If you’ve ever been on a cruise, you know what a clusterfuck the disembarkation process can be: lots of waiting in long lines for baggage that you could have easily taken off the boat yourself. Royal Caribbean, however, conveniently gave its guests a choice as to how they would disembark. There were different times from which you could choose as well as an early self-departure option in which you would have your luggage with you at all times. Since we didn’t have much luggage to begin with (Traveling on RyanAir makes you much more condensed travelers), we decided to take that option. The only drawback was the mandatory 5:30am disembarkation time. Our flight wasn’t until 11 something, so after a very, very quick trip through the Istanbul port, we spent four hours at the Ataturk airport waiting for our flight to Cyprus. In addition, per European air travel, we had to kill two hours before even being able to check in. We sat at a small airport café and people watched before getting the all-clear to go through security. Our original flight was much later in the day, so we called the airline to get an earlier one; it was a little too easy and cheap ($15) to do, so we were naturally concerned that the change didn’t actually happen. Imagine our surprise when the ticket counter actually printed our tickets without a hassle; way to go Cypriot airlines!
After a little more waiting at the airport, we said Inshallah to Istanbul and made our way to the island of Cyprus. The flight was only about an hour and a half, and I was fortunately able to get some sleep on the way over there. The majority of the people on the flight were from Cyprus, and I was immediately taken with how striking Cypriot women are with their thick, black, and curly hair and wide light-colored eyes. No wonder there are so many women from that area portrayed on ancient artifacts!
Once we landed, it only took fifteen minutes until we had our luggage in hand and were out the door. Since we had to cancel our previous car reservation due to our earlier flight, Elliot called the Hilton to arrange for a cab to pick us up. We found our guy, piled our stuff into the trunk, and I promptly burned my ass on the hot leather seats. Cyprus gets HOT, ya’ll. Like 100+ degrees hot. I kept reading in guidebooks how miserably hot Greece and Turkey would be during our vacation timeframe and was pleasantly surprised that we never felt uncomfortable with the heat (minus our impromptu seven mile hike in Santorini).
Our cab driver then took us on a crazy, 60-euro cab ride on all these winding roads. The landscape of Cyprus (at least that part), much like Andalucia, is very sparse and dry with rolling hills and small mountains. The houses that we passed were more like villas and had these massive water tanks on their roofs. There weren’t a whole lot of buildings or billboards that dotted the roads, just pockets of subdivisions. Again, much like Andalucia. After driving for a bit, we pulled up to a UN buffer zone armed with guards and the cab driver asked us for our passports. Since we were traveling from Turkish controlled Cyprus in Northern Nicosia (also known as Lefkosa) to the Greek controlled South where our hotel was located. After giving our passports a careful glance, the Turkish guards let us pass with a curt wave. Our time with border guards wasn’t yet over, however, as we then approached the GREEK border guards. When they saw our American passports, they didn’t even get up from their chairs to look through them. We got waved through and back on the road to our hotel. It was definitely a “What the fuck was that about?” moment.
So what’s the deal with Cyprus, anyway? It’s really not mentioned in the news all too often, with the exception of their recent financial troubles and supposed fame for being a pitstop for Syrian refugees on their way to Greece, so we weren’t all too familiar with its political landscape. We decided to visit because A) It’s the mythical birthplace of Aphrodite B) It has incredible ancient archaeological sites and C) It had the cheapest roundtrip flights to/from Istanbul at only $70 a person. Thank you, Skyscanner (again)!
A British colony until 1960, Cyprus is technically an independent nation, at least according to the UN. After the overthrow of British rule, the Greek Cypriot majority and Turkish Cypriot minority began butting heads. After several outbreaks of violence, it was in 1974 that the Turkish invaded and took over the northern third of the island, declaring it the Turkish Republic of Cyprus. They have their own flag and everything, but Turkey is the only country in the world that recognizes North Cyprus as being Turkish. The southern part of the island (except for the British controlled base in the far south) is Greek controlled, where they speak the language and use the euro. The two countries agreed to a truce, which is why the UN buffer zone exists. Talks between the two "republics" have been ongoing throughout the years, and as recently as a day ago it appears that they're nearing a solution. To add further confusion to a visitor's experience, there are still remnants of the British present with voltage 220 electrical voltage and everyone driving on the left side of the road. That’s a lot of “huh?” in one paragraph.
We checked into the Hilton Cyprus (huzzah, points!) where the service was just fantastic. The resort was actually a huge complex with a big pool, a spa, several shops, and a tennis court. The guy at the front desk helped us secure a rental car that would make our tour of the island much easier. There really isn’t a public transportation system in Cyprus, and the things that we wanted to see were spread across the north and south, making renting a car a necessity. Then the bellhop who brought our things to the room cheerfully explained all the amenities of the hotel and helped us get settled. Once we got to the room, we were so beat and hungry that we just ordered a chicken Caesar salad and a sandwich from room service. The incredible service continued with the guy who brought us our food. When he found out that we were American, he told us about his family in Silver Spring (of all places!) and how he used to live there. He then said, “I’m going to bring you some fruit!” When we came back from sightseeing later, true to his word, there was a basket of fruit and a locally made sweet peanut pie (actually a bar). It was so damn sweet of him to do that!
