Island life as the Cypriots do

The sun continues its inexorable whitewashing of Cyprus as another day greets us on this tiny island of history, mystery and magic.

Cyprus is a tiny dot of an island in the Mediterranean whose capital, Nicosia, is the last divided capital in Europe (under Cypriot and Turkish control, marked by a border crossing that splits a major shopping avenue). The island has been occupied by the likes of Mycenaean Greeks, Alexander the Great, Ottomans  and, most recently, the Brits, whose administrative oversight lasted from 1878 until 1960.

The former left behind ancient ruins and infused the culture with influences that show up in the food, music, language and politics of Cyprus. The latter – some of whom remain, either as languishing pensioners or military staff – left behind many a British pub, an enormous military base and decent fish and chips in most tavernas.

The island – at 3,500 square miles and 1.1 million people – is the third largest and third most populous island in the Mediterranean. Perched 47 miles south of Turkey and within half an hours’ flight from Lebanon and Syria, Cyprus has long been a coveted strategic outpost. Hence the 1974 conflict with Turkey that resulted in the island’s partition.

Cyprus' cobalt waters, near the beach city of Agia Napa.

Cyprus’ cobalt waters, near the beach city of Agia Napa.

It is an island of brilliant blue skies and cobalt waters, endless rolling hills of brown and grey sand and stone dotted with scrub and olive trees and splashes of purples and blues from the bougainvillea and oleander that flourish in abundance. The island is largely flat, but features mountain ranges to the center and north of the island that loom over the countryside and form natural strategic barriers. The faint odor of cows, goats and sheep that graze in open spaces all around the island floats in the breeze which seems to ramp up each afternoon, building to a steady blow and then easing off around dinnertime.

Greek-speaking Cypriots are warm, engaging people who offer refuge to sun worshippers from around the world, notably England and Russia. The UK seems to have deposited half of Essex on the island’s shores in an exodus of expat pensioners bent on absorbing enough of the sun’s heat to make up for lives spent in England’s endless drizzle. Head out to Lithos Grill, as we did one night to hear an appalling opening duo challenge listeners to stick around for a serviceable Roy Orbison tribute act, or to The Only, whose name is far from the truth but offers up a decent coffee and pints to the crowd that gathers from breakfast to closing, and you’ll hear more Britspeak than you would in the East End.

Russian revelers drink in the sun and vast quantities of Keo beer, and signs in Russian are everywhere, an indication of the island’s warm relationship with the land that Putin rules.

It takes a bit of work to get away from the madding crowds, but once you do, it’s paradise.

Our entry to the island was fast-tracked by two new friends, one of whom owns the AIRbnb where we stayed for our first three nights here. Angelo and his friend Marios quickly became pals, quickly guiding us into island life and bypassing the bus loads of gawkers trying to find their way to the local tavernas for lunch. Marios is a professional tour guide, so his narrative on Nicosia, Famagusta, Bellapais, the ruins of Salumis and his  knowledge of the island’s history, culture and religion gave us an understanding that otherwise would have taken weeks to achieve.

With our new friend Marios Georgiou at Salumis ruins, which date to 11th century BC

With our new friend Marios Georgiou at Salumis ruins, which date to 11th century BC

Islanders drive on the left side of the road, as in England, but also on the wrong side of the road, as in Cambodia. As promised in countless online posts, their driving skills are best described as unpredictably erratic, so it’s wise to exercise caution when behind the wheel. It’s not uncommon to confront an old man behind the wheel of a rusted Toyota crossing with single minded purpose toward an open parking spot on the wrong side of the road in front of his favorite café, paying no heed to law-abiding traffic that blocks his path.

Otherwise, Island life is slow, low key and amusingly unpredictable, like Costa Rica, and its boardwalk along the beach in Larnaca offers cafes, bars and restaurants that are a combination of Marseille chic and Thailand affordable.

