Cyprus offers history, culture and beauty


The mountain village of Oikos


By Victor Block

Women who live in a tiny mountain village sit together sewing lace tablecloths, which are famous for their beauty and fine workmanship. In a city not far away, diners at sidewalk cafes enjoy their fill of grilled pork, baked lamb and other local favorite foods. A white sand beach is the main attraction for people who are more interested in getting a tan rather than their fill of tasty treats.

These are scenes that greet travelers to Cyprus, the eastern-most island in the Mediterranean Sea. Visitors also find inviting scenery, friendly folks and archaeological treasures that are reminders of civilizations which have come, gone and left their imprint.

One big attraction is the variety of appeals in a country only about one-third the size of Massachusetts. That’s welcome news for the traveler interested in seeing and doing a lot without having to cover much ground.

Setting the stage is the fact that for 11,000 years Cyprus served as a crossroad connecting Europe, Asia and Africa. The result is a blend of customs, architectural styles and other cultural traits left by the people who passed through. They included visitors from both the Greek and Roman empires, the Crusaders, Venetians and the British.

Archaeological sites dotted about the island serve as reminders of those callers. Medieval castles continue to serve useful purposes. Forest-clad mountains lead to hills blanketed by orange groves and vineyards. Remote villages consist of tiny clusters of stone houses with red tile roofs that have changed little over many decades.

Village wine is a Cypriot tradition that has won praise for more than 3,000 years. The island’s mild, sunny climate and fertile soil produce vintages that were celebrated in Roman times, and favored by royalty during the Middle Ages.

Some traditional wine makers use oversized clay pots, much as the ancient Greeks and Romans did.  The wine is fermented, aged and stored in the large terra cotta containers, and vintners who cling to that practice insist that it improves the flavor of the beverage.

What could capture the spirit of Cyprus more than enjoying a bottle of wine and a meal at one of the thousands of tavernas that tempt passers-by with the aromas of the kitchen and sounds of good times? Among favorite menu choices, often listed on a blackboard outside restaurants, are lamb, wild game, fresh vegetables and halloumi, a thick, salty cheese that is grilled to a crusty texture.

A good way to sample the island cuisine is the popular meze (“mixture”), small servings of items which are available that day in the tavern. While portions are small, as many as two dozen dishes may be included and no one leaves hungry.

When visitors have had their fill of Cypriot cuisine, they may turn their attention to the more lasting attractions scattered about the island. Representing so many periods of the past, they transform the landscape into an open-air history museum.

Some of the earliest prehistoric remnants are found in Choirokitia, the site of a Neolithic settlement dating back to the 7th millennium BC. Among artifacts that have been unearthed there are tools, graves and beehive-shaped stone houses.

The best-known mythical figure associated with Cyprus is Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love and beauty. The legendary deity was believed to have been born at a site near Paphos, arising from the sea on a shell.

Paphos also is important for other reasons. Perched on the southwestern tip of Cyprus, it has a bustling little harbor, a museum containing jewelry and other displays from as early as the 15th century BC and a Byzantine museum with a notable collection of icons.

Another major attraction is an extraordinary group of mosaics that adorn the floors of noblemen’s villas which were built in the third century AD. These tile scenes, which depict various tales of Greek mythology, retain their grace and much of their brilliance even after lying buried for 18 centuries.

An even more impressive archaeological gem is at Kourion, where ruins dating from Hellenistic and Roman times spill across a high rocky ledge. A long oval-shaped wall remains from what once was an imposing stadium. Villas are adorned with fifth-century BC floor mosaics that spell out their original names, including the House with Wells and House of Gladiators.

Most spectacular is the magnificent Greco-Roman theater which was built in the second century BC and enlarged 400 years later. Located near the edge of a cliff overlooking the sea, the open-air structure provides a spectacular setting for productions of classical Greek dramas, modern plays and musical concerts.

Enjoying an artistic presentation in such a magnificent setting may seem like reason enough to consider Cyprus as a vacation destination. In addition, consider its wealth of archaeological riches, traditional village life and other attractions.

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Women craft lace tablecloths by hand
Women craft lace tablecloths by hand
Traditional meze servings
Traditional meze servings