The southeastern coast of Cyprus is stunning. Along its perfect, sandy coastline is where you’ll find the resort towns of Agia Napa, Larnaka and Limassol, which are renowned for their stunning beaches, fancy restaurants, luxurious hotels, and bustling nightlife. Tourists, mainly from Britain, flock there to party, swim and snorkel, and get a bit of sun.
Unfortunately, all of that is about as appealing to me as a trip to Cancun, which is to say I avoid it at all costs. I can imagine nothing worse than eating hamburgers or club sandwiches in a foreign country, surrounded by drunken tourists having bachelor parties, tacky souvenirs and impersonal locals. So I decided to do Cyprus a little differently, and ventured to towns that were just off the beaten track.
After leaving the lovely city of York, England, I flew with Jet2Airlines into Paphos, Cyprus – one of the two major airport hubs in the country and the gateway to the resort area – and promptly took the first bus to Polis, a village just one hour north.
While I waited at the small shack that is the main bus station, I chatted with the ticket seller, who found it hilarious that my name is Andrea because, as I’m so often reminded, Andrea is a boy’s name in many European languages. By the time I left, he was kissing me on both cheeks, squeezing me and laughing “Andrea! Andrea!” There’s nothing like getting felt up within 30 minutes of entering a country.
Polis is home to one of the country’s most famous sights: the Baths of Aphrodite. On my second day, I rented a bike from the nearby harbour town of Latchi and rode along the highway to get there. The bath is just a dark pond, but it’s free to explore and it’s fun to imagine the Goddess of Love and Beauty playing inside. Afterwards, you can spend hours hiking along the nature trails of the Akamas Nature Reserve, with gorgeous views of the bay below.
As soon as I saw the old town, with quiet cafes full of locals and lots of places to get lost, I immediately knew I’d made the right decision to come to Polis. When it came to my hotel, on the other hand, it was not love at first sight. When I first got off the bus, nighttime was drawing closer and I needed to find myself a room. After an hour or so of searching, I spotted the Marion Hotel, which was dark and quiet.
An old man and woman were sitting side by side in the adjoining café, eating peanuts while they watched television. I asked about a room, and the man jumped up and brought me to the reception desk. He rummaged in a drawer, handed me a key, pointed to the elevator and waved goodnight. The next morning, I found the pair in the same position, eating hardboiled eggs in the breakfast room. As soon as they saw me, the woman brought me a piece of halloumi, an egg, a slice of tomato and a cup of tea. Neither of them said a word.
The bed was hard as straw, the television channels were all in Greek, and the hallways, none of which had lights, stunk of cigarettes. But it was clean, warm and available, and sometimes that’s all you can ask for. Most importantly, the old couple were so charming that I couldn’t resist spending one more night. “Really, you like it here?” the man asked, more incredulously than he had probably intended, which made me love him even more.
At my next stop, Nicosia, I broke one of my cardinal travel rules: I stayed at a hotel near the bus station. It was the only cheap, available place in the centre of a town with few other options, and I figured it couldn’t be all that bad; this assumption was proven horribly wrong later that night, when I discovered that the walls were paper thin and all of the drunks in town congregate there at 4am. But in the end, I didn’t spend much time indoors anyway: I had a new, and surprisingly fascinating, city to explore.
Nicosia embodies the landscape that I love the most: old walls covered in crumbling sandstone, ornate balconies, and narrow, cobblestone streets with laundry hanging overhead. You can drink frappes while you listen to the clink of backgammon dice in cafes, watch street performers, browse art galleries, and buy traditional Cypriot lace products from artisan shops. It’s such a lovely city that it comes as a shock when you reach the end of Ledra Street, its busiest pedestrian shopping avenue, and you suddenly find yourself in Turkey.
It is a complicated issue, one which my non-existent Greek or Turkish language skills made harder to understand. In 1974, the Cypriot President was overthrown by the Greek military junta in a coup d’etat aimed at uniting Cyprus with Greece. Turkey invaded and occupied sections of the North, claiming that the Turkish citizens who lived there needed protection. However, after the junta was defeated and the government was restored, Turkey launched a second offensive, which ended in Turkey occupying 30 per cent of the north, and the displacement of nearly 200.000 Greek Cypriots. Turkey declared the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus an independent state, but it is not officially recognized by any other country, and the occupation has been condemned by a number of organizations including the United Nations.
In 2003, the wall dividing the southern Greek part of Cyprus and the northern Turkish part was torn down, allowing people to cross freely over the border for the first time in thirty years. But there remains the figurative “green line” – named after the pen used by a United Nations official to draw a line down the map of the country – which cuts right through Nicosia, making it the only divided capital city in the world. A visit there today makes you feel like you’ve stepped back fourty years into Berlin.
