Strike out beyond the sun-soaked stretches of sand to discover an island of compelling culture and landscapes, steeped in myth and riddled with ancient riches.
Crossing the Line
Crossing the line between the South and the North allows you not only to gain some understanding of the island's complex and painful modern-day history, but also experience the two Cypriot communities. Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot societies are intrinsically different yet incredibly similar, linked by the still-strong role of traditional family life and a rich history where food cultures and folk customs have intermingled, but divided by belief. One thing's for sure wherever you are on the island: the naturally warm Cypriot hospitality is much in evidence on both sides of the Green Line.
The Great Outdoors
The landscape and Mediterranean climate mean that outside is where it’s at – and where you should be. Sun-soaked stretches of sand are Cyprus' calling card and there's a beach for everyone here, from wild and windswept to family-friendly and packed. Every conceivable water sport is on offer, from scuba diving to skimming the surface on a kite- or windsurf board. And if you tire of all that blue, strike out into the interior, where wildflower-studded meadows and valleys of densely planted vineyards sweep up to a pine-clad mountain spine offering hiking, biking and, yes, even winter skiing.
A Sense of the Past
Steeped in myth, coveted by every conqueror with an eye for a prize, Cyprus' tumultuous and multilayered past has left ancient riches strewn across this island. Neolithic dwellings, Bronze Age and Phoenician tombs, remnants of once-mighty city-kingdoms, Roman mosaics, mountaintop castles and Byzantine churches – home to a glut of renowned frescos – lay scattered through the countryside. While strolling the cities you can spot the preserved architectural legacy of the Lusignan, Venetian and Ottoman periods. Cyprus may welcome you to flop out on the beach, but dig into the past here and you'll unearth the entire history of the Mediterranean.
A Culinary Feast
Meze is a delicious way to acquaint yourself with the local cuisine, tantalising the taste buds with a feast of small dishes, from creamy hummus to kebabs or afelia (pork cooked in red wine) and everything in between. Heavily influenced by Turkish, Greek and Middle Eastern food cultures, Cypriot cooking has some of its own culinary stars, including haloumi (hellim in Turkish) and kebab favourite sheftalia (şeftali kebap in Turkish; grilled sausages wrapped in caul fat). And don't forget the desserts. Flavoured with almonds, rose water and pistachios, sweet treats range from comforting rice puddings to gloriously sticky baklava.
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Nea Pafos (New Pafos) is, ironically, the name given to the sprawling Pafos Archaeological Site, to the west of Kato Pafos. Nea Pafos was the ancient city of Pafos, founded in the late 4th century BC and originally encircled by massive walls. Despite being ceded to the Romans in 58 BC, it remained the centre of all political and administrative life in Cyprus. It is most famed today for its mesmerising collection of intricate and colourful mosaics based on ancient Greek myths. Palea Pafos (Old Pafos) was in fact Kouklia, southeast of today’s Pafos and the site of the Sanctuary of Aphrodite. At the time of Nea Pafos, Cyprus was part of the kingdom of the Ptolemies, the Greco-Macedonian rulers of Egypt whose capital was Alexandria. The city became an important strategic outpost for the Ptolemies, and the settlement grew considerably over the next seven centuries. The city originally occupied an area of about 950,000 sq metres and reached its zenith during the 2nd or 3rd century AD. It was during this time that the city’s most opulent public buildings were constructed, including those that house the famous Pafos mosaics. Nea Pafos went into decline following an earthquake in the 4th century that badly damaged the city. Subsequently, Salamis in the east became the new capital of Cyprus, and Nea Pafos was relegated to the status of a mere bishopric. Arab raids in the 7th century set the seal on the city’s demise and neither Lusignan settlement (1192–1489) nor Venetian and Ottoman colonisation revived Nea Pafos’ fortunes. The archaeological site is still being excavated since it is widely believed that there are many treasures still to be discovered. The following sections detail the major sights. Pafos Mosaics This superb collection of mosaics is located in the southern sector of the archaeological site, immediately to the south of the Agora. Discovered by accident in 1962 by a farmer ploughing his field, these exquisite mosaics decorated the extensive floor area of a large, wealthy residence from the Roman period. Subsequently named the House of Dionysus (because of the number of mosaics featuring Dionysus, the god of wine), this complex is the largest and best known of the mosaic houses. The most wonderful thing about the mosaics is that, apart from their artistic and aesthetic merits, each tells a story, mostly based on ancient Greek myths. The first thing you’ll see upon entering is not a Roman mosaic at all but a Hellenistic monochrome pebble mosaic showing the monster Scylla. Based on a Greek myth, this mosaic was discovered in 1977, a metre underground in the southwestern corner of the atrium. The famous tale of Narcissus is depicted in a mosaic in Room 2, while the Four Seasons mosaic (Room 3) depicts Spring crowned with flowers and holding a shepherd’s stick; Summer holding a sickle and wearing ears of corn; Autumn crowned with leaves and wheat; and Winter as a bearded, grey-haired man. Phaedra and Hippolytos (Room 6) is one of the most important mosaics in the house. It depicts the tragic tale of a stepmother’s bizarre love for her stepson. Another stunning mosaic in the house is the Rape of Ganymede (Room 8). Ganymede was a beautiful young shepherd who became the cupbearer of the