Travel: Cypriot mountain village that's an antidote to stresses of modern life
One man's mission to breathe new life into a decaying part of Cyprus has created a retreat beneficial to body and soul. Celia Paul visits Casale Panayiotis in the Troodos Mountains
BETWEEN shadows cast on the water from the overhanging boughs of mature trees, I can see glimpses of my prey, lazily swimming in the deepest stretch of the stream.
Above me are green leaves and the golden light that precedes dusk, and I can hear the murmuring of running water and the sound of cicadas chirping away. The only thing disturbing this tranquil idyll is the excited shrieking of one of my companions, who's just landed her first ever fish.
As she hauls in a glistening trout, I'm filled with admiration and a tiny bit envious of her luck, but as I half abandon my fishing rod to take a photo of her prize, it starts to twitch and then violently shake. I try to remember my instructions and pull the line through the water before dragging a monster of a fish up to the surface triumphantly, and towards a waiting bucket.
A couple of hours later, once the last of the light has gone and I've reluctantly accepted this will be my only catch of the evening, my prize is served up to me. It's been seasoned, simply grilled and dressed with a garlic sauce and local vegetables – and I can't remember the last time I felt this connected to my food or the natural world around me.
Casale Panayiotis, tucked away in a tranquil valley in the northern Troodos mountains, is a rare find – a boutique hotel that encourages guests to celebrate its past and immerse themselves in local culture.
It's the brainchild of business mogul John Papadouris, who was born and raised in the rural mountain village of Kalopanayiotis, before moving on to London and the Middle East to make his fortune in the engineering industry.
When he returned to his home country decades later, he found a sad state of affairs. The division of Cyprus following the Turkish invasion in 1974 and an exodus of adults from the remote Troodos area to work in bigger towns and cities, had left Kalopanayiotis a shell of a village.
Most houses were empty and derelict, just a tiny population of elderly people remained; the village lacked even a cafe.
So Papadouris decided to restore Kalopanayiotis to its former glory – but with a 21st century twist. He used his own money and European funding to improve infrastructure, build paths and lighting, encourage locals to build their own businesses and, most ambitiously, create a luxury hotel integrated into the heart of the village.
There are now 43 individual rooms scattered through the hillside community and three top-notch restaurants – not to mention a world-class spa which reflects the ancient spa village's history.
For thousands of years, pilgrims and hunters have been drawn to the valley for the nearby sulphur springs, bathing in its healing waters. And while Casale's Myrianthousa Spa might have brought that tradition bang up to date, it incorporates Cypriot culture at every step of the way.
Traditionalists can opt for bath rituals like the 'Theouha', an immune-boosting soak in healing water (€30/£26), or the 'Goat Milk and Rose Ceremony' (€35/£29), while romantics might prefer a couple's ritual in a private treatment suite, complete with sparkling wine and fresh fruit (€280/£250).
As for me, I never turn down an opportunity to work out the stresses and strains of urban life with a massage, and after a blissful 55-minute full-body treatment (€80/£70) at the expert hands of therapist Irene, I feel my usual veil of tension begin to lift.
By the time I've lounged in the hydro-pool looking out over the cherry, almond and apple trees that line the steep valley (and inspired the Myrianthousa's name - it means 'many blossoms'), sweated out any toxins in the steam room and refreshed in the icy confines of the innovative snow cabin, I'm ready for anything.
Casale offers experiences for everyone from foodies to adventure seekers, and newly revitalised, I'm ready to learn the ways of traditional Cypriot life. I throw myself into learning how to make classic Cypriot cheese halloumi (an experience which can be booked as part of a hotel package), and pay a visit to the nearby Tsiakkas Winery (tour costs €55/£49).
There, former bank manager Costas Tsiakkas is making a name for himself reviving forgotten local grape varietals and creating world-class wines - apt in a country that claims to have been the first wine producer in Europe, five-and-a-half thousand years ago.
History is entwined with modern life in every aspect of Cypriot culture, and that becomes abundantly clear after a short stroll around Kalopanayiotis. One of the fourteen villages of the mountainous Marathasa area, it's home to the Saint John Lampadistis monastery, a Unesco World Heritage site just a few steps from Casale across the Setrachos river.
The Byzantine monastery houses stunning frescoes, icons and carvings and still attracts streams of pilgrims, while next to it, in what was once John Papadouris' primary school, a museum contains dozens of intricate icons from other local churches.
A sense of peace seems to exude from the ancient walls of the village, and Papadouris is keen to keep it that way, even as the hotel expands. Plans are afoot to build a swimming pool, begin pressing olive oil and introduce a few more rooms, but at its heart, Casale Panayiotis is about restoring the village, not making it unrecognisable to the families who made their homes here.
One man's vision has revived a dying community, protecting it for future generations and provided an economic boost to the community. But as I sit on the terrace outside my room, sheltered by a canopy of vines, glass of Cypriot wine in hand, I realise that he's also created a luxury haven far from the madding crowd.
Casale Panayiotis is the perfect antidote to the stress and pollution of modern life, and well worth clearing space in your diary to recharge and reconnect with nature.
Sunvil (020 8758 4758; sunvil.co.uk) offers a seven-night trip from £1,563pp (two sharing), including flights from Gatwick, four nights' self-catering at Villa Spilio in Paphos, three nights' B&B at Casale Panayiotis (studio) and car hire.