hot and steamy

Friday was the day. And although it involved a slab of hot stone, some slapping and a lot of scrubbing and bubbles, it had nothing to do with 50 shades of anything.

I enjoyed my first Turkish hamam, in the heart of Nicosia, very much and in case any of you are tempted to try it… here’s a low down on the experience.

The hamam is much earthier than a UK spa day. Think ancient stone, lots of oriental rugs and hangings, wooden cubicles with floaty curtains – there is nothing clinical about it at all – although being given towels and flannel slippers was a reassuring start. My ‘experienced’ friend advised me to strip off to my bikini bottoms and put the tea towel/small table cloth around my top half. Leaving our belongings locked away we wandered past an inviting looking area, with curtained wood-lined booths, Turkish carpets, cushions and little tables with Turkish tea pots on, where a couple of ladies were relaxing. Putting new meaning into the verb – ‘to lounge.’

Down a marble flagged passageway we went into another changing area and shower room and then into the heart of the hamam. This was a steamy room, entirely lined with grey and white marble stone where a massive hexagon (I think) shaped marble platform formed the centrepiece. Up above was a huge white domed ceiling with light coming in from a spattering of star shaped windows in tinted glass of yellow, green, blue, turquoise and white. There were about 5 doorless rooms and alcoves leading off from the slab where I noticed a copper cauldron was also standing ominously. Each of the alcoves had a pair of brass taps with a large brass bowl under them and an ancient jug standing by. There wasn’t a shower in sight…or a mirror thank goodness!

We lounged around on the large warm slab for a while and a man in a tea towel, wisely made an exit. Some little time later, just when we wondered if they had forgotten us, a fairly large woman in another tablecloth came in all smiles, remembering my friend from previous visits. She pulled off her tea towel, and was now dressed just in large black lacy pants and a bra. It’s Ok we’re all girls here!

I was to go first apparently and she told me to lay on the edge of the slab face down.. seconds later the little table cloth had been whisked away and I was left in just my pants. Tea-towel man please don’t return…

Although I couldn’t see what was happening (I discovered later by watching my friend’s session), I could feel the sensation of jarfuls of hot water being poured on to me. I was then scrubbed quite hard all over with a rough flannel, which was interesting. It felt a bit like my skin was being sandpapered off and when I sat up for my arms to be scrubbed, I could see all the dead skin that had indeed been literally scraped away. It was all soon washed off with plenty of jugs of very hot water. But apart form the vigorous scrubbing, there was also some slapping. Part way through my bottom was slapped quite hard, not just for fun, but simply as a ‘Turkish sign’ for me to turn over. Ok so that’s a new one – please don’t anyone else use that as an excuse for smacking someone’s bottom.

The last part of the session was by far the best. The huge cauldron at the other end of the slab revealed its purpose. It contained what looked like cotton pillowcases that were cooking inside it, in a soapy hot mixture. These were then taken out and shaken so that they filled with air and somehow out of these cotton balloons a mountain of bubbles was squeezed and draped across my body. I felt like I had dived into a tropical cloud and it was ten times nicer than any bubble bath I’ve ever had. This went on for a few minutes, delivering a delicious soft sensation on my newly scraped skin, until I was head to toe in bubbles. Then the massage started – head to toe again. It was quite different having a partially clothed lady with plenty of padding moving me about to massage different areas of my body and lean her weight into my back with her arms. I don’t remember being that intimate with a total stranger before. She was all smiles and very friendly – saying a few words in her limited English (which is 100 times better than my Turkish).

After it was all over, I felt like a new woman! My skin was tingling and my muscles relaxed and even the soles of my feet felt soft. After a shower, there was an opportunity for lounging on the floor with the Turkish cushions – like all Turkish ‘ladies who lunch’ would do.

It’s a shame the hamam isn’t a little nearer because it’s the sort of treatment that would work well every Friday afternoon to set me up for the weekend… Please let Thorney Island have one of these by September!


