What does Cyprus smell of?

What does Cyprus smell of?

‘I don’t know what Paradise is like, but I hope it smells of Cyprus!’ ALIX NORMAN discovers one of the island’s towns has been named a ‘Best-Smelling City’, and asks what aromas most strongly trigger our memories

Watch people disembarking from a plane in Larnaca or Paphos, and it’s immediately clear who’s been to Cyprus before!

While visitors struggle with their bags, passports and hangovers, those who know and love the island tend to pause at the top of the gangway, breathing lungfuls of island air. Because – before you’ve seen the sun or heard the cicadas – the first intimation of Cyprus is its smell: that wonderful salt-sea-herb-earth aroma that says ‘I’m home’.   

As an island, our bouquet is unique. Untainted by nearby locales, Cyprus has a fragrance all its own: a salty, earthy, floral scent that perfumers have been trying to capture for centuries. It’s a complex amalgam: flowers in spring, grapes later in the year. In summer, it’s hot, dry oregano, rosemary and thyme wafting down from the foothills. And in winter, the sharp tang of snow, smoke and pine.  

By the coast, there’s salt and sea lavender in the air. On the plains, you get dust and citrus and fig. In the villages there’s always basil on the breeze (with the odd essence of goat here and there!). And in the lanes of the old towns, the smell of thick dark coffee and leather mixes with the tang of mouth-watering souvla and spice.

“To me, Cyprus is orange blossom by day and jasmine by night,” says 70-something Skevi Louca, who moved to Canada decades ago but fondly recalls its bouquet. “I used to spend summers in Famagusta, and the whole city was full of orchards. When it was blossom time, you could smell it for miles!

“Those are the scents that will remain with me forever. I don’t know what Paradise is like, but I hope it smells of Cyprus!”

These two notes, jasmine and orange, are prominent in chypre perfumes, an ancient fragrance family that was named for the island.  

Popularised by perfumer François Coty in 1917 with a fragrance called, quite simply, Chypre, it’s a scent family that – like the island itself – is complex and elusive: warm and dry; woody, mossy and with notes of rock rose, herbs and citrus.

Despite this rich olfactory mix, Cyprus was notably absent from Heathrow’s 2014 Scent Globe, which wafted aromas from various destinations. South Africa was wild grass and incense, Japan seaweed and green tea. Brazil got rainforest and tobacco, while Thailand was given lemongrass, ginger and coconut.

“If Cyprus had been included, I think it would have smelt of pine and rosemary,” says 60-year-old Zoe Fletcher, who repatriated to England 20 years ago but sharply recalls the scents of her younger days. “I’ll never smell pine again without thinking of the Troodos mountains. And, every time I pass a rosemary bush, I’m transported back to the island!”

The freshness of these scents may well be behind one of our more recent accolades. Cyprus, it transpires, is home to one of the top 10 best-smelling cities on the planet…

The research was conducted by the Haypp Group, and then widely shared by Time Out. And it rates Nicosia rate as the sixth best-smelling city in the world!

Just above Copenhagen and immediately below Luxembourg, Nicosia might not be the obvious choice when considering the aromas of Cyprus. Surely coastal towns such as Limassol and Larnaca smell cleaner, fresher? And what about Paphos, with its heady bougainvillea blending with the warm, earthy tones of ancient stone?

But look a little closer at the list, and you see that the research only takes in capital cities: Paris, Dublin, Bucharest, Valletta and Amsterdam. And only European capitals at that. (Perhaps nobody could be bothered to smell the Orient, sniff Africa, or inhale the Americas? Was Oceania a nose too far?)

Topping the aromatic ranks is Athens, praised as a “floral paradise, boasting 31 flower shops and 22 perfumeries per 10 square kilometres”, as well as its “commitment to cleanliness as reflected in its Environmental Performance Index.” Which slightly muddies the data – while we may strongly wish to believe that Nicosia is, indeed, the sixth best-smelling city in the world, anyone who’s been to Athens (especially during the rubbish strikes!) might be hard-pressed to give it the top spot.

Regardless, it’s probably safe to say that we live on an island that smells pretty good. And, smell being the sense most closely linked to memory, Cyprus certainly evokes strong reminiscences…

“For me, it’s the jasmine,” says Constantinos Emmanuelle, the man behind the well-known Tales of Cyprus. “My relatives always had jasmine growing as climbers in and around their courtyards. In Australia many migrants continued this tradition as a way to remember the homeland.”

For 43-year-old Patrick Morgan, a former resident of Paphos, the country’s aroma is “the myrtle of Akamas. It smelt exactly like hot cross buns – sweet and spicy! And souvla,” he adds. “Nobody who’s ever lived in Cyprus can smell roasting meat on the breeze without thinking of the island!”

As for those of us who live here? Well, we tend to get used to smells very quickly – a phenomenon known as olfactory fatigue. And yet, says professional herbalist Miranda Tringis, the fragrances of Cyprus are known to be unique…

“The warmth of the island brings out aromas more strongly; boosts the scent of our flora,” she explains. “Flowers such as jasmine, sweet honeysuckle and roses, herbs like lavender, thyme and rosemary – these all release more essential oils in our climate. So too do our trees: the eucalyptus in the riverbeds, Calabrian pine in the hills, and cypress everywhere.

“We know,” she adds, “that smell is the sense most closely related to memory – that’s why you can be walking through a back alley in New York and a sudden whiff of oregano will whisk you straight back to the island. But it’s also strongly related to emotion.

“I do think,” she concludes, “that the scent of Cyprus is less a smell than a feeling. A feeling of home.”

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