My June/July 2018 holiday
Introduction Outward Flight Kyrenia Famagusta Northern Nicosia Southern Nicosia Toödos Mountains Pafos Return Flight Conclusion
"A wit once said that the Cyprus issue is essentially a problem of thirty thousand Turkish troops faced off against thirty thousand Greek Cypriot lawyers. (Or, as someone else put it, while the Turkish army uses warfare, the Greek Cypriots use 'lawfare'.)" "The Cyprus Problem" by James Ker-Lindsay (2011))Top of my bucket list is - so long as I have reasonable health and wealth - to have visited as many countries as my age. On my 70th birthday, I commenced a trip to Cyprus that was my 72nd country. It was an organised tour with the company Voyages Jules Verne [click here] and involved equal time in the north and the south. Cyprus is a small nation: an island in the eastern Mediterranean which at its extremes is just 150 miles long from east to west and 100 miles wide from north to south. The estimated population is only just over a million - barely half that of Northern Ireland - although there are almost as many Cypriots living off the island as on it. In spite of its small size, its location has given it a complicated history with successive occupations by the Persians, Egyptians, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Franks, Venetians, Ottomans, and British. Independence came in 1960 with a constitution that shared power between the Greek and Turkish Cypriot communities in the ratio 70:30. But the new state lasted less than a decade and a half when Turkey invaded the north of Cyprus in 1974 occupying 36% of the island.
On Monday, the flight from London to Larnaca was just over four hours and the time difference between Britain and Cyprus is two hours, so it took the best part of the day reaching the island. At Larnaca, I met the other members of the group. Since I was travelling alone, I was hoping for a group of decent size and variety, but I found that there were only three other members: a married couple from Suffolk and a single man from Leicester, all in their early 60s - each of them extremely well-travelled.A laconic driver took us in a minibus from the south-east to the north-west of the island, passing through one of the seven border crossings (two more are planned) between the Republic of Cyprus and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. It is a strange island that can be disorientating to visitors, since often a place has Greek, Turkish and English names. But both parts of the island drive on the left, so that at least is a familiar situation for British tourists. Our accommodation during our time in the north was on the outskirts of the coastal town of Kyrenia and called the Omar Village Hotel. It is a small, family-owned establishment, rather basic with no tea & coffee making facilities and very poor WiFi in the rooms (the WiFi in the restaurant was a bit better). But you could drink the tap water and they had the same three-pin plugs as Britain. Dinner was included in the tour and consisted of a set menu of three courses with a choice of just two dishes for each course. Drinks were extra and we toasted my 70th birthday with local Efes beer. Down in the town, there were some fireworks that might have been for my birthday but could have been to celebrate the presidential election in Turkey at the weekend.
On Tuesday, I was woken at 4.30 am by the broadcasting of the Islamic call to prayer, a reminder that I was in north Cyprus and not south Cyprus. At 9 am, we met our guide for the northern part of our tour of the island: Sezain Patterson whose English was brilliant on account of spending years in Britain and marrying an Englishman. The four of us on the North and South Voyages Jules Verne tour were joined by four other Brits staying at another hotel and doing a VJV tour that only covers the north. This was be the arrangement for the first three days of our holiday.Today we visited locations in and around Kyrenia (or Girne as it is called locally). This city is set around and above a superb natural harbour. Founded by the Achaens after the Trojan War, its long and chequered past involves rules by the Roman, Byzantine, Venetian, Ottoman and British empires. Our first visit was to St Hilarion Castle, located a short distance south-west of the city. Originally a a watch tower to warn against Arab raiders, following the taking of the island by Richard the Lionheart in 1191, the location was developed during the period of the crusades by the Frankish Lusignans and abandoned when the Venetians took the island in 1489. The highest point of the ruins is 732 metres (2,400 feet) and only reached by taking some 230 steps that are very tough and uneven (at least there were handrails). Following such a climb, a homemade lemonade drink was welcome. Officially the currency of northern Cyprus is the Turkish lira, but euros and sterling are accepted too, which was just as well because I only took euros. The second visit of the day was to Bellapais Abbey, located in a pretty little village just south of Kyrenia. The first monks here were the Augustinians who had to flee Jerusalem when Saladin occupied the holy city in 1187. When the Ottomans took over the island in 1571, the abbey was closed and the church ceased to be Catholic and became Orthodox. The church stopped operating when the Turks invaded in 1974. The location is home to the best Gothic architecture on the island and highlights are the 14th century cloister and a magnificent refectory. After these two visits, we drove into Kyrenia to have lunch sitting outside the “Chimera Restaurant” - owned by the same family as our hotel - by the picturesque harbour side. Our third and last visit of the day was to Kyrenia Castle. The earliest construction on the site could have been as far back as the 7th century BC, but major developments occurred under the Lusignans, and the Venetians. Ironically, however, the local people surrendered without a fight to the Ottomans in 1570. During the British colonial period, the site was used as a prison and a police academy. Inside the castle is the Shipwreck Museum that houses the world’s oldest ship complete with its ancient cargo of some 400 amphora. The ship was sunk around 300 BC and salvaged in 1967. It reminded me of the “Mary Rose” (1545) in Portsmouth and the “Vasa” (1628) in Stockholm. Though the ship in Kyrenia is much smaller than the other two vessels, it is much, much older. Dinner was again at the hotel where we were virtually the only guests and again a choice from a three-course menu with two options for each course. But this evening we started with complimentary welcome cocktails and one of our group celebrated a birthday and insisted on buying us another round of cocktails and wine with the meal. I went with the flow ...