Barbed wire and barriers

It was only a rusting wire mesh fence with pop cans threaded through it at random points and I peered over it, slightly puzzled by a suspiciously unimaginative sign at the side of the track, labelled, ‘Pop can fence’.

A few minutes later the relevance of the sign became clear.

Last week we visited the land of barbed wire and barriers that is Nicosia’s ‘green line’. Walking with UN soldiers on patrol down the dividing line between the north and south of the city, we passed Turkish soldiers keeping a watchful eye on members of the Cypriot National Guard across a narrow strip of no-man’s land barely a few yards wide at points.

‘Pop Can Fence’, we discovered was an important sign, marking the area around the last minefield to be cleared along the line. Our UN guide told us it was 99 per cent clear. Hence the fence, the pop cans and the sign – no-one wanted to be testing out for that one per cent chance of a mine.

pop canroad

The Turkish look out post we had seen beyond the fence and an abandoned one around the corner had been the scene of one of the many spats between Cypriot and Turkish soldiers over the years. A Cypriot national guard soldier had been shot after creeping out and stealing the Turkish flag one night and then waving it at the soldiers in their tower, while he also dropped his trousers to make them really mad. His reward was a fatal bullet, sometime later.

The track we were walking down was lined with tumbled down buildings draped in barbed wire and littered with sandbags. We were following one of the most fought over and highly disputed pieces of land in the world, which runs through the heart of the capital of Cyprus. There was an immense sadness about the road and even the debris, shoes, footballs and rusting cocoa cola signs seemed to say they were tired of all the fighting too – it was so worn out.

Bullet holes and bomb damage on buildings lining the road told their own story of the battles over the years which culminated in the Turkish invasion of 1974. There was Annie’s house – the home of Annie, a Cypriot woman who had refused to leave her house when the invasion happened. She stayed living there – her front door opening out onto the green line and no-man’s land. Every time she wanted to go shopping she had to be escorted by UN soldiers and taken back again. This woman ignored the divide and made no distinction as she handed out cups of tea to soldiers on both sides. When she died a few years ago, both Turkish and Greek Cypriots attended her funeral. Unfortunately, this sign of unity wasn’t the beginning of peace.

annie's housebuilding

Further down the line, a hole in the wall was pointed out to us by one of the soldiers who explained that it was a machine gun position mounted to deter UN soldiers from using a Cypriot café, which had an entrance onto no-man’s land.

And around another corner there was a line of open tea chests forming a wall. The Cypriots had complained about them being filled with rubble to strengthen the wall on the Turkish side. When the Turkish soldiers were asked to turn them around to show they were empty, they eventually agreed. They then proceeded to turn one box around every month, to the frustration of the other side, so it took over a year for them to comply with the request.



Towards the end of the patrol we came to what was the Knightsbridge of Nicosia, but where most of the high-end merchandise has largely been ransacked and carried away. There was one large block that has stock remaining and inside we could see dusty display cabinets, ancient leather suitcases and shoes and slippers still in their boxes. It was like stepping back into the 1950s or into a desert museum filed with memorabilia and bottles and posters. Further down the road was a former car showroom, with cars that were once shiny new speed machines and were now coated in inches of dust and grime. Inside you could peel back a layer of plastic covering the leather seats, but their engines had long since seized up. One car formed an unsightly coffin for the parched body of a dead cat, which was draped over the engine. It seemed to sum up the atmosphere – death and decay had been preserved in this place and the evidence is still there, 40 years on.

After a couple of hours we turned our back on the green line, emerging from one of the guarded entrances; we stepped back into the sun soaked streets of Nicosia.

On my future border crossings between north and south of the city, I won’t be able to forget the desolation of the road that lies between and soldiers who continue to walk the borderlands each day – trying to maintain a form of peace that looks like it will be a long time coming.




hot spots

According to Cypriot weather forecasters, last weekend was the start of a heat wave…what’s a heat wave like in Cyprus? Very hot. Almost don’t go outside hot. It’s been about 40 degrees today. I knew it was hot because the bread took less than half an hour to rise in the sun and the terrace is too hot to walk on with bare feet. The ceiling fans are working overtime and the cat is either hiding under our bed or flaked out on the tiled floor… but I’m not complaining. Where I come from, it’s probably raining!

