Cyprus's ancient city of Kourion, perched on a hillside overlooking the translucent Mediterranean, is an archaeological marvel. Behold intricate floor mosaics, excavated villas, crumbling shrines, and a restored Greco-Roman amphitheatre whose acoustics would impress even the most jaded members of the iPod generation. Stand dead-centre on the orchestra level, above a small hole that's been carved out of the limestone floor, and your words are amplified for the uppermost tiers of the theatre. Arts recitals are still staged here, but the only performance I witnessed on my visit was a pair of zaftig Russians chirping their national anthem. When my turn came to test the sonic capacity of the venue, I was tempted to belt out the operatic passage from "Bohemian Rhapsody". Before I could, though, a tour guide hovering at the top singled me out. "You, sir. Do you have a coin? Drop it into the hole." I had no change, so another sightseer volunteered. As the sound of the coin echoed loudly, the daytrippers broke out in spirited applause.
It was about the same moment that the penny dropped for me, too, and I realised what a donkey I'd been in not venturing to Cyprus earlier. As the child of Greek-Cypriots who migrated to Australia in the 1950s, I knew that I'd eventually make the jaunt to this eastern Mediterranean island, yet I never anticipated it would take me almost 20 years. Somehow, in all my relentless globetrotting, curiosity about far-flung destinations trumped communion with the homeland. But when my father passed away last year, I decided I needed to expedite my plans. When I was a child he would often praise the untrammelled beauty of the island, especially the leafy Troodos mountain ranges from where he hailed. My mother, meanwhile, frequently rhapsodised about Limassol, her birthplace. So, finally, I made it to Cyprus at the tail end of the northern summer. The verdict? It's an exotic idyll with breathtaking beaches, sleek hotels and an action-packed history informed by its many colonisers.
I spent 10 days crisscrossing Aphrodite's island, from Ayia Napa in the east to Paphos in the west, from sun-soaked beaches to thyme-scented mountains. I wandered around the sleepy streets of old Nicosia, the capital famously divided into Greek-Cypriots and Turkish-Cypriots, and explored charming rustic villages where women fashion lace tablecloths, men play endless rounds of backgammon in cafés, and cats bask in the plentiful sunshine. I admired Venetian walls, Byzantine churches and medieval castles, as well as staggering monuments from antiquity, which appeared at every turn. I also peered into the kitchens of some of the country's leading culinary lights, and dipped into local foods such as tashi, an addictive sesame paste that accompanies most meals. Along the way I practised my Greek, which had become as rusty as the ruins, and reconnected with relatives who embraced me with warmth.
My journey began in the south. Larnaca, the location of the largest airport, has dark-sand beaches, edifying museums and heritage sites. Unfortunately, I had no time for any of it. From the airport I hurtled through the night to Ayia Napa, an hour's drive east. Most people come to this resort town for the karaoke bars, the foam parties and the clubbing scene. Me? I came to decompress.
I figured that by late September the madness would be over. I was wrong. The bustling pool scene at my hotel consisted of lumpy Germans, rowdy Brits and haughty Russians still buzzing from the night before. I fuelled up on a frothy frappé and escaped to Ayia Napa's powdery beaches - some of the most exquisite on the island - including those in nearby Protaras. At night, the central square of Ayia Napa came alive with its slew of bizarre themed bars, such as The Flintstones-inspired Bedrock Inn, so I retreated to the more stylish environs of the Napa Mermaid for a quiet supper. But at the hotel I was thwarted in my final attempt to unwind when a raging concert kicked off around the pool at midnight. I thanked the gods for earplugs.
Two days later, knackered from Napa, I departed for Nicosia. The roads are mostly excellent in Cyprus and you drive on the left - one of the many vestiges of British culture. The tiny island nation sits at the crossroads of three continents and was passed back and forth like a prize between marauding powers including the Assyrians, Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Venetians, Ottomans and British, until independence in 1960. In August 1974, Turkey invaded the island in response to a military coup by pro-Greek forces, splitting it into a Greek-Cypriot south and a Turkish-occupied north. Nicosia, more than anywhere, illustrates this division and collision: stop to examine a graffitied wall and you might notice bullet holes from the crisis. To visit both sides of Nicosia, you must cross a security checkpoint and exchange euros for Turkish liras. Since I was in Turkey the previous summer (and perhaps feeling oddly guilty about it), I elected to focus on the southern side. North-south relations are better these days, but "the Cyprus problem", as it's known, persists, and there are few more fractious subjects when speaking with residents.
