in stone coffins beneath the pine tree in front of it and currently undergoing DNA tests to establish whether they were indeed Venetian knights from the fifteenth century!
We were delighted to have been included in this feast but – there was yet more! The village of Oikos, across the valley from Kalopanayiotis also held a celebration on Easter Tuesday – but their’s was a more secular one – lunch and entertainment in the village meeting place. So, at one o’clock, off we set once more.
This time the fare was even more lavish – these are only the sad remains that you can see… A huge joint of slow cooked lamb, surrounded by potatoes and stuffed vine leaves, large bowls of freshly chopped green salad, platters of baklava and other honey pastries, mounded piles of fresh fruit topped off with baskets of nuts and washed down by copious amounts of well chilled beer.
And these were only two tables of about twenty! Some serious catering operation…
Lunch was followed by an enthusiastic display of local dancing performed initially by a group of well-drilled teenagers who were then ousted by the ladies of the village displaying their talents – watched by the grandchildren of the village, when they were not posing for the camera!!
We had only one further day left in the mountains and, after so much food, we were happy to spend much of it on the pleasant terraces of the Casale finishing off our books, sipping at the occasional cool beer and nibbling on salads straight from the Mayor’s organic orchards – and wondering whether we could wait five years to come back, by which time we should also be able sample the Casale’s very own wines…
If you are interested in visiting (and I would thoroughly recommend doing so) check out the Casale Panayiotis site. The rooms are very comfortable (and several are due for an upgrade this summer which will take them to the ‘luxury’ level), the terraces and views are spectacular, the weather is delightful, the staff are charming and the food is excellent although, currently, the menu is quite restricted if you are staying for more than a couple of days.
We flew to Larnaca and hired a car (maximum two and a half hours drive to Kalopanayiotis) which also enables you to explore the mountains and the many wonderful painted Byzantine churches and monasteries that teeter on top of the peaks. Go – and enjoy!