On the second day of the northern part of our Cyprus trip (Wednesday), we drove from Kyrenia all the way to Famagusta on the eastern coast of the island which took just under an hour and an half. Originally built by the Phoenicians, the city was totally enclosed by ramparts by the Venetians and these ramparts still survive today. Part of the city is a ghost town - a section once occupied by Greek Cypriots who fled their homes when the Turks invaded in 1974.Our first visit was to what was originally St Nicholas Cathedral that was constructed between 1298-1312 and used for coronation purposes for the Lusignan kings of Jerusalem and Armenia. During the Ottoman reign, however, it was converted into a mosque - since 1954 the Lala Mustafa Pasa Mosque - and remains a mosque to this day. I had previously visited a place which was a great mosque and became a cathedral (La Mezquita in Córdoba) and a place which was a basilica which became an imperial mosque which became a museum (the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul), so I was used to religious changes in this part of the world. After a stop at a well-known patisserie for coffee and cake, our next visit was to Othello’s Tower, so called because Famagusta was supposedly the setting for Shakespeare’s play (the name was given during the British occupation). This citadel was originally built in the 12th century during the Lusignan period to protect the harbour. It is thought that, when Leonardo da Vinci visited Cyprus in 1481, he advised the Venetians - who by then had taken over the island - on the design of the defences of Famagusta. At this point, we left Famagusta and made the short drive to Salamis, the site of the greatest of Cyprus’s ancient cities. Founded more than 3,000 years ago by Mycean Greeks, it dominated the island until its near destruction by earthquakes in the 4th century AD. Most of what we see today is 4th century: the Roman theatre, the columned courtyard, the gymnasium, the 44-seat latrines, the frigidarium (cold rooms), the caldarium (hot water baths), the sudatorium (sweating rooms). We walked around Salamis at the hottest time of the day at near to the hottest time of the year in temperatures up to 33C/91F, so I was kitted out in sun hat, sun glasses and sun lotion. The expression “mad dogs and Englishmen” came to mind. Fortunately lunch was at an outside restaurant very close to the ruins overlooking the azure sea. Our final visit of the day - again only a short drive - was to the site of the catacomb tomb of St Barnabas, a native of Salamis who evangelised Cyprus. Since 1756, it has been the Apostolos Varnavas Monastery and, since 1974, the monastery’s cells have become northern Cyprus’s main Archaeological Museum in which Bronze Age pottery items are the star exhibits. For the third consecutive evening, dinner was at the hotel as part of the package and what we lacked in choice we enjoyed in quality (we all had the local fish).
