Between the gentle seductions of its hospitality and its rich history, Cyprus left me with an impression of a culture that reinvents itself anew with a self-confident resilience. In Cyprus, the glories of antiquity are juxtaposed against commercially-vibrant cities with modern infrastructure, financial muscle, and hip restaurants and bars. Diversity and multi-lingualism are seamlessly woven into the fabric of commerce and administration. Just as in history, the island’s eastern Mediterranean location at the cross-roads of Europe and the Middle-east continues to attract huge swaths of travelers, now compounded by new-interest from the Far-East (China), and Russia. Most are attracted to its mild climate and sea-side opportunities: tourists swell the island’s population by double during its prolonged high season from April to November.
The construction boom on the southern coastline of the island, was driven by tourism; you can see almost continuous ribbon-like colonies of holiday homes, apartments and hotels along coastal roads. And where once stood isolated old stone-built villages, with a modest village square and a church, now there are endless commercial strips that blur erstwhile village boundaries.
But Cypriots would be quick to stress that there’s more to Cyprus than its azure waters, yacht harbors, beachside resorts and party towns. On my recent visit, I found other secrets in the interior of Cyprus that sun-and-sand seeking tourists largely don’t venture towards. There’s a world of exploration among the cobbled streets, wines, UNESCO World Heritage churches and monasteries, traditional sweets, and delicious tavernas of Cyprus’ mountain villages. The geographic setting of the villages is equally notable and vivid. The topographic diversity and elevation changes are so dramatic in the interior of the island, that it’s possible to hike on alpine trails among conifers to lush waterfalls and downhill ski at resorts that are literally an hour or two away from the Mediterranean coast.
I found both history and geography in plenty on a tour that took me from the beaches of Limassol on the island’s southern coast to the Troodos mountain range in the interior of the island.
The best kind of cultural travel is with a local friend who can bring you to know a place at a more personal, intimate level. Niki, a college friend, was the first Cypriot I knew and made Cyprus real for me way before I even landed here (we go back to our common path as fellow international students in a mid-western American liberal arts college). She also brought professional qualifications to this visit, as she has worked as a government official on the administration and strategy of Cyprus tourism for many years. I was in good hands for being steered to the off-beat, unique spots of the country.
As is characteristic of the Cypriot culture, Niki is firmly ensconced in the intimate and extensive social associations that span generations and families, so she had cast around a net for a suitable guide to take us around. Maria Achniatou came up as an option, and also happened to be Niki’s school friend’s older sister. We rendez-vous’d with Maria at the luxurious lobby of the Four Seasons hotel in Lemesos (in English, Limassol) and the two ladies had some catching up to do on Niki’s school buddy.
We started out by visiting an archaeological site with predominantly Roman period structures located on cliffs, high above the southern coast. As I found out from Maria, the layers of history that go back behind the Roman-era physical structures, span the scale of the history of mankind itself. Way before the Romans, this site was where an ancient city kingdom, Kourion once flourished. The Kourion kingdom was one of several interspersed throughout the island of Cyprus in the late Bronze Age (1,000 BC). Amathous to the east of the modern city of Lemesos (Limassol) and visible from the highway, is another city kingdom of similar historical origin.
Other ancient city kingdoms of the late Bronze Age were dotted around the capes of the Mediterranean Sea and extended up to the mountains of the Troodos range that runs through the heart of Cyprus. These city kingdoms were built atop earlier human occupation and settlements. They continue an already established civilization traced in this area from the Late Neolithic period (referring to stone tools implements) and Chalcolithic period (referring to copper tools), as well as the Early and Middle Bronze Ages that succeeded them. (While there are no architectural remains of these historical periods at Kourion itself, archaeologists have found structural signatures that are resonant with others from the earlier periods.)
When the Greeks invaded and conquered the island, its city kingdoms became satellite states of the centralized Greek empire. (Alexander the Great was one of the most famous heads of state of this empire.) Hellenic age (500–300 BC) cultural imprints are found in Cyprus, in the classical Greek style in statues, art and architecture of this period.
