Cypriot festivals: keeping traditions alive

Melissa Reynolds finds soul in an array of heritage and agricultural festivals in Cyprus, which are gaining strength as people seek authenticity

Under the cloud of an uncertain economy, rising crime and a furore over the deputy Attorney-General’s teeth implants, whatever the country’s latest grievance you can’t help but admire Cypriots’ Dionysian inclination to live for the moment and have a good time.

These events interest all generations, the older ones are obviously the ones keeping these traditions alive and the young ones will hopefully carry it on.

There’s rarely a weekend that goes by without a festival dedicated to something these days, from film and dance, to a plethora of events celebrating the island’s agricultural heritage.

In fact Cypriots are spoiled for choice when it comes to rural seasonal events; from Agros’ Rose Festival in springtime through to Harvest Celebrations in September and October, such as Koilani’s Afamia Grape festival, Anogyra’s Pastelli festivities and Kyperounta’s Apple Festival, all held in tribute to the industries on which these communities once thrived.

Rural festivals provide an opportunity for tourists to experience hospitality in some of Cyprus’ most picturesque locations while offering a genuine taste of local life.

Every event draws an impressive local turn-out, often with three or even four generations of family in tow, and somewhat remarkable in an age when European counterparts would be hard pressed to coerce teenage offspring to be seen outdoors with their parents.

Generational differences are less apparent as guests old and young tap their feet along to a traditional ensemble at the Palouze Festival in Vasa Koilaniou, or sing along with the choir performing at a food and wine festival hosted by the villagers of Vouni.

“These events interest all generations, the older ones are obviously the ones keeping these traditions alive and the young ones will hopefully carry it on,” explains Antonis Diomidous, owner
of an agro-tourism business based in the village.

With financial and administrative support from Troodos Regional Tourism Board, Vouni residents, like their counterparts in neighbouring Koilani, Vasa Koilaniou and Arsos, are responsible for organising their own event within a month of grape related festivities in the Troodos region.

Essential ingredients include music, dancing, and most importantly, an indispensible army of village matriarchs to cook, serve or take a turn stirring enormous vats of homemade palouze slowly simmering over wood fuelled fires.

“Only about five out of ten families still make palouze so the others rely on villagers who still make it to get a taste,” Antonis says, leading the way through a disorderly scrum of festival-goers eager to get their share of the freshly made dessert along with a serving of hot koulourakia dipped in grape syrup among the host of locally-produced treats on offer.

Despite the presence of the younger generation, many of the traditional arts on show at the events are in danger of dying out, both from a lack of interest in learning the skills and a decline in their commercial value.

Andreas Phasoulides is one of only a few ceramicists that still specialise in traditional clay pitharia, although he now spends most of his time demonstrating his skills or running classes for tourists rather than making pots to sell.

“Some potters are left behind and insist on keeping their business but it’s not sustainable because of the imports, because we don’t have help from anywhere and the way of selling pots in Cyprus has changed,” he says.

“I’m not selling because I stopped production – it’s not worth it.”

As testament to the growing rarity of their respective crafts, the work of Andreas and 77 year-old basket-maker Andreas Ioannou attract a throng of curious onlookers. As he painstakingly weaves twigs into a circular frame,

Andreas describes the seventy years he’s spent making baskets such as those once used to carry harvested grapes on the backs of donkeys from difficult to reach hillside vineyards. Asked if he has managed to find someone with whom to share the skills, he shrugs.

“No one is interested, nobody. All the young people now don’t like to continue it because it’s difficult and you know the younger generation are softer so it’s very difficult.”

According to Vice-Chairman of the Troodos Regional Tourism Board, Panayiotis Papadopoulos, the festivals help to safeguard these trades, in addition to attracting tourists to provide a market for local products and services.

“It’s important as a good chance to sell and promote their own products and to keep tradition,” he confirms.

Although many of the festivals have been in existence for decades, the Board’s recent involvement facilitates better coordination and promotion of countryside festivals along with the creation of new events designed around regional heritage and the natural environment.

However, Papadopoulos readily admits that the most vital aspect of every celebration is buy-in from the locals.

“The event has to be done by the village because if they believe it’s a Troodos Tourist Board event they watch from the side and it doesn’t work. We are much more successful now because they are in the game,” he says.

The grape festivities come to an appropriate end in Koilani this month with an afternoon of music, dance and grand opening of the pithari of new wine, a revival of a tradition started by ancient Athenians during the Anthesteria celebrations held in honour of Dionysus.

Locals will raise a glass or two to the marvels of Zivania before closing the festival year with a toast to the mountains.

Melissa Reynolds is a features writer based in Cyprus who contributes to Neos Kosmos as well as other international publications.