I’ve now found a place in the house where it’s slightly less hot and as it’s a year and a month since we moved out here, I thought it was time to blog about some of my favourite spots – discovered over the past 12 months. So in no particular order, here goes…

Karpaz Peninsular – more particularly, Burhan’s Golden Sand beach
I woke up here yesterday morning and I wasn’t dreaming. Stepping out onto the wooden balcony, the only thing dividing my view of the golden sands, turquoise sea and cloudless blue sky was a small herd of wild donkeys grazing amongst tufts of dried grass in the sand dunes. A few hours later, climbing a sand dune at one end of the deserted sweeping bay, we laughed as a stray dog skipped round a gorse bush in an attempt to catch a lizard. Hopping down the dune as the sand was too hot to walk on, we were so relieved to plunge into the crystal water at the bottom. Our very own natural swimming pool. This is the kind of place I used to dream about and now it’s only a 2 hour drive away from home.

Troodos Mountains – the view from the kitchen window
On our first stay here, having arrived in the dark, I padded into the kitchen first thing in the morning and reached to push open the shutters. The view through the window was mesmerizing. All I could see was wall to wall pine trees, some with huge trunks, others more slender, but all silhouetted against a vivid blue sky. The cabin was built on a slope so the window was almost at ground level and the floor of pine needles and cones looked like an inviting brown bed. It felt like the forest was part of the house and the aroma of pine and fresh mountain air was intoxicating. This view always reminds me of Narnia and even when there’s no snow, it’s a magical place, with adventure in the air.

Famagusta’s old city – Monk’s Inn
This is one of our favourite haunts. And you never know who you’ll meet. This fascinating stone building in the heart of the old city is full of surprises. Its huge dark wooden shutters fold back to reveal a lovely bar, with elegant stone arches and an imaginative cocktail menu that is best read by liberal minded drinkers. A couple of gay Belgian archeologist were among just a few of the characters we’ve come across. They were amazed at the ancient remains all around and did a lot of flirting with one of us, especially when they realised he wore uniform. Outside directors chairs spill out onto the pavement and the whole side street is cordoned off after 6pm, when the South African-born owner wheels out plant pots to the middle of the road to stop cars interrupting the party. Here we always enjoy a bottle of the local beer – EFES – served in chilled glasses. It can’t be beaten.

Nicosia – a cafe off Ledra Street
I love just sitting watching the world go by at this small cafe in the back streets of the capital. Usually bustling with local Cypriot students, the cafe’s traditional wicker and wood painted chairs, have a lovely Greek feel. The atmosphere is relaxed, no-one urges you to take a seat. An ancient Greek Orthodox Church lies opposite and a series of benches line the square outside. Last time we ordered our usual medium frappes and the friendly waiter, who eventually appeared at our table, bought us a backgammon set. A little while later, a girl from the nearby table and the waiter were giving advice on setting up and game tactics. People were engaged at various stages of play on tables all around, some smoking, others sipping at the tiny cups of coffee, smiling and laughing, then sighing. One man removed his glasses and polished them, never taking his gaze off the board. Cypriot life slows down here and it’s a joy to return again and again to this hidden gem.

Potomos – the fish restaurant
Imagine Mama Mia, but a bit flatter. This little restaurant nestles at the end of a tatty river estuary lined with fishing boats in various states of disrepair. Bumping down the rough stone track by car, there are glimpses of the snaking river and boats tied up to jetties, which look like they are about to collapse into the water. Made from what appears to be a jumble of recycled bits of timber, the roughly made piers are decorated with old plastic canisters, tangled ropes and uneven planks of assorted wood. Towards the end of the track the glistening Mediterranean comes into view. Parking outside the restaurant we weave our way across the sand between white painted trunks of trees, around to the restaurant where the blue and white checked tablecloths complete the Greek look. At our favourite table beside the water, we gaze out to sea across the small mound of rocks and the mini lighthouse marking the entrance to the estuary. There is a smile of welcome from the waiter, “hello again, how are you?” Waves crunch rhythmically onto the shore and the white sand at our feet is punctuated with boulders and stone troughs full of pink geraniums. A glass of cold white wine is essential.