On the third day of the northern part of our Cyprus trip (Thursday), we drove to the capital which is just half an hour away. Known as Lefkosia in Greek and Lefkoşa in Turkish, the name given to the city by the English is Nicosia. Since the Turkish invasion of 1974, it has been the only divided capital in the world and this morning we visited the northern part which is smaller and less developed than the southern portion.First stop was the Whirling Dervishes Museum located in a one-time monastery dating back to the 17th century. Really the museum is an explanation of the Sufi mysticism belief system behind the dance that is designed to induce a trance-like state. I saw a performance of the dance itself by whirling dervishes in Aleppo during a trip to Syria in 2003, a couple of weeks before the terrible civil war broke out, and it is a mesmerising experience. Strolling through the Old City Square with its Venetian Column, we made our second stop at the St Sophia Cathedral which in 1570 ceased to be a Catholic place of worship when the new island occupiers the Ottomans converted it into the Selimiye Mosque. Since the orientation of a mosque provides for worshippers to face the direction of Mecca, the carpet is laid diagonally to the floor plan of the original church. Then came some shopping. Our guide asked: “Is there any special shop that you want us to go to?” One of the male members of our group quipped in reply: “The one that is closed.” But we visited a decent souvenir shop before looking around the Belediye Pazari indoor market which is the covered bazaar housing establishments selling not just the usual clothes and foods but everything from old vinyl records to multiple versions of Turkish delight. Finally we had a refreshment stop at a wonderful former caravanserai called Büyük Han that dates back to 1572. Inside a beautiful courtyard, I had fresh lemonade and almond rolls. Before we left northern Nicosia, we went to observe a pedestrian border crossing into southern Nicosia, located on the Green Line, so called because - when the demarcation of the communities was agreed - a British official marked the line on a map with his green felt pen. After three evenings with dinners in our hotel, this evening - our last in the north of Cyprus - we were taken into Kyrenia to have dinner by the harbour at the “Chimera Restaurant” where we had lunch on Tuesday. For the third time in four days, a member of the combined British group of eight had a birthday, so we drank sparkling wine and ate a special cake to celebrate. Afterwards we chose to stay at the restaurant, sitting outside to view the England versus Belgium World Cup football match (we lost 0-1). As family and friends will know, generally my enthusiasm for football is on a par with that for dentistry and my total knowledge of the sport could be fitted on the back of a postage stamp, but my fellow travellers were all both massively excited and hugely knowledgeable and I like to have new experiences on holiday, so I too spent the rest of the evening cheering on our lads into the next round of the competition.
After three days touring the Turkish north of Cyprus, today (Friday) the four of us on the North & South package left behind in Kyrenia the four signed up for the North Only package and started three days in the Greek south of the island. Whereas yesterday we had visited the northern part of the divided capital of Nicosia, today we went over to the southern part of the city with a new guide, a Greek Cypriot called George Economides who had himself visited am amazing total of 95 countries.It was just half an hour from Kyrenia to Nicosia and, once we were through the vehicle checkpoint, our first port of call was the 18th century Greek Orthodox St John The Theologian Cathedral. This looked nondescript from outside and it is only small inside, but the ceilings and walls are emblazoned with paintings and icons and the iconostasis is made of wood with gold leaf, so that the whole effect is quite overpowering. But no photography is allowed. Just over the courtyard from the cathedral is the Byzantine Museum. Here more than 300 wonderful icons dating back to the 10th century are well-displayed in a modern (1976) and well-light building. The information in the museum accuses the Turkish army of facilitating the smuggling of artefacts from the occupied territory in the north of the island. Again no photography is allowed. After these two visits, we looked at the nearby monument to the 1960 independence of Cyprus and then wandered around the pedestrianised streets of the centre of Nicosia where the shops are much more westernised and upmarket that on the Turkish side of the capital. Although not on the official tour, we looked at the pedestrian border crossing that we viewed yesterday, but this time from the opposite side, and then we went up to the 11th floor of the Ledna Observation Tower (Ledna was the 1st century name of the city) to view the only divided capital in the world. Lunch was in the pedestrianised quarter at a place called “Piazza Tavern” where I had a delicious halloumi baguette and we were all given a complimentary glass of schnapps. Finally, we spent over an hour visiting the impressive Cyprus Museum that is full of pottery, jewellery, sculptures, coins and other objects covering all periods of Cypriot culture. The oldest item is a figurine from 9000 BC and there is an army of terracotta figures from the 7th & 6th centuries BC. At last, we could take photographs. At this point, we left Nicosia to drive to Limassol which with traffic took almost an hour and a half. Our accommodation was the unoriginally named Mediterranean Beach Hotel just outside Limassol. This could not have been more different than our hotel in Kyrenia - it is a very large and modern four-star establishment with all the facilities one could want but no character. Dinner at the hotel was part of our package and, although it was only a buffet, the selection was wide and the quality was good. The local beer in the south was called Keo.
