Cyprus in the Mediterranean

Tuesday, 11 December 2018

Earlier this year it felt like I was doing a ‘European clean up,’ going to the countries which had somehow evaded me – Slovakia, Macedonia, Kosovo, Moldova – but that still left one very interesting Mediterranean island: Cyprus.

So on my way back to Australia from London I stopped off for a few very interesting days. Modern Cyprus is effectively two countries, as it has been since 1974 when Turkey invaded and Turkish dominated North Cyprus was carved off from Greek dominated South Cyprus.

Despite endless talk there’s still no positive move to reuniting the two halves although since 2003 it’s been possible to cross the Green Line which divides the two parts.

◄ Selimiye Mosque

Which is what I did on my first night in Nicosia, walking down busy Ledra St in Nicosia, waving my passport at the border officials and crossing the ‘Buffer Zone’ to the rather more serious officials on the North Nicosia or Lefkosia side of the line. I had a look at the Selimiye Mosque, St Sophia’s Cathedral prior to 1571, a drink in a bar and later crossed back through the two passport checks to the Republic of Cyprus. In fact you can spend euros on either side of the border although Turkish lira is the official currency in the north.

◄ Venetian City Walls

It’s about an hour a half by bus from North Nicosia, I have to cross that border again to get to the appropriate bus stop, to Famagusta (Gazimağusa in Turkish) at the western end of the island. The old city is walled in by some very substantial Venetian City Walls and inside has a surprising number of old church ruins. The most impressive – the Lala Mustafa Pasha Mosque – was also a church until the Ottoman invasion in 1571. It’s also a bit ruined.

▲ A model on the walls of the theatre at Ancient Salamis\

I stayed in the friendly Mystery Garden Guest House in the old city, but I made an excursion (thanks to the guest house owner’s daughter) to Ancient Salamis about 10km north of Famagusta. The surprisingly widespread Greek and Roman ruins are definitely in need of some love and attention, there’s clearly more EU money lavished on the archaeological sites on the other side of the border.

▲ Another bus took me back to North Nicosia where I immediately hopped on a northbound bus for the short ride to Kyrenia (Girne), a pretty little port noted for its colourful harbour overlooked by Kyrenia Castle.

▲  From there it was a taxi ride up into the hills overlooking the coast where I climbed (and climbed and climbed) to the top of fairytale St Hilarion’s Castle. It’s been credited for providing Disney castle inspiration and you can certainly see why.

▲ Ktisis with a Roman measuring rule

Back in Nicosia I crossed that border on foot yet again and picked up a rent-a-car. I’d contemplated doing my Famagusta and Kyrenia travels in a rent-a-car, but there are problems taking cars from one side across to the other side so I split my touring between bus and car … and a lot of walking. I stopped in Ancient Kourion to look at the Roman ruins of Ancient Kourion. There are some wonderful mosaics (I’m a mosaic junkie) like the one of Ktisis in the House of Eustolios, she personifies creation and clearly measures it up.

▲ Petra tou Romiou (Aphrodite’s Rock & Beach)

I didn’t get to this supposed landing site of the Goddess Aphrodite (she had more than one) in time for sunset, it had been a big day. Then I drove on to Paphos (or Pafos) for the night, sweating that I was going to get there before my phone went dead, for some reason it wouldn’t charge up from the car’s system and (as usual these days) my paper mapping wasn’t too good.

◄ Cassiopiea wins the beauty contest, House of Aion

Paphos is a popular beach resort (November was a bit off season) particularly for British tourists, but it also has superb ruins and some great mosaics. At many of them sex seems to have been on the ancient Romans’ minds. In the House of Aion, Cassiopiea has just won the beauty contest, no doubt in part by stripping off to show the judges how good her naked body looks. Clearly in 2000 years nothing has changed, no doubt the judge was a Roman Harvey Weinstein.

Meanwhile, in an adjacent panel, Thetis, Doris and Galatea, who have just lost the competition, are lounging around – naked of course – casting the evil eye across at Cassiopeia. We look every bit as good as you and we’re equally ready to get our gear off seems to be the message.

▲ Next stop, In the house of Dionysos, the God of Wine, Dionysos himself, suggestively dangles a bunch of grapes in front of Acme and even before Icarios can arrive with a whole wagon load of wine her clothes magically melt away. It isn’t all sex, there are hunting scenes, the four seasons, assorted legends and myths.

◄ I could have easily spent more time in Cyprus and next visit the Troödos Mountain with their 10 Unesco World Heritage listed frescoed churches will be my first stop. I did get to the church of Archangelos Michail in Pedoulas, it’s surprisingly small, more a garage shed than a church, but the frescoes are wonderful, vivid and colourful, totally surprising when you consider the church dates from 1474. They’ve survived over 500 years and the front door is open for the only visitor – me – who wanders in. The more than life-size image of the archangel himself is the big attraction, but there are plenty of other paintings in the small space.

▲ The mountains even have a Cypriot ski resort, I didn’t figure on that although in November the snow hadn’t arrived yet. Heading back towards the coast – and Larnaca Airport – I stopped in Laneia, an utterly too cute for its postcards little village. It’s all cobblestone and flowers and historic photos and little museum displays. Now cats have been part of the picture everywhere I went in Cyprus, on both sides of the border. In Laneia even the cats are in on the act, one of them hops straight in my car when I park and open the door. ‘Welcome to Laneia,’ its seems to intimate, ‘it’s a cute village and I’m a cute village cat.’ I get talking to Michael Owen, a British resident artist who has lived in Cairns in Northern Australia and In Papua New Guinea, as a result I have to hurry to get to the airport for the flight to my next stop: Azerbaijan.