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Sipping Commandaria in Cyprus — The World’s First Branded Wine

Tasting room for Comandaria wine in Cyprus I swirl the amber nectar around in my mouth and let it slide down my gullet. A bit on the sweet side, with a slight taste of raisin. Actually quite pleasant. Especially when served ice cold on a sweltering afternoon. Which describes almost every day on Cyprus, the Mediterranean island where I’m sipping the wine.

A blend of red and white, Commandaria wine is considered the world’s oldest continuous appellation. It was originally bottled on the island during the crusades by the Knights Templar. As a result, the name derives from the fiefdom (“commandaria”) around Kolossi Castle where the grapes were grown.

Commandaria wine bottle

The Templar may have been super-secretive about the real-life Holy Grail (and the fictional Da Vinci Code). But when it came to selling their own brand of wine, the medieval mercenaries figured the more, the merrier. As in merrier drinkers and more profits flowing back into their coffers.

Commandaria, the world’s oldest branded wine

Word of mouth made it the drink of choice among their fellow crusaders as well as European royals and aristocrats. They quaffed copious amounts of Commandaria at the wedding of Richard the Lion Hearted and Berengaria. King Philippe Augustus of France dubbed it the “Apostle of Wines.”

 

“It was basically the same wine they’d been making in Cyprus for thousands of years,” says Pambos Papadopoulos, curator of the Cyprus Wine Museum in Eremi. “The Knights just decided to give it a name and export it.”

There’s even scientific proof. Italian researchers tested the residue at the bottom 5,500-year-old amphora at the museum. They discovered a high level of tartaric acid, indicating they must have held wine.

“That was probably very similar to Commandaria,” Pambos adds. Bacchanalian mosaics in the Roman-era ruins at Kato Pafos further indicate wine’s importance in Cypriot culture.

Fifty Plus Wineries on Cyprus

Commandaria may be the most famous of Cypriot wines, but as I discover during my stay on the island, it’s far from being the only one.

 

Front of Cyprus WineryMore than 50 wineries produce a wide variety of reds and whites, almost all of them on the southern slopes of the Troodos Mountains. Many eagerly welcome visitors. However, the experience is a world away from swank Napa Valley cellars.

 

Orthodox monks, it seems, make the island’s best wine. Monasteries known as much for their grapes as their golden icons. And that’s where I head first, navigating a winding highway high into the Troodos. I’m the sole visitor at Panagia Chrysorroyiatissa, founded by a hermit in 1152 AD on a ridge nearly 3,000 feet above the sea.

 

A black-bearded monk in the dusty old monastery shop points me in the direction of sagging wooden shelves heaped with bottles of red, white and rose. Without much fanfare, he recommends a dry red wine called Ayios Elias, made from black grapes grown on the hillsides above the monastery.Stacks of Commandaria wine in Cyprus

 

Modern Wine Production

The following day I discover the modern side of Cypriot wine at KEO Ktima Mallia winery, where mechanization replaces ancient ways and means.

“One of these,” says winery manager Savvas Constantinou, slapping the side of a huge blue harvesting machine, “can pick as many grapes in one hour as 15 women and their donkeys working eight hours.”

Savvos snatches a bunch of dark-blue Mavro grapes (used to make Commandaria) straight from the vine. He pops one in his mouth, passes the rest to me. They are deliciously sweet. Grapes for Commandaria wine

Sipping the Commandaria back home, swirling it around in a glass and savoring the unusual flavor, it feels like I’m preserving an ancient tradition. And unlike Prof Langdon in those Da Vinci movies, I didn’t have to solve murders or follow cryptic clues.

 

Travel Tip:

Plan your visit for fall (Sept-Oct) when the bulk of Cypriot grape harvest takes place.

 

 

 

 

The Vietnam War and My Own Travels

America's politcal and military involvement in Vietnam War Book CoverHad another book drop this week — The Vietnam War: The Definitive Illustrated History by DK. Quite a departure from the travel-related books that I’ve worked on over the past year. But certainly not my first work on Vietnam.

Published jointly with the Smithsonian, the book chronicles America’s military and political involvement in Southeast Asia during the 1960s and 1970s as it explores the people, politics, events and lasting impact of the Vietnam War. Filled with more than 500 photographs and broken down by year, Vietnam War tells the story through powerful words and images.

Vietnam War Pivotal Year 1968

My contribution to the book was the chapter on 1968, a year that changed the course of the war and American politics. Among the pivotal events that year were the Tet Offensive, anti-war protests back home, the U.S. presidential election, and Richard Nixon’s secret sabotage of the Paris Peace Talks. To quote the DK publicity blurb, “The Vietnam War is a stirring visual record of the suffering, sacrifice, and heroism in America’s longest and bloodiest conflict of the 20th century.”