After a short nap, we went down to the front desk to ask for information about the ancient city of Salamis. We couldn’t find a closing time online, and didn’t want to make the trek out there if it wouldn’t be open. When I asked the concierge, he just curtly replied, “I don’t know. It’s on the Turkish side” and left it at that. I clearly ruffled some feathers with that question. Wounds are still fresh, I guess.
We decided to take a gamble on the off chance that it was still open (it was almost 3 at this point) and make the hour and twenty minute drive to the site. When we approached the buffer zone, we whizzed past the Greek guards without stopping, but the Turkish ones made us purchase Turkish car insurance for 20 euros. What a scam. Once through, we drove along the bare mountains, past petrol stations manned by gas attendants, and through a busy tourist town that had signs advertising southern fried chicken and English pubs.
We pulled up to the entrance to Salamis, which happened to share a parking lot with a hopping place called Bedi’s Beach Bar. There were a ton of people playing sand volleyball and blasting music, so it seemed like it was a good representation of my friend who shares the same name. There was a sign pointing to Salamis and two old guys sitting in plastic lawn chairs by the “entrance” (more like a gate to an abandoned ranch). They apparently were the ticket guys and ushered us in after we paid them for entry. That was the extent of our guided welcome to Salamis. Salamis is an ancient Bronze Age city that has been inhabited since the 11th century BCE. It was a thriving Cypriot metropolis, and was the first missionary stop of St. Paul. It, like many ancient cities, was leveled by an earthquake in the first century CE and lay forgotten until the 1950’s. Excavations uncovered an ancient gymnasium, forum, baths, and agora, but came to a halt with the Turkish invasion of 1974. The excavations have not been resumed since, so the majority of Salamis is unexcavated. You could, in theory, walk around and stumble upon some undiscovered treasure. It’s been done before.
The site was completely deserted, and we only saw four other people the entire time that we were there. Granted, it was late afternoon and the sun was showing no mercy, but we anticipated there being more of a crowd at such a significant archaeological find. Nada. When you first enter the site, there is a “room” of headless statues that greet you. They’re just standing there; it’s kind of insane actually. The open-air gymnasium is adjacent to the head room and still has massive Corinthian pillars still standing. It was impressive how mostly intact everything was. The excavated city was from the Roman age, and since excavations were stalled, we don’t have much information on the earlier societies that inhabited Salamis. The ancients would simply build cities one on top of another, similar to Heinrich Schliemann’s “Troy”.
In addition to the gymnasium, there were partially excavated latrines, a Roman bath, and an intact aqueduct whose drainage “pipe” we actually walked on to get around. We walked down a colonnaded path to the amphitheater where St. Paul preached but didn’t go too far into the tall grass for fear of what was living there. I didn’t need to make an archeological name for myself at the sake of losing a limb. There was a fully excavated theatre next to the amphitheatre that had modern speakers and stuff set up for a festival. There were flyers and pallets of bottled water, but there weren’t any people actually manning the stuff. It was really bizarre; like a festival had just gotten abandoned or something. It was a little too Roanoke colony for my taste. Just past the theatre was the Temple of Zeus, which like the amphitheatre was only partially excavated. Supposedly there were inscriptions dedicated to Caesar Augustus’s wife Livia, but we weren’t able to find them. Livia is one badass ancient bitch, and a topic of fascination for me, so that would have been cool to see those dedication. We were able to spot some pieces of ancient graffiti though, which was pretty cool. Overall, Salamis was a much cooler experience than Knossos, especially since we essentially had the whole place to ourselves. No mesh shirts and belly chains to hassle us.
Salamis was really the only thing that we wanted to see in North Cyprus, although it’s certainly not the only thing to do. There are 49 more in fact! According to a brochure that I picked up at the airport, titled "50 Things to Do in Cyprus", Cyprus is a pretty badass place. Not only are there impressive churches and historic houses, but there were several medieval castles on the island, including one captured by Richard the Lionheart in 1191. There’s also a mosque open since 1326, one castle named the Othello Castle (named for the play in which part took place in Cyprus), another which inspired Walt Disney for Snow White, St. Hilarion Castle, and a Monastery dedicated to St. Barnabus, a resident of the city of Salamis. Besides the noted historical sites, there are unspoilt beaches where Loggerhead sea turtles come to nest and various flora and fauna that call Cyprus home. The most noted animal native to Cyprus is the Cyprus donkey, and they’re the symbol of the island. There are 2,000 monumental olive trees that scientists believe prove that Cyprus was the source in spreading the olive tree all around the Mediterranean. The brochure also highlighted aspects of the island’s flavor, such as the Cyprus potato, Baf chewing gum, and Hellim, a white cheese made from sheep or goats milk. The island is also a mecca for golfing, yachting, and diving, none of which we had time for on this trip. Maybe next time.
