Romans and Venetians. The Byzantine and the Ottoman Empire. Great Britain, Greece and Turkey. Everybody has had its share of Cyprus. As my Cypriot friend from Limassol described:
"Every boat that passed by, dating back to the times of the crusaders, figured they would take their share of the island, and colonise it for a few centuries. There isn't much to the island in terms of fertility, but its geographical location is very privileged politically speaking, especially nowadays."
Cyprus has great relations with most of its neighbours, but shamefully, being a neutral country in such a turbulent area wasn't enough to gain the small island some peace and quiet of its own: Following a Civil War right after its independence from Britain, Turkey occupied the Northern part of Cyprus, under claims of protecting Cypriots of Turkey ascendancy, and there they remained, growing in numbers rapidly, enforcing their distinct culture and position in the island.
Past invasions and current division on an idyllic, small Mediterranean island
Southern Cyprus is predominantly inhabited by Greek descendants, and everything about their culture resembles Greece: The Orthodox Christian Church, the language, the food, the customs. A culture distinctively different from Islamic Turkey, in almost as many aspects as possible. To make matters yet more complicated, the territory occupied is claimed to contain the island's most fertile soil, essential for Cyprus's agriculture as well as the island's main beach resort areas that sustained the tourism industry for decades – the two main economical pillars that sustained the island's wealth for such a long time…
Southern Cypriots are proud to point out how well their people managed to overcome so much struggle and rebuild their society again – having very recently been affected by the crisis that affected most of Europe, and particularly, its "parent nation" Greece. And although since 1974, no warfare of any kind has played out between the South and the North, there is no recognition or cooperation between them at all, making it even harder for a place already a bit isolated for being an island.
I had the pleasure of meeting a few people that surprisingly, gave me very non biased information about the island's history and shared interesting views about both sides.
For the visitor, the lack of cooperation makes getting information as well as going around from one side to the other rather challenging, which in a way made it a bit more interesting, I had to improvise quite a few of my plans as I couldn't get access to some vital information I needed regarding timetables and routes, cross points and so on, until actually crossing into North Cyprus. As sad as the country's separation is, it does make Cyprus a rather unique place to visit, for much more than the ruins and beaches most travellers anticipate visiting.
Ancient ruins, white sand beaches, quaint mountain villages and monasteries
As soon as I reached Paphos airport (PFO), my new friend-to-be Christos was waiting for me at the airport, holding a sign with my name on it, prompting me to laugh out loud as soon as I exited customs into the arrival area. Paphos is in the East end of the island, an area known for its ruins and resorts. As Limassol was more centric, I chose to make that area my base.
Passing by the well-visited "Aphrodite's Rock", we continued driving through the city's busy centre, full of restaurants, hotels and clubs, until reaching a further beach. The Mediterranean Sea is always so clear and warm, and as soon as my feet were in the sand, I lifted up my jeans and continued walking with my feet in the water, constantly tempted to just jump in.. It wasn't the 32 C temperature that was killing me – it was the 85% + humidity level! It was 17 C when I left London a few hours earlier!
I spent the following morning visiting Limassol's Old Town and Marina. Shop keepers were so calm and friendly that I ended up shopping for things I didn't even need. The town's architecture was rather picturesque, and the Kolossi Castle was an interesting display of Cypriot history.
Another South Cyprus highlight was a visit to Kourion, a site with ancient ruins in the most magnificent location, dating back to the 1st century AD. The amphitheatre was really impressive, up in the mountains overlooking the Mediterranean Sea.
Much to my privilege, I was in town during the Limassol Wine Festival - I could not have asked for more! Everything I craved for could be found there: Traditional music and folk dancing, observing locals, and of course, wine. Great Cypriot wine! The activities were plenty, and I had a blast while dancing bare-feet on top of grapes, in the wine making process, hand in hand with locals who seemed to be just as tipsy as me. For a mere £1.50 (spent on the actual wine glass used for the many wine samples - great souvenir!) one could enjoy the night away.
Our next day was spent up in the Troodos Mountains, which was not only culturally rich and beautiful, but a great relief from the humidity and heat down by the ocean. The ever present breeze followed us along as we strolled around villages observing elderly women lace-making, visited nearly deserted monasteries and crashed into Sunday family parties where children gathered around to make "soutzoukos", a delicious Cypriot delicacy involving grape juice, nuts and lots of sugar.
