A sojourn in Cyprus

A long, long time ago, when I was just a kid, my next door neighbours (and also my cousins) who were in the Irish army, were posted as part of the UN peacekeeping battalion to Cyprus, where trouble had broken out between the Greeks and the Turks. As a result, on their return our house was awash for a while with exotic souvenirs, items like ashtrays, cigarette lighters and playing cards with Cyprus written on them.

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I thought of these items as I recently slipped through the green line that still divides Nicosia right up to today – it proudly describes itself ‘The only divided capital in Europe’. My wife and I had decided that we needed some early Summer sun, and the availability of direct flights to Paphos in Cyprus tipped the scales. So off we went. At the back of my head I also had the long-standing invite from a Cypriot former work colleague, reinforced every year in the annual Christmas card, to ‘come visit him in Cyprus’ so we decided it was now or never.

Paphos is very nice, but I think we saw the best of it because we stayed in the ‘old town’ which is about 200m from the harbour and a small ‘city beach’ but which was also surrounded by swathes of comfortable sunbeds. So if we chose not to stay by the apartment complex pool, a five minute walk saw me jumping into clear, clean (and slightly cold) open water. Wonderfully refreshing. Followed by a beer to get rid of the saltwater taste.

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Apart from reading a number of page-turners, while broiling painfully on the sunbeds (gotta top up that tan), we also tried a number of the recommended local Cypriot restaurants. Wonderful lamb, authentic moussaka, fresh fish, and stuffed vine leaves. Plus the obligatory ‘Greek Salads’. We discovered that while it’s emotionally attached to Greece (as that 12 points in the Eurovision proves every year), the Cypriots are keen to point out their own identity, and that they have not suffered the same degree of economic calamity as Greece. There is definitely money in Cyprus, whether from tourism or ‘Russian investments’, as the numbers of new Mercedes, BMWs and Audis on the roads indicated.

I hired a much less salubrious (but very reasonably priced) Kia and we set off to explore the island for a few days. The Troodos mountains are famous for a) stunning vistas, b( winding roads, c) great hill-walks and d) Byzantine churches with wonderful Unesco-recognised frescos. We saw the views, we drove the roads, and we did no hill-walks (although we did walk the last 300m to the summit of Mt Olympus, the highest spot on the island.  Our big defeat was the attempt to see some of the churches. The first one was a monastery that ‘did not admit tourists’. Fair enough. The next one, after we drove 4km up a winding sideroad was closed with no indication of where one might find a key. The last double-header of two churches as per the (relatively) main road sign-post, took us down into a valley and then up a switchback goat track through what appeared to be people’s back yards. Conscious of the large security deposit on my car, which was in any case wheezing badly from the uphill effort, I decided to turn back. My wife stopped praying and helped me to achieve an (approximately) 15 point turn on the hillside. This was in a village called Moutoullas by the way. Avoid!

After this, the drive to Nicosia was a piece of cake. We had a light lunch of Lamb kebabs en route at Louis restaurant in Prodromos village, and before long we were pulling into the divided city. The miracle of Google maps and EU-wide roaming took us to my friend’s house on the city outskirts, where we were overwhelmed with hospitality. I also was very happy to use the pool in their garden, and we caught up on old times as we lounged in the warm water. Off for dinner, to an open air restaurant on a hillside which was run by a guy from my friend’s wife’s village in the hills. Family connections worked a treat, and we had a wonderful and simple meal for a very low cost. Needless to say, we were the only non-Cypriots there, and our friends did all the ordering (and did an excellent job).

Downtown Nicosia was hopping on a Saturday night, so we walked around, soaked up the bouzouki music from many quarters, had some ice cream and marvelled at how clean everything was. It feels somewhat Middle Eastern, and yet British at the same time. A strange combination. And there’s no litter, anywhere on the island. Next day (Sunday) we were treated to a walking tour of Nicosia, and my wife and I slipped ‘across the border’ for a quick look at the Turkish side. Our friends decided to ‘stay at home’.  It seemed a bit less developed than the Greek side, and I think the commerce is mostly on the south (Greek) side of the line. As far as I can tell, people can come and go quite easily through the checkpoints, although it still seems a bit ominous, and passports are inspected rigorously by both parties. We concluded our flying visit to Nicosia with a meal at a wonderful fish restaurant – again no tourists, and again our friends did the ordering, in Cypriot. But the food was very, very good. That evening, my friend pointed out the illuminated giant Turkish flag on the mountains just North of the city and visible from his garden. Quite a provocative gesture in many ways, so I think there is no prospect of an accommodation on the island anytime soon.

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After breakfast (by the pool, obviously) we bid our goodbyes to both Nicosia and our friends, and headed back across the island by motorway toward Paphos. En route we stopped at the rock where Aphrodite (who is HUGE in Cyprus) is supposed to have emerged from the sea. Then back to a chilled out evening in Paphos and some more work on ‘the tan’. Next day we visited the beach resort of Coral Bay, about 15km North of Paphos. It’s got a nice beach, and the water is shallow, warm and clean. Our final cultural expedition was to the Paphos archaeological site (about 300m from our apartment complex) where we saw some very cool preserved mosaics from the Greek and Roman villas that have been excavated on the huge site on the promontory. We went early, because by now the daytime temperatures were edging up to and beyond 30 degrees…

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I headed for the seafront for a final swim in the cool, clean deep water and floated as I looked back at the shops, bars and restaurants that lined the quayside. And then, one final meal, and we bundled our bags into the luggage hold on the bus, and off to the airport. I think we will try to return to Cyprus at some stage. It’s clean, reasonably priced, civilised, they drive on the same side of the road we do (the British legacy) and in early Summer and – presumably – early Autumn, temperatures are reasonable. A very nice experience, all in all.

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