gods. The mosaicist had apparently miscalculated the space allowed to him, which is why the eagle’s wings are cropped. In the Western Portico (Room 16) is a mosaic based on a tale familiar to any lover of Shakespeare: the story of Pyramus and Thisbe, first narrated by Ovid in his Metamorphosis, and adapted in Romeo and Juliet (and A Midsummer Night’s Dream). A short walk away are the smaller Villa of Theseus and the House of Aion. The latter, a purpose-built structure made from stones found on the site, houses a 4th-century mosaic display made up of five separate panels. The house was named after the pagan god Aion, depicted in the mosaics. Although the image has been damaged somewhat, the name Aion and the face of the god can still be clearly seen. The Villa of Theseus is thought to have been a 2nd-century private residence and is named after a representation of the hero Theseus fighting the Minotaur. The building occupies an area of 9600 sq metres and, so far, 1400 sq metres of mosaics have been uncovered. The round mosaic of Theseus and the Minotaur is particularly well preserved and can be seen in Room 36. Other mosaics to look out for are those of Poseidon in Room 76 and Achilles in Rooms 39 and 40. Allow at least two hours to see the three houses properly. Saranta Kolones Fortress Not far from the mosaics are the remains of the medieval Saranta Kolones Fortress, named for the ‘40 columns’ that were once a feature of the now almost levelled structure. Little is known about the precise nature or history of the original fortress, other than it was built by the Lusignans in the 12th century and was subsequently destroyed by an earthquake in 1222. A few desultory arches are the only visual evidence of its original grandeur. Agora, Asklipieion & Odeion The Agora (or forum) and Asklipieion date back to the 2nd century AD. Today, the Agora consists mainly of the Odeion, a semicircular theatre restored in 1970 and not appearing particularly ancient. The rest of the Agora is discernible by the remains of marble columns that form a rectangle in the largely empty open space. What is left of the Asklipieion, the healing centre and altar of Asklepios, god of medicine, runs east to west on the southern side of the Odeion. Be sure to stop by the Visitors' Centre at the top of the steps near the entrance. Interesting rotating exhibitions take place here and you can pick up a guidebook (€5.50), which explains the site in detail.
Imagine yourself surrounded by ancient tombs in a desertlike landscape where the only sounds are waves crashing on rocks. The Tombs of the Kings, a Unesco World Heritage Site, contains a set of well-preserved underground tombs and chambers used by residents of Nea Pafos during the Hellenistic and Roman periods, from the 3rd century BC to the 3rd century AD. Despite the name, the tombs were not actually used by royalty; they earned the title from their grand appearance. Located 2km north of Kato Pafos, the tombs are unique in Cyprus, being heavily influenced by ancient Egyptian tradition, when it was believed that tombs for the dead should resemble houses for the living. The seven excavated tombs are scattered over a wide area; the most impressive is No 3, which has an open atrium below ground level, surrounded by columns. Other tombs have niches built into the walls where bodies were stored. Most of the tombs’ treasures have long since been spirited away by grave robbers. Pafos Buses 615 route to Coral Bay stops right outside the entrance (€1.50, 5 minutes), departing roughly every 15 minutes from the Harbour Bus Station.
For divers, the one reason to come to Larnaka is to explore the Zenobia, a Swedish-built cargo ship that sank just off the coast of Larnaka in 1980. Classed as one of the top five wreck dives in the world, the Zenobia and its cargo of trucks lie scattered across the sea floor like a bizarre underwater scrapyard. Various routes through the ship's decks and halls can be explored, according to your level of dive experience. One of the joys of a dive here is the immense variety of fishes that can be seen. The Mediterranean isn't particularly noted among divers for its rich aquatic life, but the Zenobia acts like an artificial reef, attracting fish and other sea creatures to shelter here, and teems with life. The ship can be explored by divers of all levels but is particularly rewarding for more experienced and technical divers, who can explore deeper into the ship's innards.
North Nicosia’s most prominent landmark (also clearly visible from the southern half of the city), the Selimiye Mosque is a beautiful building. A cross between a French Gothic church and a mosque, its fascinating history stretches back to the 13th century. Although it's a working place of worship, non-Muslims may visit, except during prayer time. For the most atmosphere, time your visit either just before or after one of the five daily prayer sessions. Work started on the church in 1209 and progressed slowly. Louis IX of France, on his way to the Crusades, stopped by in 1248 and gave the building process a much-needed shot in the arm by offering the services of his retinue of artisans and builders. The church took another 78 years to complete, however, and was finally consecrated in 1326 as the Church of Agia Sofia. Until 1570 the church suffered depredation at the hands of the Genoese and the Mamelukes, and severe shakings from two earthquakes in 1491 and 1547. When the Ottomans arrived in 1571, they stripped the building of its Christian contents and added two minarets, between which the Turkish Cypriot and Turkish flags now flutter. The Gothic structure of the interior is still apparent despite Islamic overlays, such as the whitewashed walls and columns, and the reorientation of the layout to align it with Mecca. Note the ornate west front with its three decorated doorways, each in a different style. Also look out for four marble columns relocated from Ancient Salamis and now placed in the apse off the main aisles.
