Quiet Days in Cyprus

Article excerpt

When a country is known as the birthplace of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love and beauty, it fosters great expectations. Sunny Cyprus lives up to them.

Tourism is booming - Cyprus attracts more than twice as many visitors as it did a decade ago - but for reasons that defy explanation, remarkably few Americans visit the island. They compose only 1.5 percent of the nearly 2 million tourists who came here last year.

Cyprus is a fascinating land, a small island nation at the northeastern end of the Mediterranean Sea. Perhaps its relative proximity to countries that always seem to be in political turmoil -- Syria and Lebanon, for example -- explains why so few Americans consider Cyprus a suitable vacation spot. The Turks have occupied the northern third of the island since 1974. This political fact of life is of little consequence for tourists, however, since most interesting sites are in the south.

In fact, few destinations in Europe - or anywhere - are as safe and pleasant as Cyprus. It is a clean, modern, prosperous place with a crime rate so low that it barely exists. Throughout our eight-day stay, my wife and I felt every bit as safe and comfortable as we do at home in rural Virginia.

At first we were cautious, and our guide seemed bewildered by our behavior. "Why do you lock your car?" she asked, adding that Cypriots feel no need to lock their cars or homes. Perhaps because they feel so secure, Cypriots are very friendly. People went out of their way to be helpful: Merchants would direct us to other shops if they didn't have exactly what we wanted; restaurant owners and waiters treated us like guests of the family; villagers patiently paused longer than one reasonably could expect so we could capture them on film.

Another plus for Cyprus: Just about everyone speaks English, the country's second language. (Cyprus was a British colony from 1878 to 1960.) And the weather is nearly perfect - an average of 340 sunny days a year. It is cool and rainy December through mid-March but pleasant the rest of the year. The sea is warm enough for swimming until middle or late November. There are a few weeks during the year when it is possible to ski in the Troodos Mountains and then drive an hour to swim in the Mediterranean.

And then there's the food. We began our culinary tour of the island at Flogiera, a delightful little restaurant in the village of Germasogeia on the outskirts of Limassol. Flogiera specializes in traditional food in a rustic atmosphere, complete with guitar music. When the owner learned we are Americans he lit up, lamenting that Cyprus sees far too few of us. Throughout the evening, he treated us as long-lost friends.

Cypriot cuisine is predominantly Greek but reflects substantial influences from other lands that have played key roles in Cyprus' long history - Italy, Turkey, Lebanon, Syria, Armenia, France and Britain. A good way to acclimate to the cuisine is to order a meze (short for mezedhes, meaning "little delicacies"). Allow plenty of time for dining, for a meze might feature as many as 20 offerings.

First come the cold dishes: a basket of fresh village bread and Greek salad; fresh vegetables with dips - favorites include a mixture of yogurt, cucumber and mint, and a cream of fish roe; cracked olives, green and black, with coriander seeds; cold potatoes in oil; thin-sliced ham; snails in tomato sauce and pickled squid or octopus.

Then the hot: seasoned small sausages; stuffed vine leaves; spicy meatballs; tiny fish, either red mullet or sardines; squid, accompanied by fresh lemon; and chunks of a delicious fried cheese called halloumi.

This is followed by oven-roasted dishes and casseroles, usually classic Greek moussaka or tavas, beef and vegetables with herbs; pork cooked in red wine; beef stewed with onions; kebabs; and then the specialty of the house, usually grilled or roasted lamb with potatoes.

For dessert: fresh fruit and maybe a sugar-drenched pastry filled with fresh curd cheese and honey. …