I began to appreciate the scope of Maria’s background knowledge on Cyprus history. She explained how she was specially certified for guiding the antiquities of Cyprus: the certification involved having to complete a year’s course that spanned, geography, history, archaeology, and etymology.
Back to the physical archaeology at Kourion: its oldest physical remains date back to the Hellenistic period (circa 300 BC), and most of its notable features are from the subsequent Roman period. Cyprus was absorbed into the Roman Empire as a colony in period around 50 BC. At the turn of the millennium (1st–3rd century AD) a series of devastating earthquakes in this area required building and rebuilding of structures. It was also during this period that the new religion of Christianity took hold in this area. These features are evident in the archaeological excavations at Kourion that took place largely during the 1930s. Among Kourion’s highlights, the restored semi-circular arena stage, with stadium-style hierarchical seating that faces the sea is notable. During the (earlier) Hellenic age, the theater would stage plays. As Maria instructed, I whispered while standing at the center of the circular orchestra at the base of the theater. The acoustics were astounding—from the central part of the stage, a whisper carries around the whole structure and echoes audibly in my ear as feedback. Back in 300BC, a choir might perform narrative songs on the stage.
The Romans converted the Greek theater into a fighting ring where gladiators wrestled with wild animals (an escape hatch was built for wounded gladiators). This theater tradition left us a curious, modern socio-political legacy. The audience of the Roman period would include sophisticated, rich, urban people who would enter stage right and be seated high in the stands (where they would also have cover from a roof structure that extended out over the top rows). Other audience members–agricultural workers who were poorer and less refined– would enter stage left. This traditional legacy is found in politics today where the less well-off common-folk and workers are usually pressing for more equal distribution of wealth and workers’ rights from the ‘left’, while the rich people who are interested in preserving their political and social power with a more conservative outlook are from the ‘right’. As the audience viewed performances on stage, they would also see out and be able to survey the sea horizons behind (the better to pick out any approaching ships?).
Several visiting tour groups from around Europe, Russia, and China were testing out the acoustic fun at the center stage of the theater. Maria mentioned she is fluent in Greek, English, Russian, and Spanish, and (She noted that they were having difficulty finding guides who could speak both Greek and Mandarin.) In addition to being an expert in all things Cypriot, Maria was also a licensed, practicing architect and she was rich in spirit and humanistic understanding. She encouraged me to sit in the audience bleachers and feel how it must have been to watch performances here through the ages. Being in the theater, with its commanding cliff-view of the sea far below, just like Cyprus’ ancient citizens who sat watching spectacles at that same spot, made me feel connected to the energy and spirit rooted in the history of this place. The ancients would have seen the same perspective of waves breaking on the shore and the green expanses below them, the sea always reminding them of their island geography.
Near the theater is a magnificent arched structure built with massive curved wooden girders, installed to protect another archaeological monument known as the House of Eustolius. This is a noteworthy Roman nobleman’s villa, a five-star luxury hotel of its time. Its room layout shows different functional uses and key to understanding them are the surviving footings, water harvesting structures, and remnants of floor mosaics. The surviving floor mosaics illustrate the attitudes and themes of the day, including inscriptions about the nobleman’s largesse and importance as well as tributes to Roman precepts of wise living, and homages to Christian principles. For example, one floor inscription notes that the nobleman extended hospitality to poorer neighbors after a devastating earthquake.
There is a gorgeous surviving mosaic showing a woman carrying a measuring scale, to depict the veneration with which living “in moderation” or in “right measure” was valued. The ancients understood that living well required people to moderate themselves and find balance in all things. It seems that such values have been callously swept aside as anachronistic in the modern age, characterized by an economic system of endless growth built on unsustainable use of resources and waste pollution, where socio-cultural, spiritual, and aesthetic values are subordinate to the value of monetary profit and revenues.
The Roman nobleman built a series of spa rooms into his home complex, powered by heat from a room source which was transmitted to a “steam room” in the crawl space underneath a false raised floor. A cold water dipping pool was part of the complex, purportedly to recover from the steam heat treatment. The mosaic at the pit of the pool is perfectly preserved showing a geometric repeating design.
