Cyprus has 340 sunny days a year; no wonder it’s a favourite holiday destination. Now, nothing wrong with a bit of lazy lounging on the beach, I’ve been known to indulge in that myself occasionally, but not this time. This Eastern Mediterranean island is much more than sand, sea and sun, you see. So I want to have a look at the more curious features of the country.
Three short days and with a good bit of ground to cover, I need the flexibility of my own transport. A little rental Rio does the job. My goal is threefold: 1. getting an on-the-ground idea of Cyprus’ political climate, which is an odd one, to put it mildly. This is a divided country with a complex history. 2. explore the three world heritage sites on the island, and 3. get a bit of hiking in.
3 countries in one?
Cyprus is sometimes referred to as 3 countries in one, because of the island’s unique political landscape. As you can tell from the headline, I’m wondering if it shouldn’t be 4 countries in one. But let’s take the 3 first:
The Republic of Cyprus: covers 59% of the island, predominantly Greek Cypriot, internationally recognised. Capital: Nicosia
The self-declared Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus: 37% of the island, predominantly Turkish Cypriot, recognised only by Türkiye, but still with its own government, institutions and elected officials. Capital: Nicosia
The UN buffer zone (also known as the Green Line): 4% of the island, demilitarised area established in 1964, patrolled by UN peacekeeping forces to prevent further escalation of the Greek/Turkish conflict. Capital: Nicosia.
The logical place to begin is the divisive capital of the divisive island.
Nicosia: one of the world’s last divided capitals
Eleftheria Square, Nicosia
After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Nicosia is one of very few divided capitals in the world. The only other one I can think of right off-hand, is Jerusalem.
My first impression is of a laid-back city, pleasant enough. It’s surprisingly quiet for August. But then it is Sunday. Everyone – locals and tourists alike – must all be at the beach or something.
The walled old town is a highlight. Beginning at Eleftheria Square (one of Zaha Hadid’s top projects), Ledra Street is the main thoroughfare inside the walls. The 1-km-long pedestrian street is named after Ledrai, one of 10 city-kingdoms in Cyprus 3,000 years ago. More recently, Ledra Street was the site of a UN barricade, removed as late as 2008.
Ambling down the cobble stones, I feel like I’m in a smaller version of Athens‘ Plaka neighbourhood: 19th century slightly crumbling buildings with charming little balconies. Also little boutiques, cafes – local and international, postcards, fridge magnets, t-shirts in abundance… a touristy kind of place, but in a friendly sort of way. The sun is bearing down, but canvas screens protect strollers from too much exposure.
Hard to imagine this was once nicknamed The Murder Mile. In the late 1950s, EOKA, nationalist Greek Cypriot guerilla fighters, wanted 2 things: independence from the UK, and enosis, a union with Greece. They tossed bombs and grenades at police stations, military installations and the homes of army officers, and often targeted British military personnel right here on Ledra.
Border crossing in Nicosia
About three quarters of the way down, I reach a crossing point. A border.
The story? Cyprus was ruled by the Ottomans from 1570 until it became a British crown colony after World War I. And so it remained, until the UK granted independence in 1960, after bouts of nationalist violence. The Republic of Cyprus was established, with 77% Greeks, 18% Turks and 5% various others.
It wasn’t only the years leading up to independence that were violent. The years following were no better. The Greek side stuck to their idea of enosis, and on 15 July 1974, Greek Cypriot nationalists staged a coup d’etat, with help from the junta in Greece. ‘Right, that’s it,’ said Türkiye. ‘We’ve had it!’ 5 days later, Turkish troops invaded the island.
Despite numerous peace talks, diplomatic efforts, and reunification deliberations over the years, a solution has yet to be reached.
Another curious effect is EU membership. Cyprus joined the European Union in 2004, but EU legislation is suspended in Northern Cyprus until the situation has been resolved.
Back on Ledra Street, crossing the border is a pretty relaxed affair. A cursory glance at my passport, and I’m through. I ask the officer if he can stamp my passport, cause you know, an unrecognised state… that’s a fun stamp to have. But no luck.
