The Stuff of Myths

The old-fashioned island of Cyprus inspires Mediterranean idylls

LOOK! There! Aphrodite's birthplace!

It was near midday. We were standing on a high bluff on the coast road from Limassol to Paphos, on the southern end of the island of Cyprus. I looked somewhat quizzically at my friend Andreas. He is a college professor, an author, an expert in fluid mechanics, and a very smart man. He knows that Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love and beauty, was not really tossed up -- a piece of foam -- from the Mediterranean Sea at Petra tou Romiou, yet at least for a moment he indulged himself in a childlike suspension of disbelief.

It's not difficult to understand why. On Cyprus reality and mythology are continually bumping up against each other. Cyprus is the third largest island in the Mediterranean, close to Turkey, the Middle East, and Egypt. Bartered for as it has been over the better part of 9,000 years, occupied, colonized, given as a gift from Antony to Cleopatra, Cyprus, together with its people, has learned to endure. The country today is little explored by Americans, although the British, the Germans, the Scandinavians, and lately the Russians are frequent visitors. I recently completed my fourth trip since 1989.

Cyprus is an island divided. The more southerly two thirds of it is controlled by the Republic of Cyprus; the northern third is occupied by Turkey. The division followed a Turkish invasion in 1974. The north is in a tourist sense largely undeveloped, a circumstance that has its own allure. Current regulations allow a person who is staying in the Republic of Cyprus to visit the north on a day trip, by passing through the United Nations-controlled gate in the capital, Nicosia. Because no country other than Turkey recognizes the so-called Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, it may be entered from outside the island only via Turkey. Anyone who does arrive this way, though, could be barred from entering the Republic of Cyprus later.

These political realities and bureaucratic contrivances may suggest to some that visiting Cyprus is dangerous. Indeed, the question of safety was raised by The Atlantic's editors when I proposed this piece. I dutifully consulted my Cypriot friends and government authorities. They were dumbstruck. Cyprus unsafe? Surely I was joking. Incidents occasionally occur along the cease-fire line between the two portions of the island, and it is true that several people have been killed since 1974. The last major incident involving foreign visitors occurred in 1985, when three Israelis were murdered on a boat moored at the marina in the town of Larnaca. The perpetrators proved to be foreign terrorists, and Cyprus cracked down hard, warning that tourists were welcome but violent criminals were not.

Cyprus continues to be a major Middle East listening post and a convenient headquarters for foreign journalists. In four trips to and around the island I have never felt uneasy, let alone frightened. During one of my visits I met with Glafcos Clerides, the President of Cyprus, at his office in Nicosia, and though security precautions were obviously in effect, they were much less intrusive than similar precautions taken here in the United States. At my two meetings with the former President George Vassiliou a single, fairly bookish administrative assistant was his only protection.

IF you wanted to train yourself to be an accomplished tourist, Cyprus would be a good classroom. The island is small, just under 3,600 square miles, with a maximum length of 150 miles and a maximum width of sixty-three miles. Renting a car is a good idea. You can choose, as I usually do, to use one of the seaside hotels in Limassol, the industrial hub of Cyprus, as a base. Or you can find comfortable accommodations in many other places on the island. Cyprus has a wide variety of options, from American-style hotels to tourist apartments to rooms. Because I find packing and unpacking one of the least attractive aspects of travel, I would rather pay for two rooms -- keeping the one in Limassol while staying someplace else overnight -- than pack up to move from place to place. Limassol makes a good base in part because it is only an hour's drive from both Paphos, the ancient Roman capital, and Nicosia; in forty-five minutes you can be in the Troodos Mountains. I make my visits in summer, and though it is hot, the mountains are cool, and even at the shore the temperature is moderated by sea breezes.

