Cyprus Island of Love

By Ilona Kauremszky
Special to the National Post

LIMASSOL, Cyprus - Aphrodite, the goddess of love and beauty, was born right here in Cyprus.

Even one of the greatest love stories has a Cyprus connection. It's said that the love struck Antony gave the isle as a gift to his beautiful Cleopatra. She loved her sojourns so much by the secluded grottos with its uncapped perfume bottle of aromatic herbs that she later used the fragrances for her own beauty potion.

On his way to the Holy Land, Richard the Lionheart used his might to possess the island, but in the heat of battle, he fell in love with the enchanting Berengaria of Navarre in 1191, married and stayed a year.

Some things never change. Cyprus is still known as the birthplace of Aphrodite and is also affectionately pegged "the Island of Amore." When I mentioned to a well-healed traveler friend about an upcoming trip, they were quick to quip "Why Cyprus? What's there anyway?"

It seems few Canadians venture to this side of the Mediterranean. In 2001, a mere 6,000 Canucks were estimated to drop down beach blankets and swim in the deep Sargasso Sea while in 2000, the arrival figures hovered around 7,400. Why so few? The most likely reason is accessibility. Only a handful of Canadian tour operators provide organized trips and there are no direct flights. But from London, it's a direct flight in five hours.

As the most easterly Mediterranean isle, Cyprus is the third largest and is planted east of the Greek Islands with Turkey to the north and Egypt south. Often referred as the crossroads of Africa, Europe and the Middle East, the kidney-shaped island just under 3,600 square miles makes it easy for driving and is quite simply a land of rich history, exotic cuisine, unspoiled wilderness and possesses a gentle hospitality which quickly becomes intoxicating.

Author Christopher Hitchens once described Cyprus as "an outwardly modern and European society" while guidebooks often dubb this island of beauty as, "both an enigmatic and enticing." Lawrence Durrell who lived here in the fifties penned, "The Bitter Lemons of Cyprus," which offers a colorful account of a world that is pure and simple. The country scenes depict grazing sheep in the meadows under the palette of wondrous skies. Time stands still in these ancient hillside villages. It is the taverna that is the engine driving hour-long conversations while the family life is the soul.

Little did Durrell know or for that matter anyone that things would dramatically change in 1974 when Turkish troops occupied the north. Before the world knew it, the United Nations sent in a brigade of peacekeepers, which continues their presence today. An invisible green line separates the tiny island, slicing the country literally in two with Turkey occupying the north and the Greek Cypriots inhabiting the south.

Despite the world crises battling in the Middle East, I was determined to find out why this island was so enchanting to ancient civilizations. The Greeks used the skilful Cypriots to build wooden ships for the famous Battle of Troy. Saints Paul and Barnabas brought Christianity to the world through Cyprus, making it the first converted society in Europe.

Among the masters, Shakespeare set that tragic love story of Othello and Desdemona in the ancient port of Famagusta while Leonardo da Vinci marvelled at the intricate lace makers from Lefkara so much, he took some back to the Vatican and is said to have used it in his paintings.

My visit to Cyprus began smack in the middle of the south coast in a vibrant beach town called Limassol. Reputed as "the city that never sleeps," it is popular for its resorts and a 9 km boardwalk sandwiched between the sandy beachfront and luxury hotels. In the city centre, tourists flock to the old harbor for its tavernas, sightseeing and souvenir shopping. Many start their tour at the Limassol Medieval Castle once the abode of Richard the Lionheart and now a museum of medieval artifacts.

I started at an ancient carob mill behind the castle in which the limestone structure holds the newest invention to hit the world stage. Teenagers, many in school uniforms, are lining up like at a rock concert, eagerly waiting to enter the "Time Elevator." I'm crammed inside the lobby, answering questions a la Jeopardy style with a jumbo video image of Dr. Kyprianos as our Alex Trebick. After the 10 skill testing questions on the island's history, it's into the theatre we go.