On Saturday, we were out for over nine hours on a day trip to the Troödos Mountains, a location that is 90 million years old and now a UNESCO global geopark.The mountains themselves are not far from Limassol, but the mountain range is extensive and our minibus had to proceed really slowly because we had to take literally hundreds of very tight bends. We started by driving to the highest point accessible to the public for a refreshment break - a square at a height of 1,750 metres (5,740 feet). Then we made brief scenic stops overlooking a former asbestos mine (a first for all of us) and the Troödos Botanical Gardens (a special request of the one woman in our group). Most of the morning, however, was spent visiting three of the 10 Byzantine churches in the mountains. All the ones we viewed are UNESCO-listed: the 16th century church of the Archangel Michael (1514) and the 16th century church of Panagia of Podithon (1502), both in the village of Galata, and the 11th century church of St Nicholas of the Roof (1025 - making it almost a 1,000 years old) just outside the village of Kakopetria. Each church was only the size of a chapel, but to see frescoes of such antiquity was a marvellous experience - for me, only rivalled by visits to similarly old and decorated churches in Ethiopia. No photographs are allowed. We stopped for some lunch at the “Kykkos Tourist Pavilion” and then visited another two fascinating sites. First, we went to see the Makarios tomb, the resting place of of the former president of Cyprus Archbishop Makarios III (1913-1977). This is a remarkably plain affair although it is honoured with a soldier on guard. However, the approach to the tomb is along a long, circular path with modern mosaics of saints - dozens and dozens of them - on either side and at the top of the path is a brand new Chapel of the Little Throne of the Icon of the Virgin Mary which is incredibly ornate. The whole thing must have cost a fortune to construct but the Cypriot Orthodox Church is one of the richest in the world and would clearly prefer to spend its money in this ostentatious way rather than alleviate poverty. A short drive further on, we made our last stop at Kykkos Monastery. This 900-year old shrine guards a legendary, miracle-working icon of the Virgin Mary, given to the monastery founder by the the emperor of the time but hidden from view for centuries. The outer part of the monastery has recently been decorated with wall paintings in a simplified version of the style of the old frescoes, but the church itself is outrageously opulent (again no photographs are permitted). There is a museum as well but we did not have time to visit that. Archbishop Makarios started his ecclesiastical career at Kykkos Monastery and expressed a wish to be buried next to it which is why his tomb is at Kykkos. The drive back to Limassol took almost two hours. In the evening, again we had buffet dinner at the hotel.
Sunday was the last day of our tour of Cyprus and was dominated by visits to two archaeological sites, neither of which I had heard of before this holiday. First though, we were taken on a half hour walk along the seafront of Limassol, an attractive city that, with some 200,000 citizens, is beginning to rival Nicosia in terms of population.Then we drove west through a citrus plantation and the British RAF base of Akrotiri to reach the first archaeological site at a place called Kourion. This is located on a hill overlooking the Mediterranean, so it must have been a spectacular place when it was first settled by the Mycenaeans and reached the height of its importance in Roman times before being destroyed by an earthquake in 365 AD. We viewed 4th century mosaics and a restored Roman theatre. We stopped again further west at a place called Petra tou Romiou that is the legendary birthplace of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love. This is a beautiful cove surrounded by limestone crags and it had attracted swimmers or sun worshippers as well as us photographers who could not fail to take stunning shots. Continuing our journey west along the coast, we reached the town of Pafos where there is the Kato Pafos archaeological site discovered in 1961 and excavated by Poles since 1962. Before lunch, we viewed the Agia Kyriaki Church, where the Catholic mass has been observed continuously since the 4th century, and the ruins of the Basilica of Chrysopolitissa. Lunch was included in the package and served outside in bright sunshine at the “Hondros Taverna”. It was a traditional Greek meze and the courses just kept coming and coming … and coming. No wonder the word ‘hondros’ translates as ‘fat man’. After lunch, we went round the main grounds of the Kato Pafos archaeological site. The city was founded around 320 BC, but we observed a series of buildings containing wonderful mosaics from the 2nd, 3rd and 4th centuries that are viewed from raised walkways. Our final visit of the day and the tour was to Pafos Castle which was restored by the Ottomans in 1592 and provides splendid views of today’s town harbour. For our final night in Cyprus, dinner was not included, so the group of four decided to splash out by eating at the Italian restaurant in the hotel, enjoying a three-course meal with beer, wine, and a complimentary spirit. We slept well …
In the same way that the previous Monday was entirely a travelling day, so too was this Monday. The four of us were collected from our hotel outside Limassol and driven to the airport in Larnaca. The journey was supposed to take an hour but there was very little travel and our driver was rehearsing for the Grand Prix so we did it in half an hour.The return flight took a bit longer than the outward one: almost four and a half hours. I was sitting on the back row in a window seat and had some great views of different terrains, including the Italian Dolomites, and several other airliners. We landed at Heathrow after a week in Cyprus of a consistent temperature 30-33C to find that most of Britain had had a week of only slightly lower temperatures.
For many years, Cyprus did not feature in my travelling intentions because I had thought of the island as all about sun, sea, and sand. This week in the north and south of the island had totally changed my perceptions as I was pleasantly surprised at how much history and culture there was to appreciate.The Jules Verne trip was an excellent programme with two very informative guides and several interesting visits each day including churches, mosques, monasteries, castles, museums and archaeological sites. For me, the highlight was the visit to the painted churches in the Toödos Mountains.