Text: Sotia Zeniou
Photography: Panagiotis Mina
We take the last turn, we rush up the hill and here we are! In Skarinou I am about to meet the “modern Lysistrati”, who managed to persuade the women of the countryside to join forces, exhibiting great talent and entrepreneurial zeal. Anna Kosma is the acting president of the Women’s Association of Rural Larnaka. A beautiful person, active, with tons of energy and knowledge around the island’s traditions. She is the optimal guide to help you tour through the small surrounding villages. She is expecting us at Tsimpi, the small store where one can find the products of the Association. Panayiotis, wasting no time, “sets” her in front of the camera lens. Meanwhile, I sneak into the adjacent courtyard. I could never resist an open door! “Magdalene's House”, is the name on the front sign. I am instantly surrounded by that warm “home sweet home” feeling... I would gladly choose this guest house. It is clean and well-groomed. I can already picture myself sitting with a book in my hands, enjoying my breakfast. No more time for fantasies, time is now our enemy!
Nature is incredible! It is as ifs he wants to invade through everywhere, through the windshield, the windows, through every crack… The almond trees are blooming, the meadows are evergreen, the sky drenched in sunlight. Nevertheless, March insists on showing his “teeth”, so we all result to wearing sweaters.
We meet with Kyriaki Constantinou in her workshop in Kato Dry. She is involved with painting and hagiography. Since she was a small kid, she used to paint her dreams in plaster, using the asphalt as her canvas. She just loves clouds. “I just like to observe them and come up with fairy tales with my granddaughter”. I'm surprised. This woman looks way too young to have grandchildren. She confides in me that she always wanted to study what she loved most, but “being ten siblings in total made this impossible”. She got married really young. She was waiting for her children to grow up, her grandchildren to go high school... and then she went after what she really wanted. She had lessons and finally managed to get deal with what “takes her places”. She knows that if she was located in an urban center, perhaps demand would be greater. However, she is satisfied because she has learned to appreciate every single thing. “I am grateful for every good morning greeting... I am able to gaze at the mountains, the sunset, cherish my loved ones”. Making her acquaintance is a lesson in life.
We follow the stone paved streets, filled with wonderful houses. When I look at the carved doors of 1926... 1932... curiosity overwhelms me. Which heart was beating behind the closed window? Which young fellow waiting night and day underneath the balcony? “Since you like these... I’ll take you to the Bee and Embroidery Museum”, says Anna. A mansion, within which real stories come to life, stories about embroiderers that chased their fortunes abroad, who became benefactors and built schools and churches, couples that stayed in love until the end. The mansion became a private museum and belonged to Elli Orthodoxou Kornioti’s grandparents. “It was painstakingly created, stitch by stitch. A lot of people made a living from the ‘Lefkaritika’, great fortunes were created, children were educated”, says the owner. We find ourselves standing in front of a very old photograph. “This is the first embroider, Alissavou of Hatziloukas, who became a trader out of necessity in 1880. She was a widow with five children who were fainting from hunger on their school desks. Their teacher urged her to go to Troodos and attempt to sell her embroidery. She made 30 pounds, which at the time was considered a whole fortune!”.
She talks about the great benefactor of the village, the multimillionaire Argyros Anastasis, later know as Sir Reo Stakis, who had the “audacity” to pass through the Buckingham Gates and ask the Queen if she would be interested in buying embroidery. The open window provides an unobstructed view of the sea. “From this spot, the grandmother was observing the ships go by and shed tears for her embroiderer, who traveled far away to sell their merchandise. Although initially, when he was introduced to her as a matchmaking attempt, she did not care for him! She was very smart, independent... She supported her family financially through her art. But in time they grew to love each other a lot! Well into the older part of their lives, they always found a way to hold each other’s hand”. When Mrs Elli starts telling her story, you hope she never stops.
At “Marikou pou ta Lefkara”, we stop for the much needed dose of caffeine. It is the Youth Center of the village, which got a new breath of life in the capable hands of young Ioanna. A dynamic girl with a sparkle in her eyes. I ask her about the name of the coffee shop. “It is rumored that Marikou was a bold business woman of the 1900’s, who boarded ships and traveled to Egypt amongst other places, in order to trade”. I can hear some groups of friends sitting next to us calling her “Marikou”. “They have eliminated the name Ioanna”, she mentions with a smile on her face. I can understand why!
