Itinerary: Larnaka – Lefkosia – Troödos Mountains – Laneia – Kolossi – Kourion – Aphrodite’s Rock – Paphos
A divided country
With an average of 326 days of sunshine a year, Cyprus is a popular island for holidaymakers. But the island in the eastern part of the Mediterranean Sea has more to offer than sun, beach and nightlife. The island has historically been located on trade routes in the eastern Mediterranean, between the ancient civilizations of Greece, Turkey, Egypt and Persia. In antiquity, Cyprus was a prosperous island. At that time, several city-states were established on the island, such as Paphos, Kourion and Kition (now Larnaka).
Traditionally, the culture on the island has been strongly influenced by the Greeks, but the Persians, Egyptians, Romans, Venetians and Ottomans have also ruled it over the course of history. In 1571 Cyprus is conquered by the Ottoman Empire and the Ottomans remain in power for three hundred years. Until 1878, when they strike a deal with Great Britain, which sees Cyprus as a strategically located island, where they can strengthen their influence in the eastern part of the Mediterranean. The deal means that Cyprus will remain Turkish, but the British will take over the public administration.
However, at the start of the First World War, Britain and Turkey end up on different sides. The British annex Cyprus and from 1925 the island is a British crown colony. In the following years, the Greek inhabitants of Cyprus hope for reunification with Greece, the Turkish inhabitants wiwh to reunite with Turkey. Neither happens and in 1960 Cyprus becomes an independent republic. The condition for independence is that the country will not seek affiliation with Greece or Turkey and that the British are allowed to keep two naval bases on the island (which still exist today).
The Greek and Turkish politicians on the island are soon at each other’s throats. In 1963, the Greek and Turkish parts of the capital Lefkosia are separated from each other by a buffer zone guarded by the UN. After mounting tensions, a coup in Greece and a US-sponsored Greek coup in Cyprus in 1974, Turkey intervenes and occupies the northern part of the island.
The island is becoming increasingly divided. Greek Cypriots in the north move to the south and Turkish Cypriots exchange the south for the north. Turkey refuses to give up the northern part (about a third of the island). In 1983, the Turks in the occupied north proclaim the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. The division is a fact. Separated by a UN-secured buffer zone that now spans the entire island.
The Turkish occupation continues to this day. Only Turkey recognizes Northern Cyprus, the rest of the world has recognized the Republic of Cyprus, and since 2004 the Republic of Cyprus has been a member of the European Union. In recent decades there have been regular talks about a possible reunification of the Greek and Turkish parts, but so far without success.
After a four hour flight I arrive at Larnaka airport on Sunday evening. The sun has already set. Upon arrival, everyone on the plane is tested for Covid-19. Fortunately, that goes smoothly and I only have hand luggage with me, so I can proceed quickly. It does take a while to find the bus stop though: confusingly enough, you will not find the local bus 425 to the city where the bus signs point to (you will find the – expensive – airport shuttles there), but at the parking deck, for which you must first go to the first floor of the airport. Half an hour later I am at my hotel.
The next morning the sun is in a clear blue sky and with about twenty degrees it is perfect weather to explore Larnaka. Larnana is located on the southeastern side of Cyprus and has a population of just over 50,000. Originally the city was called Kition and it was an influential city-state. Today’s Larnaka relies mainly on tourism. The central spot of Larnaka is the long boulevard, known as the Finikoudes. The boulevard is where tourists and locals alike go for coffee, a visit to the beach, or a sunset stroll. It’s not busy when I’m there. Some people are walking along the boulevard and the beach and there is a relaxed atmosphere. In the high season it is a lot more crowded with tourists.
I walk to the south side of Larnaka, where there is a large salt lake, squeezed in between the city and the airport. In early spring the salt lake is a stopover for migrating flamingos. Dozens of pink-and-white birds wade across the shallow lake. I walk back towards the sea and down the Finikoudes towards the north. The waters of the Mediterranean glisten in the sun. Walking through quiet streets lined with whitewashed houses, I pass the Agios Lazaros, a Byzantine church named after the former bishop of Kition, said to be the same man who, according to myth, returned from the dead.
On the water is the Larnaka Fort. A small fortification from the time when the French rulers of the house of Lusignon ruled Cyprus. I pay a short visit, the fortress has a courtyard and you can go up the fortress wall, where you have a wide view over the sea and the Finikoudes boulevard. Next to the fortress is the (not very large) Grand Mosque, originally built as a church in the sixteenth century. I stroll along the beach and the boulevard and at the beginning of the afternoon I visit Secret Garden’s courtyard for lunch. After another hour of relaxing on the boulevard, with a view of the sea, I take the bus to Lefkosia. Less than an hour and a half later I am in the Cypriot capital. The next day I have the whole day to explore Lefkosia.
Lefkosia is also known as Nicosia, the name the British gave the city. Once known as the city-state of Ledra, the city has been the island’s capital since the ninth century. Just as Cyprus became a divided country in 1974, Lefkosia already became one in 1963. After violence between Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots, the British drew a line right through the city. The line became known as the Green Line and was perpetuated after Turkey occupied the northern part of Cyprus.
