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Inside: The popular holiday island of Cyprus may be best known for beaches, but don’t miss the gems of Paphos Harbor, Lefkara, or the archaeological treasure of Kourion.
Today, it’s on to stop #3 on my 6th annual 30-day trip around the world, the island of Cyprus.
Known as Aphrodite’s Isle, Cyprus is strategically located between the coasts of Turkey and Syria (its nearest neighbor).
Because of its location, it has long been considered a Mediterranean prize. Numerous conquerors including the Greeks, Romans, and the Turks of the Ottoman Empire have fought over the island throughout history.
The scars of these battles left their mark on the island making it a huge archeological site.
The more recent history of Cyprus has been volatile. The Turkish invasion of 1974 resulted in a dividing line through the capital city of Nicosia. This “Green Line” separates the Republic of Cyprus from the 37% of the northern country known as the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (a state recognized by no other nation but Turkey).
Today, the Green Line is monitored by United Nations troops and the political situation has stabilized in recent years.
Cyprus as a tourism superstar
Post-1974, the Greek Cypriots have turned their country into one of the wealthiest in Europe thanks to a bustling tourism industry. In fact, Cyprus is one of Europe’s most popular holiday destinations.
The first thing that surprises me about Cyprus is the sheer size of the island. After Sicily and Sardinia, Cyprus is the 3rd largest island in the Mediterranean.
Read More: Sardinia and the Maddalena Islands
I envisioned a sleepy little Greek island and I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Arrival in Cyprus
I land in Larnaca, Cyprus on Sunday evening after back-to-back redeye flights from Montevideo, Uruguay with very little sleep in between.
I make my way to the rental car counter and within a few minutes, I have my own wheels and I’m off to the town of Limassol in search of my hotel.
Driving on the “other” side
It’s a 45-minute drive from the airport and along the way, I attempt to reacquaint myself with driving on the other side of the road. And just generally being on the wrong side of the car.
It’s been a while since I’ve done it but I guess it’s like riding a bike, it comes back pretty quickly.
Flashback: My first time driving on the other side of the road (in Cape Town) was truly an adventure.
Read More: Back to Africa – Cape Town Part Deux
My general rule of thumb for driving on the other side? If it feels right, it’s probably wrong.
Just fight all your natural driving instincts with respect to lanes, turning, etc and you’ll be fine. And Cyprus is a pretty easy island to drive around, it’s mostly highways and good roads.
Compared to driving in Ireland, it’s a piece of cake.
The Parklane Resort in Limassol
I find my hotel, the Parklane Resort, a Luxury Collection Resort & Spa, without too much trouble and I’m excited to discover I’ve been upgraded to a fabulous Spa Suite – my first truly excellent upgrade of the trip!
The suite is lovely, complete with a jacuzzi tub, a chilled bottle of champagne, and a fruit basket waiting…now THIS is living.
Of course, I don’t learn until later that it also comes with a few outspoken feline residents on the balcony. I also later learn that the gorgeous pool outside my door is drained for the season.
Oh well. When you visit a seasonal island in the off-season (it’s currently January) these are the chances you take.
The forecast for tomorrow calls for heavy rain but I’m hoping it’ll be wrong. However, I’ve already devised a backup plan (sleep and work) in case the day is a complete washout.
Spoiler alert, it is.
I awake around 3:00am to claps of thunder, flashes of lightning, and what sounds like the early stages of an apocalypse. It’s the perfect excuse to sleep in and get some much-needed rest after a long travel day yesterday.
Around 10:00am, I put on the closest thing I have to rain gear and make an attempt to get out and see a little of Limassol. Unfortunately, I only make it about a mile down the road before I reach a wide area of standing water that has closed the road.
Discouraged, I head back to my suite and settle for a relaxed day of work catch-up on my laptop.
The rain continues unabated throughout the day.
That evening, I’m surprised by 3 feline visitors on my balcony (which is accessible from the pool area). They are cute and they apparently have a lot on their minds – or maybe they are just unhappy about being wet and want to share – because they carry on an animated conversation outside my door well into the night.
Lucky for them I love cats and they were obviously adorable!
Day 1 on Cyprus – Paphos and Kourion
The next morning I awake to sunlight shining in my window…hooray! I am well-rested, caught up on work, and ready to finally explore Cyprus.
By 8:00am I’m ready to hit the road. But first, I stop by the front desk to solicit a little advice from the locals. With my itinerary for the day loosely set, I head out.
Paphos – UNESCO World Heritage Site
My first stop is the seaside town of Paphos, a UNESCO World Heritage site and home to some of the finest Roman mosaics and Greek ruins in Europe.
I begin my day with a visit to Paphos harbor and a climb to the top of the fort that guards it. The view from the top over the colorful fishing boats in the harbor is spectacular.
I wander around Paphos harbor for a bit before settling into a waterfront taverna for a delicious Greek lunch of salad and moussaka.
After lunch, I visit the nearby 2nd-century ruins of Sarada Colones and the Odeion theater. The theater was damaged by an earthquake and abandoned in the 7th century.
As I explore I make friends with a cat who quickly becomes my shadow (or possibly tour guide?) for the rest of my visit.
For a while, I think she might even follow me to my car but luckily another tourist finally catches her eye and she’s off to greener pastures.
