Monday 16 July 2018

Gone donkey whispering in Cyprus. Back soon...


Achna donkey farm near Ayia Napa in Cyprus
Achna donkey farm near Ayia Napa in Cyprus

Eleanor Goggin

It was a struggle to get to the airport amid the snow but determination knows no bounds when you need some sun on your weary bones.

And that's what Cyprus provides - year-round sun. Cobalt Air fly twice a week from Dublin to Larnaca and within minutes of landing you're on a beach or a golf course or in a restaurant sipping wine.

There are strong similarities between Cyprus and Ireland. Two divided island nations with chequered histories. The people struck me as being very warm and fun loving. A smiling nation. A bit like ourselves. The great thing about Cyprus is that it has it all - beautiful beaches and an abundance of culture. Plus it's a small island, so if there's a cloud in the sky, just hire a car and explore. (They drive on the same side as us which makes for an added bonus.)

We started our trip in Larnaca, staying at the E hotel. Finikoudes beach is world renowned and is a mere stroll down the tree-lined promenade from the town centre. Larnaca is an archaeologist's delight with two museums - the Archaeology Museum and the Pierides Foundation Museum. The Pierides Museum comprises some 2,500 items collected by five generations of the Pierides family. When Lazarus died in Bethany and was resurrected four days later by Jesus, he seemingly wound up in Cyprus and became Bishop of Kition, an area in the northern part of Larnaca. His tomb is here at the beautiful little Church of St Lazarus dating from 900 AD.

Oroklini Lake, a salt lake on the outskirts of Larnaca is an ornithologists' idea of heaven. A 38-hectare wetland, it's a haven for migratory breeding birds all year round. While we were there the annual influx of flamingos was taking place. A telescope and binoculars provided on the viewing platform allow you to get up close and personal.

Lace making and silverwork were once huge in Cyprus, and we took a trip to Lefkara village where both are still going strong - although there is a fear among those who are passionate about traditional crafts that the young people will let them die out. Lace making has been a way of life here since the 14th Century and women sit in the street and chat and make tablecloths and napkins. A table cloth takes two months to make.

The linen for the tablecloths comes from Ireland so they were delighted to see us. Some of the silverwork was divine, and one of our gang treated herself to a beautiful silver ring. Nothing like a pressie to oneself from abroad.

And then it was on to the village of Vavla, a sweet little village in the foothills of the Troodos Mountains. George and Donna Marie run a small guest house here called 'Our House'. It's the sweetest little haven - and George and Donna Marie are the sweetest people.

George is full of devilment. He left his home village of Vavla in 1952 and went to seek his fortune in New York where he opened a diner. Donna Marie, a student, and a former Miss Long Island, came in looking for a job and the rest, as they say, is history. George remained in New York for 60 years and then returned to Vavla and he and Donna opened 'Our House'. Comprising three wonderfully converted ensuite bedrooms around the courtyard, including the room George was 'made' in, it's an oasis of tranquillity.

Donna Marie's cooking is amazing. A selection of dishes, including wild asparagus with egg and tomato, bacon baked with pineapple and honey and mustard, chicken with lemon and oregano, carrots cooked with musphilia marmalade, brandy and brown sugar and the most divine warm bread. All cooked by Donna Marie and nearly everything grown by her. She even made the tablecloth on our table! Some woman.

Bee-keeping outfits are a crime of fashion. We visited Ecophysis, near Vavla, to become 'beekeepers for a day'. Run by Georgia, who is passionate about conserving the natural environment, it was an experience of a lifetime. Fully kitted out and protected, we watched as she showed us the drones and the queen while the bees that were not getting any attention buzzed around our heads, unable to touch us. Another great family day out with a difference.

Wine making is a significant contributor to the economy in Cyprus and it's thought that Cypriots have been making wine for 6,000 years. There are seven wine routes in Cyprus and I'm always delighted to be asked for my opinion when it comes to alcohol of any sort so we found ourselves taking part in a wine tasting at Dafermou Winery on wine route number seven. Yannis and Alexia from the winery provided us with a selection of their very finest.

CyHerbia Botanical Park is just over a half an hour's drive from Larnaca and is a fabulous day out for kids and adults alike. With nine different herb gardens, a Lavender Labyrinth, a woodland walk and a hedge maze, it's great fun. There's a lovely tea room with a vast menu and a shop with many of their own homemade produce. Bridget from Belfast was delighted to hear Irish accents. She helps out there whenever she visits her daughter who is married to a Cypriot.

And then it was on to Ayia Napa for the remainder of our time in Cyprus, and the beautiful Nissi Beach Hotel. As its name suggests it's right on the beach - a beautiful private white sandy beach. The hotel owner started a sand dunes restoration project in 2006 and the dunes behind the beach are now home to many endemic plants. Plant seeds are collected and planted in November and the seedlings are replanted in the dunes in March.

Ayia Napa has a reputation for being a young person's paradise. In fact less than 10pc of visitors are under 25. It's a paradise for everyone.

We had lunch at Vassos tavern in the beautiful harbour. There's nothing nicer than sitting in the sunshine at the waters' edge sipping wine and eating food to die for. Vassos was a local fisherman who decided to open a small tavern in 1962. The tavern has a fish meze that goes on for ever. Calamari, prawns, mussels, sardines, octopus, sea bream, sea bass to name but a few appeared with tempura and without, and just when I thought there couldn't be more, another plate would appear. Divine.

With all that I had eaten in my few days in Cyprus it didn't seem fair to ask any donkey to carry my vast bulk, but that's what I did - one unfortunate resident at Achna donkey farm, the unsuspecting Marinos, being subjected to my large derriere. It's all a bit undignified if you're old and unfit like me. Getting on by means of a chair is OK but getting off I had to throw myself at the mercy of one of the very handsome helpers. I will never be a donkey whisperer. We were instructed not to shout at them and to gently exhort them by saying 'sho' which means stop and 'elella' which means go. I continued to scream 'Jesus' and 'stop' neither of which Marinos understood. It was great fun and I have the embarrassing photos of me trying to dismount to prove it.

There's plenty to see in Ayia Napa. Enclosed by a high wall is the Venetian Monastery. Established around 1500, it was partially built underground and cut into the rock. The sycamore tree in front of the monastery is thought to be 600 years old. The Thalassa Museum is well worth a trip. It's dedicated to the sea, and the highlight for me was the replica of Kyrenia, a ship that sank off the coast of Kyrenia in the time of Alexander the Great.

Cyprus has something for everyone. Whether its lazing around on a beach, playing golf, visiting historical and archaeological sites or just eating all day. If none of those float your boat you can go hiking, trekking on nature trails or as Cyprus is famous as a wedding venue, maybe you could get married.

I don't think I'll be getting married again, but like Lazarus I might try to return for a second life here.

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