The Island Everyone Wanted

We arrived in Cyprus on Friday night, rented the car, found the hotel, and ate at a generic chain restaurant on the strip of Larnaca beach restaurants. Relatively few wrong turns. The Palm Walk at Larnaca looks exactly like Ibiza, Newport Beach, or any other place where people come to get sunburned and drink and have sex. I wonder what will happen to these places when everyone realizes that being drunk is not all that neat except as a prelude to having sex, and they don’t want to have sex any more becuase the Internet is so much more satisfying?

On Saturday the tourist office fixed us up with maps and listings, and we set off along the south coast to see several sets of ruins. First we stopped at Choirokoitia, a Neolithic site with round houses and a defensive wall dating from 9000 BC. That’s a really long time ago! The other sites we visited were much more modern, consisting mostly of Roman ruins: Amathous was a fairly small area where a few pillars had been set up. Kourion was a very large site with a reconstructed theater, a villa with several mosaic floors, and a couple smaller houses with mosaics as well. From there we headed to the place depicted in the picture above, Petra Tou Romiou, the place where Venus, er, Aphrodite is said to have emerged from the ocean. Ouranous was ravishing Gaia when he was interrupted by his son Kronos, who “took the great long sickle with jagged teeth, and swiftly lopped off his own father’s members and cast them away to fall behind him.” These fell into the sea, surrounded themselves with foam, and from them emerged Aphrodite.

Now it is a popular swimming spot, especially for Russian tourists in Speedos.

We headed into Paphos, and hooked up with our Airbnb apartment. The apartment is in one of a two buildings, with more planned, by a local construction company. Perhaps you’ve heard things haven’t been going so well in the Cyprus economy, and the third building never got started. It has been very difficult to find people to rent or buy the apartments, and Airbnb has been something for them to do while they wait. Unfortunately it didn’t have an Internet connection, and we found ourselves choosing places to eat based on whether or not they did.

Sunday was spent in two sites located in the town: a large area called Kato Paphos, with many well-preserved mosaics, especially in the House of Dionysus; and the Tombs of the Kings, kind of a cemetery grounds for the 1% in the 3rd century BC, with several mausoleums carved into the rock near the shore. It is much easier to see the structure of 2nd and 3rd century houses from their imitations in graves, than from the reconstructions above ground.

On Monday we drove through Troodos, the highest mountains in Cyprus, and visited three Byzantine wooden-roofed churches. About five kilometers before reaching the first one, the car got a flat tire in a tiny village on a steep road, and a nice handball player stopped and helped us put on the temporary spare.

In Pedoulas, the Byzantine Museum was closed (because it was Monday), but the church of Michael the Archangel was open. It was a very small church, but the walls were covered with well-preserved frescoes. We continued to Moutoullas, where there was another church next to the village cemetery. It was locked, but a bus with a tour group from Spain arrived which had arranged with the local caretaker to open the church, so we got to go inside and see it. A little larger, the frescoes somewhat more damaged. The caretaker was impossibly old and wizened, and we ended up giving him a ride down the hill to his cottage after the tour bus had left, because he did not feel up to the walk. The towns in Troodos have a strong vertical component.

The third site, Kalopanagiotis, had a monastery with a museum. A monk spotted us and other tourists and opened the museum. A Russian family toured it with us. The church was scheduled to be opened at 4 P.M., so we retired to the cafe across the plaza to eat what amounted to a quesadilla, except it was in Greek, and drink lemonade. Something from the Disney Channel was on TV, dubbed. Without being confronted with what I am sure was horrible dialogue, I was free to evaluate the other aspects of the production. One little kid about eleven looks to be ferocious leading-man material in another decade. He was overplaying the part of a kid trying to act grown up toward an older girl, but he controlled his face and posture perfectly, and his sense of comic timing was absolute.

The monastery church was much larger than the others, and was actually in everyday use: it had a lot of stuff in it. There were a few post cards for sale, but you couldn’t take pictures. Someone will invent a periodic table of iconoclasm: where you are and are not allowed to take pictures, and why.