If this list of favourites makes you think I’m always eating or drinking – you’d probably be right!

lovely jugs and the ‘button man’

Are you a collector? I’m not, but if I was it would have to be jugs. I’m going to be a little careful writing about ‘jugs’ as it could easily be misunderstood. When I mention ‘my favourite jugs’ or ‘the things I love about jugs’…I am talking about the pottery kind that are used for pouring and not anything else that might spring to mind, whatever you are thinking!

Jugs are the best things to collect, not just because they are good to look at, but they’re also useful. When we moved here I had to pack away some of my favourites in boxes, but I am slowly re-accumulating a few worthy specimens. The latest arrived as a surprise gift from the Troodos Mountains and has its own hat! It’s a kind of magic jug because it’s terracotta, and therefore porous, which means it leaks a bit. This may not sound good for a jug, but in fact the clever (tall) person who bought it for me explained how it is a traditional Cypriot water jug, designed to keep the water cool without it being in the fridge.

jug1jug 2
First step, we had to fill it with water and leave it to soak in for 24 hours. Then once the jug had absorbed all the cool water into its skin, we filled it with water and sat it in the shade on the window sill, topped off with its traditional shell hat to keep off the flies…And it works. With temperatures in the low 30s we’ve still found the water cool and fresh.
There’s so many beautiful terracotta pots out here which we could never get back to the UK in one piece, so I have stopped myself even looking at them. Instead I’m trying to be practical with my shopping trips.

Nicosia is still my favourite shopping destination on the island. The other week we decided to approach it from the north, which put a whole new perspective on the place. Driving into the old walled part of the city and parking up on rough ground between scruffy, crumbling stone and painted houses, we could see the ancient mosque, formerly a cathedral, towering above us. Around the first corner there was an amazing black and white eaved house, which turned out to be a kind of museum. Stepping inside we could see a group of men chatting around a table drinking tea in the inner courtyard. They fell silent for a moment, wondering what we were up to, before ignoring us completely and resuming their conversation. Around another corner was another architectural gem, a 15th century Venetian building, complete with coats of arms, carvings and half destroyed columns. An amazing arched stone window, edged with intricate stone carvings framed the view onto another inner courtyard. It was all breathtakingly old and unspoilt, almost as if we had stumbled upon a forgotten city. Everywhere seemed deserted.

But back to shopping – partly the purpose of the trip. After sipping cold beer in our favourite haunt – a former prison, now craft centre, that was a staging post for traders in the 1500s – I was determined to seek out my friend the ‘button man’. That isn’t his name, but he has a shop filled with thousands of buttons, baskets and ribbons. He is one of the friendliest shopkeepers I’ve come across and also ‘very reasonably priced’ (spot the film quote). So he will forever be the ‘button man’ in this house. He greeted us with a smile, but was less happy that this time I was accompanied by two burly men, rather than my sweetly smiling daughter. Still, we chose various ribbons and lace and he measured it out generously, offering us the same incredible prices. But there was no time to hover over the buttons or simply browse through the jumble of exciting haberdashery layered around the shop…many on shelves too high for me to reach. As I was leaving and taking a reluctant backward glance at the baskets and buttons, trying to ignore the two men beckoning and tapping their watches impatiently outside, it did occur to me that both baskets and buttons would also be good collector’s items. Buttons are small enough to be packed away and could have all kinds of uses, while baskets always come in handy – a bit like handbags. Next time I will go alone.

For now I have to content myself with the current new addition to my jug collection. The only trouble is, I keep forgetting about it and using water from the fridge instead. Still, it’s doing what a good jug should. It’s looking pretty and being useful at the same time, if only I can remember to use it. Baskets and buttons will have to wait.