By organising bicommunal camping trips in the great outdoors for the under-35s, Kyriacos Stoupas seeks to go back to basics: the importance of sharing the island’s beauty and heritage
By Agnieszka Rakoczy
That Sunday I woke up in a small tent. My wake-up call, drops of water running down my face. Not tears. Not raindrops. Condensation kept falling on my head. Not very lyrical. No sign of Paul Newman on his Butch Cassidy bicycle anywhere. Just startled me and a dawn chorus of sleepy voiced people.
My fellow travellers, stirring, emerging in a crawl from nearby tents, stretching and yawning then joined the huddle round a small fire that had been lit in one of the barbecue boxes.
“Panayamou,” one Greek Cypriot girl cried out. “It is cold. Look at these tents. They are covered in frost.”
It was mid-March and here we were camping in the foothills of the Troodos mountains. Sixty people, and not just from Cyprus, south and north of the divide. Slovakia, Italy, Spain, Greece, Ireland, Netherlands, Serbia and Poland were also represented among the shivering firesiders.
We had literally pitched up for the night on a small plateau on the outskirts of the abandoned village of Trozena set against a dramatic backdrop of rugged mountains. In front of us, one of the most beautiful of the island’s green valleys stretched beyond imagination.
We started boiling water for our tea and coffee, rooting through the boxes of food prepared by the trip organisers, bread, cheese, ham and tomatoes.
A group of Turkish Cypriots cracked eggs into a pan and started frying them. An Italian architect, as befit her profession, was more interested in taking pictures of the old village church.
There was an orderly if slightly impatient queue waiting to use the single-seater public toilet nearby. Some campers were already packing.
It was a bright 7am and we were preparing for another full day on our unconventional bus ride, a magical mystery tour of the island’s hidden and abandoned villages.
The previous day, we had visited Fikardou, Apliki and Vikla. Now we were setting out for Souskiou, Theletra, and Evretou.
“Make sure the place is 100 per cent clean before we leave,” urged Kyriacos Stoupas, the main organiser of our trip. He is the inspiration behind “See Why”, the small Cypriot NGO he founded in 2013. “The people who welcomed us here were very good to us to let us camp like this.”
He was referring to Zoe and her friends, strong and purposeful women who arrived the previous evening in a large 4×4 to greet us and tell us about their beloved, adopted village.
Zoe gave us a quick tour of Trozena, showing us the stone house she and her Australian partner have been happily restoring. They dream of bringing life to the village again, she said.
“If you have any good ideas, anything interesting you would like to organise in this area, please let us know,” she added.
According to documents found by Stoupas in the library of the Cyprus Tourism Organisation, Trozena was abandoned by its Greek Cypriot residents in the 1930s in a move to the neighbouring, mostly Turkish Cypriot village of Gerovasa. In the intra-communal troubles of the 1960s, the Turkish Cypriots left Gerovasa for Malia. By 1992, the last of the Greek Cypriots had also moved on, in search of a more amenable and accessible place to live in.
Trozena and Gerovasa are just two of a long list of deserted Cypriot villages.
Fikardou, an earlier stop on our tour, at 900 metres above sea level, is one of the highest villages on the island. A mere 40 km from Nicosia in the Pitsalia region of the Troodos mountains, the picturesque village is a world heritage site. Beautifully restored and lovingly maintained, it has fewer than a dozen residents. The village, often snowed-in during winter, enjoys summer temperatures some 10 degrees cooler than the capital.
“I have looked into the old church books and found out that in the past, winters in Fikardou were so harsh children born in November on average would not make it through the winter,” says Fikardou’s mukhtar Sophocles Markides.
“On the other hand, anybody who managed to pass the age of 13, would live to almost a 100.”
Not far from Fikardou lies the village of Apliki, notable for its propensity for changing location while retaining its identity. Down the ages, the villagers of Apliki have moved at least a dozen times, mostly driven by the need to get away from a recurring epidemic of the plague that haunted the population and drove them from site to site.
Standing next to its ancient church, Andreas Sikopetritis, Apliki’s mukhtar tells us the story of two young girls who became sick in one of the older settlements and were left behind by the villagers, never to be seen again.
In the Paphos region, villages such as Souskiou and Evretou were inhabited by Turkish Cypriots until they were forced to abandon them by the troubled events of the 1960s or in 1974.
Close by, the village of Theletra had to be abandoned because mudslides and erosion caused by heavy rainfalls swept down on the mountain-side settlement in the 1960s making it uninhabitable.
“I have done a lot of research before choosing which villages we would visit,” said 30-year-old Stoupas.
“It took me about a month to decide on the route, contacting all the mukhtars, preparing all the tents, sleeping bags, and cooking equipment.”
Stoupas is an avid “outdoorist”, who loves the island’s landscape and environment and wants to share his passion and knowledge with like-minded others.
“Ideally I would like to organise these kind of trips on a monthly basis, each time choosing a different theme. In 2016 we did two. One was an exploration of the Cypriot coastline. The other climbed away high above the sea as we explored the island’s best vistas and viewpoints. Next on the list, hopefully, is going underground – exploring some of the island’s caves!”
Stoupas believes his approach – exploring, learning about, sharing the island’s beauty and heritage – is one way to bring people from both sides together to share what is there, what they have in common and what it is that makes their island home unique.
“If we really want a long-lasting solution on this island, we need to start from the very basics,” he said, explaining why he created his NGO.
“People are not prepared for solution. Only a small percentage of the population on both sides meets regularly. Others are not interested in crossing the line, not interested in speaking to each other. Because of this, a solution, even if they do achieve it, will be difficult to sustain. Much more needs to be done to build trust.”
Stoupas advertises his trips on Facebook and aims them at young Cypriots between ages 18 and 35 on both sides. He is also happy to accept applications from other nationalities and other age groups (just like me).
He tries to keep his fees to minimum. The abandoned villages trip for example cost him around 50 euros per person but he charged 20 because of additional funding provided by the National State Agency of Cyprus and by the Cyprus Youth Council.
These subsidies are key to encouraging the younger set, many of them strapped-for-cash students or under-employed, to sign up for these know-your-island, know-yourselves activities. This is why he is always on the look-out for additional donors, local and international.
He is the first to admit that his projects are long-term but insists they are important for the future of the island.
“I know, fully implementing my kind of approach to a lasting solution will take time but the point is people have to start meeting if they are to interact with each other in normal circumstances. These trips I organise – they are like first steps. At the outset, first-timers tend to keep more to themselves but if/when they return for further trips, they form linkages and become closer,” he said.
“I suppose it’s a bit like having a new girlfriend – after the first date I am not going to immediately move in with her but if I like her gradually the relationship will develop.”
In the end, it’s as simple or as complicated as that.