I wasn’t old enough to get drafted and didn’t set foot in Vietnam until 1988 to undertake a cover story for Discovery magazine. The communist regime didn’t allow solo travel back then, so my wife Julia and I had to join a small group tour with a government guide. Among our travel companions was a Vietnamese refugee going back to visit her family and an American vet making an emotional return to the place that changed his life. Crammed into a minibus, we journeyed from Ho Chi Minh City to Dalat in the Central Highlands and Nha Trang on the coast. Conditions were rough, little in the way of tourism infrastructure. We ate in street stalls rather than restaurants and stayed in rundown French colonial-era hotels.

Land of Nine Dragons

But the country sparked my interest and book ideas that I pitched to publishers in New York. Out of that came two more trips to Indochina and Land of Nine Dragons – Vietnam Today — which won a Lowell Thomas Award as the nation’s best travel book that year. Photographer Nevada Wier was my sidekick on both visits. The first was a month-long drive down Highway One between Hanoi and the Mekong Delta. The second trip a journey into the northern highlands to visit Dien Bien Phu and the hilltribes.

One of our strangest encounters was with another American, a fellow clad in a starched white long-sleeve shirt sitting at the next able over in a restaurant. He invited us to join him, and a lively conversation ensued. It wasn’t until the very end of the meal that we realized we’d been dining with Jay Pritzker, the American billionaire and founder of the Hyatt Hotel chain. 

Groundwork for Vietnam War Book

It also was during those trips for Nine Dragons that I got to know many of the places I would write about in The Vietnam War. The royal Citadel in Hue. The remains of the U.S. Marine combat base at Khe Sanh and U.S. Army Special Forces base at Lang Vei. The U.S. Embassy compound and Tan Son Nhut Air Base in the city called Saigon prior to communist victory. So in writing the DK chapter on 1968, I dipped into memories of my own footsteps through the places that turned the tide of war and American history.

 

Is Chris Pratt Really the Nicest Guy in Hollywood?

Chris PrattWith the latest Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 sailing into cinemas next week, I’m reminded of the time that I had lunch with Chris Pratt. The venue was a tiny bakery café called La Conversation — right across the street from the unassuming bungalow where Chris lived when he first came to Hollywood.

 

Guardians of the Galaxy Interview

I had just interviewed him about the first Guardians of the Galaxy for Prestige magazine — mainly if he was freaked out about having to carry a $200-million “tent pole” movie for the first time in his career. And after, rather than rush off to some other appointment like so many Hollywood types, he asked me if I wanted to have lunch with him. Who’s going to say no, right?

 

Tables Turned During Lunch

So our conversation continued for another hour or so. And the most amazing thing about it was how Chris turned the tables — started asking me about my life, the writing profession, did I have a daily routine, did I ever get writer’s block, that sort of thing. Genuinely interested. With all the interviews I’ve done with celebrities over the years, I’d never had that happen before. And I came away from the lunch thinking that, like everyone says, Chris really is the nicest guy in Hollywood. Here’s the article.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Saving California’s Urban Cougars

California_cougar_kitten
The newly born kitten. Photo courtesy National Park Service

The birth this week of a mountain lion kitten in the Santa Monica Mountains west of Los Angeles brings cougars back into the news cycle once again. From attacks on hikers near Silicon Valley and a viral video car-hopping appearance in San Jose to a photo bombing cougar in front of the Hollywood sign, the big cats have become as much a part of California’s 21st century urban scene as gourmet tacos, the Splash Brothers and Tesla electric cars.

The growing number of cougar-human interactions in the Golden State is symptomatic of the continued push by people into traditional big cat territory — a battle the lions are bound to lose unless scientists and conservation experts can devise new innovative ways to ensure their survival in two of America’s largest metro areas.

“They have proven themselves very resilient, very adept at survival,” says Beth Pratt-Bergstrom, California Director for the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) and author of the new book When Mountain Lions Are Neighbors. “Even in urbanized settings they stay in wild areas. But if they’re going to have a shot [at long-term survival] they’re going to need some help from us.”

Help On the Way

That help is coming from several different areas, mostly high-tech in nature and highly innovative. For instance, geneticists are working on ways to artificially enhance the urban cougar’s DNA and gene pool, badly depleted because of massive human development since the 1920s.

A study by the Wildlife Genetic Laboratory at UC Davis suggests that one way to combat low genetic diversity — which can lead to hereditary abnormalities and make a species less resistant to environmental change — is bringing in cougars from elsewhere to bolster “genetically stranded” urban populations.

Through efforts like the East Bay Puma Project and Southern California Mountain Lion study, researchers are capturing and fixing GPS collars onto every mountain lion in the Bay Area and southern California. Telemetry tracks their movements and helps identify their territories as a means to safeguard their natural habitats from further human encroachment.

