By Denise Mattia
From craggy paths leading to sun-bleached ancient villas and hilltop monasteries, to narrow cobblestone streets leading to wineries and taverns, to luxurious beach resorts overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, Cyprus ripples with life and light. First time visitors will find that yesterday’s culture blends with today’s lifestyle as smoothly as the curves of an Aphrodite statue.
For centuries, the island of Cyprus has had a long and turbulent history that has shaped its eclectic character. Located on the sea route to the Aegean, layers of elegance and exoticism can be found among its Neolithic affiliations with Asia Minor, the Hittite, Mycenae, Phoenician, Egyptian, Persian, Greek, Byzantine, Roman and Islamic influences. There’s hardly a stone, which can’t be traced to a temple, mosque and church of historical significance.
The Agia (holy) Napa in the southeast was built around a 16th century monastery and has become a popular seaside resort town. The 326-room Aeneas Hotel,where I stayed, completed an on-the-property Anglican and Catholic denominational church used for weddings. The church can hold up to 120 guests and prepare an extravaganza of gastronomy creations for the newlyweds.
In Cyprus, any time is a good time to sit and enjoy a variety of dishes with families and friends. Being alone here doesn’t last long: Cypriots include you in their gathering and before long you’ve exchanged ideas on life and politics, while sitting under a shady awning steps away from the beach and the Mediterranean Sea and having dinner (our lunch). Typical foods include vegetables such as olives, beans, grape leaves, chick-peas, artichokes, tomatoes and cucumbers. Meat dishes are skewered or minced. Bite into a crispy, cigar-shaped dough and a delicious minced meat mix of onions, parsley and cinnamon explodes in your mouth. At Andreas and Melani Beach Hotel traditional meze (mezedhes: little delicacies) are prepared in the restaurant at Governors Beach.
Historically, the island’s richness in copper (kypros) and its strategic location as a trade route to Greece, Anatolia (Turkey), Egypt and the Arabian Peninsula account for the widespread influences that gave its art and architecture an eclectic style. The Thalassa (sea) Marine Museum in Agia Napa, the Roman amphitheatre at Kurion (still used for performances), the Kato Pafos Archaeological Park, the Agios Yiannis Cathedral and the Byzantine Museum are a few of the important places that demonstrate the development of Cypriot style.
Set against a small hill to the northeast of Pafos, once the capital of Cyprus, is the 300-foot wide theatre, constructed after the town was founded, around 300 B.C.E. Other impressive sites are the Villas of Dionysus and Aion and the Tombs of the Kings (there’s no evidence to suggest kings were buried here). An array of artifacts found here dating to Neolithic times has classified the section as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. A short walk from the Villa of Dionysus is a Thanos Hotel, The Almyra. The restaurant is noted for their special Japanese-Mediterranean fusion menu. Guests enjoy dishes such as cerviche of scallops with a citrus and soy dressing and a grilled beef toped with gingered mushroom .
Before settling into the Thalassa Hotel, I climbed to the top of Petra tou Romiou (Aphrodite’s Rock), where the beauty of the Mediterranean Sea meets the honey-colored coastline. Legend has it that it was here that Aphrodite, the goddess of love and fertility, was born out of the sea and carried on a shell by dolphins to shore.
Situated on three-quarters of a mile of beach overlooking a small peninsula, the luxury boutique Hotel, The Thalassa, prides itself on its cuisine, which focuses on Mediterranean-style cooking and uses seasonal Cypriot ingredients. An Anagenisis spa menu features a wide selection of therapies derived from the ancient Greek and Roman specialties. Every suite comes with a personal butler. The service is available in all other room types as well. Generally, from the end of April to the end of July, savings up to 55% off the price of a room are offered when an Executive Suite is booked.
At the western corner of the island, the cliffs of the Akamas peninsula are a sharp contrast to the manicured properties of the southern coast. This is the only area in Cyprus where 4-wheel drive is useful. Arriving at a vantage point, visitors can walk up a steep incline to the Baths of Aphrodite, a grotto, where few can resist anointing themselves with its waters. Because of the biodiversity found here, the peninsula is scheduled to become a National Park.
The excellent infrastructure throughout the island makes it east to drive into the hillside. I stopped at several wineries before heading south to Le Meridien Spa and Resort in Lemesos (Limassol), where I luxuriated in the indoor/outdoor Thalassotherapy spa. Once in the thalasso pool I found all I could do was float in the high concentration of salt, which drew all impurities from my body. The spa treatment was followed by one of the two snack bars are on the premises (children below four years of age receive full board).
Lefkosia (Nicosia) to the north is a “walking” city, where taverns are as numerous as the museums, galleries and places of interest. I visited St. John’s Cathedral, the Byzantine Museum, the Faneromeni Church and the Cyprus Museum (rivaled only by the artifacts brought to the Metropolitan Museum in New York). Later I wandered outside the city to the Handicraft Center to study the development of the island through its pottery, wood- and metalwork and lace.
A leisurely and welcome lunch at the Kath’Odon Tavern (Tel. 22661656) was another reminder to return to this wonderful place — perhaps next time following the wine route, for which Cyprus is famous.
About Denise Mattia
A writer and photographer, Denise Mattia’s works are published nationally and internationally and include all aspects of leisure travel: art , culture, resorts, spas, food and wine and sports’ activities. She's the founder of the soon to be launched Yum-Yum-Traveler, a site devoted to reviewing restaurants in addition to her travel articles from around the world. She lives and works in Manhattan, where she was born.