Nicosia – The underrated divided capital
It only took me 90 minutes on a very comfortable bus ride to reach Nicosia, the country's capital, which is divided between South and North Cyprus. Extremely historical, Nicosia is located right in the centre of the country, without the appeal of the sea or the mountains, but surrounded by medieval Venetian Walls, still visible and well preserved, particularly around the old Famagusta Gate, the old port of entry into the centre.
The centre of South Cyprus' Nicosia is very architecturally rich, with old mosques, churches and squares, meandering cobblestone streets, cute little shops and restaurants. I was fortunate to have another incredible host down there, and next thing I knew, I was at a football stadium watching a Omonia vs Apolonia match, and cheering with the crowd. Hilarious.
Nicosia lacks geographical beauty, but is an incredible city nevertheless, and the constant awareness of the Green Line dividing both parts of the country certainly makes it a rather unusual destination. "No man's land" areas can be observed around many parts of the city and while purposely getting lost in the Old Town, every once in a while I would come to a dead end that led me to an UN controlled building where no passage or photographs were permitted. All just minutes away, from a perfectly normal looking reality in that same neighbourhood.
The city centre alone has two check point areas, where upon presenting a valid passports or local identification cards, visitors and residents may cross from South to North Cyprus. One of them is in the end of Ledra Street, the busiest street in Nicosia, a rather interesting street, as it starts with lots of restaurants and lively cafes, filled by young people sipping Frapuccinos or drinking beer, and finishes at a border line with a checkpoint, where mostly tourists, take their chances, crossing into an entirely different land, boycotted by Greek Cypriots not willing to support North Cyprus' economy or go through the experience of having their ID checked in what they call, their own country.
Crossing the Green line into an entirely different world
And so I crossed. Without much information available beforehand and a bit unsure of what to expect. Not surprisingly, it only took me a few minutes to feel as if I was back in Turkey. Women dressed conservatively, mosques replaced churches, street bazaars replaced shopping malls, Turkish language replaced Greek and the streets were definitely a lot more crowded. The Northern part of Nicosia had kept in its territory a much larger portion of the city's old ruins and Ottoman constructed buildings, such as hammans and palaces, making it somewhat more interesting, in my opinion.
My goal was to make my way to Kyrenia, said by many to be one of the most beautiful ports in the Mediterranean Sea. And just like in Turkey, a shared van took me there instead of a local bus. The entire Northern side of Cyprus is dominated by the beautiful view of the Kyrenian Mountains, and the port area was indeed very pleasant. After a nice stroll around the Kyrenia Castle, I had a traditional Turkish lunch, before heading back to Southern Cyprus for the night.
Ayia Napia and Protaras
Ayia Napa is one of the most famous beach resorts in Cyprus, known for being the Hedonistic spot of the island. Those looking for a quieter and family oriented swimming beach usually head to nearby Protaras, equally beautiful if not superior. Ayia Napa certainly sees its share of visitors, fostering what is likely the image of Cyprus that most holidaymakers have in their mind when heading there on a package holiday: calm Mediterranean beaches, lots of shops, international restaurants and many night clubs.
I certainly enjoyed some quality beach time after packing in so many activities into only 6 days in Cyprus, and although Ayia Napa and its mass tourism isn't exactly my cup of tea when it comes to beaches, the Mediterranean sea is always the Meditarranean sea, and one can't help but enjoy it.
Into the South and out of the North, wrapping up my time in Cyprus
Early morning, at 6 AM, I was ready to take a local bus towards the Ledra Street checkpoint, yet again. I had a flight booked out of Ercan Airport (ECN), towards Turkey, and had to ensure I had plenty of time to cross the Green Line yet again and cross the entire city centre to catch an airport shuttle, a few kilometres away. It was an interesting way to wrap up my time in Cyprus, as in a way, it highlighted the whole separation and division aspect of that nation.
To wake up listening to a language and using a certain currency, and an hour later, be flying out of a nearby airport, technically in a different country under an entirely different culture was, to say the least, an unusual experience. While it surely isn't a desirable scenario and brings grief to the country and its people, there is something to be learned from it, and whether Cypriots like it or not, it adds an edge to their nation, making it sociologically dense and yet more interesting to cultural observers like myself.
Boasting versatility and a wide range of options catering to travellers of all sorts, the island of Cyprus is not to be missed as a destination and will be a rewarding experience to whomever ventures in there.