A Comprehensive Cyprus Travel Guide
Although this journey happened several years ago, the ancient sights on the island of Cyprus have held their own against countless invaders over thousands of years and won’t be going anywhere any time soon. I hope my Cyprus Travel Guide helps you have as amazing a wander as I had.
This is the very first blog I wrote—and the start of my Travel Therapy sessions where I cover more ground than my wanders. If you’re at all curious about who I was when I started—and what was going on behind the scenes of this wander to Cyprus—check out Travel Therapy #1: Is Prozac the Answer?
- Cyprus? Where is Cyprus???
- Getting to Cyprus
- A Taste of Paphos
- Nicosia – The Divided Capitol of Cyprus
- The Cuisine of Cyprus
- Golfing in Cyprus
- The Painted Troodos Churches
- Limassol by the Sea
Cyprus? Where is Cyprus???
Cyprus? Where’s Cyprus??? What is Cyprus? A city…a country…a state?
These were just some of the inquiries from my American friends when I told them where I was headed. To be honest, I didn’t know a single thing about this tiny Mediterranean country when my then husband asked me if I wanted to join him on his next business trip. He had been invited to teach members of the Cypriot government how to value marinas and golf courses. Since being accepted into the European Union in 2004, the government began to focus on turning Cyprus into a premier golf destination that would lure tourists and prospective property owners from Eastern and Western Europe, as well as the Middle East. There was a slight chance we’d meet the President. There was no chance I was staying home. Grandma was immediately reserved to watch our two kiddos and my research commenced.
The deeper I dug, the more excited I became about Cyprus. It was actually an island. One that has been inhabited since 8,500 B.C., beginning with a society of hunter-gatherers from the mainland. Since long before the birth of Christ, Cyprus has been subjected to the rule of a lengthy line of invaders, including the Hittites, Egyptians, Greeks, Phoenicians, Assyrians, Persians, the Roman Empire, Byzantines, England, the Franks, Venetians, the Ottoman Empire, and finally Britain. It wasn’t until 1960 that the Republic of Cyprus was formed (for the interesting story of the Cypriot’s liberation from British rule, I recommend the book Bitter Lemons by Lawrence Durrell). But, even this did not end the political strife. In 1974, Turkey invaded the island…unfortunately, with American support…and created the Turkish Federated State of Cyprus, renamed the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus in 1983. The border of the Turkish Republic runs right through the middle of the country’s capitol, Nicosia, making it the only existing militarily divided capitol in the world (at the time I wrote this). With the recent inception of Cyprus into the European Union, and Turkey’s desire to join the union, there is hope that this final political hurdle will be cleared. For now, the Cypriots wait…
Getting to Cyprus
This was one of my first international wanders making it ripe for lessons.
Travel Lesson #1: When making flight reservations by oneself on the internet, do not ignore those three capital letters in parentheses on the flight itinerary. They actually represent crucial information. In our case, LHR=London Heathrow Airport and LGW=London Gatwick Airport. It was not a detail to be overlooked that our second flight arrived at LHR and our third departed from LGW. These two airports are approximately one hour apart via bus. We made it to LGW with just 15 minutes to spare, and a little bit wiser, before our connecting flight to Cyprus began boarding.
The flight to Cyprus was packed with Brits going on holiday. Being a former colony, Cyprus is a favorite destination. Nearly all Cypriots speak English and they drive on the “correct” (British) side of the road. Twenty-four hours after leaving San Diego, we landed in Paphos at 9 p.m. in reasonably good shape. Thankfully, the mini-airport was easy to navigate and we literally walked right into our car rental counter.
Being sleep deprived, this was a less than ideal time for Travel Lesson #2: Bait + Switch is an Acceptable Practice in the Car Rental Business. I was astounded as our Avis representative presented us with an invoice that was 150% higher than our quoted reservation rate (also booked independently on the internet).
Travel Lesson #3: One Average-Sized American Suitcase Fills 100% of the Trunk in One Average-Sized (Manual Transmission) Car was the least painful. My ex had never driven British-style in the light of day, let alone the pitch black of night with sleep deprivation. With headlights appearing to come straight at us, his knuckles (and face) faded to white and I left dents in the vinyl. I wondered…would we live to see our children grow up?