Makarios Avenue, named for the former president and church leader, is the commercial centre of Nicosia and is dotted with cafés, shops and restaurants. More intriguing is the city's old quarter, with its labyrinth of narrow streets, and retail stores that have improbably resisted the passage of time. Cyprus joined the European Union in 2004 and, while the economic situation is not as dire as Greece, it did request a bailout last year. The island's financial prospects were recently bolstered by the discovery of natural gas reserves. Such were the topics of conversation at dinner with Christos Moustras from the Cyprus Tourism Organisation. Moustras told me that the nation's big exports included wine, potatoes, carob, chocolate, and haloumi (no surprise there). The salty cheese was a mainstay of Cypriot cuisine long before it enlivened menus in Sydney and Melbourne. The real discovery for me was anari, a sublime whey cheese that's a byproduct of haloumi. Anari is to Cyprus what ricotta is to Italy, and each morning for breakfast I insisted on having a small slab drizzled with carob syrup and garnished with pistachios.
Carob was once so prized in Cyprus that it was dubbed "black gold". On the drive to Troodos, I noticed carob shrubs clinging to fertile mountainsides. The air was fragrant with wild thyme, rosemary and juniper berries. At one point we passed a herd of frisky goats bolting to higher ground, and you can often spy droves of grazing Cyprus mouflon, the native shaggy mountain sheep. The bucolic setting reminded me of a photograph of my father from the 1940s. In it Dad is smiling, shirtless and carrying a rifle, out hunting hares with friends, a portrait of pastoral bliss. These days the hare population has dwindled, and the most popular game is partridge. Although it's long been a criminal offence, songbird trapping is still rife in Cyprus. Birds such as the blackcap are known as ambelopoulia and widely considered a delicacy to be served grilled, pickled or boiled. You won't find them listed on menus but locals know which restaurants will serve them. "They're delicious," a taxidriver assured me. "Would you like to try some?"
Despite being a devout omnivore, I was ambivalent about gobbling up pretty little warblers in the name of research. Besides, there were far too many other distinctively Cypriot treats in which to take pleasure.
At George's Bakery, in the cobblestoned village of Omodos, it was difficult to choose between savoury delights such as arkatena bread, made from fermented chickpeas and spices, and sweets including soujoukos, a sausage-shaped confection of grape juice and almonds.
Beguiling villages cover the Troodos mountains and almost all of them have ornate Greek Orthodox churches with Byzantine icons and vivid frescoes. One of the most renowned is St Nicholas of the Roof near the scenic village of Kakopetria. I found myself inspired by the splendour of the ecclesiastical art and bought three small icons by painter Maria Aristou, who has a studio in Omodos. It wasn't so much a religious awakening as an appreciation for the richness of Cypriot culture - my culture.
In winter, the Troodos region turns into a ski resort, complete with stone houses for lodging. Another temptation of the mountains is the outcrop of boutique vineyards now sprouting around its southern slopes. The best-known Cypriot drops derive from the mavro (dark red grape) and xynisteri (white grape) vines.
At Zambartas winery, Marcos Zambartas held court with his Dutch partner Marleen Brouwer. The affable pair, who met while studying at Adelaide University in 2007, represent the fresh face of Cypriot wine production. "New World wines on old soil" is how Zambartas characterises their output, which includes an elegant xynisteri, a luscious sémillon sauvignon blanc, and a defiantly full-flavoured rosé. "I get text messages from friends about the miracles it can do," said Zambartas with a wink, evoking Dionysos. The god of wine and merriment is still an omnipresent force in Cyprus. In Paphos, the UNESCO-protected House of Dionysos has jaw-dropping second-century mosaics in veneration of the sybaritic son of Zeus and Semele.
The other inescapable deity in Cyprus is the aforementioned Aphrodite, who blazed a trail from god-fearing antiquity to modern-day ubiquity. Countless attractions have been named in her honour: grottos, temples, tavernas, and an expansive (and expensive) suite at the Anassa hotel. The suite is equipped with an outdoor jacuzzi where, if you were so inclined, you could re-enact the legendary birth of the goddess rising from the sea foam.
Much of the former cult of Aphrodite centres on the tourist hub of Paphos, as well as Polis, a coastal town in the north-west. I skipped the Baths of Aphrodite, an emerald grotto where the goddess was said to have splashed around, and jumped on a boat touring the coastline instead. Polis, edged by the Akamas peninsula and serviced by the port of Latchi (or Latsi), is Cyprus at its most picturesque. We sailed by rocky cliffs, turquoise beaches, remote churches and luxurious homes that have multiplied in recent years.