Over on the other side of the border, things seem both similar and different.
Scenes from Turkish Nicosia, including the pretty Ömeriye Mosque
Not surprisingly, Turkish Delight is readily available. My first encounter with this sweet, was through reading the Narnia books as a child. Remember The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, where Edmund cannot get enough of Turkish Delight? He wants it so much, he is willing to sell his soul to the White Witch – or at least, betray his family, for one more piece of the sticky sweet concoction, even if it makes him ill. Addiction, eh?
Traditional Turkish Delight is jelly-like cubes made with rose oil and starch, and covered in powdered sugar
Here in Turkish Nicosia, you can get the standard type – as well as a more contemporary (and tastier) version.
After a cup of tea and a chat with a random stranger in a cafe, having soaked up a bit of the atmosphere (slow summer Sunday here as well), I cross back into the Greek part. I ask for a passport stamp again, and this officer is more obliging.
Don’t ask, don’t get!
UNESCO in Cyprus
Cyprus has 3 world heritage sites, and I’m on a mission to see all three, so I had better get a move on. I have some church to church walking to do.
Leaving Nicosia, I drive south towards the Troodos mountains, a very pretty and very accessible area. Admittedly, I get lost a couple of times, but that is my own fault. As you may recall, the GPS girl and I have a complex relationship.
Painted churches in the Troodos Mountains region
Christianity has a long history on the island, and the Troodos Mountains is home to heaps of Byzantine churches and monasteries. 10 of these have been found worthy to be included in the world heritage list for their beautiful, well-preserved frescoes.
Some of the churches are not very far apart, so I park the car and walk the 1.5 km back and forth between the villages of Galata and Kakopetria to see two quite different churches.
On the road again
In Galata is the 16th century Church of Panagia Podithou, where the painted frescoes were never completed.
In Kakopetria is the 11th century Church of Agios Nikolaos ti Stegis, and the most interesting of the two. Well worth a visit. A nice little garden surrounds the church, and there is even a little souvenir kiosk selling various religious kitsch, and pretty rodi (pomegranate) magnets. The rodi is the jewel of fruits in Greece, symbol of good fortune.
Panagia Podithou and Agios Nikolaos ti Stegis
Unfortunately, photos are not allowed inside the churches, not even without a flash. And although I tend to be disobedient, this is one rule I respect. It simply isn’t my call to make.
Leaving world heritage for a bit, I drive up the mountain. Or… not quite leaving. Mount Olympus, also known as Chionistra, is actually on UNESCO’s tentative list. At 1,952 metres, it is the tallest point in Cyprus.
According to Strabo, geographer in Ancient Greece, there was once a temple atop the mountain,
… a temple of Aphroditê Acraea, which cannot be entered or seen by women.
2,000 years later, there is no longer a temple dedicated to Aphrodite on top of the mountain, but a British long-radar station.
Cyprus for your next skiing holiday?
Mount Olympus has a bit of a ski resort feel, and rightly so. You can ski in Sun Valley and on the North Face from early January until late March. There are slopes for all skill levels, and 4 ski lifts, as well as a baby lift in Sun Valley.
I opt for a nice, easy hike instead, summer n’all.
Striking landscape, isn’t it?
Paphos Archaeological Park
By the time I reach Paphos, the sun has set. Nice time for a little wander around this resort town. Despite it being August, the height of Europe’s holiday season, it is not very busy outside the family hotel I’ve somehow ended up in. A few metres up the street and I have the town practically to myself.
But my main reason for being here is exploring the vast area of tombs and ancient Roman villas that is ancient Paphos, beginning bright and early the next morning.
First order of the day is Tombs of the Kings, a large cemetery from Ptolemaic times. I’m here so early in fact, I have this vast area all to myself. Bit bleak here, to be frank. If it weren’t for the sea views and bright green trees scattered about, it would be a depressing place. I’m reminded of the Valley of the Kings in Egypt. Desolate. Abandoned.
Brighter then, is Nea Paphos Archaeological site, Aphrodite’s Sacred City. Paphos was the centre of the Aphrodite cult. And why not? Why not worship a goddess of love? Makes more sense than many other gods, if you ask me.
