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Open Features: Innocents Abroad

Norman Allen, who had never before ventured outside Britain, tells of a never-to-be-forgotten holiday in Cyprus and Egypt.

My wife Maureen and I have been married for forty years and during this time we have never had a holiday abroad. All our holidays have consisted of a week in a caravan in Wales with the children or, later on, a week in a boarding house. The furthest we have been together was a week at Pontins Holiday Camp on Jersey where we thought we were living the life of Riley. Although these holidays were simple, we nevertheless thoroughly enjoyed them. Then one day we saw a notice on the Church notice board advertising a holiday to Cyprus. Yhis coincided with our ruby wedding anniversary so we thought we would give it a whirl.

Little did we know the delights and surprises we were letting ourselves in for.

Maureen was not very happy at the thought of having to fly. During the take-off from Manchester Airport she clung to me like a limpet. However she soon got over her nerves and we both became engrossed with the ever-changing vistas opening up below us. I never realised how narrow the English Channel is until I saw it from something like five miles up. Our first view of the Alps suggested that we were looking at a huge meringue pie instead of a mountain range.

We were based at the Ascos Beach Hotel in Paphos, a beautiful town with a history reaching back centuries and containing many sites of interest to visitors. These include the Tombs of the Kings and the Mosaic Centre. Considering their great age, these sites are remarkably well preserved. On these and other sites there are masses of wild flowers of every colour and variety growing in huge clumps or spreading out to form carpets of vivid colour.

One day we spent sailing the Mediterranean, which was as clear as crystal and in fact we were able to watch shoals of multi-coloured fish all around the boat taking bread which we were feeding them.

We went ‘on safari’ to the Akamos Peninsular riding in a 4x4 Land Rover. Our driver didn’t exactly warrant our faith and trust as he drove one handed for long periods, taking one hairpin bend after another on roads that were little more than dirt tracks, whilst at the same time filming a commemorative video for us. We saw wonderful villages with houses that were pure white, gleaming in the sun. There were surprises around every corner. The masses of bougainvillea, geraniums, wisteria, clematis, begonia’s and cyclamens {which incidentally is the national flower of Cyprus}and the many trees in full bloom had to be seen to be believed.

Everywhere we travelled we saw oranges, lemons, bananas, grapefruit and terrace after terrace of vineyards plus walnut trees, wild herbs of sage, fennel, thyme, coriander and many many more.

Life seemed to be based around the Church or Monastery which dominated every villages. Most villages had a number of cafes, which were well used by both visitors and Cypriots. During our safari we were again treated to an al-fresco meal in an open sided taverna. This meal consisted of many local dishes, which I must admit to being rather suspicious off, but having tried them found that they were delicious.

The people were extremely friendly and helpful as was seen when we visited Nicosia. We were looking for somewhere to have lunch and stopped to ask a local shopkeeper, He recommended that we try their branch of Woolworth’s as it had a restaurant. We thanked him but hadn’t gone far when he caught us up and insisted on showing us where it was and came into the store to show us where the lift was.

An incident took place on our coach, which highlighted the difference between our health service and that of Cyprus. During one of our excursions a passenger was taken ill and the driver had to call an ambulance. The man was taken to the public hospital in Paphos with a suspected heart problem. After about an hour the Consultant Cardiologist phoned the bus to say that the patient was OK. and was not in any danger.

During our holiday we celebrated Easter, which, by chance occurred at the same time as Easter back home. We attended the Anglican Church in Paphos, where the service was led by the Bishop of Cyprus whose diocese reaches from Jerusalem in the Middle East to Cyprus and the Gulf. The church was beautiful inside with a number of high doomed ceilings. The building was constructed of local stone and the acoustics were wonderful. Incidentally this church is shared between people of Anglican and Roman Catholic persuasions. It is reputed that St Paul was whipped against a pillar in the grounds of the church and the pillar is reputedly still there, being about four foot high and rounded at the top.

We eagerly anticipating a two-day trip to Egypt. We sailed from Limassol aboard the Princess Marina. This proved to be a well appointed ship with our cabin being a double berth en-suite with sea view. The service on board was second to none and having enjoyed an overnight sail we entered Port Said at around 7 am the following morning.
However before disembarking we were warned to expect street traders who would try to sell us tourist souvenirs. It was made clear to us that this was how these people made a living and we were asked to respect this, if we didn’t want to buy, then just walk past them.

