Friday, November 29, 2013

On the wine route

When you step out of the quaint Larnaka International airport, the first sight you catch is that of deep blue seas meeting the bright sandy beaches under an incomparably brilliant sky. Heading out of the city towards Limassol (Lemesos to the locals), you first chance across the enchanting little village of Lefkara. Like Lenonardo Da Vinci, five centuries ago, you can’t help feel seduced by the exquisite handmade lace they make in Lefkara. It is hard not to buy some. Back in your car (and Cyprus is a place best explored by car) you marvel at the extraordinary landscape of the Mediterranean island, reminiscent of Plato’s God geometrizing: Low hills, almost perfect cones with leveled tops, valleys tapestried with fat tailed sheep, plots of verdure and a strange mixture of flavours – Biblical, Anatolian and Greek.

                                                         Wild mouflon, Cyprus

By lunchtime I was in Limassol, one of the most beautiful beach resorts positioned on the southern coast of the lush island. It only gladdened my heart that my accommodation -- Hotel Four Seasons -- was perched right on the gorgeous Amathus beach and for some highfalutin reason my room opened to the Mediterranean Sea. The pathway of the famous beachfront, also known as the Cypriot Riviera, was visible from the balcony. Stretching for more than 10 miles, the beach is mottled with some of the most interesting cultural attractions in Europe. After a quick mental math, I decided to spend as little time in my room -- no matter how vainglorious it made me feel -- as possible.

                                                  Four Seasons Hotel, Cyprus

Limassol has a population of less than 200,000. Stepping out on a pleasant November evening, I walked for more than seven miles until I got to the old town. The rhythm of life slows down here and suddenly you feel there is time for another cup of coffee, which you never find in London or Dubai. A mix of old and contemporary restaurants and pubs dot the marketplace. Cypriots love their Keo, a popular light straw-colored lager. Diners sat in the open air to nibble on their meze, small plates of flame-grilled, delicately spiced meats, and amazing cheese including halloumi (semi-hard, unripened brined cheese made from a mixture of goat's and sheep's milk). I had an ofto kleftiko, which is a Cypriot specialty, foil-wrapped lamb, baked with secret herbs in a sealed oven. Nearby a musician in blue suit strummed his Spanish guitar. A few domestic cats wagged their tails as mellifluous music flowed. 

                                                                Cat country

There are cats everywhere you look in Cyprus. Legend has it, and this a very well-versed Cypriot woman told me, that St Helena, mother of the emperor Constantine the Great imported hundreds of cats to Cyprus in the fourth century to rid her monastery (Monastery of St Nicholas) and the country of snakes that had infested it. Looks like the feline experiment was a success. The monastery – with lots of cats in it -- exists to the day. Cypriot cats were later immortalized by the Greek Nobel Laureate, Giorgos Seferis, in his poem The Cats of St Nicholas. I saw cats in solids and smokes, torties, patched tabbies, orange, marmalade and ginger colors. Cyprus is an island of cats and crystal clear waters.

It is also the land of fine wines with a tradition in wine-making that goes back centuries. Cyprus grows two main grape varieties – Mavro and Xynisteri – which are combined to produce the highly acclaimed sweet Commandaria, one of the world’s finest wines. I criss-crossed the piddly, idyllic Commadaria villages on the famous Cyprus wine route. The driver pulled over at some spots along the rolling hills covered with amazing vineyards that are harvested as early as July. By law Commandaria is aged for two years in oak barrels because of its distinction as the world’s oldest named wine still in production. Locals told me that an Ottoman sultan invaded the island just to acquire Commandaria.

                                                        Commadaria wine route

There are around fourteen villages on the ancient Commadaria wine route dating back to 1192 AD. (Around the same time when the third Crusade ended with Richard I of England and Saladin agreeing to terms for pilgrims visiting Jerusalem). I drove along the route from Limassol to Pafos to the Kolossi castle. Constructed in the 13th century, the fort is the only extant fortification belonging to the Frankish period. The impressive, square building, comprising of three floors was built by the Order of St. John of Jerusalem (Knights Hospitallers) as the seat of the Supreme military commandment (Grande Commanderie). The castle was briefly occupied by Knights Templars, the most wealthy and powerful of the Western Christian military orders and the most skilled fighting units during the Crusades. The castle was later destroyed during the raids of the Mameluke tribes in 1525-26.

                                                              Kolossi castle

From Kolossi we stepped on gas to plantations where oranges, lemons and kiwi fruit grew. Cypriot farmers grow their citrus trees in long orderly lines protected by avenues of eucalyptus and fir. On higher ground where there is no shelter, the grapes on the vines are burnt brown by the sun. Limassol is surrounded by an abundance of citrus plantations filled with lemon, orange and grapefruit trees. I could smell the orange fragrance in the car long after we moved on. In the evening I walked on the beach, alone, for long hours after the sun was swallowed by the Mediterranean Sea, at a place where the waters first turned crimson and then a deep shade of scarlet. It is no secret that Cypriot beaches are not only beautiful; they are certified as among the cleanest in the world.

                                                            Sundown, Limassol

From the pine clad Troodos Mountains, where wild mouflons roam and cedars grow to the gem-like churches competing with stunning Byzantine frescoes, Cyprus has a sun-kissed spirit that is truly out of the ordinary.

Watch this space for more wanderings through the lovely land.