Walking the Cyprus E4 (Part I)
AFTER FILLING in my name and place of employment, the young policeman behind the desk looked at me quizzically, apparently confounded by the next piece of information requested on the incident form. “And you were doing this why?” he said finally. “Hobby?”
The perplexity couched in his question had been more bluntly expressed that same morning by an elderly monk at Kykkos monastery after my cousin Christos had explained the two of us were on a five-day trek from a village in the Troodos mountains to the Akamas peninsula: “And why, my son?”
Most generalizations about nations or peoples are founded more upon prejudice and ignorance than fact, but one can make one irrefutable assertion about Cypriots: they do not trek. The only creature on the island that traverses distances with a load on its back is the donkey, and even that beast of burden has become a rarity. Of course Cypriots have never been much for walking. In his account of his 600-mile trek through Cyprus in the spring and summer of 1972 Colin Thubron writes:
“In eastern Mediterranean lands nobody goes on foot unless he must. To walk out of pleasure or curiosity is unimaginable. A man walks only because he is poor. The fishermen watched me, puzzled, and a shepherd on an inland ridge turned among his flock to shade his eyes. There was no hostility, and no understanding.”
There may be fewer shepherds and more Mercedes on the island since then, but Cypriot aversion towards walking has remained as unswerving as the Cyprus problem. Why walk for five days what you can drive in five hours, including coffee breaks and a taverna lunch?
On the morning of Monday, April 3 my cousin and I drove to the mountain village of Kaminaria, and with the permission of the village priest who was clutching a black iron key as long as his upper arm, abandoned our car in the church parking lot and set off on a trail winding up past the church.
After an initial few brutal kilometers of steep uphill the trail leveled off and then dipped into the Platys river valley past some vineyards the Kaminaria priest owned. While resting at a picnic site by the Pyknopytia brook we met some of the foresters who had marked out the trail—the European long distance path E4.
In their tendency to shirk walking, Cypriots may be more Middle Eastern than European; but the government nonetheless decided to include Cyprus in the European long distance path (the trail starts in Gibraltar and crosses Europe) by establishing a 539 km E4 trail that traverses the central and southern parts of the island. There were no illusions about who would be hiking it; the Forestry Department’s main partner in creating the trail was the Cyprus Tourism Organisation.
“So it must be only foreigners who hike the trail,” I said to one of the foresters as he offered me an apple wedge.
“Oh no, we saw four or five Cypriots walking by here,” he said. I asked him when. “Last June.”
We soon came to a sign saying there were 9km left to Kykkos monastery, our day’s destination. The heaviness of our packs and our unpreparedness (me without hiking boots, Christos without a hip strap on his pack) had taxed our increasingly sore bodies and the single-digit number brought new vigor into our stride. But our jocularity quickly subsided into morose silence once it became apparent the entire way would be a steep uphill.
Roughly halfway between the monastery and us was Myllikouri, a 1200m high horseshoe-shaped village known for rose water production. After a brief exchange with a local it was clear that our lunchtime hopes for a taverna were a mirage. Only a coffee shop was open. Instead we shed our footwear and elevated our sore feet at a shaded picnic table overlooking the valley at the mouth of the village.
A man soon approached us as we were gnawing at a loaf of bread along with some cucumbers and a hard cheese called Kefalotyri. The man declined an invitation to join us in our meager lunch but did sit at the wooden bench table beside ours.
“We were hoping to find a taverna here but we were told there’s nothing open now,” my cousin told the man, whom we soon found out was the mukhtar, the community leader. “So instead this is lunch.”
“The villages are dying,” the mukhtar said matter-of-factly. “We’re all pensioners here.” I asked him when the decline began. “Ten or fifteen years ago. The young men leave for the army and don’t return so the fathers take their daughters away. What else are they going to do, hump ‘em themselves?”
Not a vehicle passed us as we trudged the last five winding kilometers along a paved uphill to Kykkos monastery. At around five we came in view of the slogan “Makarios is alive” – painted on the side of the mountain upon which Makarios’ tomb rests – and soon after arrived at Kykkos, the gilded seat of power and wealth in the Cyprus church.
After a few inquiries and some rigmarole, we managed to score a guest room. An older monk outside the office had tried to redirect us elsewhere when we asked for the key, presumably because guestrooms were not his monastic duty, prompting a younger monk nearby to chastise him in ancient Greek about responsibility and irresponsibility while ushering us into the office.
The monk, who later said he was 30, seemed eager for conversation. “It is hard to be a monk anywhere, but here at Kykkos it is even more challenging. With so many tourists, you lack the peace and isolation the monastic path requires. Nor do they help in the struggle against lust.” It was a subject he returned to several times. The monk invited us for lentil soup, so after dropping off our packs in a spacious guestroom that could have passed in a budget hotel had it been furnished with a television, we returned to the monastery.