Leaving Kourion behind, we drove on towards the winding, mountainous roads into the interior of the island, into the rising Troodos mountains. Soon we were surrounded by stone-terraced hillsides planted with wines.
At the Linos Winery
Driving up into mountains, we began to see the stone-terraced fields where grape vines are grown. These stone walls had been constructed over hundreds of years to stabilize plots on hillsides, by local villagers and farmers. I noticed that these radial grape vines were low to the ground, looking almost like pygmy shrubs with stumpy low stems, and unlike in the California, New York and Virginia wine regions, were not supported by wooden posts with wires strung in-between. Maria explained that Cyprus’ famous, signature sweet wine, “Koummandaria”, has its historic roots in the Byzantine time when the Knights of St. John lived on the island. They lived in a military housing barracks known as “Koummanderia” and they produced an eponymous wine. Currently the specific appellation is regulated for a specific region, but wineries from other areas may also make official “Kuommanderia” after barreling grape juice grown in this area for no less than three years.
It was March and we noted the almond trees were flowering, in the still nippy, early-spring mountain air. There’s a symbiosis between the almond trees and vines: bees that pollinate the almond tree’s flowers are also beneficial to the grapes. We stopped to look more closely at a big sign of Saint Ephraim, legend has it that he was a young novice monk, murdered by Turks as a Christian martyr. The sign is erected near a church dedicated to him and appears to be looking over a field of vines. At that point, Maria received a call and went into an involved conversation. She then told us it was the doctor, letting her know that her blood test results were clear and her cells looked good…she is in remission from cancer. We all said a quiet prayer of thanks.
A herd of goats tumbled into the road and were shooed off to the side by a shepherd. We decided to stop at a winery overlooking a panoramic view of a valley expanse below filled with vine fields. The Linos winery seemed fairly quiet. We hung around enjoying the view until a field worker who noticed us went to get the boss.
Nikolas came right off the field, looking sun-kissed and a little exhausted. He drew back the barn door, and invited us in apologizing for his disheveled fieldwork look. He showed us the steel fermentation vats inside and described the family ownership and history of this winery and its production scale. Linos is a fairly large operation with 300 hectares of vines, carefully managed as organically as possible, and exported to Austria, France, and Italy, in addition to being sold in domestic markets within Cyprus. Nikolas’ family has owned this winery and this land (with acquisitions over time) since 1825
We gathered around for a tasting of about nine wines ranging from dry white, to rose, to dry reds, and then sweeter reds and whites, ending with a moscato and their Koummanderia which are their sweet desert wines.
One of the wines we tasted called Archangel led to an amusing story about tradition and family. In this family the birth of a son is marked by giving a title deed for a plot of land in his name (girls inherit houses). Nikolas’ own son’s plot was the site of a curious series of mistakes in production that yielded a uniquely-named, and now award-winning “Archangel” wine. The first mistake was that the planting instructions from Nikolas’ father got mixed up and two different kinds of grapes were planted instead of just cabernet grapes. Three years later, once this mistake was determined they accepted that the harvest would be a mix of varietals rather than pure; and decided to proceed even though they didn’t quite know what to expect. They pressed the grapes. The second mistake involved another blunder during the fermentation process when the wine was barreled too soon. The mounting accidents resulted in a deep red with woody and earthy notes. They went with it. The Archangel wine won distinction awards at a wine competition in Lyon, France. Currently it’s one of their in-demand bottles. I personally thought their Syrah was noteworthy.
The Linos family tasting barn also had long strings of “Soutzouko” or Suchuko hung out to harden. This Cypriot sweet is made from the fruits of both almonds and grapes, and uses the tradition of growing almond trees adjacent to wineries. Maria explained how suchuko was traditionally crafted over a period of days after grape harvesting at her aunt’s house. After the first press of the grapes for wine (and sifted off for holding in fermentation tanks), a second press is done to squeeze out the last of the grape juice; it’s not a good fit for wine-making but sugary juice is not to be wasted. The ‘second press’ liquid is collected (traditionally in a large brass pot) and (traditionally) set on a wood fire to be stirred for hours to concentrate it. Meanwhile almonds are strung in long threads in preparation and, once the grape juice is sufficiently syrupy and thick, are dipped in the concentrate to coats the nuts. The process is done many times over, to create a thick cylindrical coating of syrupy concentrate around the nuts. Then the strings are hung to dry during which time the syrup coating solidifies. The strings become really heavy and are traditionally hung off branches of trees or on poles set up between support stands.
