If you look at a satellite image of Cyprus, you’ll see a large block of green stretching across the southern half of the island, speckled with white. This is the Troodos Massif, a massive plug of igneous rock, now carpeted with forest which, millions of years ago, rose like Aphrodite from the sea. Here, even at the height of summer, you will find cool, pine-scented air, quiet mountain villages and lonely monasteries, sometimes with a bird of prey circling above. This is Cyprus, but not entirely as we know it.
Rich in minerals, especially copper, the mountains have been extensively mined, though otherwise they were for centuries synonymous with isolation and poverty. Conversely, it was this very rugged seclusion that saved the area from the worst excesses of marauding invaders experienced elsewhere on the island. The Troodos became a haven for dissidents and rebels and a stronghold for the Orthodox church, as evidenced by its wealth of monasteries and painted medieval churches. Of all the various rulers of Cyprus, the British made the biggest inroads here, mainly in search of summer retreats in which to escape the relentless heat of the coast.
Today, with villages losing their young people to the coastal towns or even abroad, the Troodos region is relying more and more heavily on tourism. Roads have been greatly improved, and many traditional homes have been adapted into small hotels, restaurants and agrotourism endeavours. And there’s plenty to reward a few days’ stay here – the south-facing foothills are draped in vineyards, with the higher mountains dotted with hiking and skiing trails, and picnic areas in spectacular settings. Declared a national park in 1992, and containing four specified nature reserves, the Troodos National Forest Park contains 750 species of plant, of which twelve are endemic; among its birds and animals are the rare Bonelli’s eagle and the iconic Cypriot mouflon (a species of wild sheep).
Within the park are five distinct areas: the village/resort of Troodos itself which surrounds Mount Olympos (2000m), the island’s highest peak; Marathasa to the northwest, home to the village of Pedoulas and Cyprus’s greatest monastery Kykkos; Solea to the northeast, with Kakopetria and other villages lining the main road to Lefkosia; largely treeless Pitsiliawhose main villages are Agros and Palaichori to the east, and Machairas further east still, notable for the Machairas Monastery and the charming village of Fikardou. For the greatest concentration of frescoed churches, walks and picnic areas, hotels and restaurants, go for the first three, for a more laidback taste of the mountains, the last two are best.
Top image: Typical Cyprus village in the Troodos Mountains © Debu55y/Shutterstock
One of the Troodos region’s newest and most interesting ventures is the Geopark Visitor Centre, some 6km east of Troodos village and clearly signposted from the B9 road to Nicosia. Opened in 2015 in the abandoned Amiantos asbestos mine (don’t worry, visitors are assured that it’s quite safe), it’s a recognition of the global significance of the Troodos Massif as a uniquely important geological playground, a magnet for academics and students from around the world. The centre, in a converted school, offers a fifteen-minute visual presentation on the geology of the Troodos Mountains, and a series of displays distributed between five rooms covering the geology and ecology of Cyprus, and its copper and asbestos mining industries. Future plans include visitor entry into the open-cast works of the asbestos mine. Geology may seem something of a niche interest, but if you’re intrigued by the huge variation in rock formations you can see as you pass through the Troodos Mountains, then the centre is well worth a visit.
East of Pitsilia, the MACHAIRAS region feels even more remote, a fact that is reflected in its total lack of hotels – even villages are few and far between. It is, however, a favourite day-trip destination for Lefkosians, and does have a number of attractions, including a monastery very much associated with EOKA, and a museum village, while its mountains and forests have more of an alpine feel than anywhere else in the Troodos range.
Macharias is signposted along the E902 from Strovolos on the outskirts of Lefkosia, from where an invigorating forest drive via Politiko and Pera brings you to its monastery via the extensive picnic grounds at Mandra Kambiou.
The carefully conserved mountain village of FIKARDOU lies northwest of Panagia tou Machaira Monastery, and can be approached from there via Lazanias or from the west via Gourri. Either way, you enter the village on the E916. Though somewhat “preserved-in-aspic”, it provides an excellent idea of what a Cypriot mountain village of the eighteenth or nineteenth century would have looked like.