A Taste of Paphos
I’d like to believe we found our hotel because of an astonishing sense of direction. It was sheer luck. The Roman Hotel was as quirky as I had hoped. Constructed on the ruins of three Hellenistic tombs, the exterior resembles an ancient Greek palace. The interior resembles an adult film set, complete with faux fur on the wall. Surrounded by arches and pillars, all that is missing from the swimming pool are slaves dangling bunches of juicy grapes over the mouths of Greek patricians. Unfortunately, the hotel did not offer a good night’s sleep as it’s apparently on the route of every construction and trash truck, emergency vehicle, and blaring automobile traveling through Paphos.
The following morning, adrenaline temporarily coursing through our veins, we set out to get a taste of Paphos before heading to Nicosia, the capitol where my ex would be teaching for a week. Founded in 1400 BC, Paphos is a bustling beach town that was the capitol of Cyprus during the Hellenistic period. Paphos’ Roman Governor Sergius Paulus was the first to be converted to Christianity by the Apostle Paul. Despite the amazing history of Paphos, we were relieved that we were just passing through as its sidewalks were too beaten by rowdy tourists and it had lost much of its ancient ambiance.
An exception was the archeological park at Kato Paphos and the medieval Paphos Castle. These were my first Roman ruins. It’s hard to describe the feeling of seeing ancient mosaics (either in surprisingly good condition or painstakingly recreated) that adorned Roman villas two thousand years ago.
Nicosia: The Divided Capitol of Cyprus
The drive to Nicosia was much less stressful thanks to a highway and the sun. I must confess…I was initially a tad disappointed with the scenery. Cyprus’ climate is pretty arid resulting in a thirsty landscape. While the sea is a vibrant shade of aquamarine, the coastline is craggy. There were no stunning Mediterranean mansions lining the coast, but plenty of construction machinery working hard on indistinct projects. And, Cypriots seem to have an unhealthy attachment to their old junk. Rusted shells of broken down cars and gasoline barrels and faded tires peppered the landscape the entire way. If not for those Roman ruins we saw yesterday, I’d swear we were in Baja California. (We would later find out our very un-scientific conclusion was actually backed by science. It’s a latitude thing.)
Nicosia became the capitol of Cyprus about 1,000 years ago, when the island’s rulers were forced to move inland due to the constant invasions by sea. The original medieval portion of the city is still behind walls, while newer development extends outward in a southerly direction. As I mentioned earlier, it is the only militarily divided city in the world and is split by a U.N. buffer zone, which meanders from east to west through old city streets and is now patrolled by armed guards. Old sand bags, oil drums and barbed wire form the zone’s boundary are an eerie sign of very real political tensions.
The Castelli Hotel had been recommended by our official government liaison. Although it was an attractive building located inside the old city walls, it would not have been my hotel of choice. Why? Because the back of the hotel abutted the buffer zone! I had been gnawing on my cuticles for weeks while envisioning machine guns firing directly outside our window, possibly through our walls. Alas, my gnawing was unfounded. If I hadn’t been wise to this proximity, I’m fairly certain I would have remained blissfully ignorant throughout our entire stay. Best of all? Our car would remain parked for the next five days.
My apprehension about wandering alone in this besieged city quickly dissipated. In terms of safety, Nicosia felt no different than any other comparably sized city I had visited. Being cognizant and in possession of common sense at all times was necessary, but enough. I do have one stern admonition for my fellow females…leave the heels at home. Think Ancient Rome. There was no cement. Only cobblestones…and, I’m fairly certain they’re the originals.
Over the next two days, I wandered everywhere I dared in the non-occupied portion of Old Nicosia in my new flats. I marveled at the buildings, whose very foundations were crumbling. How were they staying upright? And, how would they survive the next earthquake (that WILL eventually hit)? Although the city is not initially attractive in the typical (American) sense, its allure increases with every step. It was clear that until they became part of the European Union, Cyprus lacked the monetary resources to properly maintain or rehabilitate their countless historical structures. It was heartening to see extensive renovations underway, many with the assistance of UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific & Cultural Organization).
