I have some very exciting trips coming up in the next 9 months and, if you know me, you know I like to plan things and not leave much to chance. As I am going through guide books, blogs and reviews, I realize that there are three types of destinations on my list. Some of the places I am going to are brand new to me: Mauritius and Malta; some I have been to but cannot claim to know very well: Singapore and Dubai; yet one place is very special. It is so special that when I started thinking about the best place to celebrate an upcoming “round” birthday, I considered many locations but this one made most sense: Cyprus. I lived in Cyprus for a year, some of my closest friends live there and I feel a special connection to that country. In this post I will try and explain what makes it special and describe some of the places I know relatively well. I hope to have several more posts in 2018 when I return from my next trip there.
Cyprus is an island in Easter Mediterranean. Turkey is to the north, Lebanon, Syria and Israel are to the east and Egypt is to the south. As you can imagine, a location like this comes with a lot of
baggage marauding bastards crusaders, French, Republic of Genoa, Republic of Venice, Ottoman Empire and, finally, British Empire. In 1960 it became independent. In other words, coming here for a history nerd is like visiting Eataly for a glutton. You just dont know what to see first.
Another blessing that comes with the location is climate. Cyprus is one of the sunniest destinations in the world: it averages 326 sunny days a year. Few places can beat this and almost all of them are far less pleasant. It also boasts an incredible diversity of nature for such a small island. It is possible to go skiing in the mountains and swimming in the ocean or (heated) pool in winter. Visit in winter and you will also see thousands of migratory birds who rest here on their way to/from Africa.
The island has two predominant religions: Greek Orthodox and Sunni Muslim. The mosque in the picture above is actually one of the holiest sites in the Muslim world. The Prophet’s foster mother is buried there. Less than 5 miles away is another holy place with someone else famous buried: St Lazarus. Remember the guy that was resurrected by Jesus? Well, he became a bishop in Cyprus and when he died for the second time, he was buried in Larnaca and this beautiful church was built there in the 9th century.
Another great thing about Cyprus is its coastline. Now that Malta’s Azure Window collapsed, the rock bridge at Cape Greco is worthy to be a Game of Thrones set.
Just like the island itself, Cypriot cuisine was heavily influenced by all the invaders and merchants that called at Cyprus’ ports over millennia. If I had to describe it to someone who has never tried it before, I’d say it is a hybrid of Greek, Turkish, Lebanese with a touch of Italian and, possibly, French influence. In other words, it is amazing!
One of better known Cypriot culinary traditions is meze. It has similar roots to tapas or little bites of food served with drinks in Italy. In other words, it is an assortment of tiny dishes served at ones or in waves of several dishes. If you ever thought to yourself – I could make a whole meal of these, Cypriots beat you to it. Meze there is a meal and a giant one at that.
Start with a village salad of lettuce, tomatoes, peppers, cucumber, onion olives and feta with the dressing of olive oil, red wine vinegar, oregano. Then come the olives, hummus, tahini dip, tzatziki, melitzanosalada (eggplant dip), taramasalata (fish roe dip); followed by grilled haloumi cheese, calamari, small fried fish, little pieces of sausages, a couple of types of beans, seftalies (charcoal grilled pork and lamb sausages with parsley, mint), stuffed grape leaves.
By now you are bursting at the seams and are swearing that you will not eat for 3 days. But the meze is not over yet. In fact, the main attraction is still to come! Depending on the type of meze (fish or meat) the next round of plates will contain souvlaki (Cypriot kebabs), whole grilled fish, stews, potatoes or fries, grilled vegetables. Now you have died, gone to heaven and then came back to eat more. And it is time for dessert – a variety of spoon sweets: watermelon, green walnut, orange rind. If you are wondering how anyone can do this – the answer is time, wine, liquor and a good cup of Cypriot coffee.
Has anyone of my readers been to Cyprus? Tried meze? Do you want to learn more about any of the above dishes? Let me know in the comments!