The lentil soup turned out to be an ample feast, accompanied as it was by fresh bread, tomatoes, garlic chives, cucumbers, hot peppers, olives and halvah slabs. Christos and I had only eaten peanuts and sunflower seeds since breakfast so we grubbed in silence as he lectured on ‘Anglo-American-Zionist’ involvement in Cyprus, on his vision of a Greater Byzantium in the Mediterranean, and of course on the carnal challenges a Kykkos monk faces.
Another monk came in briefly and seemed about to sit with us but our host shooed him out of the room with a furtive but violent expression. The young monk had been educated in Greece at a theological seminary and had a facility with the ancient ecclesiastical tongue, so it seemed some of the older monks held him in awe, thereby enabling him to get away with more authoritarianism than his years would have otherwise allowed him.
As is true of many young men who hold stations considered by society to be respectable and lofty, he took himself very seriously. Not only did he have a habit of raising a forefinger when he disagreed with you, which was frequent enough, and of didactic turns of phrases (“Let me tell you one thing”) but he also spoke in painstakingly precise grammar, which he would pepper with Ancient Greek proverbs as if to impart extra weight and sagely solemnity to his every statement.
But I was grateful refueling on the cornucopia set before me. I only interrupted his pontifications to thank him for the meal while ladling myself another bowl of soup. “Don’t thank me. Thank the Virgin Mary,” he replied in proper saintly fashion.
We abandoned our plates in the kitchen to a large woman in apron who was busy spraying down dishes amidst rising mists of diabolical steam, as if relegated by the monks to this infernal task for some misdeed of hers, perhaps for being born a woman. Our dinner host then gathered his black robes about him and motioned us to follow him. At the main monastery entrance we wished him good night.
The monk raised a forefinger. “No, not good night, good paradise.” We stood there, dumb with exhaustion, as he expounded upon why monks wish each other good paradise.
“So is that what the monks say to each other here—Good Paradise?” Christos finally asked.
Our gregarious host fell into an uncharacteristic silence. “Yes,” he said finally, although lacking his former conviction. So we wished him Good Paradise and shambled off for sleep.
After scarfing down an overpriced English breakfast at the cafeteria by the monastery, we set off under overcast skies to make the 26km hike to the Stavros Tis Psokas forest station, a 9-12 hour hike according to the sign. It was 10am, a late start. But Christos proposed cunningly that we ask any driver heading for Stavros Tis Psokas to transport our packs and drop them off for us there. I approved. My unpadded hip strap was cutting into my side and blisters were forming on the soles of my feet despite efforts to thwart them with moleskin. There is nothing pleasant about walking under a heavy weight; Atlas bears the globe on his shoulders as punishment, not recreation.
But the paved path soon developed into a dirt road and then into a rutted rocky path that snaked along the steep mountainsides of the uninhabited Paphos Forest. Only someone with a pickup or jeep would dare navigate it. Our packs were no doubt ours for the day, but my cousin would not relinquish hope, that carrot-stick of the desperate. Every stirring in the forest or buzz of an airplane overhead became a reason to pause and perk ears in hope that some fool on route to the forest station had decided to impress his girlfriend with his manly love of wilderness by driving her through the boondocks.
To our surprise a vehicle did eventually appear—a forestry department pickup—but coming from the opposite direction.
“Are you going back by any chance?” Christos asked the foresters, the carrot now dangling tantalizingly close to his mind’s eye. No, they were not. Their expressions clouded over with doubt when we said we were heading to Stavros Tis Psokas.
“That’s far, real far. You’ve got to go all the way down to the stream, and then all the way up again and then…”
There was nothing to do for us but keep walking. Below us a moufflon—a wild sheep—bounded off down a mountainside splashed white and golden in spring bloom. It was early afternoon, but we were in no hurry. Steep as the mountainside was, the path frequently widened to grant enough space for an unobtrusive tent. We paused under a grove of pines and heated ourselves some water for instant coffee, which we nursed contentedly in the shade of the pines, leaning against their trunks.
The coffee helped boost our pace of descent. A few hours later we had crossed the brook over a wooden bridge and were climbing towards Cedar Valley. We came upon a heartening sign: ‘Stavros Tis Psokas 10km’. Almost in the single-digits! But the memory of yesterday’s uphill grind tempered our enthusiasm, so we maintained a degree of humility and trudged on upwards without self-applause.
