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Secret Cyprus


'Yamas!' Zenon Zenonos beams with pride as he lifts a glass of red wine up to the clear blue sky in a lively salute to his guests. A shaft of Cyprus sunshine dances off the rim and ricochets around inside the liquid, like a miniature burst of ruby fireworks.

Zenon is the third generation of his family to become a winemaker. He doesn't speak English and I don't speak Greek, but language is no barrier: liberal tastings and rambling tours of his winery do the talking for us, and the Cypriot love of tradition is plain to see: old photographs, grape crushers, barrels and an extensive, if somewhat out of place, collection of icons of the Virgin Mary set the scene.

The tradition continues in the naming and labelling of the Zenon wines: a Cabernet Sauvignon named after his grandmother, Vassilia, and a blend of Shiraz and a local grape, Maratheftiko, named after his grandfather, Ioannis Michael. The label recounts how he was a vine-grower and wine producer renowned in Omodos not only for his love of producing the wine but also drinking it. Having tasted it, I can't blame him for his weakness.

Zenon takes great pleasure in showing visitors the 700-litre clay container known as a pitharia, used in the past for fermenting grapes.

The huge pot was handmade by Vassilia and was the only dowry she brought with her when she married his grandfather. The jug was filled with grape must, sealed with a marble slab and then left to stand for two weeks, before the wine was strained through baskets to clarify it and remove impurities.

Although winemaking techniques have moved on, tradition is a word that crops up again and again when you visit Cyprus. Here, the people value old skills, old recipes and old ways. Things that we threw away in our rush towards modernisation have been dusted down and given a new life as tourist attractions on the island.

At the other extreme of tourist attractions, the 'strip' in Ayia Napa is what you might expect: Nightclubs with Disney-esque themes soil the townscape. Plastic dinosaurs soar 30 feet into the sky and mock medieval castles and cruise-liners jostle with each other for space.

But the binge drinkers are nowhere to be seen once the sun comes up. The resort takes on a completely different character in the daytime. It's an ancient monastery town -- with one of 35 active monasteries on the island -- and a historic centre that's perfect for quiet strolls.

I stayed at the four-star Nissi Beach Hotel (nissi-beach.com) -- a welcoming place, reassuringly free of clubbers, with stunning gardens that lead on to the beach and two resident pelicans who feature in nearly every guest's holiday snaps.

Cyprus is known as the island of saints, and religion is a big tourist attraction. The island boasts a hagiography of more than 300 sacred individuals. Tourists come from as far away as Japan to follow in the footsteps of St Paul, and 10 ancient churches in the mountainous Troodos region are on the Unesco World Cultural Heritage list because of the stunning paintings which adorn them.

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Of course, the other great Cypriot religion is food: tables groan under the weight of salads, vegetables, fruits, fish, meats, cheeses, olives, almonds, figs, beans, chickpeas, dates, herbs and honey -- all locally produced. Cyprus potatoes, so familiar in our own supermarkets, are grown all year round.

The traditional meze is an endurance test, albeit an undeniably pleasant one. Plate after plate of meat, fish and halloumi cheese is brought to the table with a flourish by the owners of intimate restaurants who treat food, and the way it is served, as sacred.

At Andreas & Melani restaurant in Kalymnos (also known as Governor's Beach -- in colonial days, the British governor commandeered the beach for his own private bathing spot), I sat in the shade of a wooden veranda to the biggest feast of fish I have seen: red mullet, cod, whitebait, crab claws, calamari, octopus, swordfish and sea bream, among other dishes. Gaby Hamann, manager at Andreas & Melani, says that the restaurant prides itself on its local fish dishes and has built up an international clientele, though most Irish tourists have yet to discover its delights.

The most striking thing about a visit to Cyprus is how easy it all is. Everyone speaks English. They drive on the left. The euro is the national currency. The tap water is drinkable. Prices in restaurants and taverns are reasonable. And the weather is superb: sunny days to spend on the beach and balmy nights ideal for strolling around the towns, with just a hint of a sea breeze to keep you comfortable. And so much of this island is still unspoiled.

In Omodos, a quaint village near the centre of the island built from the local honey-coloured stone, I visit Stou Kyr Yianni tavern run by the ebullient host Stavros Zenonos. It's less a restaurant and more a labour of love. Named in honour of Stavros's father, Yianni, it's an ancient village house that has been sympathetically restored and extended, and has now been declared a listed building by the government.

According to Stavros, there is a constant flow of Irish guests here and many of them return each year. "I also get some Irish people living on the island who bring their overseas guests here," he says. "I have been told the reason they come to my place is that they want a meal with traditional Cyprus ambience." There's that word again: tradition.

Cyprus was part of one of the oldest civilisations in the world, and turning any street corner can instantly transport you back through the ages. On an anonymous hillside in Larnaca, between Lefkosia and Lemesos (Limassol), lie the remains of a unique walled Neolithic settlement, which is known as Choirokoitia.

Today, traffic whizzes past on the busy road below, but until this village was founded in 6,000BC by the Aceramic people, the island had been uninhabited. A steepish climb up the hillside in wilting sunshine rewarded me with a view of the ruins of dozens of flat-roofed roundhouses grouped together in a way that proves these settlers worked collectively.

Some of the 'houses' have been reconstructed at the top of the hill, where you can find out about the Aceramic civilisation's rather disturbing habit of burying their dead under the floor while continuing to live overhead.

Happily, that's a tradition that the Cypriots have chosen not to continue. Nearby is the four-star Elias Beach Hotel (kanikahotels. com), where I also spent a few nights. Right on the water's edge, this hotel is a favourite for seaside weddings and honeymoons. It's also an ideal base for exploring Limassol and the surrounding area.

As a sunshine island, Cyprus has a well-deserved reputation for its beaches. It's such a compact island that you are never more than an hour from a strip of pristine sand and crystal-clear water. But there is more to the coastline than just sand.

At Cape Greko, on the eastern corner of the island, spectacular sea cliffs gaze serenely down on azure seas, as tall-masted sailing boats ride at anchor in the gentle swells. Daredevil divers plunge from the cliffs into the clear waters below. These cliff walls are punctuated by dark, brooding sea caves, hewn by the forces of nature from the rock over millennia. And shards of ancient pottery, wrested by stormy seas from ancient sunken wrecks, dot the soil under your feet.

Cyprus has around 2,000 different types of plant, 140 of them native to the island, including 55 types of orchid. But you will also find roses in great abundance on the slopes of the mountains close to the centre of the island, where they are grown with grape vines.

Legend has it that bees -- essential to pollinate the vines -- may be drawn by the smell of the roses. But these roses are also used to make a powerful, traditional brandy, which will have you dancing on the tables in one of the tavernas after a couple of glasses. But be warned -- the hangover the next morning is like nothing you've experienced before.

The brandy is just one of a range of products made here from the distilled petals of roses, introduced to the island in the 1930s by the Tsolakis family. Today, Christos Tsolakis and his wife Maria produce the traditional liqueur, as well as rose-infused wines. All of it is packaged in traditional, hand-crafted ceramic bottles, which you can see them producing and decorating at their workshop in Agros.

The easiest way to see Cyprus is by car, but make sure to pull over and take a walk -- with your water, hat and sunscreen -- along one of the official hiking trails on the island.

The Aphrodite Route, an eight-kilometre trail, takes you in the footsteps of the goddess of love and beauty, and is awash with colourful displays of wild flowers and strawberry trees, and the aroma of wild thyme and rosemary. Breathe in the views of the sparkling blue lagoons below from the peak of Moutti tis Sotiras, and you'll understand why this is considered the most beautiful walk in Cyprus.

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