Old Nicosia’s streets and alleys are lined with boutiques catering to foreign and domestic tourists. The most famous is Ledra Street, which is pleasantly lacking in cars. Other must-see stops are the Freedom Monument (in honor of the break from British rule in the 1960s and the formation of the current Republic of Cyprus), the Famagusta Gate (the most important and well-preserved of the three original entry gates into medieval Nicosia and now the home to the Nicosia Municipal Cultural Center), several exquisite churches and mosques (especially Agios Trypiotis), the Ledra Lookout Point on the 11th floor of the Shakolos building (with a panoramic view of the walled city, including the Turkish occupied territory), the House of Dragoman Hadjigeorgiakis Kornesios (the furnished 18th century former home of the mediator between Greeks and Turks), and the Archbishop’s Palace (built in 1960 in the ancient style).
Undoubtedly one of the most unusual sights is the armed sentry post at the end of Ledra Street where you can catch a glimpse of Turkish occupied territory. Guarded by a young Cypriot dressed in fatigues and brandishing a machine gun, it’s a somber place. At the base is a monument that serves as a memorial and a plea for the numbers of missing Cypriots that have not been seen since the Turkish invasion. My peek into Turkish territory through one of the tiny peepholes was disheartening…a filthy patch of abandoned land, piles of sand bags, and coils of barbed wire. Although some of the students encouraged us to cross over so as not to miss the sights on the other side, we never did. Somehow it felt too much like a betrayal. Not to mention, the memory of 9/11 was still fresh enough in my American mind to squelch any desire to wander into Muslim territory.
On my second day, I got lucky on Ledra Street. There was a sudden commotion. Hordes of policemen, secret service and military swarmed, watched and directed. My imagination went berserk. Oh God, had there been an assassination, a bomb threat, terrorist activity??? It was the excited group of school children that calmed me down. I followed the entourage of black Mercedes with indistinguishable windows. As I rounded the corner, I nearly ran smack into the men in black guarding the presidents of Greece and Cyprus who were publicly celebrating the recent signing of a cooperative agreement.
The Cuisine of Cyprus
The highlight of our Cypriot odyssey was dining, particularly with the locals. Our first big dinner (Euro-style at 9:30 p.m.) took place at The Family Nest, a local secret that served traditional Cypriot fish “meza,” the Mediterranean version of tapas. Once you say the magic words (“Meza, please!), a constant flow of local delicacies arrive at your table, served family-style. This evening’s fish meza was sheer perfection with lightly deep fried red mullet and Vlahos, grilled calamari, and shrimp. The “standard” meza included hummus, sun-dried olives, dolmathas, delicate pastries stuffed with warm local cheeses, grilled or ground lamb and beef marinated in local herbs, and succulent sausages. To this day, many years and wanders later, Cypriot cuisine still ranks as the best on the planet in my book. “Simplicity” is my descriptive word of choice. Less makes it so very much more. Every single ingredient is fresh and each dish is healthily and consummately prepared. Their sauce of choice is lemon juice and olive oil. Dessert is typically a platter of local fruits (like red and white pomegranates or figs) picked at the perfect moment and served fresh or candied. The winner of the prize for Most Unusual Dessert goes to…candied clove fruit.
During the meals we shared with the students, I was able to have some meaningful conversations and found them to be warm, passionate and eager to share their culture. I discovered that most Cypriots have lived here for generations, preferring to remain intimately connected with multiple generations of their family. It’s common for the younger ones to attend university in Europe or the U.S. and return once their formal extended education is complete. It is, in fact, an honor for elderly parents to live with their children and play an integral role in raising the grandchildren. One student proclaimed that the Cypriots were fortunate to have inherited the “tidiness” and some of the reserve of the British rather than the “disorganization” and unfettered boisterousness of the Greeks. Females are treated with equality, which was in conflict with my preconceived notion of the macho Mediterranean man. I saw no anti-Americanism, although I was told that some of the older generation remain “disappointed” in the U.S. government for their “approval” of the Turkish invasion and the lack of help for the native Cypriots.
