Monday, April 21, 2008
Merging Sea and Sky in Cyprus
by Barbara Barton Sloane
A Zen parable says: “When a fish swims, it swims on and on and there is no end to the water. When a bird flies, it flies on and on and there is no end to the sky.” Here on this ancient island one enters into a Blue Zone. The color of the Mediterranean changes from crystal clear turquoise to lapis to azure and there is no end to blue water. With perfect weather almost 365 days of the year, the sky above remains the color of a robin’s egg and there is no end to blue sky. I have just arrived in Cyprus and as its famed golden light washes over me, my mood is far from blue!
There are few places on earth that can compare with the charm and beauty of Cyprus. This carefree, gentle island marries European culture with ancient history and offers an incomparable blend of classical legend, historic architecture and rich tradition. Cyprus is a small country of 3,600 square miles. It encompasses four major towns: Lefkosia, Larnaka, Lemesos and Pafos. Situated at the crossroads of three continents – Europe, Asia and Africa – this geographic position has, from antiquity, played an important role in the island’s 10,000 year history. Almost no matter where you go, you can be sure that you walk on a piece of the past.
As I explored the countryside, I traveled through tiny villages, visited Byzantine churches and remote monasteries and was entranced by a landscape of rugged hills, lush forests and ancient olive groves. On this island once walked Jesus’ apostles. In 395AD the Byzantine Empire flourished here and Christianity was declared the official religion. Cyprus was also a part of the Ottoman Empire for three hunded years. Fast forward to 1878. Cyprus came under British rule and remained that way until 1960, when the independent Republic of Cyprus was established and Archbishop Makarious III was elected the first President.
In 1974, Turkey occupied the northern part of Cyprus and today37% of this country is under Turkish rule. The Cyprus/Turkish problem continues although there are now on-going talks for reunification. My travel companions and I were only vaguely aware of this separation. However, when we visited villages in the north, and saw areas enclosed by barbed wire with United Nations flags flying, we knew that our travels in Cyprus ended at this fence.
Our first day in Cyprus took us to Pafos, which dates from the 4th century BC. The entire town is listed as a World Heritage site and the reason for that soon became clear. Here are numerous important archaeological ruins, ancient monasteries, churches and catacombs. Last but not least, there is a big boulder that juts out of the turquoise sea and it is here that Aphrodite, goddess of love and beauty, is said to have risen from the foam. Legend has it that if a woman comes to the sea at midnight during a full moon and swims to the spot where Aphrodite was born, she will inherit her beauty, and if a man performs this feat, he will have eternal youth. A good reason to take the plunge. The closest I came to living this myth was visiting the Fontana Amorosa dedicated to the goddess. As the fountain bubbled forth and I dipped in a toe, I was captivated by this romantic fable. Was this liquid spouting skyward merely water? No, I preferred to believe it was the real thing: Aphrodite’s love potion!
Our group left the Fountain of Love feeling somewhat lovelier, and we were off to the Tombs of the Kings, one of the major archaeological attractions of Pafos. As we entered this underground site, we were surrounded by massive Doric pillars and a honeycomb structure with tombs carved into sheer rock vaults. The damp, gray silence permeating this site soon made us long for the Cyprus sun. We emerged into its warmth and headed for lunch. At Skorpios, a taverna-style restaurant, they served traditional food. We had our first taste of meze which means an array of 20 or more dishes including dips, vegetables, fish and meat. Some of the offerings were small Cypriot sausages, roast potatoes, avgolimono soup and my particular favorite, Haloumi, known as the cheese that does not melt. Fry it, grill it, do whatever you want and it retains its shape. It was delicious. Naturally, our meal was accompanied by good, local red wine.
Before leaving Pafos, we visited the House of Dionysos containing splendid mosaic floors that date from 3rd to 5th century AD. The mosaics here are considered some of the finest in the world and depict scenes from Greek mythology.