Life in Cyprus is familial and simple. Cyprus feels like the 1950s in all the good ways. Although Limassol has a gaudy tourist strip where large nightclubs and dance clubs throb the night away, Cypriots bent on enjoyment prefer family barbecues, village and town festivals, and day trips to the beaches or the mountains. Many Cypriots straddle life with one foot in the professional camp, as doctor, lawyer, or engineer, and the other foot in the camp of sons and daughters of the soil, as farmer, vineyardist, or fisherman. However they earn their living, Cypriots routinely press their own olives for oil, pickle their capers and their caper vines, and grow their own produce. As they head out for picnics or weekends in the villages, the two-lane road from just above Limassol to the Troodos Mountains is choked with traffic. Some families keep summer homes in the mountains even though their city houses are only an hour away by car. This is not an act of pretension but, rather, a way to escape the summer heat.

You can see much of Cyprus in a week -- a particularly appealing idea if you'd like to combine a stop there with a visit to, say, Israel, Egypt, or Turkey. Two weeks in Cyprus is ample time to be infused with the spirit of the island, and three weeks to a month would be an unabashed luxury. I find prices reasonable for most things and downright inexpensive for others. For instance, I usually stay at the Miramare Hotel, on the Mediterranean, in Limassol. The Miramare is a medium-sized first-class hotel just off the tourist strip, with a great view, a huge and beautiful pool, and an outdoor bar. The rooms have balconies and air-conditioning, and breakfast is included in the rate: about fifty-five Cypriot pounds, or $98, a day.

Cyprus is a treasury of fascinating archaeological sites. Because such a range of peoples have dominated the island, it offers layers and layers of insights into earlier civilizations. So rich is this cultural heritage that it is not unusual for the winter rains, in washing away bits of soil, to reveal ancient coins and artifacts -- all of which, as one might suspect, are by law the property of the people and government of Cyprus. Cyprus provides a generally uncrowded human-scale opportunity to gaze at the past and envision life in another age.

PAPHOS, in the southwest, is so archaeologically abundant that the entire town is on UNESCO's World Heritage List. Vibrantly colored, intricate mosaics dating from the fifth and sixth centuries have been beautifully preserved by many centuries of undisturbed slumber beneath the local sand. Most of these are to be found in what remains of a large villa built long ago by a wealthy family and now conserved and maintained by the Cyprus Department of Antiquities.

Even Cypriot friends of mine who have visited the mosaics countless times find new insights with each visit. If you are not conversant with Greek mythology, I would urge you to visit this site with someone who is; knowing something of the mosaics' deeper mythological meanings will add much to your enjoyment. Since Cypriots are well schooled in matters Hellenic and also in the English language, finding someone to help with mosaic interpretation should be easy. Paphos was an important port for each of the civilizations that have inhabited Cyprus, and so it is generally conceded that archaeologists have barely begun in their search through the detritus of the city's history.

After braving the heat of the plain to view the mosaics recently, my traveling companion and I sought out a taverna high above stunning Coral Bay, where as the afternoon yielded to night we sat under a grape arbor having a snack and reviewing the splendors of the day. Below us the brilliant blue-green waters of the bay deepened in color as the sun approached the horizon.

Northwest of Paphos is the rich and varied Akamas Peninsula, home of nature trails and archaeological sites. The peninsula takes its name from the son of Theseus who came to Cyprus after the Trojan War. Three thousand years of Greek history and mythology are woven into the natural beauty of the area. One spot not to be missed is the Baths of Aphrodite, a pool fed by a natural spring, where, legend has it, Adonis first saw Aphrodite, as she bathed in the crystalline waters. If you drink from the spring, which is shaded by a fig tree, you will supposedly feel younger and more loving. Unfortunately, you may also feel sick: the government warns that the water is not potable. The nature trails in the area benefit from the fact that Cyprus is situated at the crossroads of three continents of varied flora: Europe, Asia, and Africa. The Government of Cyprus Tourist Office makes available information on these and other sites of interest; in the United States call 212-683-5280.

