As the sliding doors of the airport opened, the steamy hot air hit me. The warm sun kissed my skin like a long lost friend. I had promised myself that I would try and visit a few countries I’d never been to before, rather than sticking to France, Italy and USA… and so I arrive in Cyprus. Larnaca airport to be exact. Our cocky cab driver was standing there, cigarette hanging from his lips… “Miss Ghayour?.. Ok, we go!” The 30 minute drive to the hotel was a journey filled with stories from the cab driver about his life, past trips to London and his Winter home in St Petersburg, Russia. Character and charm oozed from this new and strange place, but I had a good feeling about it and was excited to experience new things and new people.
This part of Cyprus is stark and somewhat bare by comparison to my usual surroundings. But its rugged beauty struck me instantly, like a bolt of lighting. Adjacent to the stretch of motorway, I saw pockets of beauty in the shape of arid hillsides and valleys, dotted with olive trees and the occasional farmhouse. Such humble beauty and all I could think is how lucky are the people who lived there. Nothing fancy, nothing glamorous, just a simple rustic landscape, lined with Cypress trees and sporadic clusters of vibrant Bougainvillea bushes that seemed to dance like butterflies in the sunlight.
We arrived at our beachside hotel in Limassol and were quick to explore it from top to toe. Sushi Restaurant, Tuscan Restaurant and several Cypriot restaurants with a lovely bar also. Good enough for me… But I couldn’t wait to discover the REAL Cyprus. All that lamb and all those yummy Mezze, I kept thinking. I wanted the whole shebang! The real Greek Cypriot experience. I have this geeky thing when I go on holiday, where I talk to literally every single local I can possibly engage in conversation from Taxi drivers, to shop assistants… anyone and everyone I feel could give me the insider knowledge on where to go and what to eat. My pet hate is asking the hotel for a restaurant recommendation, because they are all programmed to refer you to the same old places that they send everyone else, because they see you as a tourist. For example, as Brits, they cluster us into one big group of “Fish and Chip” eating morons, because a lot of Brits travel oversees and expect to be served chips with everything! It’s embarrassing, but my fellow countrymen don’t seem to be perturbed by this stereotype and in fact do very little to dispel it!
After 4 nights of eating at restaurants which I personally felt were just mediocre, I had given up any hope of finding a true Cypriot experience. But I pleaded with the guest relations desk for somewhere that she would eat out with her family. Somewhere where there were no tourists and I could find true Cypriot food… and so came “Forsos”.
The taxi spiralled up into the hills where the heat became less bearable and the air virtually sauna-like with its intensity. We pulled up in a small, virtually deserted, hilltop village, in front of a shack which the cab driver pointed to whilst murmuring “Forsos”. My friend and I looked at each other nervously and asked the cab driver for his number just in case we ended up stranded there. We walk in and there is a light on and a family of 8 people sitting around a table watching a big screen TV showing football (that’s soccer for you yanks). I explained that our hotel had made a reservation to which a young man responded “Ah, Sabrina?” and I nodded and smiled shyly, trying not to show my nervousness. The man got up from the table and walked us into a courtyard garden filled with olive trees and candle lit lanterns with beautiful grapevines dangling from the wooden beams underneath the star-lit sky. My friend and I breathed a sigh of relief as we were escorted to our table. The restaurant showed the beginnings of the kind of experience I had been searching for and although the restaurant was empty, I noticed that every single table around us had a reserved sign on it.
Having ordered just our drinks but nothing from a menu… food began to pour out of the kitchen at a rapid pace. The whole family were on the pay roll, whilst sweetly (if not somewhat suspiciously) serving us. It took them no time at all to realise how much we were enjoying the food, and they suddenly warmed to us and were killing us with kindness. A stream of endless dishes, mostly containing meat, which pandered to my heavily carnivorous appetite. Such wonderful specialities like scheftalia (delicious garlic and herb oval meatballs), souvlaki (mouthwateringly tender grilled pork), lamb chops, salads, pickles, olives, taramasalata, hummus, tahini and so much more that we had to beg them to stop sending food out!
Just 30 minutes into the culinary experience and suddenly the restaurant was descended upon by coach loads of Greeks. Large tables of 20+ people, who sat down and instantly burst into song. We were completely dumbfounded. From an empty restaurant literally several minutes prior, the place had turned into a Greek concert hall and it was simply wonderful. We loved every minute of it! The whole restaurant was singing. Even the other smaller tables joined in and we, like the tourists we are, could only smile like idiots, clap our hands and of course, take pictures.
The whole experience amounted to the best damn meal we’d had in Cyprus yet and the embodiment of the traditional experience I was craving. The most surprising element of the whole night was that the bill came up to 18 Euros per head which is about £15 ($30). I was so amazed at how cheap it was, I actually burst out laughing. I watched my friend panic as she tried to understand my reaction… But with all the food that was served, they could have easily charged double and we would not have batted an eyelid at it! In the past week we had paid up to £60 per head ($120) in one restaurant and that was for food that could not even remotely compare to Forsos. Needless to say, we left them a very generous tip and they were so incredibly grateful that the owner kindly called us a cab before thanking us personally and inviting us back another night. That’s what I call true hospitality, which is not only priceless, but also very hard to find these days.
The whole experience made me think about how tradition seems to be dying out in even the most tradition-upholding countries. I mean, our hotel was striving to be cool. As fabulous as it was, the Sushi bar was called “Shumi” which was a famous London Japanese restaurant in St James. The bar was called “The Blue Bar”, the name of a famous bar in the “Berkeley Hotel” in Knightsbridge and “Bacco” the Tuscan restaurant was uber-chic in design and despite all of them having outstanding food and stylish contemporary décor, deep down inside I was longing for something more authentic. Perhaps the rest of the world, the non-contemporary world, is now trying to catch up with the branded, stylised, glass-fronted, gilt-edged rest of us. If this is indeed the case, then how utterly depressing is the direction we are heading in? Why are we burying tradition in favour of modernity and new fangled state-of-the-art minimalistic nonsense? I’m all in favour of trying new things, but we should be making every effort to restore and preserve tradition and value it for the precious commodity that it has become.
And so folks, perhaps my trip didn’t go entirely as I had planned, culinarily speaking…. But whilst I didn’t have any bad experiences, I am certainly glad that my last meal was at a typical and traditional restaurant that offered modest yet abundant bounty. It made every morsel taste that little bit more special and made the journey home that little bit more sad. Overall, the sun, sea and wonderful scenery was definitely worth every hard-earned penny and a fantastic time was had by all. I will definitely hold fond memories of Limassol and plan to return again one day in the not too distant future. Until then, I’m back in rain-soaked London, with its consistent grey skies and lack of fresh air. It may be miserable, but unmistakeably… it’s home.