An apology is in order.
Our most recent article from Cyprus was quite the tease, hinting at much but revealing little. It’s not much of a blog if that’s going to be our attitude right?
However, it was a decision we made with good reason, because it simply wasn’t possible to squeeze everything we wanted to say about Vavla into a single slab of text that didn’t bear a strong resemblance to War and Peace!
It’s still no short story, but this is a far more comprehensive perspective on how we really feel about Vavla, or as we prefer to call it, the diamond of the east!
What was it that had enamoured us of Vavla? A dusty little village, barely a pin-prick on the map of Cyprus; why was it deserving of such praise?
It didn’t matter what what we saw, who we spoke to, or what we ate, it kept coming back to three things:
The land. The food. Community.
Sometimes separate, yet most often intertwined, they were at the heart of our experience and they are the foundations on which we believe the future of Vavla, and the numerous other small villages across Cyprus, will depend.
The land – ‘Panagia tis Agapis’
It was our first full day on the island and our senses were in overdrive. Readjusting, recalibrating, ascertaining the natural order of our surrounds.
With the lush highlands of Scotland still fresh in our minds, as we hiked our way up the valley to Panagia tis Agapis (the Chapel of Our Lady of Love) the differences could not have been more stark!
Dry soil; brown to the east, white(!) to the west. Shrubs and trees a dull khaki, liberally peppering the hillsides, struggling ridge by ridge. Copy/paste, copy/paste…reaching ever-increasing heights towards the drab northern horizon.
And the thorns. Clutching, straining, praying for the unwary to misstep, to stumble, to dare forge their own trail; large, small, straight, hooked, a hostile spectator at best, threat to life and limb at worst.
Why would you choose to live in such a barren environment? History clearly shows that this has been a place of habitation for millennia. Why here, where it was the middle of winter and still the ‘river’ was barely a trickle?
This wasn’t living. This was more like a real-life game of Survivor, with participants choosing to eke out an existence on the most meagre of resources for the term of their natural life!
Our arrival at the pretty little stone and red-roofed chapel was a relief in ways. A symbol of civilization and order. Perhaps even hope. In a nice touch, we were greeted by the familiar shape and hues of a grand old gum tree, under whose ribbon-draped branches rested a shaded table and chairs; respite for the parched and weary traveller.
Despite the chapel’s remote location, we later learned that Panagia tis Agapis is very popular among Cypriots, with tales of its magic soil luring people from near and far.
That’s right, magic soil!!
The story goes that if you’re having trouble getting your significant other to say “I do”, then all you need to do is scoop a teaspoon of soil from behind the chapel’s alter, mix it into your lover’s coffee and voilà, marital bliss will be upon thee!
As you can imagine, a priest in hard hat, steel-capped boots and high-vis trying to dodge a holy pothole is not what you would call a blessing from above! Access to the interior of the chapel is therefore understandably restricted.
We couldn’t get in, but this video by locals IX-Andromeda gives a brilliant ‘fly through’ of both the exterior and interior of the chapel (set it to HD, it looks great!).
Another hour of walking under the hot sun and a few very steep ups and downs later, and we were back at our accommodation, Vavla Rustic Retreat.
With a beer in hand and the welcome relief of its cool stone walls, it was a chance to ruminate on what we’d just seen.
We couldn’t understand. So much dirt, dust and heat. Who knew there were so many different shades of drab? We even passed a snake on the way that appeared to have died eating its own tail! Despite the heat, a shudder ran down our spines at that sight…
Fleeting moments of beauty in what appeared to be the most inhospitable of environments. Consciously choosing to live there seemed akin to self-imposed purgatory!
More importantly, with another six days to go, had we made a mistake?
The food – ‘Our House’
Our selection of Vavla as our base for the week was partly driven by its great location; close to the village of Lefkara yet also within easy driving distance of Larnaca, Kato Drys and even Lemesos (Limassol).
The other half of the equation was the opportunity to celebrate Andrew’s 40th birthday with a meal cooked at ‘Our House’, by the very same George and Donna Marie that we introduced to you in our previous article, and who came with very high recommendations from the owners of Vavla Rustic Retreat.
On George’s side of the family we had a deep knowledge of traditional Cypriot cuisine, while in Donna Marie we found a family back in Long Island that clearly loved fine food and knew how to present it to the paying public (read up on Arie Pavlou if you’d like see the Michelin experience we’re talking about here!).
Five courses, a glass of local wine, €20pp. We imagined a couple of hours would be enough.
