Cyrpus: Three 'must-sees' on a visit to island
April 17, 2003
With its excellent food, high standard of living, variety of activities and sunny climate, the island of Cyprus is one of the most popular year-round holiday destinations in the Mediterranean.
This is a place where you can ski in the morning and swim in the afternoon. Where you can visit Lefkosia (formerly Nicosia), the world’s last remaining divided city, or wander in the tranquil Troodos Mountains, one of the most unspoiled areas of natural beauty in the Mediterranean. Where you can gorge on mouth-watering buffets and sample excellent local wines and spirits. Where you can see outstanding archaeological monuments, stunning Byzantine frescoes and perfectly preserved Roman mosaics.
It also just happens to be the island of Aphrodite, the goddess of love.
So let’s say you’ve decided on a holiday to Cyprus. You’ve booked a hotel and rented a car. You’ve enjoyed a few days relaxing in the sun and now want to see something of the island. Where should you go and what should you see?
Here are three personal recommendations:
For me the one must-see in all Cyprus has to be Paphos. This attractive harbor town has some interesting museums and old churches — and a number of good fish restaurants — but its two big draws are the Paphos Mosaics and the Tombs of the Kings (see related story).
The mosaics, near the harbor, are considered to be among the finest in the Mediterranean. They are part of a vast archaeological site that is still being excavated and is thought to contain many treasures from the second and third centuries.
Toward the north are the agora, or forum, the theater and the healing center. But it is the stunning mosaic floors in the former noblemen’s villas that really take the breath away. The largest and most well-known building is the House of Dionysos, discovered by accident in 1962.
Here virtually all of the mosaics are perfectly preserved, including several depictions of Dionysos, god of wine, and a series of panels of the four seasons. The vivid colors and fresh vitality of the images make them look almost modern.
Also worth seeing are the House of Aion and the Villa of Theseus, with a round mosaic showing Theseus fighting the minotaur and others of Poseidon and Achilles.
The Tombs of the Kings are probably the most dramatic ancient tombs outside of Egypt’s famous Valley of the Kings. Sprawling across a vast area overlooking the sea is a honeycomb of small pre-Christian stone chambers that have been rough-hewn out of the rocks. They were used throughout the Hellenistic and Roman periods for burial and later occupied by squatters during medieval times.
It wasn’t until 1977 that the Department of Antiquities undertook a systematic excavation.
Stone steps worn smooth over the centuries lead down into a complex of underground chambers, reflecting the Egyptian belief that tombs for the dead should resemble houses for the living. Solid blocks of stone and carved Doric columns support the roofs, and the shady “keyhole” doorways and squared arches frame the other chambers and offer glimpses out towards the shimmering aquamarine of the sea.
Incidentally it was high officials rather than kings who were buried here. The name derives from the impressive appearance of the tombs and the heavy Doric style of the columns.
The pine-clad mountains of the Troodos Massif are peaceful and cool, offering a welcome relief to the searing heat of the southern cities and coast. They spread over a vast area, rising steeply from the scorching plains to the country’s highest peak, Mount Olympus, at 6,441 feet. They include a vast range of colorful plants and flowers, including the endangered white and yellow Cyprus crocus.
To see this area properly would take at least a week. It is a vacation destination in its own right, boasting skiing resorts, hiking trails through unspoiled countryside and old churches decorated with unique Byzantine frescoes.
If you go, keep in mind that switchback hairpins there make even short distances seem long so don’t be overambitious when planning.
A good place to head for is Platres, a small resort originally based on the old colonial hill stations of India and once a popular mountain retreat for the wealthy and well connected. Those days are past but the town offers a wide choice of restaurants and is a starting point for the Caledonia Trail, a shady path through the pine forests. It follows the gurgling Kryos River upstream to the Caledonia Falls and continues on to Troodos town.
Other good walks include the Artemis Trail, which circles the summit of Mount Olympus, and the long Atalanti Trail.
The other major attractions here are the churches and monasteries. They include the Church of Agios Ioannis Lambadistis in Kalopanayiotis, the Agios Nikolaos tis Stegis in Kakopetria, the Stavros Tou Agiasmati in Pitsylia and the Asinou in the Solea Valley. All are renowned for their fresh and evocative frescoes.
The richest and most famous of the island’s religious institutions is the Kykkos Monastery, which contains an icon of the Virgin Mary said to have been painted by St. Luke.
In contrast to the other Troodos churches, Kykkos is relatively modern but it is nevertheless elaborate and ostentatious with colorful New Testament scenes on gold-leaf backgrounds and rows of stone arches. The Byzantine museum here contains a huge collection of icons, wall paintings and carvings.
In the southern Troodos, don’t miss the pretty village of Omodos with its cobbled main square, narrow alleyways, decorative potted plants and brightly painted doors and shutters. The stone houses of the village surround the Byzantine monastery of Moni Timiou Stavrou — said to contain a fragment of the True Cross — and there are some superb views of the sheer mountains to the north. Omodos is also a center of Cyprus’ wine trade — reason enough for a visit.
Limassol is a large city with a small, compact old center. For visitors it’s an easy place to explore on foot.
Start with the medieval castle — site of the marriage in 1191 between Richard the Lionheart and Berengaria. There’s an old olive press in the castle gardens and a medieval museum inside. And many of the city’s other points of interest are dotted around this attractive square.
