Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 18, 2017
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Mighty Isle of Aphrodite

From Julius Caesar to Leonard Cohen, all manner of tourists have left their mark on Cyprus

At first glance, Cyprus doesn't seem to have much to show for its 9000 years of history: no grandiose archeology evoking its Greek and Roman past, no coastal villages bustling with fishing boats or lively markets, just a lot of pasty Brits chip-and-egging themselves into oblivion amid dreary apartment blocks. Some say the island is the frump on the Mediterranean's rump.

But if you look more closely and explore more carefully, a certain sunny charm comes into focus. In the village of Lofou, north of Limassol where the Kolossi Castle still stands, I meandered along the narrow cobbled streets with Danos George, a retired policeman. He is also the president of the village, a position that can't be that difficult to win since Lofou today counts only 60 residents.

These days, Cyprus's villages, including Kakopetria and Odomhos, are beginning to reclaim their past and a dimension of their culture that extends beyond beach tourism. Lofou was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site and George will be busy for a long time restoring the 400-year-old village to its original character. Laborers are currently working on Lofou's houses, slowly revealing the wonderful façades of honeyed, mortarless stone beneath the ugly gypsum overlay. Three tavernas and a new guest house have been built as part of an attempt to entice more tourists to the village.

THE CYPRIOT CLOCK
George took me to a taverna that had a garden enclosed within a stone wall and a roof of tangled vines and leaves. We sipped the village wine, which was pleasantly chilled and soon after some pita arrived at the table, along with tzatziki, voluptuous black olives, tomatoes, cucumbers and halloumi, a Cypriot goat cheese that is traditionally grilled on a barbecue. We relaxed as we ate and drank, admiring the quality of the olives and the omnipresent sunshine that nurtured them and before I knew it, three hours had passed.

This kind of sunshine can be enjoyed throughout most of the year -- just ask any of the human briquettes on the island's beaches. Due to the plentiful rays and fertile soil, almost everything grows here, from pomegranates to prickly pears. The sea provides a bounty of bream, sea bass and lemon grass and the local wines, especially those from the Paphos region, are very good.

Perhaps it was the effects of the wine and the sun combined, but I started to wonder if Homer was right after all: Cyprus may indeed be the birthplace of Aphrodite, the goddess of love who was so conniving and meddlesome in the affairs of deities and mortals. Aphrodite's Rock juts dramatically towards the sea. Legend has it that this is the exact spot where the goddess first rose out of the foaming water in 1200 BC. From a particular angle, the large formation resembles an opening of lotus petals.

The novelty of visiting a place that was the setting for so many Greek myths soon wore off as I noticed that everything in Cyprus's tourism industry relates to the goddess. The Baths of Aphrodite near Paphos need only a wax museum to perfect their tackiness. I began losing faith in my favourite goddess -- would she really have allowed herself to be associated with an island that has banned nude beaches, criminalized homosexuality and anaged to be more pious than the Maltese?

CROSSROADS OF HISTORY
Like Malta, Cyprus sits at a Mediterranean convergence, with Turkey to the north, Egypt to the south, the Greek Islands to the west and Lebanon and Israel to the east. It has also sat at the crossroads of a number of ancient civilizations and everyone from Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar to Leonard Cohen and Lawrence Durrell have been part of history's formidable passing parade. King Richard I sold the island twice, once to the Knights Templars and then to the degenerate Lusignans. Cyprus gained independence from Britain and became a republic in 1960 only to be invaded by the Turks in 1974, who forced 180,000 Greek Cypriots to flee their homes for the safety of the south. Since then, the northern part of the country has been under an autonomous Turkish-Cypriot administration that declared itself the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus in 1983 -- a proclamation that has only been recognized by Turkey.

The island is set to join the EU in 2003. In the meantime, the culmination of all this activity is a curious Cypriot cynicism. It is the only place I know of that celebrates Kataklysmos, the Great Flood that ends the world.

Today the Nicosia Hilton stands where the Ottoman Turks massed their 70,000-strong invasion force in 1570. Although the conquest left 30,000 Muslim Turks among the Christian Cypriots and sowed the seeds for ethnic divisiveness, it was arguably an enlightenment of sorts, for Cyprus was finally released from the harsh grip of the Crusaders. As a result, the Turks abolished serfdom, peasants were given land titles and the Cypriot Orthodox Church was freed from the repressive shackles of the Vatican.

