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Come with me on a journey, high into the hills above Larnaka in Cyprus.
I’ll tell you a story of an age-old craft that is, against all the odds, winning its battle to survive in the modern world.
I’ll show you a group of women, one as old as 82, who weave sublime magic with their hands. And I’ll relate the inspiring story of how our industry – travel retail – is playing a leading role in the renaissance of this tradition.
I’m in the little village of Lefkara, about 34 kilometres south-west of Larnaka and about 800 metres above sea level, accompanied by CTC-ARI Airports Head of Retail & Marketing Martin Mullen and Operations Manager Costakis Koukkoullis.
It’s a beautiful place, full of cobbled streets, stone archways and tiny, historic churches featuring some breathtaking, centuries-old frescos.
It’s hard to believe, but this quaint place is the epicentre of world lace making. The ‘lefkaritika’ embroideries, which date back to the Venetian occupation (1489-1571) are famous the world over, characterised by the richness and diversity of their designs.
Legend has it that Leonardo da Vinci bought the cover for Milan Cathedral’s altar after a personal visit to Lefkara in 1481. Today the women of Lefkara still sit in the narrow streets and courtyards, in their homes or outside the shops, making intricate lace and linen.
But Lefkara lace has faced a struggle for survival in recent years. The skilled workforce has aged and there are few young women with the time or patience to take up the profession. Importantly therefore, Lefkara lace or Lefkaritika was given ‘Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity’ status by UNESCO in 2009, effectively protecting its status and helping to safeguard its future.
The tradition has been given a further boost by the arrival of CTC-ARI Airports as the travel retailer at the magnificent new Larnaka International Airport, which opened last November.
The retailer has developed a superb destination merchandise concept called Kypriaka (above), which offers a thrillingly diverse range of products from foodstuffs to wines to original pieces of sculpture to, of course, Lefkara lace. Some of the lace makers even attended the airport inauguration last year, putting on a live performance of their craftmaking for President Demetris Christofias (below).
Impressively, CTC-ARI Airports is not only selling but actively championing local produce such as Lefkara lace. It recently held a Kypriaka T-shirt design competition (below), open to all children up to 15 years old, which attracted 7,200 entries and nationwide publicity. The retailer will produce and sell the winning designs at Larnaka and Pafos airports in the Kypriaka merchandise area through the summer.
That event was preceded by another laudable initiative earlier in the year with a competition to source new and innovative Cypriot products to enhance the Kypriaka destination merchandise range.
Again interest was extraordinary with the competition generating 787 entries, of which 26 reached a short-list.
The three winners were awarded a cash prize of €3,000, financial advice from Bank of Cyprus, Marketing support from Thompson Communications, and a showcase listing in both Larnaka and Pafos Airports.
That’s what I call commitment to the concept of Sense of Place. It’s not, as too many airports and retailers would have you believe, about a token souvenirs or local product offering. It’s about getting under the skin of the local culture, showcasing it, championing it, advancing it. Bravo to CTC-ARI Airports and bravo to Kypriaka.
… Back to my tour of Lefkara. Within minutes of arriving I am shown an exquisite lace work that will be presented to the Pope upon his impending visit. Moments later I am presented with my own piece of work – a lovely ‘sunshine’ design that is one of the local workers’ favourites.
Martin Mullen says to me: “The marvellous thing is that someone from a little village has got a truly authentic product into our shop – that is what Kypriaka is all about.”
Our wonderful host, Andry (above with Costakis), who runs a lace business here, introduces me to Evthokia (below), at 82 years of age still a consummate craftsperson.
I watch as she works, her face a study in concentration mixed with a relaxed pleasure in her work. I look at a picture (the bottom one of three below), taken 57 years ago, marking how Evthokia (third from left) and a group of other Lefkara women had worked day and night for months on end to complete a Leonardo da Vinci design for the newly crowned Queen Elizabeth II of England.
The more things change in the world at large, the more things stay the same in Lefkara. And all of us should be thankful for that.