California_cougar_P22_in_Los_Angeles_Griffith_Park
Photo by Steve Winter, National Geographic via NPS

Efforts are also underway to limit close encounters of vehicle kind. Freeways in the Bay Area and L.A. are actually the mountain lion’s biggest enemy. For one thing, they act like giant fences that restrict their territorial movements. And getting hit by vehicles speeding along these freeways is the single biggest cause of cougar deaths each year.

Wildlife Tunnels & Bridges

NWF is currently working with the National Park Service, the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) and local partners like the Santa Monica Mountains Fund to develop innovative wildlife tunnels and bridges under and over California freeways — manmade extensions to existing wildlife corridors.

Caltrans has announced a $10-million project to construct a wildlife bridge where Highway 101 crosses Liberty Canyon on the west side of LA, an area where more than a dozen mountains lions have been struck and killed by vehicles in recent years.

“It potentially could be the largest overpass in the world for wildlife, which would be a great statement for LA,” says Pratt-Bergstrom. “Like parkland extended over the freeway. Landscaped, absolutely gorgeous. And there would be other benefits. We use the mountain lion as the poster child, but obviously other wildlife would use this. It really will enhance connectivity of the ecosystem overall, not just for lions. And you can also talk about recreation — combine it with a bike path.”

Saving The Cougars Campaign

NWF has also launched a “Save the LA Cougars” campaign to raise awareness of the city’s big cat population and generate funds to support efforts to save the state’s urban mountain lions.

Meanwhile, couCalifornia_cougar_kittensgars continue to make guest appearances. One audacious cat, a young male, was caught on a security camera outside the Los Angeles home of Chris Stills, son of legendary rocker Stephen Stills. To reach that location, the big cat would have needed to cross the 405 Freeway somewhere between the Getty Center and the San Fernando Valley. At last report, the cougar was headed due east into the Hollywood Hills.

My Own Road to the Final Four

UCLA forward Marques Johnson (54) and Louisville center William Bunton
UCLA forward Marques Johnson (54) and Louisville center William Bunton (33) fight for the ball during the 1975 NCAA semifinal game at the San Diego Sports Arena. Also pictured are Louisville’s Junior Bridgeman (10) and Allen Murphy (20) and UCLA’s Pete Trgovich (25). Photo by Rich Clarkson/NCAA Photos.

Now this was March madness — Two days before UCLA played Louisville in the 1975 Final Four, I took the entire Cardinal basketball team (including their coaches and several cheerleaders) on a daytrip to Tijuana.

We got stopped by a Mexican cop for driving the wrong way down a one-way street, but managed to talk our way out of a ticket or fine. We ate great Mexican food, did a little souvenir shopping and got everyone back to the hotel in San Diego before team curfew.

What makes this stranger than fiction is the fact that I didn’t know any of these people the day before and had no connections whatsoever to Louisville basketball. I was actually a freshman at UCLA, a cub sports reporter on the Daily Bruin. And this was the first time I had ever been out of the country without my parents . . .

Nearly Almost Famous

None of this would have ever happened if I hadn’t been the rookie on the Daily Bruin sports desk. The older guys got to cover the Bruins; my assignment was writing about other teams in the Final Four. But having just spent several years working on the same high school newspaper as Cameron Crowe, I was a fully fledged fan of talk-your-way-into-anything journalism. Maybe this wouldn’t make me almost famous, but I was going to give it my best shot.

I found out where the Cards were staying — the Sheraton on Harbor Island in San Diego — and knocked on doors until I found star players Junior Bridgeman and Allen Murphy. I explained who I was, what I wanted to do, and without hesitating they invited me in for a chat.

While we were hanging out, Coach Denny Crumb wandered in to discuss their impending “field trip” to Tijuana. And the legendary coach just happened to mention that he wasn’t quite sure how to get there. “I can show you!” I blurted out. That’s how an 19-year-old kid from UCLA wound up leading the entire Louisville basketball team into a foreign country just 48 hours before what was then the biggest game in Cardinal history.

1964 Dodge Dart

Somehow I managed to fit three very large human players (Bridgemen, Murphy and Danny Brown) and two Louisville cheerleaders into my 1964 Dodge Dart. And with the rest of the team following in two coach-driven rental cars, we cruised down Interstate-5 to the Mexican border.

Two days later, UCLA beat Louisville 75-74 in overtime in one of the epic games of Final Four history. The Bruins then defeated Kentucky in the championship game for the last of John Wooden’s ten national titles. Keeping with my original assignment, I interviewed the downtrodden Cardinals after the game and they were just as gracious in defeat as when I first knocked on their hotel room door.

Never Happen Now

It goes without saying that something like that could never happen nowadays. Not just the crazy trip down to Mexico or that kind of sportsmanship, but also the fact that all of us could leave the country (and get back in) without passports. Simpler, more laidback times. And really not that long ago.