Nicosia, Cyprus's capital, is a politically divided city and you can feel it. Don't expect any joie de vivre inside these city walls, which were part of the city fortifications during the 1500s. The streets of the old quarter, which should radiate fascinating history, are lined with tourist shops filled with gaudy souvenirs and tavernas that serve fish and chips and steak and kidney pie.

Nicosia's Archeological Museum gives an interesting glimpse at Cyprus's history. Exhibits include haunting chalcolithic idols in cruciform and a gallery of terracotta warriors that date back to the sixth century BC. Treasures from the eighth-century necropolis at Salamis include a forged metal throne and a giant bronze cauldron decorated with three-headed sphinxes. What layers of time, I wondered, lay buried under the island's highways, towns and apartment buildings? Beyond the museum, the island offers only scant archeological tracings. The best are the Paphos mosaics, but they're thick and dull with dust.

 

HIGHER GROUND
When summer temperatures soar to 40°C, Cypriots head for the foothills of the Troodos Mountains. The Forest Park Hotel in the hilltop station of Platres stands at 1200 metres and has played host to such notables as Egypt's King Farouk, Indira Gandhi, who sought refuge from the maelstrom of Indian politics and Daphne du Maurier, who stayed here and penned Rebecca in 1936. I wouldn't be surprised if some of the novel's brooding tone was inspired by the black-pine forests that surround the hotel.

The territory between the sea at Limassol and the Troodos is known as the Krassochoria. This is wine country and home to some of the loveliest scenery on the island: high roads, panoramic vistas, orange and olive groves and red-tiled rooftops spread throughout green-gold valleys.

The Akamas Peninsula, not far from Paphos, is one of the few unspoiled areas remaining in the republic. Cyprus lies within three of Europe's major flora zones and so the area is replete with diverse vegetation, wildlife and a wide range of geological formations. Jeep safaris -- forget lions and elephants and think goats -- transport tourists to this realm of towering gorges and limestone cliffs plunging to the sea and nature trails wind around the area. Lara Beach is a sanctuary for green turtles who arrive to lay their eggs between July and October. But whether the peninsula will survive as a national park or succumb to encroaching development is uncertain. I was told that a local archbishop, as much a businessman as a cleric, covets the land and wants to build a golf course there.

The open-air safari made me hungry. Journeying around, I discovered that Cypriot cooking is fresher than Greek dishes and relies on seasonal products. Polycarpos Demetriou, executive chef at Paphos's Annabelle Hotel, said he uses only the freshest of ingredients, including lots of garlic, olive oil and lemon and prefers to sauté instead of deep-fry. His menu is inspired by Middle Eastern cuisine. Not everyone turns out olive bread, vegetarian souvlaki or lamb with feta the way Demetriou does.

At Psilo Dengtra, a popular taverna in Platres, I excavated chunks of lamb from bone and blubber in a dish which, when translated, means "large pieces of lamb roasted in a traditional Cyprus furnace." The ghastly turpentine tones of the house wine were surpassed only by the stuff served on Cyprus Airways.

In the village of Kathikas, it was impossible to go wrong at two family-run tavernas. Araouzos serves hot dolmades, Greek salad with halloumi, juicy roast chicken and potatoes that substantiate the island's claim to the world's most flavourful spuds. At Imogen's Inn, the house specialty is meze, a never-ending feast of appetizers as interpreted by Egyptian Cypriots and served by a woman more dazzling than any of Hollywood's Cleopatras. Distracted, I nibbled through 20 courses -- everything from creamy taramasalata to delicate little phyllo pies -- barely noticing the puddles of olive oil oozing across my plate.

I eventually ended up at the Anassa Hotel, a half-hour drive outside of Paphos. It's the finest hotel in Cyprus with a breezy Amphora restaurant that serves buffets nightly. The spread included trahana soup with cracked wheat and yoghurt, pungent local sausages called sheftalia, lounza (smoked pork), rabbit stifado casserole with onions, pork afelia in red wine with crushed coriander seeds and chicken moussaka. The wine, made by a vintner monk from a hilltop monastery, flowed freely.

Cypriots finish a meal such as this one with commandarias, a sweet fortified wine that they've been making for thousands of years from sun-dried raisins. In Cyprus, the birth of a boy is traditionally marked by burying a barrel of commandarias until his wedding day. It occurred to me that perhaps it was Dionysus, that rollicking god of wine, and not Aphrodite, who was at home here.

 

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