no go area

I’ve never been very good about ‘no go areas’ it must be something to do with my rebellious nature. Put a sign up saying ‘private: no entry’ and I just wonder what’s in there and what they are trying to hide. ‘Off limits’ areas at school were just the same – we all deliberately played in the ‘out of bounds’ basement of the old building and found a way into the ‘forbidden’ gardens of the White Lodge on the edge of the school grounds. I also contemplated scaling the walls down into the gardens of the Martello tower in the school grounds – but that never happened. I still think it would have made a brilliant party venue though. So given the rule breaker that I am today’s trip up the mountain to a ‘men only’ monastery at the top was looking tricky.

StavrovouniThe Stavrovouni Monastery is one of the oldest in Cyprus, founded in 327, and was pointed out to us on our arrival in the country by a talkative Cypriot bus driver, who delighted in mentioning that women were not allowed in. The imposing building can be seen from miles around as it sits on the top of a lone peak which rises out of the plains towards Larnaca. It was an English bank holiday so what better idea than a trip up to the Monastery…. Did I want to go with the guys? Well, apparently there was a great view at the top and I could go in the church by the gate, so I decided to join the party.

As the car chugged its way up the winding road towards the Monastery we reflected on why women were not allowed.
“Obviously they lead the monks astray and are a distraction…and I don’t blame them!”
Hum…I was feeling uncomfortable about this and the thought that I would have to remain outside the gate while the others were welcomed in.
“I could get in if I wanted of course. I could go in disguise – I could dress as a man, they wouldn’t know.” But The Major wasn’t convinced…”that’s against the spirit of it….anyway, they’d sniff you out!” Well I wouldn’t wear perfume of course – but he might have been right because on the way back he told me the monks considered showers evil, so they all smelt very bad.

Suddenly we were at the top and the road was barred by a big brown solid metal gate – with a cross on it. That felt a bit contradictory – Jesus arms spread wide on the cross, with no-one excluded? There were buildings either side of the gate, one a kind of gatehouse beyond that I could see a little cobbled path which lead enticingly up towards the building perched on top of the mountain’s peak. It was slightly like a castle in pale stone with a look out area that almost looked like turrets on a tower, but was in fact a terrace overlooking the valleys below – but I didn’t see the monks doing much sunbathing up there. The rest of the building was a series of pitched roofs butted together with little windows, which I later discovered were the monk’s cells, looking blankly out into the distance.

Just in case I had any doubt about the no women policy, a large sign on the gatehouse wall stated women were not allowed and men must be fully clothed. This caused a bit of shuffling outside the car as shorts were swapped for trousers and there was a brief debate about whether short sleeved Tshirts would be classed as fully clothed – well at least they had the sex right! Ironically the Monastery was founded by a woman – St Helena – who brought a piece of the Holy Cross to Cyprus from Jerusalem and apparently part of this cross is now in the chapel inside. According to my sources you can’t see this very old piece of wood because it is covered in silver and ornate stuff….but nice to know it’s there. A friendly gesture would be to let anyone with the name Helen in once a year. I resolved to put it in the suggestion box, when I found it.

Once the men headed off through the gatehouse, I was left in the car park to reflect on what it means to be a woman…50 seconds later I was on my iphone, thinking how much I had in common with suffragettes and women priests, or at least would-be anglican women bishops. The car park did have its compensations, there were a few trees for shade, some toilets (yes, for women too actually!) and panoramic views across to the south coast of Cyprus and in the other directions towards to the Troodos mountains, which were shrouded in a grey-blue heat haze. Glancing at one or two other lone women left to wander the carpark like outcasts, including one particularly chunky lady on a quad bike, I decided solitude was the answer and made my way towards the little church. Inside it was a typical Orthodox scene, with the small space lined with icons and wall paintings in deep shades of blue, red and green and so much gold paint everywhere. There were a few wooden seats with very high arms. These are not designed for very tall people, but for people to lean against as standing is very much part of the Orthodox church tradition. I looked up at the images of Jesus, Mary and various bearded saints and thought how they all seemed to have the same sad brown eyes…had they been shut out of somewhere too perhaps? I wasn’t cross with the monks really, I admire them for giving their lives to prayer and God in this way, but I am in favour of equality, so if they don’t want female visitors, don’t have any, that way no-one gets upset.