Also within easy driving distance of Paphos can be found Byzantine churches with beautiful frescoes, excavations of sites from the Chalcolithic period (3900-2500 B.C.), and monasteries, among them Chrysorrogiatissa, dedicated to Our Lady of the Golden Pomegranate, whose old winery produces some very good wine. Just off the road from Limassol to Larnaca is the village of Lefkara. If visits to the labyrinthine souks of the Middle East delight you, then you will be thrilled by this picturesque place. It is known for its lace and its silver, although "lace" is a bit of a misnomer: most of the work is actually beautiful hand embroidery on imported linen. Leonardo da Vinci is said to have shopped in Lefkara -- a dazzling boast that cannot be historically verified. Caveat emptor is the watchword here. Some of the shopkeepers are honest, and some of the work is as represented.

The village of Episkopi, west of Limassol, has a new hotel and a great beach complete with a taverna run by Marinos, a personable mariner home from the sea and now purveying excellent local food specialties and cold local beer. On a hill high above the sea are the ruins of Kourion. In its day Kourion was an important city-kingdom. The Greco-Roman amphitheater, now restored, dates from the second century B.C., and it is a great treat to attend a play or a concert there, against the backdrop of the eastern Mediterranean. Episkopi has a small museum of artifacts from Kourion, and on the bluff itself can be found ancient homes, including the House of Gladiators, which has a beautiful mosaic floor. The nearby Sanctuary of Apollo Hylates (god of the woodland and the protector of the city of Kourion) was an active religious site for well over a thousand years -- from the eighth century B.C. until the fourth century A.D.

Descending from the bluff of Kourion, you can swim in the inviting waters of the Mediterranean and then have a meal in the taverna. Because I am a rock collector, usually after eating here I head off down the beach to its western end, where high cliffs rise abruptly from the water. The cliffs have been undercut by the action of the waves, and the area provides fertile territory for hours of rock hunting, a magnificent solitary and contemplative pursuit.

WHEN the almost cloudless summer sky loses its charm and the heat of the coastal plain feels more oppressive than balmy, it's time to do what Cypriots routinely do: head for the hills. The Troodos Mountains cannot be mistaken for the Rockies or the Alps, but they do contain wonderful surprises. These mountains, 6,500 feet at their highest point and carpeted with fragrant cedar and pine forests, are home to Greek Orthodox monasteries; jewels of Byzantine churches, nine of which are on UNESCO's World Heritage List; and tiny villages, each with a specialty. One, for example, produces a celebrated wine, another pottery, and a third the region's best cherries. The farther off the beaten path you wander, the more charming the find. The vistas are spectacular, as the land falls away into valleys and deep gorges and you catch an occasional glimpse of the sea below.

It was in these mountains that my friends Elektra and Neophytos Alexandrou prepared a picnic beside a cool brook in a glade that looked for all the world like a movie set. Bottles of Othello wine and a watermelon were put to chill in the brook, and local delicacies, including home-cured olives and pickled caper vines, were laid out on the table. Earlier in the day we had stumbled on the village of Trimiklini, which is little more than a bulge in the highway. There we found a roadside stand selling fresh fruits and vegetables, local sage honey, and a great jumble of stuff. Some terra-cotta pots were piled outside, most of them new. One in particular caught my eye. It had a classic rounded shape, two handles, and a pouring spout. Without thinking about how I would get it back home, I asked its price. Almost embarrassed, the shopkeeper told me that because it was a hundred years old, he would have to ask nine Cypriot pounds ($18). Prices at this shop have gone up some since then, and I believe my gleeful enthusiasm in concluding that sale may have prompted the escalation. Kitsch would be out of place in the serenity of these mountains. Some local handicrafts come close to the line, but country artisans and the monks and nuns who dwell in the monasteries produce beautiful mementos of the island.