They include the former Turkish quarter, with its Grand Mosque and Turkish baths, and some of the city’s best shops and restaurants.
For an interesting circular walk, follow the Agiou Andreou as far as the folk art museum and return by way of the promenade to the old fishing harbor just below the castle.
While Limassol is worth a half-day visit, it is the outlying attractions that are the real draw here. Chief among them is the spectacular archaeological site of ancient Kourion. Less than 15 miles west of the city, this cliff-top settlement was probably founded in Neolithic times.
The site is dominated by a magnificent amphitheater — still used for plays and concerts — from which there are views along the coastline back to Limassol.
Nearby is the Annexe of Eustolios, a fifth-century private residence with colorful mosaic floors, many showing Christian motifs.
A short drive away is the early Christian basilica with a wide nave, rows of pillars, a number of floor mosaics and a bishop’s house overlooking the sea. And across from here is the House of Gladiators, named after two floor mosaics showing gladiators in battle dress.
After seeing the ruins there’s a choice of activities: check out more ancient ruins or head to the beach.
About a mile from Kourion is the Sanctuary of Apollon Ylatis, established in the eighth century BC. Today visitors can see remains of the Apollo sanctuary as well as a Roman sports arena and bath. The crumbling ruins are set in a pleasant park area awash with oleander.
Alternatively, head for the Med. You can either drop down to the busy Kourion beach or drive 10 miles or so farther west to Avdimou, a quiet sandy beach with a simple beach taverna.
Richard Moverley is a freelance writer living in England.
If you go ...
Package deals — flight and room accommodations in a single package — are an excellent way of arranging vacation trips to the island. Finding good places to eat cheaply and well is no problem, so consider self-catering or bed-and-breakfast deals; you don’t need to stay in a hotel and pay for its meals.
Flights alone are relatively expensive. A flight in peak season from London Gatwick to Larnaca, for example, costs about $450 to $520. Rates are cheaper in the winter or through discount agencies.
Flying time is 4 hours and 30 minutes from London; 3 hours and 30 minutes from Frankfurt, Germany. Americans do not need a visa.
Cyprus is a divided island — one side controlled by Greek Cypriots, the other by Turkish Cypriots. Traveling from one side to the other is difficult. Visitors are allowed to cross the border on one-day trips only. Recent talks on unification didn’t achieve anything and so the status quo remains.
In this visit we’ve explored sites on the Greek, or southern, side of Cyprus. The Turkish, or northern, side is less developed in many parts. Good places to visit are the ancient city of Famagusta, the harbor of Kyrenia and the wild, Karpas peninsula.
Cyprus is popular with most European nationalities (at our hotel there were lots of Russians). However, it attracts large numbers of British tourists in particular because it was once governed by the British and the British were among the first tourists to the island. English is spoken widely.
Excursions from Paphos include the popular Coral Bay, the quiet mountain villages of the Akamas Heights and the unspoiled town of Polis.
The latter is a good place to eat and along the coast is Latsi Beach and the Baths of Aphrodite where the goddess reputedly came to the island. Also nearby is the wild Akamas Peninsula (reachable by four-wheel drive) and the turtle hatchery at Lara Beach.
¶ Around Limassol you can visit the Kourion Museum in the village of Episkopi and the nearby Kolossi Castle.
¶ The village of Phikardou (also known as Fikardou), on the eastern edge of the Troodos Massif, has been designated an “ancient monument.” The designation is the result of a preservation begun in 1978, when it was decided to turn the clocks back about 100 years and restore the village’s dilapidated buildings to the way they looked at the end of the 19th century, when most of them were built. The result is a good idea of what a typical Cypriot village should look like.
¶ For beaches, head for the southeastern corner of Cyprus around Protaras. Popular beaches include Agia Triada, Mouzoura, Louma, Protaras and Green Bay. Around Limassol try Avdimou to the west and Governor’s to the east. Northwest of Paphos is Coral Bay, with its an annual Summer Sunshine Festival on May 4.
¶ The Tombs of the Kings, Paphos Mosaics and Kourion are open daily 8 a.m. through 5 p.m. Most museums open at 9 a.m. Opening hours are slightly longer in summer. Admission charges are low.
Where to eat
¶ Paphos — Hondros and Mother’s Restaurant (both on Apostolou Pavlou); the seafront restaurant Glaros Restaurant at Leoforos Posidonos 7. The fish restaurants around the harbor also are worth a try.
¶ Polis — Arsinoe Fish Tavern, Old Town Restaurant, Avli Restaurant (very good for mezes — see story at right).
¶ Troodos Mountains — Kalidonia Restaurant or Psilo Dendro Restaurant (Platres); Mountain Rose or Meteora (Pedoulas); The Old Mill or Village Pub (Kakopetria).
¶ Limassol — Richard and Berengaria Café, To Frourio, Rizitiko Tavern (all near castle square); Folio tou Koukou (also known as Cuckoo’s Nest) at Agiou Andreou 228.
Cyprus offers two good beers: the local KEO and Carlsberg (also locally brewed). Also worth trying are the local wines and liqueurs, Cyprus brandy and Commandaria, a fortified sweet wine that dates back to the Crusades.
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— Richard Moverley and Stars and Stripes