Equipped with sophisticated simulation techniques, three-dimensional imagery and surround sound, our moving seats got everyone gasping, groaning and giggling as we watched an Imax rendition of Cyprus. Dr. Kyprianos and Ms. Amathusia are on the big screen moving the time dial backward to view all the kingdoms that have put down roots and left their mark here from Egypt, Rome, Persia and Venice.

Afterwards, it's a mad dash to the shopping district down the street. Packed with herbalist shops, I gaze inside a sea sponge store but am suddenly alerted to the call of a mighty macaw, the guest greeting store pet. Aquatic fur balls some resembling mammoth shitake mushrooms are stacked in piles. I load up on loofahs (2 CYP) and head for the hills.

The Troodos Mountains considered a rich man's paradise before the coastal beachfronts became "the" place to vacation, house the island's tallest mountain and is laden with a tapestry of black pine weaving along the hilltops housing nine Byzantine churches that have been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site. During raids and unrest, locals ventured to these dense forests in search of protection. They built Byzantine churches and prayed for safety. Today, visitors can visit the villages and enter the premises. Should you arrive to find a locked church, don't despair. The Cyprus Tourism Office provides brochures that clearly state, "Visitors can ask for the key from the village priest."

Vacationers drive up the serpentine roads ascending past the carob trees and olive groves, heading for the hills to embark on the many hiking trips, picnic spots and stop at the latest addition, the Troodos National Park Visitor's Centre where park rangers provide information on the area's history, 12 nature trails, and flora and fauna.

On this warm afternoon, we drive north from Limassol for about an hour until the "Linos Winery" emerges off the roadside. The rolling hills of Krassochoria bathe in the Mediterranean sunlight, bearing its chalky soil, which has been cultivated for centuries. I sample the red wine from black mavro grapes and soutzoukos a chewy snack from grape juice and almonds that dries like long candlesticks draped over a rod.

In Omodhos, a quaint hillside village brims with the enthusiasm of village life familiar in Durrell's novel. In this hamlet of herringbone roads, whitewashed walls and terracotta rooftops, tiny mammas gather along the narrow streets, some seated in groups of two, stealthily plying their fingers in an intricate weave of lace. The delicate masterpieces are layed out neatly on their laps for all to see. A quick photo and purchase and off I continue roaming these tightly woven streets where the rooster sings and the cowbells ring in the distance.

Omodhos is one of a handful of villages frequented by tourists but on this day, only a few have wandered into a Byzantine church and discovered at another spot the realm of an ancient grape press hiding behind giant wooden doors. While the others purchase the handiwork of the coppersmith and the herbalist whose shelves are lined with Mosfilo marmalade, honey, sage and thyme, I amble to the local taverna.

I meet Eftichia whose name means "happiness." A wood stove fuels the warmth inside the taverna while the framed photographs of patrons bear their smiles on the walls. I discover Eftichia speaks five other languages seamlessly. In French, we talk about her village and her love of language and how she's so pleased to speak French to another.

Moments later, she appears with a tray of shots. We indulge and raise our glasses to health and good food. It's when we leave that again I sense the gentleness of the Cypriot way."Eftichia, what is the price for the shots?" I ask. "Nothing," she replies and smiles, waving goodbye as we head back to the roads of Troodos.

-30-

photos: Stephen Smith


If You Go:

Reading Recommendations: Lonely Planet's Guide to Cyprus is packed with relevant info on sites and cities as well as the Blue Guide to Cyprus aimed more for the history buff.

How to Get There: There are no direct flights from Canada to Cyprus. I flew British Airways from Toronto to London's Heathrow and switched to another British Airways carrier to Larnaka, Cyprus.

Best Bets: The compact size of this Mediterranean island makes it ideal for driving. A list of car rental firms can be obtained from the Cyprus Tourism Organization. The CTO recommends that a valid national driver's license is needed for car rentals. Remember to obey British driving regulations. Or you can hire a trained and licensed guide through the Cyprus Tourist Guides Association.

For tourist info: Contact the Cyprus Tourism Organization, 13 East 40th St., New York, NY 10016 telephone: 212.683.5280


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