It began to sprinkle. For some time now I had sensed new hotspots on the undersides of the leftmost two toes on my left foot but the moleskin was in the depths of Christos’ pack and I had forgotten to ask for it during our coffee break when he emptied his pack to retrieve the buried camp stove. Now it was also starting to rain, which made stopping less desirable, so I disregarded the hotspots, a move which, as I suspected, I would later regret.
Until this point, the E4 had been well posted. But as the sprinkling picked up we encountered a perplexing trio of signs, with the E4 now pointing in three different directions. One metal E4 sign pointed as expected down the path we came from. Another E4 sign that was large as a placard and additionally said “Panagia 10 km,” indicated we should continue in the direction we were walking. And a final E4 sign directed us up a narrower trail that branched off to the right in a steep uphill; this sidetrail was also postmarked with a red ‘Do Not Enter’ sign.
I remembered that the last sign, which had stated that Stavros Tis Psokas was 10km away, had also listed Panagia as around 15km away. This suggested Panagia was five kilometers beyond our destination of Stavros Tis Psokas, which meant we had only five kilometers left. So agreeable was my kindergarten calculation that I swallowed it without bothering to even consult the right map. I did glance at the Western Troodos Area map in my pocket, but the western boundary of the map cut off before Stavros or Panagia. The Paphos map was in my rucksack. Had I fished it out I would have seen that not only are Panagia and Stavros tens of kilometers apart but the E4 does not pass even remotely close to Panagia.
Storm clouds were developing. We agreed it was most logical to stay on the wider path that had so far characterized the E4. In the worst scenario, we would arrive in Panagia in 10km, surely in the vicinity of the E4. So raindrops pattering on our hoods we continued in the direction the big ‘E4 Panagia’ sign pointed us.
The young pine and cedar along the trail were too small to provide adequate shelter from the rain, which had by now developed into steady showers, so we slogged on without stopping. Christos was the first to break our sodden silence: “Have you noticed we haven’t passed any E4 signs?” It was true. But the other E4 sidetrail was now several kilometers behind us.
My jacket was not waterproof so I had by now drenched through. My khakis were stuck to my legs and there was a mudpie caked under each of my waterlogged sneakers, rendering them heavy as hiking boots but without the support. An entourage of dirt bikers raced by us, which I later learned were participating in a weeklong GPS treasure hunt around the island.
It was not until the path came to a T at a dirt road that we realized how naïve we were to expect trail signs in Cyprus to reflect distances any more accurately than do road signs, whose distances often impossibly increase the farther you drive towards your destination. We had hiked three or four kilometres since the last E4 sign, which had read that Panagia was 10km away. Now we stood numbly in front of a green sign that read: Panagia 11km.
In a vehicle we might have shrugged off the mistake as another humorous and even charming instance of Cypriot disregard for Anglo-Saxon fastidiousness. But we were on foot, soaked, fatigued and, with dusk just hours away, astray in the Paphos Forest on a desolate forest road, groaning under rucksacks whose contents were drenched because we had not bothered pack them in black plastic bags.
Near the sign was a rusted emergency Forest Service phone that may as well have been in an antique shop. The directions read that you had to wind the crank three times before raising the receiver. While Christos was trying to place the call a dirt biker rounded the corner towards us. I flagged him down and asked if he knew where the various roads led. But he was as lost as us and as eager to get to shelter. It was an absurd sight: Christos cranking away on the phone like he was placing a call in the early 1900s and me asking directions of a Brit on a dirt bike who had only arrived in Cyprus two days ago. Finally the biker and I gave up trying to establish where we were located on his ultra-detailed map. We wished each other luck and I enviously watched him speed off.
Christos slammed the receiver down and retrieved his cell phone from a pocket. I had been opposed from the start to his bringing a cell on the hike but he was married with two sons and so familial duty provided him with the needed justification. But because he had been abusing his privileges with non-emergency calls, I had grumbled several times since the start of our hike.
“You see why it was a good idea for me to bring this?” he said, grinning triumphantly. But once he brought the mobile up to his face he cursed. For the first time on the trip there was no reception.
As usual there was nothing for us to do but keep walking down the dirt road towards Panagia, although we both dreaded chancing upon another Sisyphusean sign that would read something like ‘Panagia 12km.’ Our pace had fallen to a gritty stagger. Our packs, which were soaked through, seemed to have doubled in weight. It was as if we had removed our clothes and sleeping bags from a washing machine and stuffed them in our packs without bothering with the drying.
We had only hiked three kilometers or so when we came to a curve in the road where two side roads branched off, both marked with red ‘Do Not Enter’ signs. There were no other signs. It made sense we should just stay on the main dirt road, but after our last misadventure with the postings, Christos doubted this logical choice. Dusk was a little over an hour away. He checked his mobile. There was reception.
