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Air-con vs. authenticity: Going rustic on a Cyprus village stay

By Simon Heptinstall, for CNN
December 20, 2013 -- Updated 1310 GMT (2110 HKT)
Tochni fails to resemble crowded beach resort.
Tochni fails to resemble crowded beach resort.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Agrotourism stays promise a slice of island life
  • Accommodation is simple but authentic
  • Activities include carousing in the local bar and learning craft skills from grumpy nuns

Editor's note: CNN's On the Road series brings you a greater insight into the customs and culture of Cyprus. CNN.com explores the places, the people and the passions unique to this eastern Mediterranean island.

(CNN) -- The other tourists were boarding air-conditioned coaches on their way to the island's legendary seaside resorts.

Not me.

Their gleaming buses pulled away from the airport forecourt to reveal a chap with a huge mustache waiting by a tatty taxi at the back of the car park.

This must be my own "transfer arrangement," I realized.

Most passengers on my flight at Larnaca Airport were on classic package deals to hotels and apartments in Limassol or Ayia Napa.

I was heading, however, for a simple village house in the mountains for what had been advertised as "a taste of the real Cyprus."

The others had been met by prim tour reps armed with clipboards.

I was met by Stavros, who cleverly used his only word of English to direct me into the car while simultaneously stubbing out his mangled roll-up.

"Pleeeese ..." he grinned.

"Pleeese," he said again, setting off immediately at startling speed.

Your concierge, masquerading as village grandmother.
Your concierge, masquerading as village grandmother.

Dust clouds and potholes

After 45 minutes punctuated by the occasional "please," Stavros's car bumped along a potholed track into the village of Tochni.

The dust cloud settled and I looked around.

Forget those whitewashed holiday "villages" that are more like tourist housing estates; Tochni is a small community of stone farmhouses around an ancient church on the way to nowhere.

There's a shop, three taverns, an overgrown vegetable patch and a row of pylons.

The distant view of the sea is interrupted by a cement factory.

I'd asked for it.

I was sampling Cyprus's agrotourism scheme -- a system designed to encourage tourists to stay in dozens of villages across the island without spoiling the very places they've come to see.

Small private companies run each of the independent village schemes, and the government coordinates it all.

READ: 10 things that make Cyprus unique

Accommodation\'s not \
Accommodation's not "village-style" but actual village.

Village life

"Pleeeeeese," said Stavros, gesturing me towards my apartment.

It turned out that he lived next door.

The artist who'd painted the pictures on my bedroom wall lived opposite, the farmer who grew the bag of oranges I bought at the shop lived a few doors away and the organizer of the whole Tochni village agrotourism scheme lived just up the hill.

Welcome to village life, Cypriot style.

Tochni entrepreneur Sofronios Potamitis was a pioneer in the island's agrotourism concept.

In the past 20 years, he's converted farm buildings in several nearby villages and now rents out scores of self-catering apartments.

There's nothing pretentious or boutique about them. They look like traditional farmhouses and are simply finished with exposed limestone, terracotta tiles and pastel-painted walls.

Inside there's rustic wooden furniture and local art.

Bed and breakfast ... if you learn the Greek word for \
Bed and breakfast ... if you learn the Greek word for "breakfast."

Low impact

Compared with the concrete hotels along the coast, these humble but attractive places epitomize low-impact tourism.

Tourist numbers are limited to a maximum of 10% of the village population.

Most importantly for visitors, Tochni villagers haven't developed the grab-a-quick-buck style of the main Cypriot resorts.

Refreshingly, they still seem to treat tourists like personal visitors.

Old ladies in black shawls nod and say "hello" (probably the extent of their English), families show you into their homes and everyone wants to chat and find out where you're from.

Sofronios invited me for a traditional meze meal at a local bar.

It involved 12 different courses ranging from wild asparagus to lamb kebabs, each apparently produced by someone's brother-in-law, neighbor or goddaughter.

Even the rough but good local wine came from the next village.

MORE: Is this the world's oldest wine?

Evening entertainment: chair-top dancing.
Evening entertainment: chair-top dancing.

Wine and sausage

"He's married to my friend," said Sofronios between mouthfuls of wine-marinated sausage.

The enormously rotund bar owner wanted to know all about me.

To ease this exchange he produced a liter of brandy, while chewing raw artichokes.

"These are good for toilet, sex and iron," he boomed.

An old man next to him swigged grappa he kept in a petrol canister under the table and remained silent.

A chirpy villager called Andreas offered to take us olive picking the next day "just for fun."

After several lessons in banging glasses together to make the most resounding clink, someone turned up the stereo and everyone started clapping.

A farmer who looked like Stalin jumped up and performed an extraordinary dance on a flimsy chair, which ended with him almost breaking his ankle to a huge round of cheers.

Stavros gave me a lift "home" and we parted like old friends.

No, not more wine! A possible daytime activity.
No, not more wine! A possible daytime activity.

Authentically Cypriot

Some visitors simply use these village houses as cheap places to stay, taking a daily 10-minute drive down to the nearest beach.

But they miss the point.

It's a misleading cliché to say you become part of village life -- half the villagers don't even speak English.

But it's easy to arrange something more authentically Cypriot than occupying a sun-bed for a week.

One morning I followed Sofronios's map to St. Minas monastery nearby.

Upstairs a grumpy old nun explained how she was painting traditional Greek Orthodox figures with 22-carat gold paint, while downstairs I sat on a bench chatting with a gaggle of old women making beeswax candles.

Those sorts of activities are free, of course, but for a few dollars extra village guests can take traditional cooking lessons, go on boat trips with local fishermen or have a family farmhouse dinner.

READ: Ancient struggles on the island of Aphrodite

Iconic: traditional painting with 22-carat paint.
Iconic: traditional painting with 22-carat paint.

Building and eating

The next day I walked through fields of yellow flowering mustard, lavender bushes and orange trees to Choirokoitia archaeological site.

The remains of the houses in this prehistoric village date back an incredible 9,000 years.

Sofronios later boasted that his restored village houses would last that long, too.

He said: "When a Cypriot builds a house he believes he will live forever.

"But you may have noticed, when he sits down to dinner he believes it's the last chance to eat in his life."

Sofronios Potamitis runs Cyprus Villages (+357 24 332998), which organizes stays in Tochni and nearby.

Cyprus Agrotourism (+357 22 340071) coordinates all the agrotourist projects on the island. Prices start at around $35 per person, per night, for accommodation only.

CNN's On the Road series often carries sponsorship originating from the countries we profile. However CNN retains full editorial control over all of its reports. Read the policy

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