Steeped in history, legend, myth and romance. A tumultuous past, a fractured identity, a passionate people, a culinary feast and a deep blue ocean surrounding pristine beaches and secluded coves drenched in glorious sunshine. My expectations were high as I was about to embark on an “epic” journey to the island everyone wanted. Cyprus is situated in the north-eastern corner of the Mediterranean, and according to mythology, the birthplace of Aphrodite – the ancient Greek goddess of love, beauty and fertility.
I always thought I would be accompanied by my lovely Cypriot friend (also living in Dubai) when exploring Cyprus for the first time, but circumstances would have it otherwise. When Emirates touched down on the tarmac in Larnaca after a pleasant three and a half hours flight from Dubai; I was in the company of my lovely bridge playing Norwegian friends… but my Cypriot friend was with me in spirit, in the form of an iPad loaded with great advice!
This blog post has been a long time coming! We arrived early November 2012 – and looking at the landscape during the 40 minutes drive from the airport to our hotel, it was apparent that Cyprus was in dire need of some rain. And you know what? That same evening Thor, The Norse God of Thunder, decided to play havoc on Aphrodite’s beautiful island.
Unsettling weather is not unusual for the time of year, but the fact that Thor remained on the island for the next three days was, we were told, a very rare happening indeed! Cyprus has a pleasant climate year-round with approximately 340 sunny days. Coming from a desert climate where rain is scarce; we didn’t mind at all! Come rain or shine.. bridge and bubbly in the company of lovely friends is always a great pastime!
The title to this blog post was inspired by a beautiful book called The Island Everyone Wanted – an illustrated history of Cyprus. In fact, the story and illustration is so good that it was a top book recommendation in Lonely Planet’s 2012 Guide to Cyprus. It’s a children’s book suitable for all ages. The author, Marina Christofides, happens to be the sister of my Cypriot friend, and with her help signed copies were delivered to Amathus Beach Hotel, Limassol – our home for the next five days.
Amathus Beach Hotel is a lovely 5-star boutique hotel set on the beach amidst the tropical gardens and the deep blue waters of the Mediterranean. The stunning view from the balcony makes it worth paying a little extra for a sea-view room. My only gripe with the hotel was the lack of air conditioning. Apparently it’s normal for hotels in Cyprus to switch off the AC system during the winter months. Sustainability is a good thing… but my room was too warm, humid and stuffy for a good night’s sleep.
Our first evening on the island was spent relaxing at the hotel with a nice dinner in Asiachi (now changed to The Grill Room), followed by a delightful bridge playing session in one of the rooms. To quench our thirst (it’s all that bidding, you know…) we called room-service and soon a beautiful young Cypriot waitress appeared with a big smile and a bucket of ice filled with local grapes turned liquid. Furthermore, Thor persevered into the wee hours… ferociously hammering his way across the night sky.
The next morning we enjoyed a buffet breakfast at Kalypso before venturing into the Old Town of Limassol – a 20 minutes drive from the hotel. The old town is in the heart of the city with narrow streets radiating out from the old fishing harbour. After a stroll through some charming streets, it was time to escape the scattered showers and hide under the canopy at Stretto Lounge Café Bar, one of the Carob Mill Restaurants; where they served the best asparagus and parmesan risotto I’ve ever tasted! The restaurant is located directly opposite Limassol Castle.
The Carob Mill in Limassol was originally built in the early 1900s when carobs, also called the black gold of Cyprus, were one of the main exports. They were used in the manufacture of such products as film, medicine, sweets and chocolates. Most of the machinery used in processing the carobs are still intact and exhibited in a renovated building that combines the authentic atmosphere of the past with the sophisticated high-tech look of the present. The Ceratonia or Carob tree (also know as St. John’s-bread) is one of the characteristic features of Cyprus.
Stretto Lounge Café Bar was the only establishment we visited with a no card playing policy… so we moved on. Surprising really, considering the distressed economic situation on the island and an empty restaurant!
Should you ever find yourself hungry in the old town and would like some real Cypriot fare, I highly recommend Sikaminia. A simple, but very charming and welcoming restaurant. We had no idea what to order, but no worries… Our waiter took charge and served one culinary delight after the other for us to share. Fresh and tasty local ingredients made this a real treat. Good old-fashioned short-travelled food!