As we got ready to leave, I perused their small store and picked up a couple of single-serving wines. Nikolas said that there was no way he would take payment. He said that Cyprus has a long tradition of hospitality to visitors and he wanted me to enjoy the family wines. It really stunned me that after spending so much time with us, strangers who had just driven up interested in learning more about their winery, that we would be treated with such generosity. I was almost speechless.
Another happy moment at this winery was when Nikolas’ parents drove up in a truck and Niki who was playing with the winery dog started chatting with them. She learned they had Kyrenia roots. Kyrenia is in the north of the country now occupied by Turks. She mentioned that her grandmother had determinedly stayed in the north even as they Turks attempted to starve her. Her grandmother had been a business woman with multiple properties and shops in Kyrenia. Turns out she was memorable and that the old folks knew her and recounted some quirky tales about her, particularly her golden tongue and quick wit. It seems Cyprus is all connected with each other.
I noticed the field workers and asked about them. Nikolas explained that the winery employs seasonal agricultural workers from Pakistan and Bangladesh, through an official program under which they are paid an EU-regulated minimum wage.
The Village of Omodhos
The village of Omodhos is a charming stop on the Troodos trail. They are set up to accommodate tour buses in a large receiving parking lot outside the village, from where you can climb into the cobbled-streets and narrow winding gulleys of this medieval-era village. Entering the village, we passed little bakeries and shops selling delicacies like pomegranate molasses-encrusted almonds, local jellies and honey, and hand-crafted products including lace. Lace making is a rich traditional heritage here. Maria stocked up on arkatena at the George bakery. (It’s a twice-baked hard bread crusted with sesame nuts which is served with some olive oil to nibble as an appetizer, or with soup.)
The main square of the village extends down a sloped cobbled street, lined with little tavernas and houses, with tables and chairs that spilled into the street. We went inside a restored communal village wine press which is how farmers from the region would extract juice from their grape harvests. A massive beam anchored into a stone cylinder with a spiraling groove was used to press a large flat stone disk that crushed grapes and sent the juices into a large mud pot set into the earth. Each family would then scoop out its wine from the receiving vat using hollowed out gourd ladles.
We settled in, to eat a lunch meal at a restaurant called Sto Kyr Yianni, a delightful covered patio restaurant with the traditional stone walls of this medieval village. Niki ordered her favorite, and ‘carb free’ “lamb kleftiko”. It consists of lamb slow-baked in a partially buried stone oven that is sealed and packed with mud. Kleftiko is the root word for “stealing” and I heard different stories about why the name is used for this dish. One, it represents a time when Greek Cypriots resisted paying Ottoman taxes and so the lamb was effectively stolen and second, more visceral, describes how the dish was made from goats stolen from the Ottoman army. The lamb was prepared in slow roasting sealed oven where the aromas would not waft into the air and alert the Turks that their goats were being cooked up for a Greek feast. Personally, I felt that the most amazing part of this meal was the Greek Salad (lightly doused in lemon juice and the herbiest, freshest olive oil), mixed with some of the spiced cream cheese served alongside, along with some sesame seed-crusted Greek crostini brushed with olive oil.
I was pretty knocked out by this amazing meal, and actually began snoozing as soon as I got in the car. I’m not used to eating this kind of meat! It was about time for me to wake up with a vigorous activity. We drove to Platres, a small mountain resort, which in the seventies, used to be visited by middle-eastern dignitaries and leaders seeking respite from the summer heat. Here, we hiked up to a lush waterfall, and there was nobody else there. I felt I had experienced some shy, hidden parts of the Cyprus soul, that are quite magical and connected to an essence I would never have found on the beaches and coffee shops of Lemesos (Limassol). And that’s really the best kind of trip isn’t it.