Bridgemen went on to play a dozen years in the NBA with the Milwaukee Bucks and LA Clippers and is now worth an estimated $600 million thanks to his timely investments in several restaurant chains. Murphy played for the LA Lakers; Brown is a very successful high school basketball coach in his native Indiana.

And me? Going forward, the episode certainly boosted my journalistic confidence. And having the chutzpah to venture into a foreign country on my own certainly sparked my lust for exotic wanders. My road to that Final Four just kept on going.

Apostles, Animals and Aerials Along Australia’s Southern Shore

Photo courtesy Phillip Island Nature Parks.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’ve been waiting beneath a eucalyptus tree for the better part of an hour at a place called the Koala Conservation Centre on Phillip Island in the deep south of Australia. Watching a mother koala and her infant, cute as can be, lounging around and chomping leaves. When all of a sudden there’s a blur of action. Or more like slow motion. After all, we are talking koalas – the only animal that may be slower than a sloth.

The baby gradually makes her way down the tree trunk and onto the elevated wooden walkway on which I am standing. So close I could literally reach out and stroke her thick gray coat. Every so often gazing up at me with big golden eyes – no doubt wondering what sort of koala I am – before she reaches the trunk of another tree and starts her unhurried ascent.

View_of_surfboard_from_underneath
Photo courtesy Australian National Surfing Museum.

Cruising the Victoria Coast

The koala reserve is my first stop on a weeklong drive along the coast of Victoria state from Phillip Island to the western end of the Great Ocean Road. But it sets the pace for a journey that will include much more wildlife (at much closer range) than I ever expected, and scenery like I’ve seen nowhere else in the Land Down Under.

Phillip Island is also famed for penguins, which isn’t all that surprising when you consider that it perches at Australia’s southern end, with nothing but Tasmania between its golden sand beaches at the Antarctic.

About 30,000 darling little fairy penguins call the island home. They spend their days fishing offshore and amble back onto the beach right after sunset each night in a spectacle called the Penguin Parade. Mostly this happens on isolated strands, but one particular beach has been outfitted with boardwalks and huge overhead lights for watching the penguins shuffle ashore to their nests.

Close_up_of_animal
Photo courtesy Conservation Ecology Centre.

Down the Great Ocean Road

Leaving the koalas behind, I drive down the Mornington Peninsula and hop an hour-long ferry across Port Phillip Bay to the start of the Great Ocean Road, a 227-mile (365-km) jaunt along one of the most spectacular stretches of coastline in the southern hemisphere. An winding along the edge of cliffs, around the edge of turquoise coves and through deeply wooded river valleys, the highway is both a feast for the eyes and an incredible feat of engineering that was carried out by veterans returning to the Melbourne area after World War Two.

Next stop: Torquay. Where Australian surfing was born in the 1950s. Hometown to Quicksilver and Rip Curl, both world famous names in surf fashion, and location of the Australian National Surfing Museum, best of its kind I’ve seen anywhere on the planet.

Then I’m on the road again, craning my neck at every viewpoint, counting my lucky stars that I’m using digital instead of film, wandering how such a gorgeous place could fly beneath the radar for so long. Aussies have long been drawn to the Great Ocean Road, but foreign visitors have only recently discovered its manifold delights, a place that’s every bit as awesome as Ayer’s Rock or the Barrier Reef.

Bottle-Feeding Baby Wallabies

I overnight at an offbeat place called the Conservation Ecology Centre at Cape Otway, a national park lodge that doubles as a scientific research station and refuge for orphaned animals. Comfy rooms, great food, incredible Australian wines, bottle-feeding baby wallabies at the crack of dawn.

two_figures_walking_on_seashore
Photo courtesy Visit Victoria.

And just when I think it can’t get any better, I reach The 12 Apostles – towering sandstone spires that rise from the turquoise waters of the Shipwreck Coast. Trails take me to the edge of cliffs and beaches at the bottom of the geological oddities. But I also splurge on a helicopter ride, nothing but a thin bubble of glass between me and the awesome scenery.

Victoria Coast Travel Tips

How To Go

  • Qantas offers daily flights from around Australia and around the world to Melbourne, jumping off point for self-drive journeys along the Victoria coast.

Where To Sleep

  • Great Ocean Ecolodge: Comfy wilderness digs at the Conservation Ecology Center and a chance to venture into the bush with researchers to help save endangered species.
  • Clifftop Boutique: One of the few places to stay on the island’s wilder south coast, this B&B offers sweeping views of Smiths Beach, Pyramid Rock and the Bass Strait.
  • Peppers Moonah Links: This modern minimalist resort atop the Mornington Peninsula isn’t just for golfers; check out nearby Peninsula Hot Springs for a soak, massage or other soothing treatment.
three_penguins
Photo courtesy Phillip Island Nature Parks.