And everywhere is the brilliant cobalt and turquoise waters of the Mediterranean, which is too cold for our tastes but peppered with intrepid bathers of more hardy upbringing. Windsurfers ride the afternoon winds, skimming across vast underwater fields of coral and volcanic rock and sailboats heel to port in the afternoon’s steady blows.

You can’t go far in Cyprus without being made aware of the ongoing “Cyprus question,” which centers on the Turkish occupation of northern Cyprus. Guard towers dot the road to Famagusta. A sign near the Larnaca airport demands “Turks out of Cyprus” and the ghost towns of urban centers deserted when the conflict came to a peak in 1974 are all grim reminders of the central problem facing the island’s inhabitants.

We bumped into an old man at a restaurant whose vein-streaked nose belied his long term relationship with the grape last week. Striking up a conversation, we soon learned that he was one of the thousands who were forced from Kyrenia to the north. “Forty years I am gone…forty years,”  he lamented, reminding us that 2014 indeed marks the 40th anniversary of what for many here was the island’s most tragic period.

The northern port city of Kyrenia (Girne), a stunning place to spend the afternoon.

The northern port city of Kyrenia (Girne), a stunning place to spend the afternoon.

Yet it seems a peaceful tension, at least to the perception of travelers who smile through the brief border check and make their way into the northern territory.

The deserted tourism destination of Famagusta serves as the poster child for the problem in Cyprus. Magnificent colonial villas, hotels and apartment complexes are overgrown with vines and trash for the immense center surrounded by chain link fences and stern warnings of “No Photography or Video!”

Nearby, other ruins remind visitors of another occupation in a different era. The ancient trading center of Salumis – which dates to the 11th century BC – still captures the lavish lives of business leaders and travelers who watched comedies in the amphitheater, bathed in the hot and cold baths and sudatorium (sweating rooms) in between managing the creation of vast fortunes.

Roman columns, statues and even a few brilliantly-colored frescoes remain among the flower-dotted fields that now command the ruins.

To the south, the Neolithic settlement of Choirokoitia offers a glimpse into a 7th century BC farming and herding community. Settlers braved the rugged terrain to construct an intricately linked series of stone and mud huts that offered refuge from the elements and protection from invaders who might think twice of storming the hillside village.

Kyrenia  was one of our favorite places (Girne in Turkish), a small seaside village on the island’s north coast. A vast breakwater protects the small harbor from the open Mediterranean, only 47 miles from the Turkish coast. Tavernas, bars and restaurants offer afternoon revelers a chance to sit and watch the action as locals and tourists mingle affably in the late day sun. A cold beer and a plate of appetizers make the scene about as perfect as could be.

Cypriots are warm, gregarious and fun-loving people who love to eat. The infamous “Cyprus stone” awaits the waistline of many a visitor, owing to the ridiculous avalanches of delicious food that come with any of the “mezzes” you can order in any restaurant or taverna. Fish mezzes feature the ocean’s bounty and come on a flurry of plates that overwhelm even the largest table and diner. Meat mezzes spill forth with chicken, lamb and pork dishes. Vegetarian mezzes lean on the array of condiments and dips that accompany any mezze but include wonderful veggie kabobs. Tahini, tzatziki, hummous, cured olives and the ubiquitous and fantastic grilled halloumi are staples of the tables.

Typical island mezze in Maria's restaurant near Lefkara. No way could we finish all this.

Typical island mezze in Maria’s restaurant near Lefkara. No way could we finish all this. With our new friend Vangelis Evangelou.

So are the mountains of macaroni and sauces, delicately fried mushrooms, zucchini and cauliflower that arrive in a steady flow until the wait staff has to start stacking serving places in tiers. Washed down with an ice cold Keo beer, Cypriot fare leaves you full, fat and happy.

It’s an easy lifestyle that offers modern conveniences in old world charm.  We even found a nearby gym with a US-trained owner and staff that is without question one of the highest quality exercise facilities we have visited anywhere.

It’s a great antidote to last night’s beer and mezze, and as such is a staple of our daily diet in Cyprus.




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