Now, I know what you’re thinking…there seem to be a lot of cats in Cyprus.
Well, you’re right, there are.
The Cats of Cyprus
Actually, there’s even a story behind it that goes something like this.
St. Helena, mother of the Byzantine Emperor Constantine, allegedly stopped in Cyprus in 324 on her return to Constantinople from Jerusalem. She found the island ravaged by drought and overrun with venomous snakes. Her solution was to later return with a shipload of cats to hunt them down.
And thus, the longstanding tradition of cats on Cyprus.
Kourion & the Ruins of Curium
My next (and final) stop for today is Kourion to visit the ruins of ancient Curium.
Perched high above the sea, the visible remains at Kourion date back to the Hellenistic, Roman, and Early Christian periods. Raised and covered walkways allow you to view the elaborately detailed mosaic floors in the Annexe of Eustolios thought to date back to the 5th century.
Next up, the theater, Kourion’s best-known feature. With a view to die for over the Mediterranean, it was fully restored in 1960 and can seat 3,500 for a concert or play.
I wander the rest of the site, visiting the Sanctuary of Apollo Hylates and the Christian basilica. The entire site is as amazing as anything I’ve seen in Athens or Rome.
Read More: 24 Hours in Athens
Read More: Rome in 48 Hours
By the time I finish my tour of Kourion, the sun is beginning to set. So after a quick dinner back in Paphos (more Greek food – OPA!) I head back to the hotel.
Day 3 in Cyprus – Lefkara, Lefkosia & the Cyprus Border
For my final day in Cyprus, I don’t have much time to work with. My flight to Moscow is at 1:30pm.
I get up at dawn, pack, and check out of the hotel. The areas I want to visit today are all back toward the airport.
For my first stop this morning, I’m taking the advice of the front desk agent to visit the small hilltop village of Lefkara – his description of this charming town on a hill hooked me.
The Village of Lefkara
And it is a great decision because my short trip to Lefkara turns out to be the highlight of my visit (another reason I sometimes love to forgo a guidebook and stick with local advice).
Lefkara is a darling little town quite literally built into the side of a mountain. From its red-tiled roofs to its beautiful monastery, it’s a wonderful look into real Cyprus life outside the usual tourist zones.
I walk the hilly streets for a while, watching the locals go about their morning routines and the kids walk to school. Then I drive back along the highway and stop a few times on the other side of the mountain to take pictures as the morning sun lights up the red-tiled roofs.
The Capital of Lefkosia (Nicosia)
My final stop in Cyprus is its capital city of Nicosia (or the Greek name Lefkosia).
As Europe’s only divided capital, it is defined by the UN-maintained buffer zone (the Green Line). The Northern, Turkish-controlled portion of the city is Nicosia, while the Southern, Greek-controlled portion is Lefkosia.
One of the things I have discovered about Cyprus in the past 48 hours is that the cities are not small resort towns but large, typical European cities. Unfortunately, this means they come with traffic typical of a large city.
It’s slow-going once I enter Lefkosia, especially since I’m not exactly sure where I’m going. I’m hoping to go inside the city’s historic Venetian Walls and also cross the Green Line for a quick visit to the Turkish side.
Crossing the Cyprus Border
Without too much trouble, I navigate my way through the Paphos Gate of the city walls and into the Old City.
The streets within the walls are extremely narrow and there’s nowhere obvious to park. So I tour the area from the comfort of my car and then make my way back outside the walls in search of the correct border crossing point.
I find the right checkpoint and hand over my passport. First to the Greek guard, who asks where I’m staying and then jots down a few things. He also informs me I can park my car in a nearby lot and walk across the border if I wish, instead of driving.
Since my rental car company told me in no uncertain terms that my insurance is invalid on the Turkish side of the island, that sounds like a splendid idea.
I park the car and make my way through the UN no-man’s land of the Green Line on foot. On the other side, I’m met by a Turkish official who takes my passport and stamps a visa onto a sheet of paper. He then inserts it back into my passport before handing it back to me.
Border crossing complete!
I don’t have much time to explore, but I wander down a few streets within Nicosia before heading back across the border to my car.
Mission accomplished, I make my way back to Larnaca to return the car and check in for my flight.
Final thoughts on Cyprus
It isn’t at all what I expected.
Of course, I didn’t have time to explore all of Cyprus and I visited in the off-season. But I did expect to find some nice beaches. The beach at my hotel and the others I came across were nothing compared to some of the gorgeous beaches I’ve seen on other Greek Islands like Crete and Mykonos.
Read More: The Meaning of Mykonos
Of course, I’m told there are some truly beautiful beaches in Cyprus, like Nissi Beach and Coral Bay. So it’s not fair to comment on the beaches of Cyprus when I never made it to the good ones! Someday I’d love to come back during the summer season and visit those.
The sheer size of Cyprus can also be overwhelming. It seems almost essential to have a car if you want to be able to see the sights since they are spread out all over the island.
I spent a lot of my limited time driving between cities and sights.
But overall, I liked Cyprus a lot. The historical and archaeological aspects alone are worth a visit. My favorite spots were definitely Paphos, Kourion, and Lefkara. And I found the people to be friendly and endlessly helpful.
Would I go back? Definitely, there’s much more to see. But for now, it’s time to continue this 30-day trip around the world.
Next up, Laos!