The first building you encounter when you finally climb up into the village is the Church of the Apostles St Peter and St Paul on the left. A pretty little stone and clay-tile-roofed building, it is set into the hillside below the road. In front of it lie graves which must have some of the best views in Cyprus. Across the road, on the hillside and with equally fine views, stands a memorial to four local men who died during the 1974 invasion. Immediately ahead is the village’s coffee house and restaurant Yiannakos, tucked into a steep hairpin bend. Two-storey traditional houses are stacked up the hillside, each with straw-flecked mud walls and capped by mellow red/brown tile roofs. (The ground floor was used for making and storing wine and other farm produce, while the first floor housed the people.) The organic nature of the village speaks for itself – the buildings seem to grow out of the hillside.
Two of Fikardou’s old houses have been opened to the public – the House of Katsiniorou, named after its last owner and owing its plan and features to the sixteenth century, has been turned into a rural museum. Furnishings, tools and utensils from the past are on show, together with photographs, plans, drawings and texts illustrating the process of preservation. The House of Achilleas Dimitri has been furnished as a weaver’s workshop and also acts as a guest house.
Lying in the forests southeast of the village of Lazanias, and commanding wonderful views of the surrounding mountains, Panagia tou Machaira Monastery, like Kykkos, is very well maintained and exudes a sense of prosperous decorum. The story of its foundation follows the usual formula – a miraculous icon, one of seventy painted by the Apostle Luke, was brought here from Asia Minor by an unknown ascetic during the iconoclastic period. Hidden in a cave, it was discovered (probably by revealing itself with a divine glow) by two hermits – Neophytos and Ignatios – who’d arrived in the area from Palestine. To reach it, they needed to hack away the undergrowth, and a divine hand kindly provided the sword or “machairi”. Ignatios founded the church in 1172 AD, which later expanded into a monastery. Fire destroyed the buildings in 1530 and 1892, but the icon, encased in silver, survived.
The monastery also played a role in the fight for Cypriot independence. EOKA’s second-in-command, Gregoris Afxentiou, hid here, disguised as a monk, and eventually met a martyr’s death at the hands of the British – the cave in which he was trapped lies about 1km below the monastery, and is marked with a flag and commemorative tablet. There’s a small museum dedicated to his short life (it’s to the right of the ramp that leads down to the monastery terrace from the road), and on the terrace itself stands a gigantic statue of the man and the bird (an eagle) from which he derived his nom de guerre. Dashing and heroic though Afxentiou certainly was, he is perhaps ill-served by the huge and flamboyant statue erected in his honour on the monastery terrace.
While the names of Archbishop Makarios III and George Grivas loom large in the fight for Cypriot independence, within the Greek Cypriot community Grigoris Afxentiou is probably the man held in the greatest honour and affection. Even his notional enemies in the British Army held him in high regard – one British officer is reported as saying to Afxentiou’s father, “I want to congratulate you on having such a splendid son”. Grigoris Afxentiou is a clear-cut, old-fashioned, popular idol whose early death at the age of 29 in a heroic last stand against the occupying forces is the stuff of legend.
Afxentiou was born on February 22, 1928 in the village of Lysi (now in the north and called Akdogan) and became committed to Cypriot independence and enosis from an early age. He joined the Greek army as a volunteer in 1949, and reached the rank of second lieutenant. When he heard that EOKA were recruiting, he joined up. His intelligence and potential were immediately recognized by Grivas, who took him under his wing and personally saw to his training in guerrilla warfare. Afxentiou was entrusted with blowing up the Cyprus Broadcasting station in Lefkosia during the night of simultaneous explosions that kicked off the fight against British rule on April 1, 1955. Having been recognized, he went on the run with a group of fighters in the Kyrenia mountains where he became Grivas’s second-in-command.
For the next two years Afxentiou moved around the Troodos Mountains, training guerrillas and attacking British positions and convoys. He became one of the British Army’s “most wanted”, with a price of £5000 on his head. He narrowly evaded capture at the Battle of Spilia, and again at Zoopigi a year later. His time ran out in March, 1957 when he was tracked down to the Machairas Monastery, where, with the help of the abbot, Irineos, he had been living disguised as a priest. Below the monastery in an underground hideout, he ordered the four men who were with him to surrender, but decided to fight to the death himself. Unable to capture him without serious losses, the British soldiers finally poured petrol into the hideout, ignited it, and followed up with explosives. Afxentiou had finally been killed.