The next day dawned bright and sunny (no surprise!) and we were ready for a jeep ride into the countryside to the Akamas Peninsula. The ride took us through picturesque, centuries-old villages with houses deliciously painted in colors of banana, peach and cream. Here and there we saw men riding donkeys or an occasional shepherd grazing his sheep and goats. The air was fragrant with olive groves and orchards of cherry, apple and pear. Looming over all, Mount Olympus, mauve colored and topped with a dusting of white.
Bacchus and Beyond
We were looking forward to our visit to Omodos. We’d been told of this village’s 5,000 year history of winemaking, so no way were we going to miss it! The very first product produced here was a sweet, dessert wine called Commandaria that, turns out, some in our group were inordinately fond of. We lunched at the Antoniades Winery, sampling the wines while nibbling on tiny meatballs, small pita envelopes filled with cheese, an assortment of cold meats, raisins and almonds. Marios Antoniades, the Managing Director was genial and welcoming. All in all, our meal was the piece de resistance and a visit here is highly recommended. Wine lovers alert: There is an annual wine festival held in Lemesos (Limassol) in September. Attendees can drink as much wine as they want – free - for 10 full days! Lemesos is Cyprus’ second largest city, the center of the wine industry and the island’s main port. Here the famed Agia Napa Church is dedicated to the Virgin Mary. It is said that an icon bearing her image was found in a glen (Napa) and is housed in this church.
A Capital City
Lefkosia (Nikosia),the country’s thousand year old capital, is situated in the center of Cyprus and is a large, cosmopolitan hub filled with appealing stores for some retail therapy, lively tavernas for eating, dancing to Zorba music and, if the mood strikes, for breaking plates! The Cyprus Handicraft Center is not to be missed. One observes women practicing the traditional arts of embroidery and lace making much the same as in ages past. In his day, Leonardo DaVinci visited Cyprus and was so enchanted by the Lefkeridika – intricate geometric embroidery – that he purchased an alter cover still used today in the Church of Milan. At the Byzantine Museum the dazzling rooms of Christian icons are the richest collection of art of this kind in Cyprus, covering the 9th to 18th centuries. The Cyprus Archaeological Museum was one of the highlights of my entire Cyprus experience. The museum houses the largest collection of archaeological treasures in Cyprus. Walking through its fourteen galleries chock-a-block with priceless artifacts dating from the Neolithic age to the 7th century AD was a heady experience. There was magnificent gold jewelry from the Bronze Age, and an unforgettable and captivating marble statue of Aphrodite from the 1st century BC. Her head held high and regal, her expression soft and guileless, she is missing her arms but definitely not her charms!
There is so much to see and do here. Surrounded by the sea, there’s a host of water sports, sailing, hiking, cycling and several very good golf courses. Because of Cyprus’ advantageous location in the Mediterranean, it is “Cruise Central.” Make Cyprus your home base and take a two or three-day cruise to Egypt, Israel, Lebanon or Greece. You depart early evening and arrive the next morning. Many vacations rolled into one.
Our last day in Cyprus was spent in Larnaka, one of the oldest continually-inhabited cities in the world and home to the Church of St. Lazarus, said to be the spot where he is buried. Restored in the 17th century, it houses excellent examples of baroque woodcarving. We took a walk by a large salt lake. Migratory birds and wild swans make this lake their annual stopover, and as we were about to leave, a great pink cloud descended on the lakeshore – hundreds of flamingos, a perfect photo op and a perfect way to end our Cyprus holiday.
It is said that when Aphrodite stepped from the sea foam onto the shore at Pafos, the locals welcomed her with open arms. When you visit Cyprus and are greeted with “kopiaste!” (“come join us”), I think you’ll feel just as the goddess did….most welcome.
If you go:
Cyprus Tourism Organization
13 E. 40th St, NYC
Poseidonos Avenue 8042,Pafos
Tel: (357) 26 888 700
Le Meridien Spa & Resort
Antoniades Winery Ltd