Seen from above, the old walled town of Lefkosia is almost perfectly round, with eleven arrow-shaped bastions. It does look a bit like a snowflake. The fortress wall, known as the Venetian Walls (after the ones who built them in 1567) is still largely intact. I walk a bit along the outside of the fortress wall, until the Famagusta Gate, the eastern of the originally three city gates.
Here in the northeastern part of Greek Cypriot Lefkosia is the district of Chrysaliniotissa. It borders the UN Buffer Zone. I walk through the narrow streets, where there is hardly anyone to be seen, only a few cats roam the streets. Some houses are occupied, others are empty. There is a somewhat eerie, tranquil atmosphere. Streets like the Leoforos Athinas and Axoteas run dead on concrete barricades, metal fences and lots of barbed wire. Signs warn that entering the buffer zone is strictly prohibited. Within the buffer zone are dilapidated houses that were once inhabited and used to stand on a normal through street.
Some barricades are manned by UN soldiers, while others only have a UN sign and small flags of Cyprus and Greece flutter side by side. Elsewhere in Cyprus you often see Greek flags as well, it is clear with whom the Cypriots feel related. Since 2003 it has been possible for Cypriots to cross the Green Line to visit the other side. The official crossing is at the end of Ledra Street. A sign reminds you that Lefkosia is “the last divided capital” in the world. A 21st century Berlin.
On a terrace in Ledra Street I take some time for coffee and relaxing. Then I continue walking through the old town. Ledra Street and Onasagorou Street are the main shopping streets, also with many restaurants and terraces. From the eleventh floor of the Shacolas Tower, you have a wide view of the city, including the Turkish northern part, and the mountains in the background.
Lefkosia is not really a beautiful city and the sights are not spectacular. Still, it is well worth a visit, if only to see and feel what it is like in such a divided city. In the old city center there are many dilapidated old buildings (which sometimes look photogenic, with their broken shutters and peeling paint) and there is a lot of vacant space. The new Plateia Elefterias forms a sharp contrast to this. The square was designed by Zaha Hadid and consists of two parts: a park in the moat along this part of the Venetian Walls, and above it a modern white construction at street level on which the actual square is located. And all of this has an ultra-modern design.
The next morning I have to walk a bit to the car rental, which is located along an exit road from Lefkosia. The first minutes in my rental car (a white Volkswagen Golf) I have to pay attention, because not only is it a manual transmission car, the steering wheel is on the right, because in Cyprus people drive on the left (a legacy from the British era). Fortunately, I have experience with that and get used to it quickly.
Once outside Lefkosia the traffic is not very busy. I drive west on the B9, through a hilly landscape. After an hour the road starts to rise and I drive into the Troodos Mountains. The temperature drops from twenty degrees to sixteen, to fourteen, to twelve, but the sun is shining, so the weather is actually lovely.
At 1,952 meters Mount Olympus is the highest mountain in Cyprus. The slopes are covered with pine trees and when I get near the village of Troodos, at an altitude of 1,900 meters, those slopes are partly covered with… snow! Thinking of Cypsus, snow may not be the first thing that comes to mind, but the Troodos Mountains see snow every winter. It now is the end of March and I am standing with my feet in the snow taking pictures that suggest that I am on a winter sports trip. (I’m not a winter sports enthusiast, but you can ski in the Troodos Mountains in winter if you want to.)
I planned to walk a trail here, around Mount Olympus, but because there is about twenty to thirty centimeters of snow, the trails are not open yet. Instead I make it a little road trip, over Mount Olympus, stopping at some beautiful (lookout) spots.
On the other side of Mount Olympus I drive further, towards Omodos. This small village (six hundred inhabitants) is quite touristy, but has some picturesque streets and a central square with restaurants and terraces. Omodos is located in the middle of the area called the Krasohoria. This is the wine region of Cyprus. Wine has been produced in Cyprus since long before our era. Well-known grapes such as cabernet and shiraz, but also local varieties such as mavro and maratheftiko.
The slopes of the hills are dotted with vineyards (some with what looks to be quite old vines) although they are still bare in March, when winter has just passed. There are fewer vineyards than there used to be, the owner of winery Zenon tells me. I get that, the soil is fertile here, but the interior of Cyprus is also bone dry and the summers are long and hot. And that will only get worse, making it probably too dry and warm for viticulture in the long run. Although the huge new building of winery Vassiliades suggests that business is going quite well.
In the course of the afternoon I arrive at my place for the night in Koilani, a sleepy mountain village in the middle of the Krasohoria, with no more than a few narrow and completely deserted streets, a church, a tavern and a few guesthouses. On the balcony of my guesthouse I relax for the rest of the day.
Laneia, Kolossi and Kourion
Koilani is still asleep when I leave the next morning. Twenty minutes east of Koilani is Laneia, said to be the most photogenic village of the Krasohoria. This village has not yet awakened either. I walk down the quiet streets of the small village, where an old winery is now a ‘wine press museum’, which means that inside (the door is open) the old instruments such as the wine press can still be seen. Houses, a church and one tavern, that’s it.