His widespread popularity among Greek Cypriots since his death can be explained by a number of factors. Compared to Grivas, he was a careful strategist, planning actions to minimize loss of life. He was even understanding towards informers, refusing to execute one man on the grounds that his wife had recently had a baby. His commitment to the cause of freedom and union with Greece was simple and straightforward, without the ferocious hatred of the left that consumed Grivas. And finally, by dying when he did, his reputation was never compromised by the sorts of fudges that post-independence politics invariably required.
The MARATHASA region, lying north and west of Mount Olympos and the Troodos region, is dotted with villages and is relatively unspoilt. As well as its three painted Byzantine churches in successive villages along the Marathasa river, it hosts the richest and most famous monastery on the island at Kykkos. It is also famed for its cool-weather fruit, particularly cherries and apples, and is particularly attractive in spring when the trees are in full blossom.
The monastery of Panagia tou Kykkou, widely known simply as “Kykkos”, is the most famous in Cyprus. Located on the far edge of the Troodos area, 15km west of Pedoulas and the Marathasa valley, it’s often dismissed because its buildings are relatively modern, but it will tell you more about Greek Cypriots and their religion today than all the more venerable churches of Troodos put together. With its mixture of religious observance and commercial enterprise, the presence of national hero President Makarios’s tomb and the nearby EOKA hideouts, it’s a must-visit for anybody trying to get a handle on modern Cyprus.
The original monastery was established at the end of the eleventh century by the Byzantine Emperor, though none of the original buildings has survived the numerous fires that have swept through the region. Nothing in the current monastery pre-dates the last fire in 1831, and much of it is later than that, though the famous icon of the Virgin Mary seems to have miraculously survived.
The Kykkos Monastery is the richest on the island and it shows. Its buildings are pristine and immaculately maintained, its murals vivid and bright, its monks numerous. This wealth grew partly because of the pulling power of the icon, and partly because, during Ottoman times, many people chose to donate their money to the church rather than see it whittled away by heavy Ottoman taxes. On entry, through a highly decorated porch, you walk into a handsome courtyard with a museum at the far left and, above the monastery roof, a wooded hillside with a recently built bell tower. Beyond the main courtyard the visitor is free to explore a series of passageways and flights of steps and paved courtyards that can’t seem to muster a right angle between them.
The Monastery Museum, up a flight of steps from the main courtyard and unexpectedly huge, is organized into antiquities (pre-Christian artefacts) and documents (on the left as you enter), vessels, vestments and ornaments from the early Christian and Byzantine periods and after in the main room, then icons, frescoes and woodcarving (on the left), and manuscripts, documents and books (on the right). Though of limited lay interest, nobody could fail to be impressed by the comprehensiveness of the collections and the lush complexity of the exhibits.
The monastery church is opulent even by Greek Orthodox standards, and is lined with icons (including the famous one of the Virgin, in its own silver, tortoiseshell and mother-of-pearl protective case), usually busy being kissed by a line of supplicants. Nearby is a brass or bronze arm, the result of a punishment, it is said, meted out by the Virgin to a Turk who had the temerity to light a cigarette from one of the sanctuary lamps, and, a more cheerful story, the blade of a swordfish, presented by a sailor who was saved from drowning by the Queen of Heaven. The church and the courtyard outside it often becomes packed with people at weekends – some attending weddings or christenings, some making pious pilgrimage, others simply having a day out.
Born into poverty on August 13, 1913, in the village of Panagia in eastern Pafos district, Makarios (then known as Michaelis Mouskos) became a novice at Kykkos Monastery at the age of 13, before continuing his education at the Pancyprian Gymnasium in Lefkosia. After graduation, he went on to study in Greece and Turkey (hence his rather unexpected facility with the Turkish language), and finally Boston in the US.
In 1948 he became Bishop of Kition (Larnaka), and two years later Archbishop of Cyprus. It was at this time that he took the clerical name of Makarios III. He was now not only the religious leader of the Greek Cypriot community in Cyprus, but their de facto political leader. One of his first actions was to carry out a plebiscite on union with Greece (“enosis”) – 96 percent of Greek Cypriots voted in favour. It goes without saying that the Turkish Cypriot community were against enosis from the start, fearing for their position if the island became a province of Greece.
