REPUBLIC of CYPRUS: Cyprus, the birthplace of Greek goddess Aphrodite, is the third largest island in the Mediterranean. It’s an island of sun, sea, sand-white ancient temples, scenic sites, and cool mountain resorts. Cyprus can offer its visitors picturesque pine-clad mountains, golden sun-kissed beaches, modern cosmopolitan towns, tranquil and timeless villages, and genuinely welcoming Cypriots. I love visiting islands and this was just one of those perfect island spots that kind of reminded me of my trip to Santorini.
The strategic position of Cyprus attracted the first Greeks, who came to the island over 3,000 years ago at the end of the Trojan War. After that, over the centuries Cyprus came under the sway of various rulers including the Egyptians, Assyrians, Persians, Romans, Crusaders, Venetians, Ottomans, and finally the British. In July of 1974, Turkey invaded Cyprus. Since then Cyprus is the only divided country in Europe. You can go to the Turkish occupied side or as the Cypriots say “Northern Side” with proper documents and enjoy a little piece of Turkey there.
We rented a car from Paphos airport to get around the island and this is probably the best way to hop from town to town here. Cyprus can be a small island but don’t underestimate its seductive beauty and luring history. Cyprus is a beautiful country and has the capability to attract any sort of tourists from photographers, nature wanderers, winter-sports lovers, swimmers, food and culture hunters, those who are into Greek myths, to those who just want to be lazy and lay flat on the sandy beach by blue water and surrounded by hundreds of green palm trees. You can spend weeks in this island and will still find things you haven’t experienced before. Too bad we stayed only for few days but I can imagine myself going to some of the unseen places in Cyprus and the joy they would have brought me.
TIME of TRAVEL: It was in the beginning of December, 2013 when we flew to Paphos, Cyprus. Going from Belgium, I felt blessed to be in warm weather. Although it can be a bit cold after dark or really windy and chilly up in the mountains, Cyprus was still a perfect place to visit when most of the parts of Europe put on their greyish wintry looks. Beaches around this time of the year are less crowded but Mediterranean water is perfect for swimming. Sometimes it does snow in the mountains in December or January but don’t have to worry about that in the big cities.
OUR HOTEL: Unlike my hotel in Edinburgh (which didn’t have any toilette inside the room and where I could hear a baby crying for the whole night in the next room), this hotel in Cyprus was actually some 4-star hotel with fancy lobby, spacious room, furnished balcony, and ocean-view. Oh yeh, cause I wasn’t traveling alone this time, so more reason to pick a hotel with best reviews. The hotel was Mediterranean Beach Hotel in Limassol. It was like a grand resort by the blue water. Breakfast (lot of options…was really nice) and Wi-Fi were free. The hotel had a private entrance to the beach but the beach was accessible by anyone.
Staying in Limassol also made it easy and saved us time in commuting to different parts of this island, since it’s almost in the middle of the island and all the other towns were about an hour drive from Limassol.
EATING and SHOPPING: Cyprus has a wide range of restaurants and fast-food places from local cuisines to any other international kitchens. I thought we would find more of Greek food here. I found some but not many and some similar Greek dishes have different names. I saw many Pizza Hut, McDonald’s, KFC, and Subway here and there. Our first lunch was in Limassol old town in a restaurant called “Caballeros” right in front of Limassol Castle. A row of restaurants can be found here, usually offering traditional food with some other international cuisines. Try Cyprus’ local cheese Halloumi which is very tasty. I had a very well-known Cypriot soup called “Afgo-Lemoni” which is made with chicken, lemon, egg, and rice…had a fantastic lemon scent to it. On our third day in Cyprus, some of our family friends treated us in a fish tavern called “Kastro Tavern” in Paphos Harbor. If you have a weakness for sea-food, Paphos is probably one of the best places to enjoy freshly caught seafood with beautiful view of the harbor.
For shopping, village of Lefkara is very famous for the lace-like embroidery which is a very traditional and famous souvenir of Cyprus. One of the famous designs they do on fabric is inspired by Leonardo da Vinci art. Lefkara is also known for silver artifacts and local delights. Limassol old town also has a small market place near the castle where you can find some local trinkets and generic souvenirs.
