Cyprus two countries for the price of one
“Sun”, “sand” and “sea” don’t narrow the options much when it comes to choosing a holiday destination. So for a faraway little island in the Mediterranean, so overlooked that Facebook’s map service obscures it completely with the word “Cyprus”, it’s already tough enough to draw in visitors without considering the alphabetical barrier and a financial situation only a mother could love. But for those willing to look beneath the surface, Cyprus makes for an unforgettable holiday – and not just for the clubbers…
- It really is mostly mothers who love Cyprus nowadays, and even there the numbers are dwindling; it’s only thanks to my family’s link to the island that I've had the chance to watch it grow, shrink and adapt. With each visit to the Greek side of the island, there have been more mansions and pools to spot on the journey to the beach, and fewer family businesses in our village. Where the town was once a documented Klondike of home-grown produce, the demand is shifting towards the capital. But while it may be tempting to get swept along to the city or the beach, it’s not only much more rewarding to dig deeper, but also possible to cover a range of activities within the same span as our typical summer trip: two weeks.
My favourite parts of the adventure – what does Greek Cyprus have to offer?
- There’s a real glimpse of history still to be caught in those quieter towns – small, intensely tightly-knit communities living independently, crumbling balconies worthy of a Shakespearian set, and houses with actual proper trees growing right up through the middle of them. The whole place looks plucked from the ancient world, but there’s even more beneath it: walking around last summer, the excavated site of an even more ancient church was in progress and on display right next to villagers’ houses. It helps to know your Greek to get around in these parts, but getting lost here may make for the most stunning part of the trip.
Goats get right of way
- A handy hint: if your car gets stopped for fifteen minutes while you wait for a troop of goats to trot past, the nearest local will probably be able to sell you cheese made with their milk that very morning (or, if not, may foist off a load of their figs on you. Village life is a complicated bartering system involving passing on more food than one person could comfortably eat in a week until it finally nourishes the whole town).
- And the ‘quieter’ life is only one side to a country of rich contrasts – and, as it’s so small, it’s possible to experience them all in one trip. You’re never too far away from the markets, the shops, serene mountains, ancient ruins, or – most importantly – a beach.
- Yes, the infamous coastline is the biggest draw for tourists. Whether you’re joining them or not, you’ll undoubtedly see troops of teens in fluorescent “I’m in Napa” tops at the airport, tanned before they’ve reached the beaches. Ayia Napa is the Cyprus party experience – if that’s the sort of holiday you’re looking for, you can’t go far wrong. If you fancy somewhere quieter, however, there’s still plenty of choice. For the best-kept secret, aim for the areas of the coast where British army bases are set up. Games of Marco Polo may be occasionally interrupted by the odd helicopter passing over, there’s as much barbed wire as beachy coves and they won’t really want you taking pictures, but there’s no better place to eat fish and chips by the sea, and hey, the wind surfers seem to be having an alright time.
Bartering in the capital
- There’s little point pretending the Nicosia markets are filled with untold treasures (lovers of magnets and bracelets will, however, be appeased), but they are a great authentic experience and a source of natural sponges – the sea creatures, not the sort you scrub your dishes with – and beautifully carved mirrors and chess sets. On the off-chance you find the idea of chess and sponges boring, the food in Cyprus is to die for. We’re always sure to pick up lots of sweets to appease friends back home: Cyprus Delight is unmissable. (That’s Cyprus, not Turkish. It’s definitely not just the same thing with ‘Cyprus’ on the box.)
Hidden parks in the mountains – don’t touch a swingset in the midday sun
- The mountains are a highlight of Cyprus: shady, piney, and full of yet more hidden treasures. Find yourself a café or restaurant in the Troodos peaks while off on a drive and you won’t forget the view, or the vertigo. Be warned, though – the barrier of scaling a cliff is no match for the local cats. Cyprus is full of strays, making it heaven for animal lovers and those happy to share their meals. Our favourite restaurant boasts an all-you-can-eat buffet, which attracts plenty of hungry, adorable, dubiously scruffy kittens. Exploring a bit further, some of the highest villages make for incredible views, and the whole setting feels sealed off from the rest of the world.
- Much of Cyprus’ ancient fame stems from its connection with Aphrodite – with the Greek goddess of love making her home here, it’s clear where you need to go. No, not back to Ayia Napa…Aphrodite’s rock, Paphos, is a striking and memorable sight which has stayed with me since childhood, along with the incredible mosaics and the shaded walkways above them.
Enough ‘village salad’, I want a burger
- If nobly straying from the beaten path starts to drive you round the bend (or does so for a friend who’s missing the world of MMORPGs), head towards the capital, Nicosia, where internet cafés and high street names will greet you like the welcome breeze of their air con. The Mall of Cyprus, too, covers all bases: clothes shopping, a cinema, enough fast food to avoid ever eating goat’s cheese, and displays for video games where you can compete with the locals. Nothing bonds the nations quite like an epic guitar battle – except maybe speaking each other’s languages, which can also be covered by heading to the highlight of the mall: a book shop filled with textbooks, popular and classic novels and manga in translation. Nobody needs to read that copy of 50 Shades of Grey in Greek – it’s enough just to own it.