As the 1950s progressed, the so-called “Cyprus Problem” became increasingly high profile, with EOKA (the right-wing organization led by George Grivas) carrying out a guerrilla war from April 1, 1955 within Cyprus, and the Greek government pushing hard in the UN for an end to British rule and unification with Greece. Makarios, strongly identified with this opposition to British rule, was eventually exiled to the Seychelles in March 1956. After a year, he was released with the proviso that he did not return to Cyprus. He settled instead in Athens, from which base he travelled the world, drumming up support for his cause, particularly among non-aligned countries and the Soviet Union.
In 1959, amidst continued violence across the island, Makarios accepted an offer of independence from the British, but without enosis. This provoked predictable disgust and fury among EOKA, and accusations that he had sold out, even that he’d been blackmailed into acceptance by the British Secret Service. No such scenario is needed, though, to explain his actions. Faced with a choice of leading a distant province of Greece or a proudly independent country, it really was a no-brainer. Makarios was duly elected president of the new Republic of Cyprus on 14 December.
As the new decade dawned, Makarios realized he was presiding over an unenviable situation. Turkish Cypriots, supported by Turkey, would accept no move towards enosis, while the Greek Cypriot right, supported by Greece, would accept nothing less. The imposition of a virtually unworkable constitution didn’t help either. He also had little control over the hawkish General Grivas who was intent on military action against Turkish Cypriot armed enclaves, which were becoming almost a state within a state. Finally, when a right-wing junta seized power in Greece in 1967, the left-leaning Makarios came out openly against enosis, explaining that it would be beneficial to have two Greek voices at the UN rather than one. He began to try to build bridges with the Turkish Cypriots.
Between 1970 and 1974 there were numerous attempts by the junta and the CIA to assassinate Makarios (Nixon allegedly called him “Castro in a cassock”). Finally, on July 15, 1974 the National Guard and EOKA B rose up in rebellion, deposed Makarios (who fled abroad), and set up a right-wing administration. This provoked the catastrophic response of a full-scale Turkish invasion of the north, and partition. When the dust had settled, Makarios returned from abroad to resume as president of a now divided island. He died suddenly of a heart attack in August 1977.
Makarios undoubtedly made many mistakes during his period of office, though it seems unlikely anyone could have managed the ticking time bomb that he inherited. Certainly, blame for the 1974 Turkish invasion could not be laid at his door. His pragmatism, his undoubted political skills and above all his commitment to the people of Cyprus have ensured that he is held in widespread and lasting affection in the modern republic, something which cannot be said of his militaristic rival George Grivas. On the other hand, unsurprisingly, he was not popular among Turkish Cypriots. While his body was lying in state in Agios Ioannis Cathedral in Lefkosia, the capital suffered an unprecedented August downpour. Greek Cypriots quoted an old Greek saying – “God cries when a good man dies”. Turkish Cypriots came back with one of their own – “When an evil man dies, the heavens try to wash away his crimes”.
According to tradition, the Kykkos Monastery was established in the twelfth century AD by a hermit called Esaias, who lived a life of simple piety in the region’s woods. One day the Byzantine governor of Cyprus, Manuel Voutoumites, was hunting in the area and got lost. Coming across Esaias, he asked the way, only to be ignored by the holy man, whose mind was on higher things. As you might expect, the politician took offence at the perceived slight, berating the hermit, or even, according to some versions, giving him a good hiding. Having returned to Lefkosia, Voutoumites contracted a terrible disease and, surmising that this was his punishment for his maltreatment of the holy man, appealed to God to cure him so that he could seek forgiveness. This wish met with divine agreement, but when Voutoumites finally tracked down the hermit and apologized, Esaias set him a task. A famous icon of the Virgin Mary, painted by the Apostle Luke while the Virgin was still alive, and lodged in the Imperial Palace at Constantinople, must be brought to Cyprus. The governor and the sage set off for Constantinople on what Voutoumites considered to be a wild goose chase – he could see no way in which the emperor would accede to the request. But the almighty intervened again. The emperor’s daughter contracted the same disease that had laid Voutoumites low, and he was forced to agree to the icon’s export to Cyprus in order to save her. The icon has been lodged in the monastery ever since.
Some 6km east of Kykkos, on the right of the E912, lies one of the picnic sites at which the Troodos Mountains excel. Xistarouda has a roofed barbecue area, numerous picnic tables on a series of stone-faced terraces under tall and shady trees, and toilets. Because it’s on the main route to the Kykkos Monastery, it gets very busy, especially at weekends, with families erecting gazebos and portable barbecues and setting themselves up for the afternoon.