We make our way uphill to pay our respects to the only village shop that resists the invasion of Chinese imitations and is under the auspices of the EU. Mihalis Rouvis, embroidery designer, persists on the authenticity of handmade products. He is the man who designed and delivered the “Lefkaritiko”, a gift from the community, to the Cathedral of Milan in 1986. “They bring it out once a year, on the altar, on the 3rd Sunday of October”. Demosthenes, his son, was able to get a glimpse of it when he was in the Duomo, after presenting evidence of his identity. “Unfortunately, it is an art that is dying”, Mr Rouvis mentions, as he shows us the various designs: Mosaic, Catacombs, Byzantine, River, Leonardo da Vinci (it is rumored that he had visited the village)... “We have many orders remaining in the book, but there are no capable hands left” his wife, Mrs Stavroula, tells us, as she is working on a piece of embroidery. “We are the last generation”.
In Lefkara, we will find the “last of the Mohicans”, amongst the old silversmiths, who still make the traditional “kapnistomerecha”. You can hear the hammer sounds from a distance, as it lands on the precious metal. His unique figure appears through the open window, wearing a beret and sporting a curled mustache. Mihalakis Christou, known as the “Governor” –an inherited nickname from his father– has been working with silver since he was 13 years old. In the workshop, we are greeted by the ever so sweet lady called Nina, offering us fresh lemonade and fluffy warm olive pies. Meanwhile, the “Governor” is lovingly working on a sheet of silver, transforming it into a pine cone, a pomegranate, an apple, a pear... “If the artist himself like it, then others will too”, he mentions. The financial crisis, however, has affected his art as well. “Back in the day, every home had their own ‘kapnistomerecha’, it was inconceivable not to. Now there is usually only one set that does the rounds between neighbors during special occasions”.
The tiny Karim welcomes us by barking. We find ourselves in Petros Nikola’s personal paradise, the “king of basketry”. Streaming waters, parrots, kum-quat, pumpkins, bells... and whatever can be made from reeds! Baskets, tsestous, bags... “I am one of the lucky ones who have turned their hobby into work”, he admits. “I was taught the art by my grandparents. When I was a boy, as soon as the school day was over, we used to rush to the fields to gather ‘pokalames’”. As soon as that magic click happened, being an adult by that time, he abandoned his job in hotels and began knitting. His acquaintance with Anna and the “Women of Rural Larnaca” was pivotal to his success story. This is how the tourist offices discovered him and the visitors are now flocking to Choirokoitia to get to know his art and enjoy hospitality. He treats them with breakfast cooking eggs from his own chickens, vegetables from his garden... He shows them how to make haloumia, and breed silkworms... And he is not resting on his laurels. Right behind his house, he inaugurates a Museum of Basketry, with a workshop, a farmhouse and a wood-burning oven, which will produce steaming bread and traditional dishes. We take a bow!
The spring breeze carries the smells of rosemary, sage and thyme with it. Kornos is the village of potters. Back in the day, each house had its own furnace, so the residents could make the necessary pots of clay: pitchers, “tavades” (baking trays with a lid), pints, “piniades”... Things changed through time. They were modernized. Two ladies, Vassοula Adamou and Loukia Kaourani, are the ones keeping this art alive. “We love our tradition and we do not want it to disappear”. They resist vigorously, even against the assistance of modern technology. “We still use the traditional foot powered wheel”. They describe the process they use to gather the soil, how they knead the clay, how they carve the various patterns... The whole process has a somewhat primitive charm about it. It’s almost as if you mold the earth with your hands. Last stop is “Hagiographer”, as they call him in the village. Constantinos Christou made his first steps in his father’s workshop, who had been father Kalliniko’s apprentice for 40 years, the islands prominent figure in Byzantine hagiography. He had witnessed small wonders from a young age. Pieces of wood turned into objects full of expression and form. After the hagiography he continued with the art of the mosaic under Giorgos Kepolas, a remarkable mosaic artist. He works with Venetian enamel, Greek marbles, gold leaves, paints, woods, egg yolk... Pictures, mosaics and frescoes can be found decorating many churches in Cyprus. They ask him to make various mosaics in restaurants, hotels, bars, here and abroad. “This art is constantly evolving. The more you work on it the more you learn. I’ve stopped looking at the time on the clock. The hours in a day are simply not enough”. We feel exactly the same way. Even though we are exhausted, we end our day filled with the warmth and the authenticity that only people of the countryside know how to generously offer.