Alice Roberts shares her memories traveling through Cyprus and meeting a local Francis.
Closer to Syria than Europe, the air of smoky Cyprus is sometimes powdered with dust from the deserts of North Africa, dispersing a serenity and indifference throughout the unusually pale blue sky. The countryside is mainly comprised of fawn coloured barren hills, and the houses are so white they hurt your eyes. On the beaches tanned bodies and the impassive faces of old men merge with the heat and bright umbrellas. All of this on its own can be very alienating – the way the vast dome of the sky and dust of the ground face each other like mirrored deserts is enough to make any newcomer uneasy. However, seen through the right eyes, Cyprus can blossom like a rose, revealing all of its gentleness and rather surreal charm.
We met Francis through a friend in Larnaca, and one of the first things he did was to give us a new way of seeing the island. He said that it was often viewed as feminine, a counterpoint to the masculine isle of Crete – the hills were smaller and rounder, the waves gentler and the Cypriots were known for being peaceful. He said he had watched the residents of his village own their small shops and grow old in the heat. Indeed, despite a rather intimidating façade, the only threatening thing about Cyprus seemed to be its rapid sunsets – which burst and disappear often in less than half an hour.
Francis was one of those people whose age is almost completely indeterminate, his skin was a ruddy brown and his hair was white, perfectly cut and always neatly smoothed down. He took us to three different parts of the island before disappearing on some other trip, undoubtedly to meet more glamorous people and lounge in more white deck chairs between the muttering and champagne and the stars. So, reader, if you are ever in Cyprus, here are the suggestions of Francis – an insider who has fully tapped into this strange Island and its secrets.
The day after meeting Francis, he insisted that we follow him to a sculpture park created by Giorgios, a retired stonemason. Giorgios used to specialise in making churches, and so had tons of white stone blocks at his disposal. Over the past twenty years he has been – in his own words -‘excavating faces’ each of which he sees in the initial block of stone, and he has now accumulated enough faces to surround his entire house and fill his large sandy garden. A statue of Atlas stands at the centre of his patio – looming over the garden. Rather uncannily when we arrived, Giorgios was sitting underneath Atlas with his hands woven together, as if surveying his kingdom of stone.
There is also a circle of underwater statues to the north of Ayia Napa. Although supposedly reserved for divers, it is easy enough for swimmers to approach. Filtered through the layers of blue sea the statues appeared particularly mystical, and as Francis told us, by midday they were swarming with tiny fish that caught the sun like glass beads. The surrounding cove was encircled by a wall of slightly jagged stone, adding to the feeling of being completely isolated from the outside world.
Lastly, Francis showed us around the small village of Lemesos where his parents had been born. The smell of jasmine and honeysuckle filled the streets, and along with the soft light of dusk and the pressure of the heat gave an impression of weightlessness, strangely similar to the feeling of swimming between the statues. After staying on the island for almost ten days and being aware of its gentleness, all sense of alienation had passed away. Cyprus as an island, seems to require more than anything, a suspension of disbelief – to surrender to the flow of its life and smoky air.
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