In the Marathasa Valley north of Prodromos, PEDOULAS is an attractive place, whose buildings tumble down the hillside in a series of terraces – a view only slightly marred by a scattering of rusted corrugated-iron roofs. The village, notable mainly for its painted church, was established during the Byzantine period by refugees fleeing Arab coastal raids, though the origin of its name is somewhat in doubt – perhaps it refers to the shoe and sandal makers who once plied their trade here (“pedila” being the word for sandal). Pedoulas packs in all the services you might need. Like many settlements in these mountains, its serpentine lanes are something of a maze – probably the easiest way to get orientated is from the huge white Church of the Holy Cross in the centre (not the painted church for which the village is famous). As you explore, look out for the statue of Archbishop Makarios III on the main (upper) street, the large monument to Aristides Charalambous, a local man who died during the independence struggle, and in particular (you can’t miss it – it dominates the skyline above the village) the white 25m-high Cross of Fithkia, which stands next to a modern chapel.
Pedoulas’s Archangelos Michaelis Church (accessed down a steep lane from the Church of the Holy Cross) is one of the ten “painted churches of the Troodos Region” that have been declared by UNESCO as being a collective World Heritage Site. Distinctive because of its tiled roof, which on one side sweeps down almost to ground level, the church is easy to date – a dedication over the north door says that it was built by “the most honourable priest Lord Basil, son of Chamades” and painted in 1474. The dedication also seeks forgiveness of sins for Basil, his wife and two daughters – a portrait of them donating the church to the Archangel provides an illustration of the fashions of the time. A further dedication (on the beam across the west wall) reveals that the artist was “Menas from Myrianthousa” (ie the Marathasa Valley). As is usually the case in these churches, the walls are divided into a lower zone populated by a host of individual saints and an upper one illustrating scenes from the Bible, including the Birth of the Virgin, Her Presentation to the Temple, the Annunciation, the Birth of Christ, His Baptism, Betrayal, Crucifixion and so on. The more you know your Bible, the more you’ll appreciate the murals, but even the non-religious can’t help but be impressed by the vividness of the colours, despite some fading over the centuries.
In its stock of simple but exquisitely painted rural churches the Troodos Mountains is truly blessed. You can come across these little gems across the region, but especially on the north slopes of the range, sometimes in villages, sometimes in remote wooded areas. They are modest in construction, with steeply sloping wooden roofs (to shed snow during the winter) above stout rough stone walls. Inside, they are decorated with wonderful frescoes (and in some cases mosaics) which offer a glimpse of life and beliefs during the almost thousand years of the Byzantine Empire. Ten of these churches are collectively included on UNESCO’s World Heritage List.
Photography is not allowed inside the churches, but most sell guidebooks and/or postcards of the most notable paintings. For in-depth background get hold of The Painted Churches of Cyprus by Andreas and Judith A. Stylianou which gives detailed descriptions and illustrations of the wall and ceiling paintings of all the Troodos churches (and many others across the island).
The following churches are those that are most easily visited.
Agios Nikolaos tis Stegis, Kakopetria
Monastery of Agios Ioannis Lampadistis, Kalopanayiotis
Panagia Forviotissa (Asinou), Nikitart
Archangelos Michaelis, Pedoulas
Timios Stavros, Pelendri
Mountainous PITSILIA is one of the remotest parts of the Troodos Massif. Spreading eastwards from the main B9/B8 Lefkosia to Lemesos road that loops through the mountains, the region is sparsely forested, with large areas of hazel and almond trees and grapevines. Little visited or known, it has a character and charm all its own, and is beginning to make attempts to attract tourists, with a small but growing number of places to stay and eat. Like other parts of the Troodos Mountains, Pitsilia is associated with the struggle for independence and enosis, memorials to EOKA fighters are encountered in many villages, and the Greek (as opposed to the Cypriot flag) is still much in evidence.
AGROS, the main village of Pitsilia, is an attractive spot, its red-roofed houses (many of which are on stilts) cupped by the mountains at the head of the Agros valley. It’s known across the island for its rose petal products, sold at several shops along the serpentine main street (for example Venus Rose at 12 Triantafillou 25521893).