This fascinating site was home to one of Pafos’ largest religious structures. What remains are the foundations of a 4th-century Christian basilica, which aptly demonstrates the size and magnificence of the original church, destroyed during Arab raids in 653. Several magnificent marble columns remain from the colonnades, while others lie scattered around the site, and mosaics are still visible. Further incarnations of the basilica were built over the years, leading to the present small Agia Kyriaki church, which is now used for Anglican, Lutheran and Greek Orthodox services. A raised walkway provides excellent views of the extensive site and has explanatory plaques in English. Look also for the tomb of Eric Ejegod, the 12th-century king of Denmark who died suddenly in 1103 on his way to the Holy Land. On the western side of the basilica is the so-called St Paul’s Pillar, where St Paul was allegedly tied and scourged 39 times before he finally converted his tormentor, the Roman governor Sergius Paulus, to Christianity.
This stunning unspoilt beach has clean, calm water and pristine sands for those who want to escape people and parasols. The beach is most famous, however, for being home to a turtle hatchery; this is one of the world's few remaining havens for green and logger-head turtles to nest. Volunteers monitor the female turtles and around June and July collect their eggs to place in the hatchery, to protect them from predators and inquisitive tots. Monk seals also dwell in the sea caves around the peninsula. Note that the beach has been a protected area since 1971 and no sun loungers are permitted. Likewise, private vehicles are banned from coming to the beach during the egg-laying season; at other times you can approach, although the path is a dirt track. If you feel uneasy go for a 4WD rental vehicle or take a tour. Look for the signs to Lara Restaurant at the adjacent Lara Bay, where you can stop for a drink or snack on the vast terrace overlooking the beach.
The island’s most prosperous and opulent Orthodox monastery was founded in the 11th century by Byzantine emperor Alexios I Komninos after a bizarre series of events. Over the centuries, a series of fires all but destroyed the original monastery. The surviving building, an imposing and well-maintained structure, dates from 1831. The monastery is about 20km west of Pedoulas; try to visit early, as it can get busy from late morning onwards. Dress conservatively (though shawls and cover-up clothing are provided). The story behind the monastery started with a hermit called Esaias (Isaiah), who lived in a cave close to the site. One day in the forest, Esaias crossed paths with a hunter from Nicosia, Manouil Voutomytis, who was also the Byzantine governor of Cyprus. Voutomytis was lost and asked directions from the recluse, only to be ignored because of Esaias’ ascetic vows. The self-important hunter became outraged at what he perceived to be the hermit’s insolence, cursing at him and shoving him as a lesson. Upon returning to Nicosia, Voutomytis began to suffer incurable lethargy. He recalled how he had mistreated Esaias and set out to beg forgiveness, in the hope of restoring his failing health. Meanwhile, a vision from God appeared to Esaias, telling him to charge Voutomytis with the task of bringing an icon of the Virgin Mary from Constantinople to Cyprus. At the hermit’s request, and after much soul-searching, Voutomytis was eventually able to bring the icon to Cyprus. He convinced the Byzantine emperor in Constantinople, whose daughter suffered the same lethargic affliction, that she would be saved if they did what the hermit (and therefore God) had asked. The icon, said to be painted by St Luke, is one of only three that survive. For the last four centuries it has sat in a sealed, silver-encased box within the Kykkos Monastery.
Possibly the best on the island, Golden Beach is worth the trip to the Karpas in itself. Its white-sand dunes and gentle curves meet the calm, clear sea, and wild donkeys graze nonchalantly on the hills while you soak up the tranquillity. It’s truly enchanting, with little development. The beach is 5km before Zafer Burnu (Cape Apostolos Andreas), situated between scrubby headlands and stretching for several kilometres. There are some basic restaurants and accommodation options. It's now part of a national park and also prime turtle-nesting ground. If you’re visiting in September, contact the certified volunteers at the Society for the Protection of Turtles (SPOT; www.cyprusturtles.org) who monitor the progress of the turtles – you may even be lucky enough to witness baby turtles hatching.
A World Heritage Site, the sanctuary is recognised as being one of the most important ancient sites related to Aphrodite in Cyprus and yet it is arguably the least known. The sprawling site includes the 12th-century conical stone that represented the goddess until Roman times, the ruins of a Roman temple, a second small sanctuary and ruins of a Roman house, set on a hillside in the village of Kouklia. The setting is lovely with panoramic views down to the sea. The on-site museum has an extensive display of items discovered at the site, including some extraordinarily delicate white slip pottery dating from the late Bronze Age. For an additional €1 you can watch a 10-minute audiovisual presentation (in Greek and English), which provides a historical background to the site. You will need your own wheels to get here. Kouklia is signposted off both the A6 and B6 highways, approximately 18km east of Geroskipou.