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A Journey to Cyprus
We stood silently in the village of Kourion, looking in awe at the partially restored villa known to archeologists as Daniel's Roman House. If only walls could talk! Or if I possessed my ultimate fantasy -- an H.G. Wellsian Time Machine!
If I did, I would be tempted to dial the machine to the beginning of the year 364AD, which archeologists now say was a year before the cataclysmic under-sea earthquake and tidal wave that, in a matter of moments, destroyed Kourion. Ironically, as it did so, aspects of the lifestyle of the period were frozen in time much in the same way as archeologists can "read" lifestyle details in Pompeii when that town was destroyed by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius.
What a bustling villa this would have been in that year before the cataclysm. In those days Cyprus was still a most important Mediterranean trading post -- a bridge between Asia and Europe. Its earlier inhabitants were wealthy and well-educated, its houses were solid, and life was both prosperous and happy. The villa had a lovely paved courtyard, its terrace floor supported by handsome Doric columns. The layout was similar to many houses found on Cyprus today, though many items discovered here were surprising -- including bones of rabbits and hares that were so large that scientists estimate these animals weighed up to 40 pounds.
Before the earthquake and subsequent tidal wave were to strike the following year, there had already been a whole series of minor, preceding earthquakes. As a result, many wealthy Roman families had moved out, perhaps to return to the capital of the Empire that was starting to go into moral, military and power-associated decline, and poorer, mainly Christian families had moved into this and surrounding houses.
On that fatal day of the villa's sudden end, a mule had been tethered to a hugely-heavy feeding trough. A 13 year-old girl had been attending the animal when both died instantly, their bones attesting to the tragedy when uncovered some sixteen centuries later. Much else was found in the house and those around it.
That's Cyprus. Throughout the Millennia this island has been a true stage across which the real-life actors strutted from one Continent to another, changing the history of the world in the process. To experience this, consider taking All Inclusive Holidays to Cyprus.
With the oldest known settlements dating back 9,000 years, this Eastern Mediterranean island has been especially significant as the crossroads of European history since the first Greeks settled there after the Trojan wars some 3,000 years ago.
Numerous civilizations have all left their marks, starting with the Mycenaeans around 1,400 BC. It was included in the Macedonian Empire of Alexander the Great from 333 BC. Then came the Hellenistic invasion by the Ptolemies of Egypt, followed by the Roman era from 58 BC to 330 AD. After that came the succession of the Byzantine, Crusader, Venetian, Ottoman and British periods. Throughout all this time, Cyprus was under foreign rule. The island, populated by two separate communities, one Turkish and Moslem, the other Greek Orthodox, have shared this island for over a thousand years. Most of the time the two communities have lived in relative peace and harmony.
When Cyprus gained its independence from Britain in l960, the two communities split into what has become, de facto, two countries, and it is the larger, ethnically Greek, section that is currently encouraging tourism. Ironically, the two communities can trace their origins to common ancestors, with religion and language now acting as dividers. Heaven help the newly-arrived first-time visitor who innocently orders a Turkish coffee in the Greek part or a Greek coffee in the Turkish part, even though it is the same thing.
Cypriots have always lived in uncertain times. During the Crusades, Richard the Lionhearted took possession of Cyprus, and actually sold it to the Knights Templars later. The Venetians used this island as a staging post for their trade in the Mediterranean and their influence lasted nearly a century, from the late 15th to the late 16th centuries. They were defeated by the Ottomans who annexed the island, expelled the Venetians and allowed the Greek Orthodox Church to be restored.
This was a golden era during which the Greek Orthodox majority and the Islamic minority were able to live here at peace with each other. At the end of the 19th century, administration was transferred to Britain, with Cyprus finally gaining Independence in 1960.
When our Cyprus Airways plane landed at Larnaca, we were met by our Cypriot guide, Philios Phylaktis, who specializes in arranging cultural tours for small groups. During our correspondence we had shown an interest in the archaeological sites to be found on the island. Philios was very enthusiastic and helpful, promising that we would not be disappointed. And from the moment we left the airport environs we became immersed in the island's fascinating history.
Our first visit back into the time-warp was to the massively-walled Kolossi Castle, built during the Crusader times by the French and complete with moat and tower, where the Coats of Arms of the French Crusaders can still be seen over the entrance.
In the flower-filled grounds next to the castle building, a large domed structure turned out to be the remains of an old sugar refinery. We were astonished to learn that Cyprus had been producing sugar from cane as early as the fifteenth century AD. Known as the "Powder of Cyprus," it was mostly traded through Venice when that city-state's merchant-princes were so influential in every part of the Eastern Mediterranean. The Ottomans subsequently replaced the sugar crop with cotton, building aqueducts to bring water from the Troodos Mountains.
