Trails criss-cross the hillsides and the tranquil forest hides Venetian bridges, ruins and stories in Cyprus. On the island where every passing century has left its own stamp and where every day hold something new to discover. Nike Werstroh recalls one day from Cyprus when she and Jacint Mig followed the Venetian Bridges trail and then wandered amongst the abandoned houses of Vretsia.
The minaret of the small mosque was silent and hadn`t called anyone for prayer for more than 40 years. Wild grass which hadn`t been cut for maybe decades crept towards the building. Paint was peeling off the walls and the door was open. I stepped inside and climbed up the creaky old stairs to the minaret from where I could see the dirt track snaking between the crumbling buildings. Vegetation grew wildly between the houses and there was not a soul for miles.
Later, as I wandered between the old buildings, I tried to imagine what it might have been like to live in this village on the hillside. Shrubs had taken over some of the buildings and the silent walls guarded some secrets which would never be revealed. Less than 50 years ago it might have been a lively place, where people gossiped in front of their homes, crops were grown in the gardens and animals grazed in the meadows. But Vretsia village was abandoned by its Turkish Cypriot residents as a result of the 1974 conflict.
Why was Vretsia abandoned? Cyprus the divided island
Cyprus gained independence in 1960 and during the 20th century a series of conflicts - caused mainly by the fact that Greek Cypriots wanted to achieve enosis (union with Greece) – shook the peace. Tensions between the Greek and the Turkish Cypriots grew. In 1974, supported by the military junta in Greece, a coup was carried out by the Greek Cypriots and in response Turkey invaded the island.
The Turkish Cypriots moved from the south to Northern Cyprus; meanwhile the Greek Cypriots who lived in the northern areas left their homes and lost their land and businesses as they fled to the south. Houses– once homes to families – even whole villages, became deserted and many of them are in ruins today. Driving around the southern part of the island, ruins can be spotted on the hillsides as a sad reminder of the conflict.
The trail from Kelefos Bridge to Vretisa
We reached Vretsia in the early afternoon via the Venetian Bridges nature trail. Stone bridges were built in the mountains as part of a ‘camel trail’ during Cyprus’ Venetian period (1489–1671). Good-quality routes were essential to transport copper by camel from the mountains to the ports. The Venetian Bridges Nature trail connects three Venetian bridges and ends in Vretsia.
Nature trails are marked trails in southern Cyprus; some of them are very popular and well-visited, especially on the Akamas Peninsula and in the Troodos mountains, but you can find some lesser known and less visited trails where you might not see another person. Some plants, trees and flowers are labelled along the trails so walkers can learn to recognise them.
However we altered the original Venetian Bridge nature trail and planned to do only the best part of it. We also wanted to visit and then retrace our steps from Vretsia so we started the trail from Kelefos Bridge in the morning. Our rental car was left alone in the empty parking area near Kelefos Bridge and only a couple of sleepy cats greeted us by the information board by the stone bridge.
The shallow stream slowly made its way between the stony banks and shadows of trees danced on the water in the morning sunshine as we crossed the bridge and then started the trail on a narrow path.
It was always exciting to see how the thin brown line from the map shaped into a path on the hillside or in the forest. We had very little information about this trail before setting off and were eager to see what the day would hold for us.
At first we followed well signposted, quiet forest tracks and passed by the Pera Vasa picnic site. There were no other walkers on the trail but at the picnic site we saw two people. Some tools were propped against a tree suggesting they were preparing to work there but the two men were not in a hurry and sat at a table having their breakfast first. They nodded hello as we passed and then we had the forest trail to ourselves again.
Not long after the picnic site we left the forest track and continued on a narrow path. The horizon was filled with pine-covered mountains and blue sky. Trees whispered in the gentle breeze and birds gossiped on the high branches of the trees as we continued in high spirits. The path was surprisingly well way-marked as it crossed several dirt tracks before it descended to Roudia Bridge. The second Venetian Bridge of the trail modestly arched between the banks of the stream. Trees clung to the stream banks, their roots reaching on rounded stones for water. While Jacint was taking photos I waited by the stream. The old stone bridge arching over the water in the shade of tall trees reminded me of a scene from a fairy tale book and it wouldn`t have surprised me if some fairy creatures had appeared from under the bridge. But the magical creatures remained in their secret hiding place and didn`t show themselves to walkers – no matter how rare they might be in the area – so we continued.
Shortly after Roudia Bridge we walked past the ruins of a watermill. This was one of the best things about discovering trails without detailed description. We were never sure when we would stumble across a ruin like this. The remains of the watermill just appeared by the trail for our delight and we stopped to take photos.
It was a very warm spring day and as the trail ran mainly uphill from Roudia Bridge we greedily sipped our lukewarm water. But the strong sunshine hadn`t parched the landscape yet, green grass grew between trees and white rock roses lined some of the tracks.
The very first building we approached had a Village Tavern sign. We were surprised to see a middle aged lady sweeping the floor by the tavern`s entrance. When we reached the building she ushered us in with big gestures. She then quickly listed what she could offer: cold beer, coke, food…
We sat down at the first table and asked for a cold soft drink. My eyes needed some time to adjust to the semi darkness after the bright sunlight and while the woman busied herself in the kitchen I looked around. Tables and chairs were stacked very close to each other and most walls were heavily decorated with antlers and pictures. And soon I discovered a neatly made bed pushed against the wall in the corner indicating that the lady might have spent the night there.
After the cold drink, we paid the bill and left the weird little bar and wandered among the slowly decaying buildings. Apart from rustling leaves and chirping cicadas the one time village was silent. Tales lingered in the eerie place but only imagination could fill the abandoned buildings with life.
It is believed that some of the houses might still be used by hunters from time to time because a few basic beds and everyday objects can be found in some of the more intact buildings; however, most of the houses sheepishly hide in the ever - growing vegetation. After spending a few minutes in the mosque`s minaret we walked along the dirt track between the stone buildings before it was time to retrace our steps to Kelefos Bridge.
While walking back on the same route might not appeal to everyone, we enjoyed the impressive views once again and the peaceful paths and the forests tracks that we had to ourselves. When we passed the Pera Vasa picnic site, the two men were gone, and the benches and tables were patiently waiting for the new day.
When we arrived back at Kelefos Bridge a young couple were taking photos in front of the stone bridge, but they were not tired like us, so I believe they hadn`t walked the Venetian Bridges trail but strolled from the parking area.
Sticky with sweat and sun cream, hungry, memory card full of new photos, with the route in my note book, and very satisfied with the day, we drove back to the apartment in Paphos to plan another trail for the following day.
Recently I read the disturbing news that the unusual little tavern has burnt down (probably last summer) so it is highly unlikely that we will be invited in for a cold drink in the bizarre place next time we visit Vretsia.
The building which might have been the very last inhabited (even if it was only seasonal) in Vretsia became the `newest ` ruin joining the slowly decaying houses.