We dropped our packs and I fell back against a rock ledge while Christos dialed. I was so soaked it was irrelevant whether I was under shelter or not.
“The police are coming,” Christos said jubilantly, after hanging up a few minutes later. “Now that’s what I call innovation. Maybe they’ll even have a jail cell to lock us up in for the night!”
I did not protest. At that moment the prospect of being locked into a dry room with beds seemed a luxury. Never before had I ever wanted to be in jail so badly. Christos had told them we would keep walking, but with the knowledge a vehicle was on its way our bodies resigned. We were moving like stooped old men. My pack seemed grotesquely heavy, but with the cold settling upon us, we could not afford to stop.
We toiled through the muddy road for 45 minutes. As the rain tapered to a drizzle, mist-haloed mountains unfolded themselves in seemingly unending ranges, reminding me more of the Chiapan jungles of Mexico than a Mediterranean forest. It was among the most awesome vistas I have encountered in Cyprus, but I was too miserable with cold to enjoy it.
Christos called the police station again. I heard him again explain where we were, as if they had no idea who he was. “No, we don’t have a car,” I heard him say with exasperation. “We’re walking…. Yes, on foot! Why? Because we’re on a trek!”
After several more phone calls, in which he reiterated that we were walking, it was clear we could not rely on the police to find us. The policeman allegedly on his way not only decided not to enter the woods, but also felt there was no need to call to inform us of his change of mind.
It was dusk and the cold by now had pierced us to the core. It took me a minute of repeated and focused efforts just to unbutton my jeans to urinate. Buttoning up again afterwards proved impossible. I had to content myself with succeeding in at least zipping up my fly.
We ditched our excruciating packs on the side of the trail and decided to tramp for Panagia. But as the dark closed in, and as every turn on the unmarked road only seemed to reveal more looming shadowy mountains, Christos began to fear we were only trekking deeper into the forest.
“Let’s go back and pitch our tents,” he suggested. I disagreed, convinced that the contents of our packs were drenched and that camping would be the surest way towards hypothermia. I estimated we had at most three hours of limping left before Panagia.
Christos’ cell phone battery was almost depleted. I ran ahead in the hope that a few more bends in the road might reveal the end of the mountain range. But there was only rock face after rock face.
When I returned, Christos was on the phone showering blessings on someone. “A forester is on his way,” he said after he hung up. It was not long after we had returned to our abandoned packs that we saw the headlights of a pickup round a distant bend.
It turned out that the police for some mysterious reason had been sitting for hours in a warm Landrover at the entrance to the woods, waiting where the paved road downgraded into the dirt road on which we were shivering several kilometers farther down in the forest.
After filling out our incidents at the Panagia police station – which regrettably lacked a jail cell – the police served us some tea and then dropped us off at the only hotel open at that hour: ‘The Dream.’ As we were in need of thawing, the hotel with its steaming shower actually lived up to its name, although at £38 for two beds it was, at least for hikers on a budget, an overpriced dream.
In Cyprus, as in most Mediterranean countries, you can find administrative bungling of the most spectacular form, and it was no surprise that the authorities made a mistake in posting the signs. But it remained a mystery how they had actually requested a sign to be manufactured that read ‘Panagia E4’ when the E4 passed nowhere near Panagia.
It was not until the next day while Christos and I were taking turns drying our clothes with the hairdryer of the proprietress’ daughter when the mystery revealed itself. I was flipping through the handsome glossy booklet of the E4 when I came upon one of the trail maps of the Troodos region. And there on the map of the Eastern foothills of the Troodos – the opposite end of the range from where we were – I saw that the dotted red line of the E4 passed by a little black dot labeled ‘Panagia.’
A number of churches, monasteries, nunneries and even sites like bridges in Cyprus are named after Panagia—one of the titles of Mary, mother of Jesus. As I flipped through the pages, I saw there were plenty of “Panagia” sites along the E4. It seemed that one of the trail makers, who apparently had no trail map on hand, mixed up one of these Panagia sites with the village of Pano Panagia, tens of mountainous kilometers south of the E4.
Of course, how they managed to unquestioningly post that schizophrenic trio of signs still remained an enigma, hinting at a curious logic beyond my comprehension. But that is part of the charm of Cyprus: anything is possible. A walk can impossibly blossom into an absurd odyssey. You can wake up in the morning at a monastery, hike through a flower-studded mountain range in a rainstorm, and end the day in a town called ‘Virgin Mary’ drinking tea amicably in a police station with the same policemen whom just two hours earlier you had been cursing to damnation.
- Walking the Cyprus E4 (Part III)
- Walking the Cyprus E4 (Part II)
- The Bishop
- Manning the Dead Zone (Part I)