It was at this point that we experienced a number of surprises. Our first surprise was the sheer number of traders. They were like bees around a honey pot,

Our second surprise was when an armed guard got on our coach, which was one of about a dozen in convoy.

Our third was when the convoy was surrounded by a police and army escort. All armed to the teeth. The police cordoned off every road junction through Port Said. All the traffic lights had been switched off and we motored through without let or hindrance.

It was rather strange, on the road to Cairo, to see ships apparently sailing on dry land. Of course they were in fact on the River Nile. It came as a shock to see the level of poverty some of the people were living in. In many cases it was beyond description.

They appeared to be living in small square mud houses with no apparent supplies of water or electricity. Whole families were sitting on the floor outside their homes, waiting for God alone knows what.

At regular intervals along the road we saw sentry posts manned by armed soldiers.

After a three hour drive we arrived in Cairo. It was hot, noisy, bustling, and loud. There were, what I took to be, row after row of high rise slums, interspersed by well appointed and seemingly new hotels.

Public transport seemed to consist of battered buses loaded to bursting point with passengers. We actually saw a bus driver, who had stopped his bus in the middle of the road, and despite having a full load of passengers was jacking the rear wheels up to repair a puncture. The traffic was coming from every which way, accompanied by a cacophony of horns and bells. It appeared to us that every second person was either an armed policeman or soldier.

Our first stop was at the pyramids. To say that these were huge, gigantic, immense, just doesn’t do them justice. They are awe inspiring. As marvels of engineering they are unsurpassed. I couldn’t help thinking why, how and who built them. To think they were built by a few thousand slaves beggars belief.

We were a little disappointed that we had such a short time at this site but we had other sites to see and the transport had to stay in convoy.

Our next stop was to see the Sphinx. This was not as large as I thought it would be, my impression being gained from books and TV. However, with a pyramid located behind it, this proved a once in a lifetime photo opportunity.

We visited the Cairo Museum to see the treasures of Tut-Ankh-Amon. The exhibition is extensive, containing everything taken from his tomb except the mummy of the boy king. This was re-buried in the Valley of the Kings shortly after it was discovered.

The high point of the exhibition are the two remaining sarcophagi, the face mask and the three boxes which fitted inside each other {rather like a Russian doll} and contained the three sarcophagi, these together with many other items on display were of solid gold. There were a number of unusual items found in the tomb such as a set of boomerangs and a folding camp bed still with its iron hinges similar in design as those used today.

It was during our visit to the Cairo Museum that our innocence as travellers caught up with us. We hadn’t taken any water with us, and in temperatures in the high ninties. We were de-hydrated, but solved the problem by buying some big, juicy oranges, which certainly did the trick.

Easter is the highlight of the Greek Orthodox Church's religious calendar and a number of us arranged to travel to a nearby village in Cyprus to take part in an Easter Vigil. These occur in every village and are similar to our Midnight Masses at Christmas.

The village was dress out in decorations the whole population seemed to be on the street. There was a huge bonfire behind the church, with an effigy of Judas on it, the significance of which was explained to us by a villager. The wood for the bonfire comes from the Judas tree that is reputed to be the tree from which Judas Iscariot hung himself. So, rather like our Guy Fawkes, Judas is burnt annually on these fires.

The services was due to start at about 11 pm but the congregation were coming and going for a good hour before this. This activity seemed to consist of people coming into the church, going around and kissing the various icons, and then leaving. As the time for the service drew closer more and more fireworks were let off. Eventually the church filled up and the service started with chanting and singing by a small group of men at the front of the church. This was accompanied by hundreds of fireworks being let off outside by the village children.

The service ended with the priest standing in the church doorway, reading reading extracts from the Gospel of St John whilst the congregation stood in the grounds, all with lighted candles., which flickered in the pitch-black night. Multi-coloured fireworks were going off all over the island, a spectacular backdrop to the conclusion of our holiday. We left Cyprus three hours after the service ended.

And again Maureen was clinging to me like a limpet when our plane touched down in Manchester.

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