Due to the unsettling weather on the island, al fresco seating was not an option when we dined at Fat Fish – a contemporary island tavern. It was a bit disappointing not being able to sit on the lovely terrace situated right on the beach… but nevertheless, the seafood still tasted delicious!
Our little group of ladies were split as to whether or not we should visit the only divided city in the world, the capital Nicosia – and especially whether or not we should cross The Green Line – a United Nation-controlled no man’s land that divided Cyprus into the Greek Cypriot southern region and the Turkish Cypriot northern region after the Turkish invasion in 1974. Since then the two communities have lived apart… but there has been some progress. Today it is increasingly easy to visit the intrinsically different Greek and Turkish societies, with seven border-crossings linking the two sides.
After spending a few hours exploring the streets of Nicosia, our driver – who made it very clear that he never had and never would enter the Turkish side – dropped us off at the top of Ledra Street; close to one of the two pedestrian border crossings in the capital. A strange place where I began to doubt our decision… A question kept popping up in my head. Will it be safe? Of course it would be safe! My Cypriot friend would never have recommended it otherwise. A lone protester made me feel like I was about to commit an illegal act after reading his sign urging people not to cross. We told him that to get a better understanding of the Cyprus problem, it was imperative for us to also visit the Turkish side. He told us that he just didn’t want anyone spending money on the Turks. “After the invasion we lost everything. As Greek Cypriots we had no choice but to leave our home behind and flee to the south – and I’ve never been back since.” A powerful story from a soft-spoken man. He smiled, wished us well and told us to go ahead.
After a hassle-free border crossing, I found myself staring into the past… A fascinatingly eerie experience that filled me with mixed emotions as I walked the gloomy, narrow souk-like streets on our quest to find our lunch destination Buyuk Han – a traditional style inn, and the most important Ottoman structure on the island. It was built in 1572 by the first Ottoman governor of Cyprus, Mustafa Pasha, and was quickly established as a major trading point in Cyprus. There is a lovely courtyard with a small mosque in the center with ablution (cleansing) facilities beneath. The Buyuk Han has been fully restored and is now a busy and thriving outlet for local arts and crafts and small cafes. In other words, an oasis in the hustle and bustle of the city… but unfortunately the food and wine was not to our taste.
Dusk was upon us when we left Buyuk Han. Walking through a maze of dark and narrow streets on our way back to the border crossing was a bit daunting… but I never felt unsafe. However, I’m sure I speak for everyone when I say that we were relieved when entering the capitals well-lit Greek Cypriot streets. For a brief moment I sensed what it might be like to live in a country that has been divided by an imaginary green line for 40 years… with devastating consequences to the people of Cyprus. As the lights of Nicosia faded in the distance I felt a strong sense of sadness.
Awakening to the morning sun and a blue sky the next morning, made for a perfect Sunday outing. Once again we hired our friendly and very reliable hotel driver, who gave up his day off to take us along the beautiful coast to Paphos. Our first stop en route was only a 30 minute drive from the hotel – and what an awe-inspiring sight it was! The Curium Ancient Amphitheatre is located on an edge with breathtaking views of the sea. Originally built in the 2nd century B.C., Curium’s theatre is now fully restored and used for musical and theatrical performances. The most remarkable thing about the ancient theatre is the acoustics. If you drop a coin in the centre of the stage you can hear it at the top of the stone seating.
Our next stop was Aphrodite’s Rock. This free–standing rock off the southwest coast of the island is known as the birthplace of Aphrodite. According to legend, Aphrodite rose from the waves and the foaming sea – and was escorted ashore on a shell by the soft breezes of the Zephyrs (light winds) at the rock known in Greek as Petra tou Romiou. One legend has it that each time you swim around the rock anticlockwise, you turn the clock back by one year. Very tempting. Maybe next time!
After a drive through some lovely scenery we arrived Paphos with a little time to spare before lunch, but not enough to visit the Kato Paphos Archaeological Park; featured on the UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Site.
We had a short walkabout, in what seemed to be a charming harbour town, before enjoying a delicious lunch and excellent service at Ta Bania (The Baths) – the oldest restaurant in Paphos, situated right by the water’s edge. I still dream about their fluffy Moussaka – the best EVER! Ta Bania’s beautiful setting made it the perfect spot for an afternoon filled with bridge, accompanied by some very good Cypriot wine.
The next day it was time for us to say goodbye to Aphrodite’s beautiful island – a great getaway destination from Dubai.
To be continued…