During the first half of May the area’s dedication to roses is celebrated in the Rose Festival. You’ll also find several tavernas raucously popular with locals and shops selling the village’s traditional sweets (try Nikis at 5 Triantafillou, 25521400). Just across from the main square are two churches – one, Panagia Eleousa, built at the beginning of the twentieth century, the other, Timon Sprodromos, slightly older and encased in modern stone walls and a wooden roof.
Agros feels remote, yet is eminently accessible, being thirty minutes from Lemesos along the E110 and twenty minutes from Troodos east of the B9. And the surprising presence of a very large hotel, sited high on the hill with extensive views both south across the village and north across the mountains, makes it the perfect base for exploring the region.
Situated in the undercroft of Panagia Eleousa is the Frangoulides Museum, dedicated to the work of a well-known artist, Solonas Frangoulidis, who lived in Agros for two years in the 1930s. Lots of his pictures adorn the church above, and the museum, once the local cinema, has rough drafts and sketches and additional finished work by the artist.
Together with Archbishop Makarios III, General George Grivas (whose nom de guerre was “Digenis”) is the person most associated with the “Cyprus Problem” between the 1950s and 1970s. Born in Trikomo (now Iskele) in northeast Cyprus on May 23, 1898, he, like Makarios, studied at the Pancyprian Gymnasium in Lefkosia. When he graduated he fled to Athens, apparently to avoid an arranged marriage and it was here that his military education began. Having joined the Greek army as an officer, he served in the catastrophic campaign in Asia Minor which ended with the expulsion of the Greeks from Turkey in 1922. Despite this setback Grivas gradually moved up the ranks, making captain by 1925 and major by 1935.
During the German occupation, Grivas was involved in what can only be described as the murky deeds of the far-right organization “Khe” – the Greek letter usually represented as an “X” – which he founded and led. It was said to be far more concerned with attacking Greek communist guerrillas than the occupying forces. Indeed, there have been accusations of collaboration with the Nazis – at many times during his career, Grivas’s political hatred of the left seems to have outranked his patriotic Hellenistic pride.
After the war Grivas played a significant part in the Greek Civil War (1946–49), fighting for the government against the communists. He stood unsuccessfully in the Greek elections of 1951, one of several times when his attempts to turn to politics failed, perhaps owing to a distinct lack of the common touch. Following his dream of enosis (unification of Cyprus with Greece), he returned to his homeland. He met Makarios, and the two of them, together with other supporters, formed EOKA, the Ethniki Organosis Kyprion Agoniston or “National Organization of Cypriot Fighters”, which pledged to the overthrow of British rule in Cyprus and union with Greece. If there was any disagreement between the two men at this stage, it was that Grivas favoured full-scale armed rebellion, while Makarios wanted to limit action to the destruction of property.
In November 1954 Grivas landed in a caïque loaded with arms and explosives on the west coast of Cyprus, near Pafos, and on April 1 the start of the armed struggle was announced by explosions all over the island. Grivas led the rebellion from a series of hideouts, in Lemesos, and later, the Troodos Mountains, attracting a price of £10,000 on his head. After Makarios was exiled in March 1956, Grivas led both the military and the political struggle from a hideout back in Lemesos. Finally, when the archbishop accepted a British offer of independence without enosis in 1959, Grivas decamped in disgust to Greece – his exile was part of the final agreement. In Greece he was deliriously greeted as a hero, and promoted to general.
The deteriorating situation in the new Republic of Cyprus attracted Grivas back to the island in 1964, where he led Greek hardliners in the National Guard and a division sent by Greece. Attacks on leftists and on Turkish Cypriots became increasingly outrageous, until the massacre of 27 Turkish Cypriots, many unarmed civilians, in Kofinou and Agios Theodoros caused worldwide revulsion. The Greek division, and Grivas, were withdrawn. The general returned once more to Cyprus in 1969, and re-established EOKA, now called EOKA B, whose aim this time, in addition to achieving enosis and suppressing Turkish-Cypriot opposition to it, was to combat the Greek Cypriot left. Virtual civil war broke out between EOKA B and the left, while Turkish Cypriots formed heavily armed enclaves. Finally, in January 1974 and still in hiding in Lemesos, Grivas died of a heart attack, thus avoiding the disastrous Turkish invasion that his actions had done so much to precipitate.