As we drove along the road following the picture-postcard-pretty coastline towards Paphos the weather was fine and sunny with a cool breeze. Occasional breaks in the shady avenues of Cypress trees revealed tantalizing glimpses of the fertile coastal plain with its emerald groves of oranges and lemons. Here was the ultimate Mediterranean landscape and ambiance. No wonder those who visited were tempted to return again and again! But in doing so they sometimes adversely affected this island's idyllic impressions.
The town of Limassol is a favorite destination for the huge numbers of German and English tourists arriving here each summer in search of their own place in the warm sun.
Although we drove through without stopping, we couldn't help noticing the "in-your-face" aspect created by large-scale tourism. Street-front cafes trying to attract Germans, offered dishes of Sauerkraut at its Wurst, complete with endless posters promoting brewed-in-Munich-beers. Not to be outdone, those trying to cater to the Brits were offering Fish n' Chips and pots of Guinness.
Rows of small and not-so-small hotels and pensions displayed their signs mainly in English and German. Every other house seemed to carry placards announcing that it was owned by Messrs. To Let or Zimmer. Cross-culturalism can be a good thing, but to me such blatant commercialism can take the definition of "crass" right over the edge. Fortunately there was no shortage of local eateries also. To counter-balance the souvenir shops and tourist-bars, every other building seemed to feature a cafe, or restaurant that clearly catered to the locals.
Just after leaving Limassol we arrived at Kourion, one of the most spectacular archaeological sites on the island. Excavations are still in progress here, and it seems that new treasures are discovered regularly.
We climbed to the top row of seats in the ancient amphitheater which was originally built in the 2nd century BC, and is now fully restored and is often used for music and theater performances. What a magnificent site!
Once again I was overwhelmed by the urge for a time machine that would allow me to join the toga-clad crowds sitting here listening to speeches in Latin given by visiting Senators from Rome, or applauding favorite actors performing the latest dramas by Roman playwrights. With the deep blue of the sea as a backdrop, and green fertile fields all around, it was a perfect setting and one that cried out for my imagination to be kick-started into top gear.
Philios, who had been unnecessarily insecure about his English being adequate, had arranged for another colleague to join us for the day at Paphos. She was Androulla Charalambous, fluent in French, German and English, and a lady with a fantastic knowledge of the history and traditions of Cyprus.
"When we get around the next corner, you will see a group of rocks a few yards from shore," Androulla explained. "They are known as Petra Tou Romiou, and are supposed to be where, in ancient times, the Goddess Aphrodite emerged from the waves. There are other great happenings associated with this place too. The Greek name of the rocks comes from Byzantine times, when legend had it that a frontier guard kept Saracens away by hurling a huge rock into the sea and destroying their ship. That rock is the large one at the rear of the group."
Myth and fact weave and intertwine in the history of this stretch of coastline to the point where it is hard to know where one stops and the other starts. Looking at the deep azure-blue sea, its small waves breaking on the pristine white sand below us, it was not so difficult to imagine such mythical characters appearing from behind trees or rocks. All over this interest-packed island we were to find scenes that would, at least for the moment, make the mythology of Cyprus seem perfectly feasible.
At Paphos, the House of Dionysos, another treasure rekindled our sense of history. This was one of several luxurious Roman villas in the best part of this ancient town. Built in classical Graeco-Roman style, we admired the layout. With its atrium in the center of the building, it would be a pleasing design to live in today. However what earned it a registered place on the UNESCO's World Cultural Heritage List were the extensive and beautiful mosaics that had been uncovered here.
Built towards the end of the 2nd century AD, the house was destroyed by earthquakes that ruined Paphos and other towns in Cyprus in the first half of the 4th century AD. The original building occupied an area of about 2,000 square meters, of which 556 are covered with exquisitely detailed mosaic floors, mostly still in excellent condition. A lucky discovery in the 1960s brought these spectacular mosaics to light.
All the myths and legends of Ancient Greece are portrayed here. The Rape of Ganymede is one of the best mosaics in this house -- it shows the moment when Zeus in the form of an eagle carries away the beautiful young shepherd.
We marveled at a representation of Narcissus looking at himself in the water, figures portraying the Four Seasons, and a large and elaborate illustration of the triumphal return of the God Dionysos from a military expedition to India. This mosaic shows the Indian slaves and panthers that he brought back with him.
We also admired the many details of daily life portrayed here, including vintage scenes (where there is a snake coiled around a vine) and hunting panels with lifelike tigers, leopards and moufflon, wild sheep that are native to the mountainous regions of Southern Europe. It was hard to tear ourselves away from this fascinating glimpse into what was clearly a most pleasant lifestyle nearly 2,000 years ago, when our guides reminded us that it was time for lunch.
Having realized our dislike of tourist-traps, Philios took us to a typical Cypriot countryside restaurant. The food here was classical home-cooking, and naturally started with delicious dips and crusty bread. The smiling, enthusiastic owner insisted that we try a taste of everything, so we did.