The monastery of Stavrovouni is a special case. Located on an isolated steep hill, a short drive off the road from Limassol to Nicosia, Stavrovouni is said to be the oldest active religious community in Cyprus; according to legend, it was founded by Saint Helena, mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine. (Traveling around Cyprus, one bumps into Saint Helena often. Perhaps the most intriguing Saint Helena site is the Monastery of the Cats, west of Limassol, wherein four Greek Orthodox nuns live with hundreds of cats, beneficiaries of Saint Helena's concern for animals. The sisters make candy and nicely painted wooden eggs, which they offer for sale.) About twenty monks (surprisingly, most are young men) live at Stavrovouni, rotating between occupying the high monastic citadel and staying in a location on the valley floor. They observe a severe regimen of prayer, work, and sleep. The monastery has restricted visiting hours; male visitors are required to wear long pants; and women are not allowed to proceed past a tiny chapel in the parking lot. Even from the parking lot the vistas are breathtaking.

In a small studio and shop at the base of the monastery is one of Cyprus's living national treasures -- the icon painter Father Kalinikos. This delightful and gifted man, now in his seventies, is acknowledged to be the foremost icon painter in the Orthodox world. His pieces are masterworks, and as such are hardly inexpensive, but the two I have bought on successive visits give me enormous pleasure. The colors are luminous and the designs classic.

A visit to Father Kalinikos involves a definite ritual. If you are browsing among the less expensive, mass-produced items, you will be greeted courteously and made to feel welcome. If, though, you are a buyer known from past visits, or you indicate that you would like to buy one of the original pieces, suddenly a hidden air-conditioner is activated, cool water appears from a back room, and cold fruit is taken out of the not-so-obvious refrigerator and set before you. I received oranges for my first purchase and sweet fresh figs for my second.

THOSE cold oranges and figs are symbolic of the hospitality that is a hallmark of this island -- most of which does not come as part of a quid pro quo. It is simply impossible to visit a Cypriot home without being offered coffee or juice, pastries, cheese, olives, fresh fruit, or even a meal. The foundation of a Cypriot meal, in a private home or a restaurant, is the collection of small plates known as the meze. Indeed, in some restaurants one need only indicate a choice between fish and meat, and a multi-course feast will proceed without the need to make any further choices. The meze may include taramasalata, which is a fish-roe dip; olives; local halloumi cheese, often served grilled; koupepia, the local version of stuffed grape leaves; tzatziki, a cucumber-and-yogurt salad; stifado, a succulent beef-and-onion stew; fish, shrimp, octopus, or other fresh seafood grilled over a wood fire; kleftiko, meat that by tradition is cooked in a covered hole in the ground; sheftalia, seasoned ground pork that has been shaped into elongated meatballs, wrapped in caul fat, and grilled; and lamb, pork, or chicken kebabs grilled alone or in combination. A salad of tomatoes, onions, cucumbers, bell peppers, shredded cabbage or lettuce, and feta cheese, with a tangy dressing of lemon juice and the island's fruity olive oil, can be added -- or enjoyed with nothing but fresh baked bread as a wonderful lunch. Most Cypriots are hearty meat-eaters, but the abundance of local produce ensures that vegetarians won't go hungry.

The wines of Cyprus are lusty and largely unrefined, and the wine nomenclature and dating habits of the Cypriots could drive a connoisseur crazy. For instance, Afames 1962 may have no connection whatever to that year. Just how innocent such practices are I have been unable to deduce. The island's vintners have promised to bring some order out of the riot of colorful but misleading naming processes, but no date has been set for the fulfillment of their promise. Cypriot wines are not readily available in the United States, so if you find something you particularly enjoy, you'll do well to carry or send some home.

Cyprus. Nine thousand years of history have forged a determined and gregarious people. Home to Zenon, the founder of one of the major schools of Stoic philosophy; alleged site of the marriage of Richard Lionheart to Berengaria of Navarre; possession of the Romans, the Greeks, the Venetians, and the Byzantines; suzerainty of the British; and a vibrant living tribute to the passion of the charismatic Archbishop Makarios -- Cyprus endures, the entire island a museum of the sweep of human history.

Gene Burns hosts The Gene Burns Program and Dining Around With Gene Burns on KGO Radio, in San Francisco. Burns recently began broadcasting a nationally syndicated dining program on the Talk America Network.

The Atlantic Monthly; September 1999; The Stuff of Myths; Volume 284, No. 3; page 30-34.