I then drive out of the Troodos Mountains in half an hour, to the south coast of Cyprus. I ignore Lemesos (Limasol) and drive to Kolossi, west of Lemesos. This is where the Kolossi Castle stands. Not quite a castle really, more like a tower, dating back to the 13th century, when the Knights of St. John ruled here and produced wine and sugar at Kolossi Castle.
My next stop is ancient Kourion, just ten minutes away, perched on a high cliff with sweeping views of the coast and the Mediterranean. Kourion has been inhabited since the thirteenth century BCE, was a prosperous city during the time of the Roman Empire, but fell into disrepair after the seventh century CE. What remains today are the ruins from the beginning of our era. And although not much is left standing (partly due to earthquakes in this area), with the information that is known about the archaeological site and a little imagination you can imagine what it must have looked like once. The main square, the columned agora, the thermal baths and the largely restored Roman theatre, Kourion is an impressive archaeological site.
Perhaps the most photographed beach in Cyprus is on the ancient coastal road B6 from Lemesos to Paphos. Not because of the pebble beach itself, but because of Petra tou Romiou, or Aphrodite’s Rock. Two large rocks here are photogenic in the sea and according to legend, the goddess Aphrodite came ashore here from the sea.
I arrive in Paphos towards the end of the afternoon. I’m going to eat at Laterna Taverna, which turns out to be highly recommended. I feast on delicious Cypriot dishes with a local red wine. Culinary enjoyment.
The next day (it is now Friday) is another sunny day and the temperature has risen to above twenty degrees. Paphos is divided into Kato Paphos (lower Paphos), which is mainly geared towards tourism, with numerous restaurants, cafes and souvenir shops, and the higher situated Ktima (upper Paphos). Most places of interest are in Kato Paphos. And you should not miss it when visiting Cyprus.
It is still quiet on the street when I walk towards the south side of Paphos. I first get coffee and breakfast at a coffee bar on the boulevard, which curves gently to the harbor. Next to the harbor is Nea Paphos. Contrary to what the name suggests, this is not ‘new’ Paphos, but rather Paphos from antiquity. A visit to Nea Pahpos is a step back in time. The ancient city was founded in the fourth century BCE and was the political center of Cyprus for centuries. After a severe earthquake that destroyed much of the city, Nea Paphos fell into disrepair. In the 1960s, the foundations of Nea Paphos were discovered by chance, and not only that: the site turned out to hide valuable and partly well-preserved mosaics. New discoveries are still being made.
The mosaics, both geometric figures and depictions from Greek mythology, are on the floors of what must have once been large and richly decorated houses. Such as the Villa of Theseus, of which only the foundations remain, plus a few well-preserved floor mosaics and a small colonnade still standing (or resurrected?). The so-called House of Dyonisos is covered to protect the mosaics from the weather. It must once have been a huge house, with several rooms, each with a beautifully landscaped mosaic floor. The mosaics consist of geometric figures, depictions of hunting and mythological images. I have never seen such well-preserved mosaic floors in an archaeological site before. Very impressive.
A little further on is the restored Odeon, a small semicircular theater from the second century of our era, where performances were given. The Odeon is located on the Agora, the large central square of Nea Paphos. As a result of an earthquake in 1222 not much is left of the Saranta Kolones Fortress either, other than the foundations., plus a very photogenic double arch.
At the end of the morning there are more tourists at the harbor and on the boulevard, where many tourist restaurants with terraces are located, than I’ve seen on the entire island in recent days… At the harbor is Paphos Castle, a small fortification. Then I walk the hiking trail that starts at the fortress and runs north along the coastline. A walk with a view over the Mediterranean Sea and in the full sun it is quite warm.
I have lunch at the Karlina restaurant, opposite the entrance to the Tombs of the Kings, which I visit afterwards. This name is also confusing, because they are not the tombs of kings. The underground tombs, located in the coastal hills, were used to bury citizens of Nea Paphos. But that doesn’t make them any less impressive, quite the contrary. The tombs often consist of several rooms, as if they are ‘houses’ for the dead. The rooms contain niches cut into the rock where the dead found their final resting place. Some are even more beautiful than others. One of the tombs has a central open ‘atrium’ with colonnade. Very cool.
On my last day in Cyprus I walk to Ktima (uphill, hence the name upper Paphos…), where I get coffee and breakfast and sit on a terrace and read for a while. Ktima is less tourist-oriented and more of an ‘ordinary’ town. For lunch I have another meal at Laterna. In the afternoon I relax for a while in the shade of a palm tree (that sounds exotic, doesn’t it?). Then I drive to the airport, hand in the rental car and report for the flight back to the Netherlands.
My week in Cyprus is over. The island did surprise me. It’s very diverse (if you don’t just lie on the beach). The Green Line in Lefkosia, the snow in the Troodos Mountains and the archaeological site of Paphos were the (photogenic) highlights in my opinion. Even if you’re not a party-animal-by-night and beach-bum-by-day, Cyprus is worth a visit!