What’s the catch?
- It seems like the ideal summer trip – why do so few people brave it? The taboo and danger of Cyprus may make it off-putting in 2013. There are two huge elephants in the room – firstly, the fact that the Turkish northern side and the Greek southern side have a bitter rivalry to the extent that the Turks have engraved their flag onto a massive hill as a permanent gesture to Greek Cypriot motorists (might this account for some of the rash driving..?).This is coupled with the fact that Cyprus’ finances were recently hit with the suggestion that the citizens pay for the country’s debt – dubbed the ‘worst economical decision in history’. It’s easy to imagine tourists whispering, “Come along, now…best to leave them be.” The road-crash dynamic is more magnetic when you’ve been queuing up to go past it; not worth making a five-hour detour for.
- So, is it tough to travel in a country that’s split down the middle? In a word: yes. You could be divested of your passport if your path accidentally takes you over the border. There’s nothing quite as nerve-wracking as suddenly spotting the Turkish language on the road signs…except maybe hearing the buzz of a spheker.
- If you’re scared of wasps, you might want to skip this section. If you’re not scared of wasps, you soon will be. The last time I tried to tell someone about the winged horrors my homeland had to offer, I only knew the local village names for the insects – without even the spelling. Possibly the most terrifying is known as a ‘phalange’, or ‘finger’, probably thanks to its dangly appearance, but after attempting to Google search this term in every incarnation, I eventually only stumbled across the prime suspect by searching “disgusting wasps”. His body is comprised of several plump, dark sections, held together by parts so thin they are practically invisible, hence its common name of the thread-waisted wasp (hilariously misspelled in the search results as “thread-wasted”. Images of insects bumbling around in “I’m in Napa” vests abound). If you spot a deadly dot-to-dot dangling its way towards you – get out of its path.
- Another friendly neighbourhood hornet you’ll want to avoid has a local name taken directly from “spheksophobia” – the fear of wasps. If this weren’t warning enough, the kindly insects are emblazoned with a massive yellow stripe across their bright red backs, just to remind you what there is to be afraid of.
Even for the arachnophobic, the bugs aren’t so bad
- Still, even after years of hardcore village life, we’ve avoided stings, skirmishes with scorpions, and even the bites of inch-long ants (which, it turns out – though never try this at your home away from home – will continue to crawl when cut in half by bored/malicious children, like a horrifying pastiche of Dawn of the Dead and A Bug’s Life.) While Cyprus is by no means tame, you’re hardly on holiday in Australia.
Some of the local customs, on the other hand…
- If you stick to the tourist’s route you’ll miss lots of unsavoury cultural nuances – but if living more locally, don’t be surprised if a neighbour walks in your front door at 8am on a Saturday calling out to you. It’s not an emergency – they just want a chat (or to give you some cheese).
- To save expectations being crushed, don’t assume everyone will understand or want to help you, either – it is, admittedly, difficult to be productive in such unrelenting heat. Queuing exists, on foot and in traffic, but only as far as the patience of the queuers. Don’t expect anyone to voice complaints if someone skips ahead, and don’t be surprised if the car in front of you gets bored of waiting and instead goes zooming off over an adjacent field.
Still fancy braving it? Grab your euros...
Travel - Public transport in Cyprus isn't up to much, so hiring a car is a good idea if you plan to stumble beyond the beach - especially for getting around those thin and winding mountain roads. Depending on when you go and how fly a ride you desire, you'll need to have set aside €50-200 for a week, though plenty of special offers are available.
Food - Greek portions are generous, and food is very reasonably priced, not to mention delicious (and, shamefully, the highlight of every trip for me...) Greek meatballs and honey balls are a must, and the fruit and juices are delicious. You'll never see a bigger watermelon.
Miscellaneous- if you can't resist the allure of sales pitches in broken English, the street markets are risky. If there's not a proverb along the lines of "don't buy it yet - walk around the next corner and find it half price", there should be. In terms of poolside entertainment, bring your books from home - if you can't live without your magazine subscriptions, expect to get them a lot later and for a lot more money than at home.
- It's all Greek to me - and a fascinating language it is, too. Greek is a delight for students of History, Classics, English, Linguistics...the list goes on. You can get by with English, but the alphabet isn't too tough to learn, and has similarities to Cyrillic (fellow Russianists will revel in the relative ease of the language, too)
- Sunscreen. A bit of an obvious one, but in 40 degree midday heat, you’ll want to keep hydrated, shaded and protected.
- Umbrella - okay, less obvious. Greek rainstorms are few and far between, but they make up for the fact by coming down like needles.
- Insect repellent is also a wise choice for known mosquito magnets. Not sure if this applies to you? Not worth taking the risk!
- In Cyprus, North and South, they drive on the left-hand side of the road; no worries for the Brits here (except the speed at which they do it).
- Above all else, don’t believe anyone who tells you asking for the bill can be done with ‘to billo, paracalo’ as well as ‘to logariasmo’. Once our translator had stopped laughing for long enough to explain what it meant, my dad was not best pleased to find out he’d been asking waiters for “the penis, please.” The more you know.