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Cyprus is more complicated than any Mediterranean island ever was but perhaps more delightful than any could ever be. The third-largest island in the Mediterranean is an independent country, albeit a fractured one: Its top third is still controlled by Turkey, the rest by the independent Republic of Cyprus. But the island’s epic roots — Greek, Turkish, Venetian, Roman and even more — run millennia deep, making it a mosaic of cultures with dramatic landscapes studded with vineyards, castles and monasteries, some in a state of beautiful ruin.
It’s an all-season island, meaning that, unlike Mykonos or Santorini, there’s lots going on whether you visit in the middle of winter or height of summer. The Cypriot autumn is still warm, and when the crowds of European package tourists thin out, you’ll get more beach real estate to yourself. But chances are you’ll want to make time for more than just your sun tan when visiting the true cultural crossroads of the eastern Mediterranean. Here are 10 things to keep in mind and help you make the most of your trip to this fascinating island.
1. It’s Where Love Was Born
According to Greek mythology, Aphrodite, the goddess of love and beauty, arrived on the foam of a wave at Petra tou Romiou, an impressive rock formation on the West Coast south of the city of Paphos. The cult of Aphrodite flourished on the island beginning in the 12th century with the Mycenaeans, and all manner of sacred, innocence-shedding rituals took place at the Sanctuary of Aphrodite at Paleo Paphos, which you can visit today, though you might find a swim at Petra tou Romiou itself more refreshing.
2. Nicosia Is Split in Two
The Cypriot capital of Nicosia (Lefkosia in Greek) has the double distinction of being completely landlocked and split in two. In ancient times, a landlocked town meant less predation by pirates, but when Turkish troops invaded in 1974, it made it easier to carve the city in half. Today, a UN-monitored buffer zone extends from one end of the island to another. While there are far fewer restrictions on traveling in the north than in the past, remember that the international airport is in Larnaca in the south, in the internationally recognized Republic of Cyprus, which considers everything north of the Green Line to be illegally occupied. Don’t miss the Cyprus Museum, the island’s biggest archaeological museum, located in the southern half of Nicosia just outside the original Venetian fortifications.
3. The World’s Most Dramatic Greco-Roman Theater Is Here
Kourion was one of the island’s most important city-states in antiquity, but a severe earthquake in 365 AD took it permanently out of commission — the clifftop Greco-Roman amphitheater faces the Mediterranean and was built in the second century. An al fresco performance space extraordinaire, it’s still used today. East of the theater, you can explore the ruins and fifth-century mosaics of the House of Eustolios, which was originally a private villa but was transformed into a public bathhouse in the early Christian period. There’s a beach down below, but the Sanctuary of Apollo Hylates, just up the road, also beckons.
4. Cyprus Was the Crossroads of the World
Cyprus has been the crossroads of many civilizations, from neolithic to Phoenician to ancient Greek, Roman and beyond. The discovery of copper between 3900 BC and 2500 BC was hugely important, as was the fact that the island was on the way to just about everywhere — it was an essential staging ground before the invasion of Jerusalem during the Crusades, for example. As a result, archaeological sites literally litter the island. By 325 BC, Alexander the Great had come and gone, and the Ptolemies of Egypt were in control. Paphos was their capital, and the necropolis known as the Tombs of the Kings, carved out of rock and graced with Doric columns and frescoes, bears witness to this chapter of Cypriot history.
5. It’s Home to the Region’s Finest Mosaics
In many respects, Paphos, on the westernmost coast, is the cultural capital of Cyprus. The entire city (sometimes spelled Pafos) is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The remains of villas, palaces, theaters, fortresses and tombs mean the site is of “exceptional architectural and historic value,” and the extensive in situ mosaics of Nea Paphos are among the most beautiful in the world. They date from the island’s Roman period, from 58 BC to 330 AD, and you can get the full picture thanks to meticulously maintained elevated pathways.
6. The World’s Oldest Wine Is Cypriot
The world’s oldest named wine is Cypriot: Originally called mana — the Greek word for “mother” — and referenced by Greek poets in 800 BC, the sweet red was christened commandaria during the Crusades after the headquarters of the Knights Templar, and the name stuck. It’s made from sun dried grapes that grow in vineyards on the southern foothills of the Troodos Mountains, not far from the port city of Limassol (Lemesos in Greek) where the Cypus Wine Company, or KEO, is based. While commandaria is principally a dessert wine, there are great wines of many varietals throughout the island, and it’s fun to visit the small wineries in the Troodos or in the equally scenic hilly areas behind Paphos.
7. So Is the World’s Wackiest Cheese
Cyprus’s signature snack is grilled halloumi, a delicious cheese that squeaks when you eat. it. Cypriots eat it constantly, with sliced lountza (cured pork tenderloin), grilled tomatoes or sliced watermelon. While halloumi is also popular in the Middle East, it originated in Cyprus during the Byzantine era. It’s a firm, brined cheese, semicircular in shape, generally made with milk from sheep that have been fed thyme. When packaged, it’s often garnished with mint leaves. Its high melting point makes it extremely popular for grilling or frying. Halloumi is so popular it even shows up on the breakfast menu at McDonald’s in Cyprus, but if you have the chance to stop at a local dairy, take it: Halloumi fresh from the cauldron is a rare treat.
8. Europe’s Coolest Gothic Ruins Are Here…
Cyprus’s strategic location put it in the path of the Crusaders, and subsequent European occupiers left real architectural gems behind. One of the most famous sites is the ruined 13th-century monastery of Bellapais Abbey, with its commanding view of the northern coast. Writing in 1957, when Cyprus belonged to the British, Lawrence Durrell said “the full magnificence of the Abbey’s position is not clear until one enters the inner cloister, through a superb gate decorated with marble coats of arms, and walks to the very edge of the high bluff on which it stands, the refectory windows framing the plain below with its flowering groves and curling palm trees.”
9. …But They’re Mostly in the North
Like the Abbey of Bellapais, the ruined castle of Saint Hilarion sits squarely within the confines of the self-declared Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus — but that doesn’t mean it’s off limits. In the Kyrenia mountain range, this 10th-century castle started out as a monastery, was fortified under French Lusignan rule, and is now spectacularly situated for tourists. Of the the three historic mountain strongholds in the area, it’s the best preserved.
10. One of the Best Hotels Is Next to a Nature Reserve
As is the case with many Mediterranean holiday islands, the coastal areas of Cyprus are often overdeveloped — the Turkish invasion in 1974 is partly to blame for this, as it forced the Greek Cypriots living in the north to flee south. That said, there are still unspoiled areas, and one of the prettiest is the verdant Akamas Peninsula, which juts up like a thumb on the island’s west coast. Construction around here is strictly limited, so one resort at the edge of the peninsula feels more remote than it actually is: Anassa calls itself “the ultimate Mediterranean retreat,” and with its beach-chic suites, swaying cypress trees, solid range of restaurants and Thalassa Spa, it’s an apt description.
What are some of your favorite things to do in Cyprus? Tell us about them, below.
Featured image courtesy of Thanos Hotels and Resorts.
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