Signposted in Greek just after Aminatos on the Pelendri road – look out for the words “EOKA 1955–1959” – the activities of EOKA in this part of Pitsilia are comprehensively commemorated in the Monuments of Heroes (full title “The Monument of the Liberation Struggle of EOKA”), a heavily symbolic clutch of linked memorials in a woodland setting. Entrance is through the “Porticos”, which places the fight against the British against the backdrop of Greek history, and includes portraits of Makarios and Grivas, together with marble rolls of honour. This is followed with the Room of the Fighters, which has artwork and a big-screen film presentation, and the 108 Steps of Freedom, each representing a fallen EOKA fighter. The steps lead up to a large paved hilltop capped with the Monument of Freedom and the little Chapel of Panagia Eleftherotria, representing the large part played by the Greek Orthodox Church in the struggle.
Though the memorial might make uncomfortable viewing for British visitors, and it may seem a little florid to modern taste, nobody would argue today about Cyprus’s right to fight for independence, nor their courage in doing so. The memorials to the dead, the huge mural in the Room of the Fighters, and the serenity of the hilltop setting, are very affecting whatever the nationality or political orientation of the visitor.
East of Marathasa, the SOLEA region straddles the main road to Lefkosia, ensuring its popularity as a day-trip and weekend destination for the capital’s residents. Progressively less hilly the further north and east you travel, the region is mainly popular for its village life, and for its wealth of painted churches. The main village, Kakopetria, has enough hotels, restaurants and services to make it a good base from which to explore.
KAKOPETRIA sits astride the Karyotis River on the main B9 road to Lefkosia, 50km from the capital. The village centre has all the necessary conveniences of modern life, while beyond it is a pretty (and now protected) old town of alleys and tottering houses. One of the larger Troodos communities, it has a soundtrack of whispering or roaring waters, depending on where in the village you are.
The name “Kakopetria” means “bad stones”, deriving, it is said, from the numerous large rocks swept down from Olympos in primordial times, which you can still see in the foundations of some of the houses. One such stone (“the Stone of the Couple”) had a reputation for bringing good luck to newlyweds: they would walk around its base, climb onto it, and make a wish. That reputation was somewhat dented when the stone shifted, killing a young couple in the process (it has since been underpinned by concrete and stone).
Just a couple of well-signposted kilometres southwest of Kakopetria along the F936 stands another of the region’s ten UNECO World Heritage Site churches, Agios Nikolaos tis Stegis (St Nicholas of the Roof). Make sure you visit during opening hours – it’s completely fenced off, and you won’t get even a glimpse of it from the road. The church building has a rough-and-ready, lopsided look, prompting speculation that the eleventh-century masons who built it weren’t quite up to the job. The steep-pitched roof, added to protect the early cross-in-square building from the harsh winter weather, led to the name. The church was once part of a monastery, but the rest of the buildings disappeared in the late nineteenth century. The paintings range from the eleventh to the seventeenth centuries and therefore represent a remarkable history of the development of Byzantine art. The oldest paintings (for example, the Transfiguration and the Raising of Lazaros, both early eleventh century) may not look as impressive and colourful as later ones, but are extremely important. Note the number of life-sized saints in the nave and the narthex, and the larger-than-life-sized St Nicholas in the entrance to the diaconicon (the chamber to the south of the apse in which the books, vestments and no or used in the services are kept). Look out, too, for the painting of St Peter on one of the east piers supporting the dome, and in particular for the graffito (in ink) written by Russian monk and early travel writer Basil Moscovorrossos in 1735 in which he outlines his recent travels in the region – vandalism, it’s true, but interesting vandalism nonetheless.
As you travel north on the B9 from the heart of the Troodos Mountains towards Lefkosia, a string of villages present themselves, sitting on the slopes of sharp-crested hills, their houses deep in trees or perched on ridges – particularly GALATA with its numerous old balconied houses and several old churches, all worthy of note but of interest mainly to enthusiasts. A further 6km brings you to EVRYCHOU, a sizeable village just off the main road, unique on the island for having a railway station. Evrychou Station is in fact one of the few remains of the Cyprus Government Railway (CGR), built by the British authorities to link the port of Famagusta to Lefkosia and the copper mines of the northwest. The 2ft 6in gauge line was not an economic success, and was progressively wound down between 1932 and 1951.
