KHURSHEED DINSHAW samples the unique history, culture and cuisine of UNESCO World Heritage sites Choirokoitia and Kakopetria in Cyprus
Located at the foothills of the Troodos Mountains in Cyprus, Kakopetria, derives its name from the Greek words ‘kakos’ and ‘petra’ which mean bad rock. Curious to know how and why the village got such a peculiar name, I explored it and came across ‘the rock of the couple’. As per local legend, centuries ago, a newly married couple came to take a ceremonial round of this rock.
This was the prevalent custom in those days. Sadly, this rock rolled over and killed the couple. However there is nothing bad or deadly about this village. Strolling around its cobbled roads and narrow lanes, I admired houses constructed from bricks that have been dried in the sun and stones that have been sourced from riverbeds. The roofs are tiled and supported by wooden beams. Kakopetria has a lovely rural charm to it.
While strolling around, I stopped to chat with an old lady selling fruit preserves. She suggested we drive 5 km from Kakopetria to Agios Nikolaos tis Stegis. Agios Nikolaos tis Stegis or St. Nicholas of the Roof is a listed UNESCO World Heritage Site. “The church demonstrates Byzantine architecture dating back to the 11th century and gets its name from the second saddleback roof that was constructed to protect the church from both rain and snow,” explains Thalia Sofiali, my guide.
Since the church is located a little away from habitation, it is serene and tranquil and no one was around when we visited. My mind calmed down while I was inside. I spent some time admiring the frescoes that adorn its interiors. Its paintings span five centuries. It was noon by the time we left Agios Nikolaos tis Stegis. Feeling famished, Thalia and I drove back to Kakopetria to grab something to eat. I relished a traditional sweetmeat called honey balls. These are deep fried flour balls drizzled with honey. Calorie rich and scrumptious, a single ball is enough to satiate your sweet tooth.
From Kakopetria, we headed to another Cypriot village called Choirokoitia. Prior to our visit, I had spoken to Erodotos Neofytou, a local who is promoting sustainable tourism in the village. Neofytou organises immersive sessions for visitors that range from making traditional Cypriot cheese, making peanut and sesame candy, making milk soaps from goat milk and weaving reed baskets. I chose to make and bake traditional bread, cheese pastry called flaouna and home-made pasta called sklinitsi. The dough for flaouna was made using flour, salt, olive oil and mastic which is a resin from the mastic tree that is sourced from Greece. The filling is of cheese and the pastry is garnished with sesame seeds.
While the traditional bread was made using flour, salt, water and yeast, the pasta called sklinitsi was made from semolina, salt and water. Using these ingredients, small dough balls were made. Each ball was then flattened on a special straight, sturdy and dry reed. Once the pasta was removed from the reed, it was kept to dry for a day. Locals also added either carrots or spinach. Sklinitsi, which is green in colour has spinach while the orange sklinitsi has carrots.
While the bread and cheese pastries were being baked, I went to an 800-year-old olive mill to learn how olive oil was prepared in the olden days. Entering that mill was akin to entering a museum as even today, the mill is kept as it was 800 years ago. One can see the trough in which the olives were washed with water to remove dirt and dust and the stone crusher which had two donkeys to rotate it and crush the olives. Remember, this was the time when animals were used for extracting oil as technology had not yet been invented. The reed woven basket to drain the oil and the traditional wooden spoon to scoop it out are reminders of an age where handmade products were the only norm.
On the way back, I passed by the village church, barber shop and a souvenir shop. Homes had evil eye accessories and brooms attached to their main doors. As I entered the home where the bread and pastry were made and baked, their aroma was something my olfactory senses will cherish for a long time. Sipping freshly made lemonade, sitting in a traditional stone home which was more than 170 years old, Erodotos and Thalia spoke of the simple joys of life. I nodded in agreement.
Apart from its culinary delights, Choirokoitia is also home to a neolithic settlement that was occupied from the 7th to 4th BC. and which is part of the UNESCO World Heritage list. This prehistoric site has revealed a lot about the human civilization of the region. During that time, farming and herding were the main occupations while the architecture shows examples of communal use. The houses were circular with flat roofs – their reconstruction can be seen at the site. Great care has been taken to ensure that these homes are built using the same building materials that were used during the neolithic period namely stone, earth and plants. Stones were collected from rivers and pine has been used for making the wooden frame of the roof. The walls and floors have been made by mixing soil with water and in some cases water and straw. I found it useful that there are boards explaining the construction and life of the inhabitants at the site. A visit to these ancient villages of Cyprus is a heart-warming and learning experience in myriad ways.