06 March 2012

Agios Athanasios, The Village That's Still There

We were walking with Kyriakos through the outskirts of Limassol. A self-described “refugee” from Famagusta, Kyriakos had come to Limassol in 1974, along with so many other Greek Cypriots from the north. As we walked, he told us about a little hamlet called Agios Athanasios. On the horizon, construction projects jutted into the sky. Just below us, a raised line of concrete, the main island highway, groaned with traffic. Limassol sprawls. It has spread out along the shore and trudged determinedly up towards the mountains. There’s no real center, no focal point. It is just a massing of buildings and twists of road.
It took us a while to realize, as we walked and talked, that we were actually in the little village. Agios Athanasios is still there, all but swallowed up.
The village shows up in the details – an old stone wall, faded paint, a small square with lemon trees and a church. Old houses pinched the streets into lanes, barely wide enough for a car to squeeze by. In the mornings, a man came through selling oranges from his truck, yelling “mandarinas!” out his window. Kyriakos told us how people had begun to seal up the stone with plaster, how it had changed the place. A new town hall had recently been built in a blocky, modern style.
“Once it was all fields around Agios Athanasios,” we were told. “These are the farm houses.” It was possible, in some little corners, to still see a farming town – in the corners where the old buildings were arranged just so, and the highrises were blocked out.
Limassol was once not much more than a small town located on the sleepy southern coast. Because the ports in the north were better positioned and deeper, the southern shore was neglected – the coast here is more exposed and less interesting, the beaches aren’t as good, historically it was a backwater. The British colonizers preferred the area around Kyrenia, which was founded by Greeks in the 10th century BC, and traditionally had one of the more Greek populations on the island. Limassol, by comparison, was heavily Turkish. When the 1974 conflict segregated Cyprus, the people of the two towns essentially switched places.
The influx of new people into Limassol wasn’t entirely from Kyrenia, though. Many rural refugees from the north ended up in the city, as well as people from Famagusta and northern Nicosia. A much bigger impact was made by tourists, as foreigners became wary of the Turkish occupied area. Holiday homes went up, hotels were built and the beaches were developed. As Cyprus became more of a destination, Limassol increasingly became the hub.
An exit sign for Agios Athanasios on the highway has the grim, smokestack symbol for “industrial area.” When we were renting our car in Nicosia, a man knew exactly where the town was – “oh Agios Athanasios,” he said. “We have a service center there.” It’s sadly true that the village has become something of a warehouse neighborhood for Limassol. The space around the town square is unsightly, jammed up against an offramp and bounded by trash-strewn lots. At the same time, it’s the only part of the city where we saw any semblance of tradition – this bread oven, for example. Old women in kerchiefs, too, and chickens in a little courtyard.
It’s increasingly hard to reconcile the idea of Cyprus as a holiday paradise with the reality of the coast. This is a place where construction still means progress, and where a vacation means being cramming into the space between condo and sea. Limassol is a city of sleek, bland tourist cafes mixed with American fast-food brands and seedy “cabarets.”
Our way of traveling isn’t the same as vacationing. We like to see how a place really functions, how the people really live. Though it’s disappointing, it’s still interesting to find a wasteland of new development – this is reality, not the brochure.
But at night, Agios Athanasios' Skourouvinnos taverna blends both worlds together. It’s a modern place, full of young people from Limassol proper – but it still feels a hundred miles from the bustle of the city. Yiannakis, the young chef and owner, bounced around the dining room energetically, his cell-phone ringing constantly. “Everyone wants to come,” he said to us. “I have to say no to all my friends.” The house is old and rustic, the atmosphere is communal and convivial. It’s the only real restaurant in Agios Athanasios, something like the village pub.
Cypriots appreciate traditional tavern food just as much as we foreigners do, and so they’ll drive up to this little village-within-a-city, find the town square amongst the chain-link bracken, and crowd into Skourouvinnos until there’s nowhere left to sit. Just like in the villages, the food is simple, delicious and plentiful – we were sitting at the bar and the waitress had to begin piling plates on top of one another to fit it all.
As we walked home, it really did feel as though we were in a small town – leaving the taverna, the din of voices quieted and then dropped away, all we could hear were our own footsteps on the street. The lights of town lit up the sky around us, but Agios Athanasios hadn’t been completely swallowed up.

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