Odd buildings and bits of equipment remain, mostly in Northern Cyprus, but the only substantial survival of the CGR is the station at Evrychou. Clearly signposted from Evrychou village and accessible via a new road, Evrychou Station is a railway enthusiast’s dream. Now a museum dedicated to the CGR, it contains a wealth of photographs, models and memorabilia, and outside, a length of track and a couple of pieces of rolling stock.
At 1750m TROODOS VILLAGE is only 250m below Mount Olympos, the island’s highest point. It has the longest history of catering for visitors (during the winter it doubles as a ski resort), and therefore has the best infrastructure, with numerous hotels and restaurants, extensive hiking and cycling trails, and a tourist office serving the whole region. It’s not particularly attractive – basically a clutch of tourist services housed around a central square – but if you want to get a taste of the mountains without roughing it too much, this is the place for you.
Villages in the Troodos Mountains celebrate all the usual religious festivals, plus a few devoted to local produce. Because of the weather up in the mountains, those worth seeing tend to be concentrated into the spring/summer/autumn.
Agros Rose Festival (mid-May) Displays, activities, demonstrations coinciding with the blossoming of the village’s rose bushes. On sale are perfumes, rose water, rose brandy and even rose-based sweets.
Korakou Herb Festival Celebration of herbs, whether used in food, medicine, perfume or aromatherapy. Free buses run to Korakou from Germasogeia in Lemesos.
Sports and Fun Festival (last weekend of June) Cycling, rock climbing, downhill racing, archery and much more, in Platres. Open to all.
Cyprus Herb Event (late July). Similar to Korakou Herb Festival but held in Pano Platres.
Pano Platres Festival (mid-Aug). Music, dance, drama, craft and farming exhibitions in and around the village.
Dormition of the Virgin Mary (Aug 14–15). This big religious celebration takes place across the republic, but is particularly worth seeing at the big three Troodos monasteries – Kykkos, Machairas and Trooditissa.
Raising of the Cross (Sept 13–14). A particular feature in Omodos and Platanistasa.
Local Products Festival Held in Galata to celebrate bread, sweets and other local produce. Not exactly a snappy title, though.
Apple Festival (mid-Oct) Displays, exhibitions and tastings, all apple-related, held in the villages of Amiantos, Dymes and Kyperounta, accompanied by much music and dancing.
Kakopetria Festival Choral festival, but with plenty of other music, singing and dancing.
Zivania Festival (early to mid-Nov). Displays on the way in which this fierce firewater is distilled, together with the opportunity to drink some of it. Held in the villages of Alona and Pelendri. Inexperienced drinkers beware.
The easiest walk in the area, the 1.5km Myllomeris Trail is a one-hour return stroll which starts opposite and just north of the church at the bottom end of Pano Platres to the base of the Myllomeris Falls, an attractive cascade when the river contains enough water.
Accessible either at the top end from Troodos village or from the bottom near the Psilo Dendro trout farm/restaurant, halfway between Platres and Troodos, the 3km Kaledonia Trail follows the Kryos Potamos river (one of the few in Cyprus that flows year-round) and takes in the eponymous waterfall which, at 15m is the highest on the island. The trail is well signposted, and drops down from the Presidential Summer House (built by the British as a summer residence for the High Commissioner), crossing the river along log bridges or sets of stepping stones, and passing through a variety of woodland. Pick up the pamphlet detailing the walk from the Forestery Department visitor centre. Allow one to two hours each way. To avoid retracing your steps, start at the bottom end, then return instead of climbing on to Troodos.
A 7km route whose start from a car park off the road to the summit is signposted from Troodos village, the Artemis Trail is particularly satisfying as it circumnavigates Mount Olympos at around 1850m and offers tantalizing views (including interesting rock formations and the remains of several Venetian fortifications), yet doesn’t involve much climbing. Again, a pamphlet produced by the Forestry Department explains everything in detail, including exactly what you can see from the various viewpoints. There’s no water along this trail, so bring your own. Allow two to four hours, depending on fitness and how long you stop to admire the views.
Similar to the Artemis Trail but at 1750m it’s slightly lower (and therefore longer by a couple of kilometres). The Atalante Trail has the advantage of starting right in the centre of Troodos village, and passes a spring with drinkable water. It’s not, however, a fully circular route.
The Persephone Trail is a there-and-back 90min to two-hour 3km hike to the top of Makria KontarkaHill, with extensive views.