Rough customer

I promised months ago that I’d write about the Rough Guide to Cyprus and why it’s no good at all, and then I forgot, and then I remembered but didn’t have the book to hand in order to quote it. But now I do, and flicking through it I discover I’m every bit as bemused by it as I was at the time.

It may be that Rough Guides are not designed for people like me, who just want to go on holiday. Here is a short quiz which will help you to determine whether you are the kind of person the Rough Guide to Cyprus might be aimed at:

Question 1

Do you look down on everyone else who has travelled to your holiday destination at the same time as you?

Question 2

Do you describe yourself as a traveller, rather than a tourist?

If you answered mostly YES, you may get on with The Rough Guide to Cyprus better than I did. I found it pompous, snobbish, humourless and ill-conceived. I first noticed this when I was reading the section about Cypriot cuisine. It says:

Food throughout Cyprus is generally hearty rather than refined, and on the mainstream tourist circuit at least will get monotonous after a few days. In many respects resort food – especially in the South – is the unfortunate offspring of generic Middle Eastern, and 1960s British, cooking at its least imaginative.

Well, that’s simple enough – just don’t eat at any “resorts”, “especially in the South”. Got that? Never mind that people have varied tastes and palates (personally, I like “generic Middle Eastern” food more than almost any other kind). Never mind that even smallish Cypriot towns on the “mainstream tourist circuit” offer a range of international cuisine as wide as anything you’d find in an English town of twice the size. No, Cypriot food in any of the places you’re actually likely to be staying (there’s a reason it’s called the tourist circuit)  is monotonous and unimaginative.

(There’s a lot of this guff about the “mainstream tourist circuit”, incidentally. The writers don’t seem keen on your visiting any of the places on which Cyprus’s economy depends for a substantial part of its income, preferring to recommend remote spots which you have  to drive to, environmental considerations clearly playing second fiddle to the traveller’s desire for an authentic experience, whatever that is.)

It was in Cyprus that I first tasted halloumi, which is one of my favourite foods in the world. Surely, I thought, they can’t be rude about halloumi. Everyone like halloumi.

Unfortunately, inferior rubber halloumi – full of added yeast and powdered (cow) milk, squeaking on the teeth when chewed – abounds; when you finally get the real thing (from sheep or goat milk, with the butterfat oozing out at the touch of a fork), you’ll never willingly go back to the other.

Well, I have eaten more halloumi, in Cyprus and elsewhere, than anyone I know, and I think that’s bollocks. Sure, the cheap stuff is squeakier, but it’s still terrific.

(And yes, the writing is all like that.)

We were staying between Paphos and Coral Bay, so I had a look at the restaurant listings for both places to see whether I could find any recommendations I liked the sound of. It only listed a few places, but one caught my eye:

La Piazza: Very upmarket Italian with a Venetian flair, its menus and recipes vetted once yearly by a North Italian professor.

A what now?  This bizarre detail struck me much as those adverts do that begin with a confident, and meaningless, “Scientists say…”. No extra information was given, and I should have asked when we ate at what turned out to be a fairly average but perfectly pleasant Italian, but I forgot. If you go and find out, do please let me know.

The best thing about La Piazza is not the food but the view, which looks like this:

beach view

The writers of The Rough Guide to Cyprus clearly don’t have much time for this view, though, because if you look up what to do in Paphos, it says:

The main resort strip in Kato Pafos, east of Apostolou Pavlou and the harbour, consists of opticians, estate agents, ice-cream parlours, fast-food franchises, more estate agents, indistinguishable restaurants, nightclubs, still more estate agents, clothes shops, souvenir kiosks, banks and excursion agencies, the characterless pattern repeating itself every couple of hundred yards along Leoforos Posidhonos, the shoreline boulevard. The only “sight” on this lacklustre sequence is the Paphos Aquarium…

Well, that’s more or less true, but as an introductory paragraph to a section on what to see in Paphos, it leaves something to be desired. I’d have started it like this:

The main resort strip in Kato Pafos, east of Apostolou Pavlou and the harbour, has all the shops you need to stock up on provisions for your holiday, as well as an abundance of places to stop to eat, drink and enjoy the view of the harbour. There are also plentiful tourist agencies where you’ll be able to book trips to the more inacessible parts of the island, but don’t forget to spend some time sitting still and absorbing the busy, bustling atmosphere and headily international population of this cheerful tourist town.

And if you can describe an aquarium as “the only sight” in a place this lively and friendly, you have a very narrow view of what counts as a sight, and you probably won’t enjoy your holiday at all. Incidentally, that line of stones stretching out into the sea in the photo above is an ancient breakwater.

Coral Bay, a few miles up the coast and much smaller than Paphos but with the advantage of a glorious sandy beach, is a genuine single-duty tourist town and much less varied, but it does have a lot of restaurants. What did the Guide have to say about them?

Restaurants on the main strip are generally pretty forgettable; much the best local eating is at the South-Indian-run Keralam, northwest of the main beach in the Aristo Coral Bay complex.

Right. Because us Brits don’t get the chance to eat good Indian food at home.

(Here, as an aside, are my two recommendations for places to eat. In Coral Bay, Phideas Tavern (which I can’t find on the web but which you’ll find easily enough once you get there) looks like a canteen but does fantastic traditional Cypriot food for almost no money at all, and you get to spend the evening with Phideas himself, who is great fun. I ate here in 2001 and again in 2010 and was charmed and delighted to find that it hadn’t changed at all.

And in Paphos, you absolutely must go to Seven St George, which does some of the best food I’ve ever eaten, and is one of the few places in the world where I’m happy to eat pork and lamb. Like Phideas, it’s run by a family, all of whom you’ll meet during the course of your visit, and what George lacks in cheeky banter he makes up for with a beguilingly serious dedication to good food. There’s no menu at Seven St George: they just bring you meze dishes until you’re full. Everything is tiny, beautiful and delicious, and you’ll have eaten your own body weight before you notice it. Seating is outside on a flower-covered terrace, and dinner there is like sneaking three hours in heaven.)

Writing about Phideas and George has lifted my mood and almost made me forgive the writers of the Rough Guide to Cyprus their snobbery, except that as a final insult, the glossary of useful Greek and Turkish words doesn’t include the word for “cheers”, which I’ve found is the most important word to know if you, like me, like to meet people and talk to them when you visit other countries, rather than sniffily disapproving of the tourism industry that keeps most of them in work.

So as my final gift to you today, cheers is “yiamas” in south Cyprus and “şerefe” in the north, and if you go, you’ll have plenty of chances to use them both.