Nea Paphos is another vast area, with a collection of Greek and Roman palaces, theatres, and villas with well-preserved mosaic floors.
On the road from Paphos towards Choirokoitia, is Petra Tou Romiou, Rock of the Roman. Not a World Heritage site, but worth a brief stop. Legend has it, this is where Aphrodite sprang from the ocean. (She probably didn’t. Just as Mary probably wasn’t a virgin. In fact, chances are neither of them even existed.)
Lovely little spot to hang around for a while.
Choirokoitia: the third world heritage site
As I started out saying, Cyprus has ca. 340 sunny days a year. Can you blame me for thinking sunglasses, and not rain gear, was a safe bet? ‘Hah,’ said the universe, ‘Imma show you who’s boss!’ I’ve hardly any photos of Choirokoitia. Just as I had started having a look at this neolithic settlement, the gates opened up and all at once, unloaded one million litres of water on me. And that’s a conservative estimate.
But – can’t let that stop me now, can I? I’m trying to gain a little understanding of how daily life must have been here some 9,000 years ago. I reckon the Neolithics had their fair share of rain, too. (But no camera phone to take into consideration, though). The enclosed village with the round mud-brick houses remind me of several places in Africa and in the Great Rann of Kutch in India. Interestingly, the houses are for the living and the dead; the latter are buried underneath the house.
The site is only partially excavated, so there’s more to come. And I might very well return when there is more to see (note to self: rain gear).
Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity
In addition to the world heritage sites, UNESCO also protects and preserves traditional music, crafts, and other intangible cultural expressions. Cyprus has several elements inscribed on this list, including the historic art of lace-making in Lefkara, dry stone walling techniques, the Mediterranean diet, and, interestingly, Byzantine chant and Tsiattista poetic duelling.
British Overseas Territories in the Mediterranean
Remember I wrote 1 country, 4 rulers in the heading here? Number 4 is Britain. Yes, that’s right. There are still BOTs remaining around in the world. Here on Cyprus, Britain rules in the form of the sovereign bases Akrotiri and Dhekelia.
This is fascinating, isn’t it? Of course I have to stop by. And since I’m driving east along the southern main road, it will be Akrotiri.
But what business is it of the British to rule territory in Cyprus these days, you ask? After all, the island ceased being a colony more than 60 years ago.
Well, even though Cyprus gained independence, the UK retained control over these two areas. The bases are strategically important in a volatile region. Lebanon, Palestine, Israel and Egypt are all but a hop, skip and a jump away: a short flight – or a leisurely sail on the Princessa Marissa, as done by Michael Palin in Pole to Pole, and by moi with 4-year-old kid, both way back when (but not the same way back when… wouldn’t that have been awesome!)
The legal status of Akrotiri and Dhekelia is governed by various bilateral agreements, outlining the terms of British control.
The British use the bases for strategic and military purposes, and as such they play a role in the conflict. Cyprus isn’t too happy about the British presence. It is a complex and potentially sensitive subject, so keep that in mind if you get into discussions with locals.
Remember we talked about Cyprus and the EU further up here? That was further complicated with Brexit. Akrotiri and Dhekelia were part of the EU until Brexit, but no more. So we have the odd fact that 59% of the island is in the EU, while the north – and two small areas in the south – are not.
Can you visit Akrotiri and Dhekelia?
Akrotiri and Dhekelia house various military installations, such as an important RAF base used for operations in the Middle East. But it’s not all military. There is a civilian population here, as well – both Brits and Cypriots. English law applies to military and admin related matters, whilst Cypriot law applies to the civilian population.
Can you visit? Yes, you can. That is, you cannot visit the military parts (without prior permission); trust me on that. I gave it a try, but was politely told I couldn’t. The guard was nice enough, and suggested fish&chips at one of the pubs instead.
Apart from the pubs, and there are surprisingly many for such a small area, you can go to the beach – or shop in the small supermarkets – or see the Akrotiri ship wreck.
Right. Fish & chips it is then.