We hadn’t accounted for either their gastronomic passion or George’s love of the quite literally breath-taking local spirit zivania.
What a memorable night it was to be!
In the same way the evening began, ambling from dish to dish with Donna Marie and George making the occasional appearance to explain what was on our plates, so did the post-dinner conversation flit from pillar to post.
It isn’t unusual these days to be regaled on chef’s vellum with tales of rigorous foraging under a full moon, sickle in hand and risk to life and limb in bringing the very best of the season to the table. Yet with a Woolworth’s or Tesco’s often only minutes away, you can understand our occasional trust issues.
The morning before our dinner, over a couple of immaculately fried eggs, tomatoes you could eat like apples, and a side serve of mosphila jam on toasted Cypriot bread, we made the mistake of suggesting to Donna Marie that they shouldn’t hold back in presenting us with the most authentic Cypriot dining experience they could manage.
To our immense satisfaction, it became very clear very quickly that we had little choice in the matter!!
‘Foraging’, not that they would ever use such a term, is how they source most ingredients that ended up on our plate. Some from their extensive backyard, such as lettuce, olives, carob and snails (no these weren’t offered for dinner!), with others such as capers (notoriously difficult to propagate) and wild asparagus from the surrounding hills.
There is no other choice. These guys are the original hipsters and the seasons guide their menu.
The friendly banter between George and Donna Marie was a delight!
From ‘snail wars’ (our term, not theirs), whereby Donna Marie is on a never-ending quest to eliminate all sign of the pests from her beloved veggie patch, yet George would love nothing more than to let them grow fat on the spoils, with a hot bellyful of escargot his eventual reward!
To the ongoing competition to grow the best quality vegetables; each picks a plot of soil, plants, waters and tends to their greenery, with the victor decided at harvest. It could be the makings of the world’s slowest reality TV series!
This isn’t for the tourists. As with so many in the village, this is their life and they understand it in staggering detail.
We thought we were foodies, but it turns out we are rank amateurs at best!
Take the caper plant for example. Who knew you could use it four ways?!
First is the ubiquitous caper. Did you know this is actually the flower bud picked early?
Second is the leaves and stalk (the photo above shows you what they look like). That’s right, either pickled or boiled these were an absolute revelation! Sharing a salty similarity to the caper, yet introducing a savoury, vegetal flavour that was new to our palates.
Third is the caperberry. Andrew, simpleton that he is, had always assumed this was just a fancy name for a caper. After flowering, the plant produces a single ‘berry’ per flower that looks and feels like a tiny gherkin but with a similar flavour to a caper.
Fourth, and inedible, is the flower of the caper plant. Beautiful, if only fleetingly, Donna Marie assured us it made for a gorgeously delicate perfume.
This was but one example of many where our knowledge was found sorely lacking, and is a topic you can be sure we’ll revisit!
Food was clearly a passion for both, yet of even greater importance was family. The pride in George’s face as he pointed out the two grape vines planted in their stone courtyard, trunks now as thick as thighs, each commemorating the birth of a son.
The boyish laughter as he recalled his days as a toddler, showing us how he would spin the steel spindles at the foot of his parent’s four-poster bed, now used by those choosing to stay at their bed and breakfast.
Memories of summers past, their boys back in Cyprus for the summer, sleeping high on the terrace under leafy vines laden heavy with red grapes as fat as your thumb, and where the Troodos breezes could rise from the valley, taking the edge of the stinging heat. Tempering both body and soul.
This ever-present relationship with the land, and those fleeting moments with family, are a source of great happiness for Donna Marie and George, and we felt privileged to share that spirit, if only for one night.
With a final parting shot of that other spirit, zivania, and hugs all round, we reluctantly said our farewells. We’d learnt something special that evening, about food and about life, and we will do our best to return once more before we depart the shores of Cyprus, when winter has loosened its grasp on their garden and we can explore some new herbaceous delights!
We like to wander on our travels. Sometimes aimlessly, simply exploring for the love of it, not knowing what’s around the bend or over the hill.
Other times with a goal in mind, as we were the following day, trundling down the valley between Vavla, Agios Minas (the monastery of St Minas) and the local winery, Ktima Christoudia.
It had been less than 24 hours since our hike up to Panagia tis Agapis, and yet something had changed.
We had a new perspective through which we viewed the landscape. One not of our own making and yet now permanently etched. What was previously hidden behind a veil of unfamiliarity, of something as simple as being ‘different’, was now revealed; our own road to Damascus.
Before, we saw a desert; barren, dry, inhospitable, and unforgiving.