It was very cool but airless in the church and I was quite alone – but I couldn’t get those rebellious thoughts out of my head. I looked at the gilt carved eagles and swooping angels and gold bunches of grapes. I had a sip of water and thought it might be nice to have something to eat. This was probably forbidden in the church…’all the more reason to do it’…said the little voice in my head. I fished about in my handbag and felt that familiar crinkle of a sweet wrapper. Out came a green chewy sweet. I gingerly turned my head to see if anyone was coming in, or worse still hiding in the alcove behind my chair. Coast clear, I tucked in and enjoyed the fruity flavours filling my mouth – so much more tasty because it was probably not allowed.

A few minutes later the men returned. They had been shown round by a young monk and heard stories of monks gone by. They told me the current Abbott (chief monk) joined Stavrovouni (which means mountain of the cross in greek) when he was 15 and is now 88 years old. He has spent his whole life in the building on the hill, longer than I’ve been alive, and only venturing down for food occasionally or to see family who could come twice a year to the gatehouse to meet him. Mind blowing as this all sounded, the nearest I would get to the inside was an illustrated booklet with the monastery’s history, which had been donated to the penniless Major (who forgot his wallet!). I’ll read that later and maybe repent of my sweet eating in church.


Mountain trails & trespassing

Planning a holiday with all five Farmers is tricky to say the least – how do you please everyone? Fine weather helps and usually something ‘boaty’ does the trick and so we started with a few hours messing about in a boat. But it was the wrong kind of boat for me because there were no sails, just a very noisy fast engine. Still, everyone enjoyed the doughnut ride, three managed some impressive wake boarding and we also motored into a few secluded rocky bays where we anchored and swam in the shelter of sea caves.

We were on an island tour of sorts, heading first for the remote and slightly inaccessible Akamas peninsular, which involved some very potholed tracks, much to the delight of the boys, who looked with envy at every passing open-top jeep. We found a lovely fish restaurant overlooking the sea and promptly ordered lamb from the menu..well, some of us did! We were like Swiss Family Robinson, all jostling about in a big red minibus, packed with food, drink and beach stuff, while whoever was in the front took turns to throw wrapped sweets to the sugar starved passengers in the back – it was a bit like tossing fish to seals, but they were slightly less noisy and kept complaining about the lack of yellow chewies…

Although I’m a sea lover at heart, the two highlights of the trip for me were in the mountains. The heat here has been incredible for the past week and now we officially have a heat wave! A heat wave in Cyprus with average temperatures of 37/38 can’t be good…we’re heading for the 40s and we are sizzling. What do you do when it’s too hot for the beach? Head for the hills of course…so day 2 we waved goodbye to the sea and the boat and set off into the mountains as a pink sun was slipping into the sea behind us. Enter the Troodos mountains where pine trees line the road and red roofed cabins are tucked in steep valleys, with craggy rocks forming the breaks between the trees. As night fell, so did the temperature and after a few false routes in one mountain village we found our way to the top just below Mount Olympus. Our destination was a cabin near the village of Troodos and all we needed to do was collect the keys….sounds simple. But we were running late. This was in part due to the need for showers after speedboating and the fact that there was only one and that it turned out to be a tap in a cubicle and not a shower….then we had to pick up water and tea which we’d forgotten. Combine this with switchback mountain roads, a lack of signs and a navigator who was trying to read a book at the same time and the result was that we arrived around midnight to collect keys and get directions for the cabin. Helpful directions were given and we set off, negotiating more hairpin bends on a road that got progressively narrower until we found ourselves in front of a serious looking barrier that promptly lifted, so we drove in. Suddenly a man emerged from the cabin just inside and rushed towards the car torch in hand looking worried. We wound the window down and told him we were looking for our cabin… “Not here, you can’t stay here.” He seemed very adamant. But we have an email, we’ve booked and this is where they said we should come… He shook his head and called over a colleague. He shook his head too and looked shifty. Our presence was making them uncomfortable. Our driver became more insistent. Are you sure it’s not one of those cabins over there, should we drive and look? We have the keys here… They looked concerned and glanced at one another. “It’s not here, no you can’t come in here.” This seemed a bit rude and unhelpful. It was very dark and late and we needed to find our cabin. The bald headed man shone his torch into the back and promptly shook his head, “You should go to the campsite.” OK so the back was filled with sweet wrappers and sandy towels, but we weren’t visiting the Queen. A third man was called over from the cabin, this one had a bomber jacket on and was reaching behind him into his waistband in a Starsky and Hutch-like manor. What is this place we wondered? And why are all these people on the gate at midnight? They were becoming more insistent all shaking their heads in unison. “You must go, you can’t stay here. This is the President’s house.” So it all became clear, we were talking to his bodyguards – no wonder they were edgy. We decided to call it a day, or a night and turned around back up the hairpin road to where we’d come from. We would wait to be invited. If only he had known who we were, I’m sure he’d have offered us a room free of charge. Our cosy cabin in the woods was eventually found and so was the cool weather. We eagerly hauled out blankets and sat round eating pizza, excited about the possibility of sleeping under a duvet for the first time in months!