Golfing in Cyprus
On the last day of the “work week,” I accompanied everyone on a tour of two local golf courses. Just before arriving at the first one, we pulled off the road at a spot overlooking the sea where legend has it that Aphrodite, the daughter of Zeus, was born. She walked right out of the water at Petra Tou Romiou, over the jagged rocks and onto earth. This was the view from the breathtaking Aphrodite Hills Golf Resort. Although golf courses don’t usually do it for me, I was impressed. At this time, it was incredibly affordable…but, it wouldn’t be long before lunch here would set us back farther than I’m comfortable. The Hotel Intercontinental’s rooms, many with a private swimming pool, overlook the resort, which includes a championship Par 72 golf course, tennis courts, a new “old style” chapel, a small “village” with restaurants and exclusive boutiques, and a spa where you can be massaged outside while gazing at the sea. Surrounding the resort are brand new cubic villas with red tile roofs and stucco as smooth as paper.
Secret Valley Resort was our next stop. It was not in the same league as Aphrodite Hills, but very comfortable for us “regular folks.” Our lunch in the clubhouse was divine and served by a gracious staff. After several bottle of white wine, the Cypriots admitted they’re a bit befuddled with the whole golf thing. This group’s primary motivation for learning the game had less to do with zeal and everything to do with the “cute little carts” that they could zip around the course.
The Painted Troodos Churches
With the last sip of wine, we were officially off duty and back on the (nerve-wracking) road. The drive to the Troodos Mountains would have challenged the knuckles of even the most seasoned British driver. It cost this American a few years off her life span. The expedition started off peaceful enough. Shortly after leaving the resort, we pulled off the side of the road, cracking up as we watched a herd of goats scramble up two olive trees for an afternoon snack. Soon the roads became manic…changing from asphalt to dirt to a corrugated combo of both. Without warning, two-lane roads would suddenly shrink to a single lane, quite often in the middle of a hairpin curve. Every few miles, road construction crews and their massive trucks blocked portions of the road causing both abrupt stops and bothersome delays. Mischievous locals careened around corners only budging from the center of the road at the last possible second, snickering when they witnessed our horror. We were pretty much pawns in some warped game of survival.
Fortunately, it wasn’t long before we arrived safely in Kakopetria, our home base for the next two days. Constructed on the banks of a small river and encircled by mountains, this picturesque village has a history tracing back to the 5th century BC, as evidenced by the discovery of a temple dedicated to the goddess Athena and the demi-god Hercules. Narrow winding lanes were lined with ancient crumbling homes accessorized with plants bursting out of old cans and gasoline barrels.
After driving in countless circles, we somehow managed to spot the teeny bridge that led to The Mill Hotel across the river. We would be staying in an old wheat mill that was built in the mid-17th century and in operation until the 1950’s, then converted to a hotel in the late 1970’s. I adored our newest home away from home. Our spacious room had stark white plaster walls embedded with rocks and hay and was filled with antique furniture, including an old loom. It came with two perks: a balcony overlooking the river and an oversized jetted bathtub. Too bad we were itching to go eat and explore.
Without a map, we strolled through hidden alleys and narrow streets. We stopped to buy some homemade plum jam from a woman hanging out her front door. (Our only mistake was not buying her entire stock.) We eventually walked by Lina’s, a well known restaurant that the students had enthusiastically recommended. We literally ducked inside the doorway and stepped inside the Middle Ages. For the next couple of hours, we gorged ourselves by candlelight. More mind blowing meza with olives like no other, grilled halloumi cheese, octopus marinated in wine, grilled vegetables, ground lamb brochettes, stuffed artichokes, and those exquisite candied cloves I mentioned earlier.
The next morning, we sucked it up and returned to the sadistic mountain roads and began our quest to find every one of the nine painted Troodos churches. Designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, these seemingly unassuming churches date from the Byzantium period. The unassuming ends at the front door as the insides are covered from floor to ceiling with religious frescos. They were intentionally scattered throughout the rugged interior of the island in order to thwart the attempts of foreign invaders to loot religious treasures. Most of the churches have a caretaker that will either present you with a key or escort you inside while proudly sharing the condensed history of their village church in halting English. (Some were unmanned and locked and had only a small windows to peer through.) When our questions were met with blank stares, we realized that the tour script was the only English most of the docents knew. Luckily, there was usually a multi-lingual pamphlet or book for sale that more than satisfied our curiosity.