Back at the harbour, several excellent eateries vie for patrons. Yiangos & Peter Fish Tavern sprang to life as a ramshackle hut in 1978. It's now a sprawling restaurant with enough seating for 360 diners and signature red tartan tablecloths (better to stand out from the competition). Y&P is renowned for its piquant fish soup and pristine seafood, but also serves many other notable dishes, which we paired with the locally brewed, flaxen-coloured Keo beer. Chef Katina Kouppas, who resided in Sydney almost 25 years ago and admitted to missing Chiko rolls of all things, has a deft touch in the kitchen. I particularly loved the light-as-air moussaka, to which she added a splash of Commandaria, the dessert wine with an exalted past. "Greek food is richer than Cypriot," said Kouppas. "They use more oil, tomato paste and sugar than we do." She shared a segment of ethereal kataifi as evidence of her subtle approach to desserts. It was neither densely packed with nuts nor drenched in honey syrup. In fact, it was perfectly formed.
In his 1957 memoir, Bitter Lemons, British novelist Lawrence Durrell described Cyprus as a sun-bruised demi-paradise, "full of goddesses and mineral springs; ancient castles and monasteries; fruit and grain and verdant grasslands; priests and gypsies and brigands". I didn't stumble upon any criminal types, unless you count the dish ofton kleftiko. "Kleftis" means thief, and the oven-cooked lamb was named for the crafty bandits who prepared their stolen meat in sealed underground ovens. The most impressive rendition was at Kouppas Stone Castle Tavern in the village of Neo Chorio, near Polis. Chef Andreas Kouppas, Katina's son, seasoned his lamb with salt and oregano and slow-cooked it in a clay oven. Dinner was hosted by Cypriot-Australian cooks Helen Demetriou and Steve Georgiou. The intrepid siblings were conducting research for a forthcoming cookbook and were catching up with family members.
"Cypriot cuisine has influences from the Middle East, Armenia, even Turkey," said Demetriou as she cracked open a candied walnut. "The spicy twist of coriander and cumin means it's incredibly flavoursome."
Cypriots don't like to be rushed. Not when it comes to talking, living or eating. "Siga siga", or "slowly slowly", was a refrain I heard repeated many times during my stay. At the exceptional Paphos restaurant 7 St Georges, it's recommended you allot at least three hours for your meze meal. The restaurant has only one sitting for dinner, which takes place on a shaded terrace, and no menus.
"I don't believe in food coming in half an hour," said owner-chef George Demetriades. "Meze is a Farsi word that means 'taste'. You eat, you talk, you experience." The burly, silver-haired Demetriades is a polymath, philosopher and self-sufficient gourmand in one - he bakes his own bread, cures his own meats and forages for wild comestibles. Our feast began with a dish of raw cauliflower puréed with mayonnaise, vinegar and pepper. A flurry of divine small plates followed, including pickled sea fennel, black-eyed beans, baked eggplant, kefalotiri cheese, burghul, white zucchini, beef stifatho, and roast pork with fig jam.
The past and present forever intersect in Cyprus. In Limassol, the southern city where I concluded my odyssey, you can have dinner alongside a medieval museum. The sandstone castle stands on the site where, in 1191, Richard the Lionheart married Berengaria of Navarre and crowned her Queen of England. Today it's a repository of artefacts, including wood carvings, suits of armour and Ottoman pottery. By night, the vicinity is animated by a cluster of coolly modern restaurants in the Carob Mill complex, a former warehouse precinct. A glittering new marina development in Limassol's old port has attracted a swathe of foreign investors, the latest wave of affluent émigrés. As I listened to new friends converse at a lively bar in the area, I was entertained by the linguistic verve of Cypriot dialect, and sounds like j, ch and sh that were imported from languages other than Greek. For instance, the word "ohi", or "no", is pronounced "oshee".
Cyprus's culture is based around reverence for the family, and extended families - no matter how big - like to eat together regularly. On my final night I was fortunate enough to dine at my aunt Niki's home in suburban Limassol, where a gaggle of relatives assembled to meet me. To the seraphic children of my first cousins I was introduced as a "Mikro Theo", or Little Uncle. We sat outside under a lemon tree and watched my aunt and her helpers prepare dishes including souvla, lamb and pork slow-cooked on charcoals, as well as sheftalies, lamb and pork meatballs wrapped in caul fat.
When the plumes of smoke threatened to displace us, or choke us to death, as one of my uncles quipped, my resourceful cousin Antonis fetched an industrial fan. Out came stuffed zucchini flowers, baked pasta dishes, and rice-filled dolmades, or koupepia as they're called in Cyprus. I adored my aunt's bourekia - pillowy pastries filled with anari, my new obsession - that she served along with several other desserts. As I indulged in yet another boureki, my uncle Panickos offered me an apéritif. "If you drink two or three glasses of ouzo, you will feel happier," he said with a cheeky grin. Actually, I didn't need the ouzo. Cyprus had already won me over.