Editor’s note: I’ve never been to Cyprus. When in Israel, I took a short trip to Rodos in Greece instead. This amazing look by Sam Spector makes me want to go to this island as well. For all of Sam’s articles here on The Royal Tour, visit his index.
For a man who wants to go everywhere, there are a few countries that I have little to no interest in visiting; one of those countries was Cyprus. When I lived in Israel, it seemed like Cyprus was the go-to place for my Israeli friends to have a cheap vacation. When I asked what was there, the response I got was “cheap alcohol and beaches not quite as nice as Tel Aviv’s.” When I asked why they would go there, I would get shrugs and be told it is a 45-minute flight away and affordable. However, a year ago, on a trip to Israel, I had two days to kill and decided to go there simply to “cross it off my list” for a quick trip. Now, I am the first to admit when I am wrong, and everyone, I will admit here, happily, I was wrong about Cyprus. It is a place you should add to your list of Mediterranean island destinations.
First, one of the great benefits of visiting Cyprus is its accessibility from other destinations in the eastern Mediterranean. Cyprus’ main airport, Larnaca, is a half hour flight from Beirut, 45 minutes from Tel Aviv and 90 minutes from Athens and Cairo, all of which have round trip airfare for well under $200. Upon arriving in Larnaca, you have two options of where to go, Northern or Southern Cyprus. The two halves of the island are divided into cultural proxy states that show the regional and historic tensions between Turkey and Greece. Northern Cyprus is predominately Muslim and highly aligned with Turkey, while in Southern Cyprus Greek culture and flags are everywhere to be seen. This division stems from a 1974 war between Turkey and Greece with Turkish-ethnic Cypriots fighting alongside Turkey and Greek-ethnic Cypriots taking up arms for Greece. Today, Turkey is the only nation that recognizes the independence of Northern Cyprus, with the rest of the international community seeing the entire island as a unified entity. However, if you go to the capital, Nicosia, you will see what has been dubbed “the world’s last remaining divided city” with barricades separating the north from the south.
Though Larnaca is a diver’s paradise with shipwrecks and other areas to explore, the one place that I visited in the city was the Church of St. Lazarus, a 9th century Orthodox church that supposedly holds the tomb of Lazarus, brother of the Virgin Mary. Due to Cyprus’ location near the Levant coastline and near Turkey and Greece, many early sites of Christianity and Islam are present in the island nation. This church has a particularly beautiful gold altar and also impressive catacombs and tombs that go underneath the church. When walking through this church, one can feel the history that comes with it and imagine many of the early Christian faithful coming to pray there. From the church, the next spot that I traveled was my rental car to drive along the beautiful southern coastline to the southeastern city of Paphos.
Catacombs of St. Lazarus
Paphos is one of the touristy centers of the island, with a beautiful seaside boardwalk and many restaurants and cafes to lure in travelers looking to relax and enjoy a spectacular view. The city was once an ancient open-air temple to the god Aphrodite, but today is a bustling modern town. On the way into town, be sure to take a pit stop at the Paphos Fort, an impressive 16th century Ottoman structure with a quaint museum about the town. However, the main tourist attraction in Paphos is the Paphos Archaeological Park which holds a number of impressive and memorable historical artifacts. The Paphos Archaeological Park is best known for the House of Theseus and the House of Dionysus, two Roman-era mansions, whose columns and ornate mosaics are still intact. In these mosaics, you will be able to see clearly stories of Greek and Roman mythology, like that of Apollo and Daphne, which recalls the battle between Daphne, representing chastity, and Apollo, representing sexual desire, or the story of Ikarious welcoming the god Dionysus who gave his shepherds wine. If you are not a mythology-buff, the depictions of the four seasons and hunts on precisely tiled mosaics will captivate any traveler to this UNESCO heritage site. Nearby the archaeological park are the Temple of Apollo, a Roman amphitheater, and the Tombs of the Kings, which are 4th century tombs carved into rock for nobles of ancient Paphos. Also in the seaside town is another church holy to Christians, the Agia Kyriaki Chrysopolitissa, where Acts 13 recalls that St. Paul was flogged 39 times while tied to a rock – that is still present! – by the Roman Governor Sergius before Sergius converted to Christianity. End your day with a drink of ouzo while toasting with friendly locals.
A mosaic in Paphos
From Paphos, head north to the central part of the island, which contains the UNESCO painted churches in the Troodos Mountains. These churches are similar in ways to the famous ones of Northern Romania. Simple and unassuming on the outside, the insides present beautiful painted pictures of saints and Jesus covering every inch of the walls and ceilings. Though there are many churches to choose from, the ones with the most impressive paintings are the Panagia Forviotissa Asinou Church, with its painting from the 12th-17th centuries, and the 15th century Archaengelos Michael Church. A more grandiose place to visit is the Kykkos Monastery from the 19th century, whose sprawling courtyards and halls feature elaborate mosaics, often with shiny gold, and detailed paintings recalling biblical stories as well as the history of Christian Cypriots fighting Muslim invaders. These three churches and their artwork will be filed into the same category as the Vatican Museums in terms of impressive and historic Christian artwork. With your day of driving through mountains drawing to a close, stop at a restaurant perched on a cliffside for famous Cypriot cooking and also a glass of the local liquor, Zivania, a Cypriot brandy, or one of their famous wines.
In short, do not be like me and overlook this place for so long; rather, if you want an experience that mixes Turkey, Greece, and a little Mediterranean and Middle Eastern flavor, all at an affordable price, tack a few days in Cyprus onto your Mediterranean adventure for a perfect, relaxing and historical cap to your adventure.
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