We probably resembled a pair of deer caught in the headlights of a fast-moving Cypriot car as we stepped out of the Archangelos Michail church in the village of Pedhoulas and found ourselves being hailed by the museum curator across the street. I’m not proud to admit one of my shameful shortcomings…I am not a museum person. Oh, the horror…there was no possible polite escape. Thank God. We stepped inside…and were blown away. This minuscule nondescript museum smack in the middle of a tiny Mediterranean island contained the most unbelievable treasures dating back over a thousand years. For the next 45 minutes, the curator (Pedhoulas’ former chief of police) captivated every bit of our attention as he escorted us to each exhibit, entertwining facts with fascinating stories. As we approached an empty exhibit, he proudly explained that it was on loan to the New York Metropolitan Museum.
Our minds were jam-packed, but our stomachs were empty. We were shocked by our skill at finding hidden treasures in this confusing little country. We ferreted out yet another recommended restaurant along a windy Pedhoulas road. Lunch at To Vrisi was a gastronomic encore of meza with the added bonus of delicious conversation with Harry, the owner.
It was my idea to take a short cut to the fourth church, Timios Stavros. According to the map and the road sign to my right, the dirt road would take us directly to the church. Four turnoffs and no signs later, I had lost all sense of direction. Eight kilometers later, I was drowning in humility and regret. Thankfully, one of my ex’s professional skills was locating specific parcels of land in the mountains. Go figure. He set aside the map and consulted his instincts. As sure as I was that he had turned in the wrong direction no less than four times, I bit my humbled tongue. I gasped when we turned the final corner. This church is unquestionably the MOST hidden…and, was hopefully unlocked. Yes!!! We peeked inside and, God bless, if it wasn’t an elderly man popping up from his spot on bench already starting his script about the history of the church and its exquisite frescos.
The literal and figurative peak of our Troodos Mountain adventure was Kykkos Monastery, a 900-year old operating Greek Orthodox monastery perched dramatically on top of a mountain. No doubt countless lives were lost building this one. The level of desire, passion and effort required to create such a stone marvel is truly mind boggling. The grounds were impeccably clean, not too surprising considering there isn’t much else to do up there besides eat, sleep, pray and clean. The interior of the church was covered in [real] gold and brilliantly colored murals. I longed to speak with one of the monks that passed by us for a glimpse into the unique life they led up here. In the gift store, we found out they have one other responsibility…they make delicious flavored liqueurs.
On Cyprus, the Virgin Mary and her mother, St. Anne, are worshipped. In some of the churches, these two matriarchs sat atop thrones, often at a greater height than Jesus. My armchair theologian hypothesis is that this stems from the matriarchal pagan religions that were thriving here long before Christianity arrived. (And, remember…Aphrodite was born here.) By incorporating some aspects of the local religious beliefs, Christianity had a chance of taking hold here.
Limassol by the Sea
After emerging from the mystical mountain villages and surviving the drive back to the coast, we landed at our final destination…the bustling seaside town of Limassol. Our hotel – the Chrielka Hotel Apartments – was simple, but quaint, with a good central location just a block from the sand and abutting the Municipal Gardens. We missed the quiet mountain villages we left behind, but the café mocha I devoured at Chocolat Café was a worthy consolation prize. Old Limmasol was very charming. The Medieval Museum inside the old castle, which had been built by the Byzantines around 1000 AD, was fascinating. [I did it! I liked another museum!] That night we had a Lebanese meal I will savor forever. Cleopatras offered us more meza, but with a cultural twist and fresh ingredients purchased that very morning in Lebanon.
Our last day was spent exploring the Kourion Roman, Greek and Phoenician ruins along the coast. A quick visit to a quiet little village [whose name remains in Cyprus] graced with another side of authentic Cypriot life…elderly men smoking and sipping on coffee together at the local café while the women, adorned in black, trailed behind the priest on a circular procession around [and around and around] their church.
Our 32-hour journey home was extremely trying, to say the least. Because of the limited number of flights from Paphos to London, we were stuck in the exterior lobby of Heathrow Airport from 2 to 6 a.m., attempting to sleep on the hard [and dirty] divided seats near the front door. It was all worth it. Our Cypriot adventure will forever rank as one of my top wanders. I look forward to the day when I hear the news that Turkey has ended their hostile occupation, opened up their border, and all Cypriots can peacefully co-exist together on this sacred island.
Here’s the more personal side of my wander to Cyprus: