Cyprus truly is a melting pot of new and old. Because of its strategic location between Europe and the Middle East it was conquered countless times and influenced by numerous different cultures. The island is known as a beach destination but with ancient history going back 10,000 years, beautiful hills and mountains and delicious cuisine combining European and Middle Eastern flavours there are so many more reasons to visit. A modern road network makes exploring easy and because it was a British colony until 1960 most people speak English so finding your way around is a cinch!
We spent our time in the Greek Cypriot republic, the southern part of the island, which is where Nick is from. The northern third is a self-proclaimed republic occupied by Turkey since 1974 and the capital Nicosia is split into two at the so-called ‘green line’. Nicosia is the last divided capital in the world but these days it’s easy to cross to the Turkish side through a checkpoint.
The old city walls of Nicosia still stand and as most tourists visit Cyprus for the beaches the capital is surprisingly low on tourists, especially when you venture away from the pedestrian shopping area. The city suffered under the recent financial crisis but in the last few years young local entrepreneurs taking advantage of cheap rents and run-down buildings have put new life into the old town and opened lots of quirky cafes and restaurants. We would often stroll though the quiet atmospheric streets at dusk before having a drink and then some Cypriot food in one of these casual eateries.
Anybody interested in history is spoilt for choice; from ancient burial sites to well-preserved mosaics and from archeological museums to the aqueduct in Larnaca, which sits on the site of the original Roman aqueduct… I was particularly taken with Choirokoitia where ruins date back to 8000 BC and a couple of reproductions show how the dwellings would have looked. The ruins themselves are maybe not the most impressive but knowing they were home to people not that different to us 10,000 years ago is pretty amazing. To top that, the Department of Antiquities just excavated 20 similar dwellings nearby which were built 2000 years earlier and are supposedly the oldest village settlement in the world!
The mild climate is another of Cyprus’ assets. The island is located in the eastern-most corner of the Mediterranean Sea, much closer to Lebanon than Greece. This sheltered location makes for consistent sunny days and balmy evenings and the shallow crystal clear water laps beautiful beaches all along the coastline. Tourists from the UK, Russia and northern Europe start arriving in May and although we stopped swimming in mid October there were still people at the beach in November.
When the summer draws to an end, the locals stop their weekends at the beach and head to the mountains for long walks, picnics and hearty lunches in hillside tavernas. The central part of the island is mostly hilly and home to some quaint villages where time has barely moved for centuries. Through friends we heard about a taverna in a tiny village called Lazania. On weekends their buffet of tasty home cooking is one of the best - the variety is huge and the salads, dips, roast meats, meatballs and a super tasty pastitsio are followed by fresh lokoumades (fried dough balls). It was so good that we went back the following weekend for more. Sitting on the terrace overlooking the hills and the old monastery of Maheras you understand why it’s full every weekend and it’s a great spot for tourists to try some authentic Cyprus food.
After lunch we strolled through the laneways and got chatting to a guy carrying red plastic buckets – we thought it was water but in fact it was zivania (a kind of brandy) and he was the local winemaker. He showed us the old distillery, the earthenware storage pots for the wine and of course the red plastic buckets used to carry the zivania from one rickety house to the next! Nick bought a bottle of the cinnamon flavoured variety and at 55% proof I'm pretty sure it can fix most ailments! His friend held the keys to the minuscule church dating back to the 14th century and gave us a tour. Typically for an orthodox church it was bathed in candle light and covered in brightly painted icons but less typically you could see a couple of earthenware pots under the floor where the monks used to hide their valuables during the Ottoman rule.
With 326 sunny days a year, you’ll get plenty sunshine even in winter. From mid December it often snows in the impressive Troodos Mountain range and most years you can ski on Mount Olympus. If you visit on a sunny day in March it’s worth renting skis and doing a few runs before driving down to the sea for a swim – just because you can!!
We had our base in Larnaca, where Nick’s mum lives and which is conveniently located halfway between Nicosia and the island’s best sandy beaches in Protaras further east. The flat overlooks a big salt lake and as they don't mine the salt any longer it provides a fascinating sight during summer when it looks as if it’s covered in show and ice. Then in winter pink flamingos arrive to feed on tiny pink scrimps and algae. We were lucky to see the first small group of about 100 arrive in early November after an overnight shower which left a bit of water in the lake, however big flocks of 10,000 or more flamingos visit over winter and early spring.
Cyprus is an easy and interesting stopover on the way to Europe if you fly with any of the Middle Eastern airlines. It's only 4 hours from Dubai and there are direct flights from here to Greece and most European capitals.