PLACES WE’E VISITED: We spent total of two days in Southern Cyprus and one full day in the Northern part which is occupied by the Turkish now. Some of the towns here are small and can be combined with other nearby places. Renting a car definitely was the way to go here. Visiting these big and small cities were fun but half the entertainment was to drive by scenic highways and get to these small places.
1) LIMASSOL (LEMESOS): Since we stayed in Limassol, we decided to roam around Limassol on the first day. This is the 2nd largest city of Cyprus. The city is thriving with busy shopping centers, countless taverns, restaurants, and grooving nightlife.
Our first stop was Limassol Castle. Located in the historic city center of Limassol, the purpose of this castle was to guard and protect both the port and the city itself. The present edifice dates back to the Ottoman period, 1590. But archeological evidence indicates that it existed during the Byzantine period too.
Some early excavations, like marble pedestal, floor of Middle Byzantine (10th – 11th century), bases of colonnades, basilica and chapels, and tombstones are some highlights of this castle. Limassol Castle houses the Medieval Museum of Cyprus today. In this ancient monument, artifacts are displayed which reflect the political, economic, social, and artistic development of Cyprus as well as everyday life on the island from the 3rd to the 19th century A.D. Do climb all the way to the terrace for a beautiful view of the town, mountains afar, and glimmering blue water.
The castle is pretty small with 3 levels and took us about 45 minutes to visit. Entrance fee is 4.50 euros per adult. Castle is open Tuesday – Saturday from 9-5 and Sundays from 10 – 1 (closed on Mondays).
We didn’t manage to go to Kourion Theatre outside of Limassol, but this ancient site is worth visiting if you can spare some time. This amphitheater was extensively excavated which is still used for summer concerts and theatrical productions. Also the delightful villages in gentle pace of rural life are worth visiting, like ancient village of Amathus. On our last day we stopped at Governor’s Beach outside of Limassol. We went to the wrong point of Governor’s Beach where it was empty and dirty, but the main beach supposed to be a long sandy beach with many fish taverns, and beautiful white stone coast.
2) LEFKARA: Visiting the village of Lefkara (in Larnaca district) at the foothill of Troodos Mountain was a surprising treat for us. It’s only half an hour away from Larnaca. After finishing with Limassol and lunch, we took this pleasant drive thru the mountains to Lefkara.
We first arrived in Kato Lefkara, which is the lower town. It’s a picturesque, unspoiled little town with lots of traditional houses and boasting culture. Kato Lefkara had silver mine before and has a long tradition in the art of silversmithing. We took about 15-20 minutes to walk around the villages, looking at lace shops and around the mountainous areas and then drove to Pano Lefkara (Upper town). We really didn’t get down on the upper part, just drove thru some small neighborhoods enjoying unique architecture. Both Pano and Kato Lefkara are famous for their lace-making tradition. Enjoy the old churches from 11th century, some museums, pleasant countryside, and artistic small alleys in these villages. Loved strolling thru the stone paved streets and photographic nature walk.
3) LARNACA: It’s about 66km from Limassol to Larnaca and was our last stop of 1st day. It claims to be the oldest city in Cyprus with evident inhabitant dating back to 6000 years.
Salt Lake of Larnaca is opposite of the airport and is the home of thousands of migrating flamingoes during winter. It was almost getting dark when we reached there and saw barely any water on the lake…maybe it dries up during winter. You can see the muddy lake lined with lots of green and tall palm trees in one side and a beautiful mosque while driving parallel to the lake.
Beautiful and historic Hala Sultan Tekkke Mosque stands by the salt lake in Larnaca. The building of the mosque in its present form is dated from the 18th century. It is built over a tomb which according to the tradition belongs to Umm Haram, foster-mother of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). It’s the main Muslim pilgrimage site of Cyprus and among the most important holy places of Islam. Open Monday – Sunday from 8:30am – 5pm and closed on Fridays.