We hobbled on to Nicosia, which they call Lefkosia, and after much back and forth, met our Airbnb host on a street behind a church; he guided us to his place. The address defies looking up in any standard mapping program (perhaps we should have typed the name in Greek). It definitely did not help that Pocket Earth has that street misspelled, Lefkou Nastasiades instead of Lefkou Anastasiades. Airbnb hosts should be required to share GPS coordinates. Anyway, it’s a lovely two-bedroom flat with air-conditioned bedrooms, with WiFi! We had more traditional Cyprus food in the old town for dinner.

Tuesday morning was spent doing nothing, one of the few chances on this trip to rest. Vacationing is hard work.

Tuesday afternoon we drove into town, found a questionable parking place (Cyprus doesn’t really seem to enforce parking very strictly), and spent a couple hours in the Cyprus Museum looking at various artifacts, many from the sites we’d seen the two previous days. Some small figurines were the most fascinating: one from 3000 BC or so depicted childbirth with the mother leaning back on another person, and someone standing assisting in the delivery. The ones from 750 BC or so were quite finely executed.

The title of this post is the name of a children’s book for sale in the museum store. It refers to the repeated invasions of Cyprus by every tribe which ever had designs on the Mediterranean trade routes, which is all of them. Cyprus achieved independence in 1960. The British still control two little Guantanamos, one of which, called “Akrotiki”, we drove through on the way from Larnaca to Paphos. Not foresightful enough to mail a post card from there. It would have been much more expensive than Cyprus Post, which is 45 euro cents and a real bargain, if you’re just coming from northern Europe. So even though Heathrow is too unmanageable to fly through any longer, we did manage to dip into the British empire on this trip. The sun had not set, but it was a weekend.

Non-British Cyprus, as you know, is divided into two areas: the southern part, where we have been visiting, is the Republic of Cyprus and is ethnically Greek. The northern part is referred to by the Greeks as “Area Under Turkish Military Occupation Since 1974”, or by the residents as the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. There is a thin DMZ, the “green line” between the two areas administered by the UN, which for some reason they don’t want you to take any pictures of. Nicosia is an old city whose core is surrounded by a circular city wall which looks cool on a map, or perhaps a satellite image; you don’t get the same impression seeing it up close. The “green line” goes right through the core of the city and was impassable for three decades after the Turkish invasion. But in 2003 or so, a crossing was opened up so that anyone with a passport or identity card can go to the other side.

A reporter who works for a North Cyprus newspaper told us that there were friends who hadn’t seen each other for thirty years, who greeted each other at the opening. “It was emotional,” she said. We talked to Ann for a long time, about elements of life and politics. One of many people we meet as a result of our having beards. You should have a beard when you travel, or at least a flat tire.

Our hosts have enjoyed going to the Turkish side, but they haven’t gone for awhile because their friends have traffic tickets which must be paid before they can return. We didn’t have traffic tickets there, so we crossed over for a couple hours and walked around. We saw a little exhibition where old people were invited to remember what used to be where the wall is now back before it was put up. The most interesting thing was an old Catholic church that was repurposed to be a mosque. The church faces East, but the direction to Mecca is 156°, almost south: the orientation of the patterns on the carpeting and the location of the minbar make it clear what direction to face once you get inside. (Like all Turkish mosques we’ve seen, anyone is allowed inside except during prayer time). Most of the larger Christian statues were removed from the ornamentation of the outside of the building, but some were so small and deeply integrated that they were left.

Tuesday night we ate at Souxou Mouxou Mandalakia, probably the best restaurant in Cyprus. We had a nice salad of assorted greens with a honey lemon dressing, instead of the Greek salad of tomatoes and cucumber and feta; scallops in orange juice sauce; and lamb shank on a celery root puree. The California cooking style with Greek chefs using Cypriot ingredients.

Today we will hobble back to Larnaka, find out how expensive it will be to return a rental car with a flat tire, and find out what the security experience is like for people traveling to Israel.