Now, thanks to George and Donna Marie, we saw what lay beneath, around, in. We could see the olive groves, thriving under the hot sun. We could nearly taste the sweet nectar of the multitude of oranges, lemons and tangerines brightly polka-dotting the orchards tucked away near the river’s edge. We could picture the wild mushrooms and asparagus lying dormant, waiting for the right time to sprout forth.
A friend of ours once described the strength of emotion he felt on arriving at his ancestral home on the opposite side of the globe for the first time in his life; the visceral connection that had been awoken simply by being there.
We can only imagine that what we felt changing within us was in some way similar. Even biblical.
As both of us grew up with traditional religious backgrounds we knew the stories of Moses, David and Solomon. John the Baptist in the wilderness, manna from the heavens, the lands of milk and honey.
Scotland was old, yet to us Cyprus feels ancient. There is something powerful in this place that speaks of time, of civilisations long gone, of our insignificance when so many have already gone before us and will do so after we’re gone.
And yet still, bizarrely, we felt at home.
Perhaps just as we described Vavla as the diamond of the east, this was but a different glittering facet of what we always knew?
No, this wasn’t the wine talking! As beautiful as it was, there had been no revelations at the monastery. This was the result of us allowing ourselves to experience something out of the ordinary, away from the all-inclusive tourist trail, opening our minds to another land and another culture. The very reason we travel at all.
And with those final thoughts crystallising within, the snow began to fall.
The community – Vavla village
There’s an approach to life taken by some, typically emerging after one tequila slammer too many and the strains of Auld Lang Syne fast being drowned by tinnitus, whereby the word ‘no’ is now off limits.
Let’s be clear, that will never be us!
As two off-the-chart introverts (or are we just control freaks? 😀 ) even the thought of something so anarchic makes us want to shut the door, take the phone off the hook, pour a couple of overly generous glasses of red and commit to a Buffy/Angel marathon with director’s commentary. Again.
‘No’ is our thing. It’s easy, it’s safe, it doesn’t require small talk.
It also doesn’t make for very interesting travel writing!
One of the challenges we’ve set ourselves as we travel is to say ‘yes’ a little bit more than we may have in the past. Not every time (we’re not mad!), but to at least open our mind to the possibility that saying ‘yes’ may actually lead to a new experience, a new story, perhaps even a new friend.
And so when Kelley first suggested that we may want to accompany her and her husband to the old school house to celebrate New Year with the rest of the village, you know what our default position was always going to be.
Thank goodness it was via email (the introvert’s best friend!), because it gave us time to think, and ultimately say ‘yes’!
Google tells us that as of 2011 the population of Vavla is 52. Yet speaking with Kelley the number these days is far fewer.
It’s not an uncommon story. As capitalism extends its greedy fingers, the young and the middle-aged are drawn to the larger cities by necessity and opportunity. And thus the streets grow quiet, under the rheumy gaze of those who remain.
What is so uplifting in Vavla is that the ties to home and history while tenuous haven’t yet been broken, and if anything, seem to be slowly gaining in strength.
Every six months the ‘Friends of Vavla’ organise a village feast. A time for celebration of the year just gone, a time for old friends and family to reunite and renew old bonds, a time to also look forward with hope and wisdom gained, towards a brighter future for the village.
While a lack of Greek language skills most often proves problematic, in this instance it provided a welcome bubble from which we watched and listened to the buzz and hubbub rising around us.
At the centre of all proceedings sat those twin pillars of the community, the same the world over.
Church and state. Priest and Mukhtar.
It’s been twenty years since we last went to church (so much for that traditional upbringing) and when it comes to priests and monologues it doesn’t appear a whole lot has changed.
Sonorous voice filling the room, reams of hand written notes in one robed hand while the other attempted crowd control.
We barely understood a single word in the 40 minutes it took to deliver the opening remarks, but it was fascinating observing both speaker and audience.
Other than the appearance of mobile phones, audience engagement doesn’t appear to have altered a whole lot over two decades! Some rapt in the message, others struggling with heavily laden lids, occasional murmurings of conversation rising from the back of the room.
We couldn’t help but smile though at the distinctive pop of a champagne cork mid-speech. Both unexpected and disturbingly Pavlovian!
Was it pure coincidence that a handful of late-comers could be seen arriving bang on the time that lunch was scheduled to start? Nice try, but there was still another 15 minutes to go!
We do jest, but in reality the level of respect afforded both priest and mukhtar (the head of the village) was to be admired. They were the voice of the village in a world mired in red tape, bureaucracy, and temptation. Unenviable roles of leadership at times, yet absolutely necessary in navigating a bright future for the people of Vavla.