The next morning it was still hot, but several degrees less than the coast and we followed a trail through the woods down a steep valley to a waterfall, where the water was icy and refreshing.
Two of the party were volunteered to hitch a lift back to the car to save us the hike back up the hill and when we had almost given up hope of seeing them again the big red bus appeared round the bend. Walking on a high trail around the summit of Mount Olympus later that afternoon we were treated to spectacular views across the Troodos mountains, where we looked out on a sea of hills in ever paler shades of blue, until they were just a mist on the skyline. That night we ate beside a roaring fire in the cabin lounge, after we had sent out a firewood party to forage for pine cones and dead branches in the dark. They returned from each foray in a flurry of huffing and slight panic due to a plague of biting flies who had swarmed around their legs in the trees. From what I gather they barely escaped with their lives and may be permanently scarred from the experience. How strange that we should revel in lighting a fire in August and snuggling under duvets in the chill of the mountains.

Our second mountain top experience was in the north of Cyprus, where we left the burning sand dunes to drive up to an ancient crusader fortress – Buffavento castle. Buffavento is one of three ruined castles clinging to the craggy hills above Northern Cyprus, which run like a backbone towards the wild expanse of the country’s eastern tip, known as the ‘pan handle’. And it is these same hills we watch the sun set behind each evening from our house. Turning off the road at the top of the ridge we followed a single track road which clung to the side of the mountain and gradually snaked its way upwards. Passing places were few and far between, sheer drops were everywhere and the mini bus could barely take each corner without its wheels running precariously close to the drop. We were all feeling nervous and as the bends got tighter and the road narrowed, we almost decided it might be safer to walk the remaining few kilometres. Finally we reached the end of the hair-raising road and it was a 40 minute hike up the side of the mountain to reach the castle silhouetted against a clear blue sky above us. As we tackled the 500 plus steps and winding paths, we paused for breaks and water each time there was shade. Each rest stop was a chance to look at the immense view of the parched plains spread out in front of us and the city of Nicosia – a hazy jumble of buildings and roads. Eventually the path crossed over the top of the ridge and we could see the other side of Cyprus below, the coastline edged with sandy bays scooped out of the landscape and lined by a deep blue sea. The path and steps continued upwards and it was another 15 minutes before we reached the first crumbling gatehouse of the castle where the views got more and more spectacular. A sign above the gatehouse told us that Buffavento had been captured in 1974 by the Turkish army after a raid at 4am and a battle which lasted till midday. Looking out from the highest point in the castle’s crumbling ruins we could see Cyprus spread out before us – east towards the pan handle, west to another cascade of misty blue mountains, south to the dry plains and Nicosia, then north to the scolloped coastline framed by a sparkling Mediterranean. Here was Cyprus in all its summer glory and we were standing on top of it.