Local potatoes in a tasty sauce, rabbit stew, spicy chicken, some home-made pickles and stuffed zucchini were all washed down with red wine which came in a handmade pottery jug. What a difference a good local guide makes. Too often tourists never see the way locals live or eat. Here we had the opportunity to share both aspects, and we liked what we observed. Well wined and dined, we relaxed during our drive back to the hotel, through yet more picturesque countryside and along the beach road.
We had tasted the wine. The next day we were to see it grown as we set off for a drive through the rocky Troodos mountains to visit the vineyards. As we passed through the small villages, we could see that life here was much the same as in many Greek villages. Once again we saw groups of men sitting on low chairs outside the cafes with cups of strong coffee or glasses of wine from the nearby wine district of Krasochoria. Mostly dressed in timeless, traditional dark clothes with knitted caps, they appeared to be in deep conversation, barely lifting their heads to acknowledge our passing.
No women were to be seen in the cafes, nor along the narrow country lanes, as it was not the season for working in the terraced fields. Almond trees, in palest pink-white blossom, leaned over the dry stone walls and showered the steep pathways and roads with their petals. A profusion of wildflowers, yellow, pink and purple, waved in the pine-scented breeze. Anemones, marigolds, asphodels and cyclamen all bloom here in their respective seasons to create a botanists' paradise.
A number of painted Byzantine churches brought our time machine a thousand years forward from the Roman villa. With wonderful icons, mosaics, frescoes and other examples of Byzantine art, these churches are scattered throughout the Troodos Mountains. A lot of restoration work is going on here as new "finds" come to light and Byzantine art is becoming more fashionable and more understood by the public. But there is more to fascinate the visitor about this area than just the history.
We found each village to be well-known for its own special product, crop or craft. Some might grow cherries, apples or peaches, others might produce Cyprian sweet specialties like soujouko and palouze. One produced vast quantities of rosewater, made from the abundant flowering roses of the island, another the local pottery with its distinctive designs so beloved by locals and tourists alike. The pottery here has a lovely soft earthen color, and many of the shapes are taken from the classic Mediterranean oil, water and wine pitchers.
We stopped at one roadside display so that we could take some photos, and an old woman, her face wrinkled from the sun, came towards us. She smiled and beckoned us to look further. Without a single common word of language between us, we used our hands, eyes and facial expressions to ask if she would pose for a photo. Smiling her consent she proudly stood in front of the tiny shop, surrounded by her merchandise. We bought a small decorated plate as a reminder of her and this day in sunny Cyprus.
Sun glinted off the white rocky surface of the mountains as we started back. "There is good skiing here in the winter" commented Androulla, surprising us. Somehow we had not thought of snow falling in this part of the world. "And the nature trails are wonderful too." That was easier to understand. The more we saw of this island, the more we realized that Cyprus has something for everyone.
Shopping was good here too. Filigree silver and the beautiful Lefkaritika lace, basketware and crochet work, woodwork -- and firewater officially known as Cyprus brandy -- are just some of the items that make good gifts. And you can have clothing like suits and shirts made-to-measure very economically if you plan to stay for a week or so. Leather is also good value here. You may not get the latest Paris fashion in shoes, but they will be well made from beautiful soft leather, and be offered at bargain prices.
Hotels run the gamut from large and luxurious to small, local pensions. There are also a vast number of self-catering apartments from which to choose, and the young and more adventurous will find a wide choice in camping sites with all facilities.
Best time to go
The summer tourist season of July and August is very hot and dry, so if you are not fussy about sizzling on a beach or around a hotel pool, go in the European spring and autumn. Even in January when we were there, the sun sparkled off the Mediterranean and it was hot enough for us to need hats when we explored the amphitheater and other ruins.
Things to take
Strong walking shoes are essential for the ruins; lots of film; and a hat.
When visiting churches and monasteries, avoid wearing shorts, backless tops and very short dresses.
Airlines that fly into Cyprus include: Emirates; Cyprus Airways; Alitalia; Air Zimbabwe; Gulf Air; British Airways; Lufthansa; Swiss Air.
For a fabulous tour of Cyprus, contact
USA toll free phone and/or fax 1-800-742-4591
or telephone 1-516-433-0690
As well as small-group tours, Amelia Tours can also arrange excellent independent travel for the intending Cyprus visitor.
Anthology Travels and Tours Ltd
PO Box 8654, Nicosia 2081 Cyprus.
Phone: ++ 357 2 467 763
Fax ++ 357 2 475 337
Androulla Charalambous is a licensed Cyprus Tourist Office guide, speaking German, French and English
PO Box 413, Aglangia 2152, Nicosia, Cyprus.
Walter & Cherie Glaser are an international travel-writing team based down under in Melbourne, Australia.