Navigating the buffet? No assistance required there!
The official proceedings were over and the celebrations could begin.
A bottle of local red, platters of delicious food making the rounds…communication was no longer a barrier, we were all talking the same language now!
Pork souvlakia, koupepia (stuffed vine leaves), pourgouri pilafi (bulgar wheat), fried chicken, makaronia tou fournou (pasta casserole) and so much more, to be finished off with a square of the most delicately sweet bourekia (pillows of pastry filled with anari cheese, cinnamon and sugar) and washed down with traditional coffee hotter than the sun and with a kick like a Cypriot donkey!
This wasn’t fancy. There were no tasting notes. Dishes steeped in layers of tradition and yet still as popular and relevant today as they were centuries ago. This was a meal prepared with heart and soul for a community doing its very best to be just that, a community with a future.
Old acquaintances were renewed, new friendships made. And at day’s end as we climbed the cobblestone streets of Vavla muttering empty promises of calorific limitation, we knew we had experienced something special.
Land. Food. Community.
The word ‘journey’ is thrown about with abandon these days. Next time you watch MKR or the Great British Bake Off take note of how often this one little word makes an appearance. If it was a drinking game you’d be sozzled before the first advertisement!
Despite this, there’s no better word for our experience.
That initial walk to Panagia tis Agapis with all our doubts, questions and astonishment fermenting away, unchecked.
And then, like a real-life dot-to-dot, through those who call Vavla home we gained an insight into the Cypriot way of life that only a local can provide. Not just hearing it said, but seeing it put into practice right before us. And then even better, experiencing it with them, if only for a moment.
This was a first-hand glimpse of their intimate relationship with the land, it’s bounty, and the rich communal history that have not only guided their past, but that we believe are essential in shaping their future.
This communal experience and relationship with the land is fast becoming a rarity in much of the West, and so it becomes an opportunity for nations like Cyprus, and communities like those who call Vavla home to provide others like us with this window into a different way of life.
Much as our home of Tasmania is a small island and often overshadowed by the bright lights of the Australian mainland, in recent years it has acknowledged its unique opportunity to play to its strengths. Its exceptional landscapes and natural beauty on both water and land, its high quality natural produce that is the envy of the world, it’s temperate climate… It’s a simple formula and it takes time, but it is without a doubt the right approach for a small island trying to stand out on the global stage.
Cyprus too shares many of these strengths with Tasmania, yet it also has access to the vast markets of the EU and the benefit of an even warmer climate and waters in which you can safely swim without fear of hypothermia!
These efforts must continue, and we’re sure they will. We only had the opportunity to explore the potential in one tiny village among the dozens, if not more, across this island nation. Just imagine how many other unique stories and experiences are out there waiting to present themselves to the right traveller?
Land. Food. Community.
Say ‘YES’ to the real Cyprus!
Planning your travel to Vavla, Cyprus
How to get to Vavla?
From Larnaca Airport it’s a 35 minute drive. The first 20 minutes are via the broad and fast A3, A5 and A1 highways, and then from the Choirokoitia exit another 15 minutes up into the Troodos foothills along a winding but high quality and well signposted sealed road.
If you’re travelling at night you’ll find the lighting isn’t great the higher you get, and the locals do tend to adopt their own ‘exciting’ version of the road rules, but you’ll be fine!
Where to stay in Vavla?
There are two accommodation options that we recommend:
Vavla Rustic Retreat is where we stayed for our seven days in Vavla.
We can’t speak highly enough of both the quality of the accommodation and the support we got from the owner, Kelley. She was the perfect host and was absolutely brilliant in helping us out with food and activity recommendations in the local and broader area, particularly after we mentioned our keen interest in local cuisine and our love of hiking!
Kelley is originally from the USA so you’ll have no worries whatsoever in your communication both before and during your stay. We’ll put together a far more detailed review of Vavla Rustic Retreat shortly, complete with photos, and link through to that article as soon as it is available.
‘Our House’ is our second recommendation and is located right next door to Vavla Rustic Retreat.
Donna Marie and George are the owners of Our House and while we didn’t stay with them, they provided us with the most wonderful introduction to Cypriot cuisine through a magnificent breakfast and dinner (on which we will write a LOT more very soon!). We also received a tour of their accommodation and it looked absolutely lovely.
Donna is also from the USA and George has excellent English from his time spent in New York, so again, don’t worry about anything being lost in translation!