After the mosque and salt lake, we drove to Larnaca Promenade. It was already dark and could only hear Mediterranean’s roaring sound. It was pleasant taking a stroll by the water. There are many restaurants and bars here by the promenade Larnaca castle is located in the old town at one end of this promenade.
4) NICOSIA: Also known as Lefkosia, Nicosia is about 82 km from Limassol. It has been the capital of this island since the 11th century. Today, it blends its historic past brilliantly with the bustle of a modern city.
The heart of the city, enclosed by 16th century Venetian walls, is dotted with museums, ancient churches, and medieval buildings preserving the nostalgic atmosphere of years past. Lefkosia/Nicosia is the only capital city in Europe that remains divided by force. Although we didn’t go out of the main city, just few kms away are enchanting Byzantine churches and monasteries, charming villages and archeological sites.
We spent most of our time in the old town of Nicosia before crossing the border to the north side which is under Turkish authority at this moment. Ledra Street in old town led us to the border and check-point. The street is packed with many shops, and restaurants.
5) TROODOS MOUNTAINS: We met up with some family friends on our 3rd day in Cyprus and it was very nice of them to spend a whole day with us and showing around the island. We started our day with driving towards Troodos Mountains. Our first stop was at the main square of Troodos where we stopped for some shopping and stretching. Then started driving again towards Omodos Village.
Omodos Village on the Troodos Mountain (geographically it’s in Limassol District) is a place where tourists can experience Cyprus’s genuine culture and architecture. This is the most authentic and traditional village in the island. Monastery of the Holy Cross is located here. The monastery is not active; it’s rather a museum now where you can get some glimpses of this country’s history.
There are many falls and scenic panoramic points here where you can enjoy the valley below from up above. It was simply awesome to drive thru those mountains to get a different perspective of this island.
6) PAPHOS: About 70km drive from Limassol, Paphos is probably the most bustling city of Cyprus. The city is known for being the birthplace of Greek goddess Aphrodite.
On our 3rd day, after spending some time in the mountains and villages and having a wonderful lunch by the water-front in Paphos, we went to the castle. Paphos Castle is located at the western part of the port, which once was a part of coastal defensive system of Cyprus. This ancient Venetian castle was restored by the Ottomans in 1592. What survives today is the Ottoman restoration of the western Frankish tower, its Venetian additions and the remains of the second tower at a distance of 50m to the east. Some parts of it were used as prisons cells during the Ottoman occupation. During the British rule, it was used as a salt warehouse.
A couple of minute of walk from the castle is Kato Paphos Archeological Site “Mosaics”. It was almost sunset and we could spend little time visiting only the highlights of this beautiful outdoor museum. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Excavations have unearthed the spectacular 3rd and 5th century mosaics of the Houses of Dionysus and other places which were buried for sixteen centuries but were remarkably intact. Some of the important monuments in this site are the House of Dionysus (Greek God of Wine), some early Christian basilicas and churches, Agora, Tombs of the Kings, and Hellenistic Theatre.
House of Dionysus (2nd – 4th century A.D.) was the first house with mosaic floors to be discovered in Paphos. The house consists of atrium with garden pool and about forty rooms. All these rooms and halls around the atrium are paved with mosaic floors. The oldest mosaic floor (dated to the early Hellenistic period) in Cyprus is the pebble mosaic near atrium representing monster Scylla. All the mosaics here are from late 2nd century or early 3rd century. It’s open Monday to Sunday from 8:30am – 5pm.
After the sunset, we came down to Paphos harbor for little stroll and some ice-cream time from “Coldstone”. It was absolutely fantastic walking by the promenade at night.
One of the most beautiful sites of Paphos or in whole Cyprus is Petra Tou Romiou or Aphrodite’s Rock which we visited on our last day in Cyprus. According to Greek legends, this is where Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love and beauty, is said to have risen from the waves that crash on its shores. It’s a massive chunk of stone that marks the spot. Her birthplace is a place of pilgrimage for the entire Hellenic world and is a beautiful pebble beach.