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, or to the fact that in Cyprus the production of wine dates back some 6000 years. Some archaeologists believe the cultural heritage of winemaking began in Cyprus.
I traveled from Nicosia Airport to the island’s second largest city, Lemesos (Limassol), where I checked into the Crowne Plaza. From there, I visited the Cyprus Medieval Museum, a 10th century castle near the old harbor. According to tradition, the castle is where Richard the Lionheart married Berengaria of Navarene. Having been razed by invaders and earthquakes the present structure was restored in the 16th century. It’s apparent while walking through the ground’s shaded gardens and streets lined with restored buildings that the lifestyle and culture of this thriving city has blended with its past. The municipal market and cafes are popular venues for locals to meet, shop or relax and the restored amphitheatre is a popular venue for concerts, dances, art and theatrical events.
Since August 1961 the town hosts the Annual Wine Festival, a ten-night, consume-as-much-as-you-want wine-tasting affair provided gratis by local wineries. The villages around Limassol produce some of the island’s best Chardonnay, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Grenache, along with the unique, Commandaria. Many of the vintners at the festival provide homemade bread, cheese and smoked meats with their wines. The air of carefree camaraderie is infectious at the festival as tourists and Cypriots alike enjoy the many products of the grape.
Because of the island’s modern infrastructure and high standards in travel, visitors can choose from a number of important, easily accessible museums, sites and events throughout the country.
The Cyprus Wine Museum in nearby Erimi presents a journey through centuries of wines. Here, ancient jars and vessels are on loan from the Cyprus and the Pierides Museums, with ancient documents illustrating the cultivation of the grapes, the vinification and storage process and the enjoyment of the final product.
In June 2006, the Cyprus Tourism Organization announced The Wine Routes of Cyprus, a project to promote the country’s long tradition in wine production. Thirteen tours cover the nearly 30 vine-producing areas of Limassol, Laona-Akamas, Vouni Panagia-Ampelitis, Commandaria, and Pitsilia. Two special routes are devoted to Commandaria, the sweet, dessert wine, which is attributed to the Crusaders under Richard the Lionheart. Its production is thought to have originated at the Cyprus Medieval Castle.
The Limassol district has the greatest concentration of wineries on the island. I traveled to a few quaint villages and found the Zambartas, a boutique winery founded by Akis Zambartas in 2006, and, together with his team has won several awards and international competitions. The new, light bodied Semillion Sauvignon Blanc wine has a light yellow color, a lively nose, which hints of peaches, pears and citrus, and a refreshing taste. It won the Gold Cyprus Wine Competition, held in London in 2011. Other Zambartas vintage wines are sold only in special wine shops and at the winery.
The warm country climate of Cyprus produces “Xynisteri” a plump white native grape grown in vineyards throughout the country. The grape produces dry, full bodied, crisp wines with an intense nose. A limited number of red wines from the rare indigenous Mavroyiannos grape are almost always blended with international varieties. According to viticulturalists, the vines were nearly pulled out to extinction and are making a comeback slowly. Deep red in color, the wines from the Mavroyiannos grape have a fruity nose and a distinct aftertaste of roses and violets.
A popular shore excursion less than nine miles west of Limassol and a couple of miles west of it is the magnificent Kourion Greco-Roman Theater, which affords a spectacular view of the Mediterranean Sea. At Pafos, the Sanctuary of Apollo and the Archaeological Park houses famous mosaics in the Houses of Dionysus, Orpheus, Aion and the Villa of Theseus. Backed by the rocky hillside, the beautiful sunbaked town that rises out of the sea has been designated a World Heritage site by Unesco. Cypriots know it as the town of Aphrodite.
Less than 35 miles north of Limassol on the road to one of the largest mountain villages in Cyprus lies Aes Ambelis winery, a two-storey modern winery. According to George Tripatsas, the winery’s owner, a Greek oenologist arrives at specific times of the year to advise in harvesting, vinification and bottling the wines. The result are wines that have a complex nose, achieved by aging the red wines in new French oak barrels and storing the bottled wines in underground cellas. The Aes Ambelis white wines are light and well balanced and have a citrus, grapefruit and lime aromas.
Traveling the 18 miles to Lefkosia (Nicosia), the capital of Cyprus, I stopped at the Folk Art Museum, St. Catherine’s Catholic Church and the Cyprus Archaeological Museum. Formerly the Cyprus Museum, the Archaeological Museum is a collection of antiquities that span a period of 8,000 years. Cypriot terracotta askos (wine or oil jars), pithoi and artifacts are housed here from the numerous excavations conducted on the island. Best of all the oeuvres can be found at the entrance — a mosaic depicting the bath of Eros and Aphrodite. I’d seen many Cypriot oeuvres housed at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, but that was only a fraction of the stone and wood carvings and delicate glass works that are at the Cyprus Archaeological Museum. After several hours here, I enjoyed a leisurely typical “meze” lunch with Cypriot wine at a taverna in Laiki Yeitonia, the restored pedestrian quarter in the old part of the town between Dionysos and Kosma Lysloti streets before returning to the Hilton.
I couldn’t leave Lefkosia without seeing some of the great art at the Byzantine Museum and Art Galleries. More than 200 icons, numerous vessels, robes and books housed here date from the 9th to the 19th centuries. Nearby, demonstrations of traditional folk art and crafts are held at the Cyprus Handicraft Center and gift shop, where pottery, woodcarvings, handmade lace and hand embroidered items are available for purchase. Bottles of wine and bundles of gifts accompanied me home.
All photos ©Denise Mattia