x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Head for the hills in Cyprus

Far from the island's coastal resorts, Annabelle Thorpe finds inviting villages and a rich cuisine.

Early evening in the village of Kakopetria, high up in the Troodos mountains, the sun begins to disappear beyond the skyline, the air thickens with the scent of pine trees, rosemary and the smells of wood smoke and cooking; the cobbled streets hum with voices chatting over supper at the small tavernas that dot the streets. After a few days on Cyprus' busy coastline I have escaped to the coolness of the tiny mountain villages that dot the thickly forested slopes. As I stroll through the quiet lanes to find my hotel, the Linos Inn, even though I have only driven 50km from the coast, it feels as if I have travelled to another country.

 Few visitors to Cyprus discover what lies beyond the high-rise hotels and luxury spas that line the coastal strip - but it is away from these bright lights that the real Cyprus is to be found. In spite of massive deforestation - more from wildfires and drought than man-made industry - the island remains heavily wooded, with more trees per square metre than Canada; not just in the towering peaks of the Troodos but closer to the big resorts where rural villages and olive-clad hills are just a short drive away from the busy towns of Paphos and Limassol.

Until relatively recently, many of these inland villages had become almost deserted; the sons and daughters of farmers and shopkeepers had fled the hardships of rural life for the promise of easy money on the coast. But new "agritourism" initiatives have brought life back to the villages, with tavernas, inns and restored houses drawing in tourists and encouraging local people to realise they can make as good a living inland as they can on the coast.

Kakopetria is a prime example of this; the winding streets of the old town have been declared a national monument, and the vast 17th-century watermill, which had crumbled almost to nothing by the 1950s has been rebuilt as a small hotel with a terrace that looks out over the rooftops. The Linos Inn lies at the heart of the old village: a collection of rambling, low-ceilinged buildings with rooms chock-full of character, high four-poster beds, old telephones and radios on bedside tables, rickety verandas and balconies that open out onto the cobbled streets below.

I decide to be lazy and explore the village in the morning and settle in for supper at the hotel's Mesostrato tavern, which specialises in local Cypriot dishes. The restaurant is the proud owner of the Vakhis certificate - awarded to inland tavernas that serve up classic Cypriot dishes - a scheme designed to help visitors seek out restaurants offering authentic island cuisine. My supper was a lip-smacking series of small plates; crispy, locally-made halloumi, fat butter beans covered in tomatoes, tender beef in a rich red wine sauce.

The next morning I set out to explore the village, pottering past ramshackle shops where little old ladies sell lace, honey and olive oil and walk up to the rebuilt watermill, now the 13-room Mill Hotel. I sit over coffee and let the warm silence roll over me; peering up to the blue skies I watch as an eagle wheels around in the sunlight, catching the up draughts in a graceful display. The Troodos offers very different pleasures to the coastal resorts, such as birdwatching, walking and spotting the orchids that lie hidden beneath the pines. I decide to strike out on foot and stroll off into the forest, clutching a basic map picked up at the hotel.

Before long I get the creeping feeling I am lost. The map is unclear, and there are no signposts or waymarks. Eventually I pop out onto a road, which I recognise from the night before, and amble back towards the village. It's a lesson learnt. The next time I venture out into the woods, it will be with a guide. But even the brief burst of anxiety before I stumbled back onto the road didn't detract from the beauty of my surroundings. The forests of the Troodos date back hundreds of years and many of the villages in the surrounding Solea valley have the same feeling of intransience: nearby Galata with its beautiful central square shaded by a vast oak tree, the cobbled streets of Omodhos lined with dimly lit caves holding locally-produced wines.

The most beautiful spot close to Kakopetria, however, has to be the Kykkou Monastery, founded in the 11th century and now a museum filled with Byzantine frescoes, ancient books and religious icons. The following morning I headed east to the village of Tokhni, one of the first and largest - of the island's agritourism projects only 15 minutes from the coast. The village clusters up a hillside, a jumble of restored cottages that are now simple holiday villas and traditional tavernas and coffee shops. I drove slowly through the winding streets to the Tokhni Tavern at the top of the village that looks out to the hills beyond, lured in by the promise of some of the best food on the island.

The tavern offers cosy one- and two-bedroom apartments and a beautiful restaurant terrace where I settled in to watch the sunset and tucked into succulent koubebia (stuffed vine leaves) and fasollia yachni, a zingy casserole of white beans and tomatoes. Tokhni is home to the Cyprus Villages project (www.cyprusvillages.com.cy), which has worked for several years to restore old properties in villages around the island and offer visitors the chance to experience a little of traditional Cypriot life. The programme lets guests join in with the olive harvest, make halloumi on nearby farms or head out on a fishing trip with local fishermen.

One happy morning I spent in the kitchen at the tavern getting to grips with how to make real moussaka using a rich béchamel, oil-dressed aubergines and a meat sauce heavy with garlic and rosemary. But the best moment of all was sitting on the vine-clad terrace at lunchtime, enjoying a plateful of my own creation. But it was my final stop that proved to be most memorable. After a morning driving back along the coast, past the ancient ruins and sprawling resorts of Paphos and up over the hills towards Polis on the north-east coast I turned off down a twisting road that lead to the sleepy village of Akourdhalia.

Although this end of the island doesn't have the drama of the Troodos mountains, the soft hills, with the by now familiar olive groves and citrus trees, it has a peaceful beauty of its own. I drew up at the Amarakos Inn in Kato Akourdhalia just as the sun was beginning to set, and settled into a corner of the pretty flower-clad courtyard to catch the last of the warmth over a cold drink. As I sat, other guests began slowly to appear; clad in walking boots, clutching maps, exuding a weary, sun-kissed contentedness.

Amarakos was one of the first converted properties to be classed as an inn, and the seven traditionally furnished rooms are set around the central courtyard. The property is owned by Sofrontis Mantis who runs the Cyprus wildflower festival and the beautiful gardens - crammed with geraniums, hibiscus, dahlias and surfinia - are proof of the hidden fertility of the Cypriot soil. It's a simple, informal place where supper is whatever Mrs Angela decides to cook each evening and days are spent exploring the surrounding countryside on foot, bicycle or horseback with hearty lunches packed up by the Amarakos kitchen.

On my final morning, as I feasted on bread warm from the oven, home-made jams and cheeses and eggs collected from the hens earlier that day, I thought about how ironic it is that so many of the increasing numbers of tourists who visit Cyprus never experience the beauty and tranquility of the rural villages. The island has become synonymous with five-star hotels and spas that promise restorative breaks for weary travellers and international resorts that offer little that is traditionally Cypriot.

Yet it's beyond these sprawling resorts where true relaxation is to be found, tucked away in the hills where the air is crisp and fresh, the sunlit days drift peacefully by and life continues just as it has done for centuries. travel@thenational.ae