The wall no longer exists, but the two sides of the country still feel worlds apart. On the Greek side, people eat moussaka, drink frappes and visit Orthodox churches. On the Turkish side, there are mosques, hammams and baklava. They each have totally different languages – Nicosia is called Lefkosia in Turkish – as well as different religions, architecture, and even currency: the Greek side uses the euro, while the Turkish side uses the lira.
The no man’s land between the two sides of the city was taken over by the Occupy Buffer Zone movement for eight months in 2011 and 2012. The protesters were calling for the reunification of Cyprus, and hoping to draw attention to similar situations of division worldwide. When I visited, there were posters of Che Guevara and Guy Fawkes on the walls, beanbag chairs and colourful couches, and giant, hand-painted signs with messages reading “No Borders ”.
Though the issue is far from being resolved, it makes Cyprus a fascinating place to travel because you can experience two entirely different cultures in one small country. The North has far fewer tourists than the south, making it a bit harder to navigate, especially as a single woman. But since I had missed the beach areas of southern Cyprus, I couldn’t resist checking out the northern beach in the resort town of Girne.
On the road between Lefkosia and Girne, there are two Turkish flags painted onto the Pentadaktylos mountains, each of which are 450 metres wide and can be seen from miles away.
Even the landscape changes the minute you cross the Green Line. This was the furthest East I’d ever been – much closer to Syria and Lebanon than to mainland Europe – and I felt that I was taking my last fresh breaths of continental air before it all dried up into the dessert.
After a relaxing day at the beach, I went out to explore the Saturday night action along the harbourfront. All of the locals were out, listening to live bands, and celebrating with bottles of their local grappa, called raki.
The one thing I’d wanted to try since I arrived in Cyprus was meze: a type of meal that is served in other parts of Europe, but is a real social event in Cyprus. As a solo traveller, I hadn’t been able to order it because you need a minimum of two people. As I stood and watched the sunset in Girne, a local named Omer said hello, asked where I was from, and the night took on a life of its own. He invited me to dinner with his friends, and to my delight, they ordered meze.
Plate after plate was brought out, in groups of four or five. First the dips: hummous, tzatziki, yoghurt, tahini. Then there were olives, fried halloumi cheese, dolmades, tabbouleh, vegetables, and finally, a giant white fish for each of us. We washed it all down with raki, which we sipped over ice, and it didn’t matter that we didn’t speak each other’s language, because good food requires no words.
When I had first arrived in Girne, I was determined to find a nice hotel on the beach, with a comfortable bed, thick walls, maybe even a swimming pool. But as I walked along a quiet, narrow street in the old town, with pink oleander overhead and folk music coming from one of the windows, I was enchanted. I saw a motel sign and decided to inquire.
The young guy who worked there, Tom, jumped up to greet me. With a cigarette in one hand, he led me up the creaky stairs, past a giant pile on one step that looked suspiciously like marijuana. He opened the door to the first room, which had four beds. “This is a nice room, it’s comfortable and quiet and you will have a nice time here,” he said. He closed the door.
“But I have something really special, just for you.” He walked to the end of the hallway, gave me a big smile, and pushed open the door. “Now this is a room where you can really treat yourself.” There was a half-full ashtray on the windowsill, and the cardboard television box had been left in a corner. There was a roll of toilet paper on the bedside table, contact lens solution on the bathroom vanity, and I could hardly stand to look at the shower drain.
But there were floor-to-ceiling windows all around the room, and I had a perfect view of the mosque to one side, the ocean to the other, and the white rooftops of the old town below. I looked back at Tom, who was waiting with a huge grin to hear my reaction. “I’ll take it!”
This hotel, and the others before it, cannot be found in any tourist brochure, and they certainly won’t be highly rated on Trip Advisor. But they’re proof that in any country, even one as full of tourists as Cyprus, you can find your own spot if you explore a little bit; a spot where it’s just you and the locals, or a restaurant with the best moussaka you’ve ever eaten, or just you and the sea and a fascinating history that you didn’t know before. There might be dust in your motel room, you might not be able to communicate, and you might even be the only English-speaking person in the whole town.
But then, isn’t that what you set out to find?
Written by Andrea MacDonald for EuropeUpClose.com. Follow Andrea’s travels through Europe this Summer; she’s a gal on the move. Can you tell us Where in the World Andrea will Go Next? Here’s a hint:This is the only European capital not located on a major river.