After leaving Salamis, we stopped in one of the tourist towns and grabbed some cold drinks. Unlike the other Mediterranean countries we had visited, there seemed to be a gym or a fitness center on every other corner. This area of the Med is apparently the health conscious one; maybe because it’s always beach weather? We bought some Fantas from a super jacked Turkish guy before heading back over the border to the Greek controlled side. We got hassled a bit by the Turkish guard; apparently it looks suspicious when you are only on one side of the border for a few hours. He asked us if we had any alcohol or tobacco in the trunk and wanted to look to confirm. Even though we had neither on our person, I was still super nervous and probably looked hella suspicious. I get weird about stuff like that; even though I have nothing to hide, I still feel like I’m gonna get busted when TSA or bar doormen check my ID.
After passing through the checkpoint, we drove along the Lakarna Coast just as the sun was setting. It was beautiful seeing the sun hit the water, and the night was just starting to come alive with tourists having dinner at the McDonald’s and Pizza Hut that were set up on the beach. After re-reading that last sentence, I realized just how unromantic it sounded. There were quite the crowds walking on the boardwalk and weaving through medieval streets to meet their friends. We even drove past a medieval castle and an Old Tudor Pub that looked creepy as hell but super tempting to stop in and have a pint. Unfortunately, there was zero parking in the area, so we decided to head back to the hotel to get ready for dinner.
Much like the rest of Greece, Cyprus has a beautiful evening temperature: cooler but still warm enough to wear a sleeveless shirt. We changed into non-sweat soaked clothes and drove to the heart of Nicosia to get dinner at a place that Elliot had found online. We were sick of kebab at this point, so we decided to get dinner at a well-reviewed Italian restaurant called Jenny’s il Forno. The city was pretty quiet, and there were a lot of restaurants and shops already closed at this point (9:30pm). There were also a number of abandoned buildings that we assumed lost funding during Cyprus’s recent financial crisis.
Despite the apparent lack of people out, there was very little parking, and we ended up parking in a taxi zone. After dinner, we got yelled at by some Greek cab driver so we pretended that we couldn’t read the sign (even though it was in English) and didn’t know we couldn't park there. Score one for the asshole tourists. There were groups of teenagers hanging around the central square of the city, which had side streets branching out from it. There were a number of restaurants that were already filled with people dining al fresco in the temperate night. Jenny’s was only a two minute walk from the square, and you could smell the brick oven pizza as you approached it. We grabbed a table outside and laughed that the tv was showing Back to the Future. I ordered a Cypriot beer, Keo, and had a REALLY good arrabiatta spaghetti with olive oil, tomatoes, chilies, and olives. It was a huge portion but was absolutely delicious. 1.21 gigawatts delicious. Cyprus was so much more island relaxation-esque, and the weather was so pleasant that we really felt like we were on an island paradise. Definitely a perfect way to end our first day on Cyprus.
Thanks to Elliot’s Hilton status, we had breakfast included with our room price. We had the typical buffet breakfast foods as well as a flaky Cyprus breakfast pastry that had a delicious cinnamon taste to it. We weren’t in any rush to get out that morning, so we didn’t leave until 11:00 to head to Pathos for a beach day. On the way, we passed Mt. Olympos, the tallest mountain on the island. We also drove through mountains that had really interesting cliff faces while we listened to traditional Turkish music on the radio.
We drove through the town of Pathos to get to the beach and parked on a side street by one of the numerous hotels that lined the water. There were only pockets of sand, and most of the tourists were parked on lounge chairs on the nearby grass and rocks. Since this was a resort area, there were several kiosks that advertised water sports (not those water sports) and boat rentals. We set up our towels on the sand near a little inlet of water and tried to catch some rays. It was so hot though that we didn’t last too long; it felt like we were turkeys roasting in our own juices. We needed to cool off and promptly burned the hell out of our feet our way to the water. We didn't get much of a respite, however, because the water was warmer than in Halikarnassos and Mykonos. It was also nowhere near as clear, and we had to avoid seaweed attacking us from every angle. Not that impressed with our Cypriot beach experience, we decided to dry up and head to the birthplace of Aphrodite, Petra Tou Rominou.
There are several myths related around the birth of Aphrodite, but the most famous of which involves Ouranos (Uranus), the grandfather of Zeus. He was castrated and his genitals were thrown into the sea. The sea started foaming, and from the foam onto the rocks rose the goddess Aphrodite. The rock on which she was born is supposedly Petra Tou Rominou in the southwest corner of Cyprus. It wasn’t that far of a drive from Pathos and was relatively easy to find with all the posted signs that pointed us in the right direction. We parked in a lot across from the rock (in the foot of a mountain) and walked along the solid pebble beach towards the rocks of Aphrodite’s birth. The pebbles were very smooth, but it definitely wasn’t a place where you’d go for a beach day, despite a few people’s best efforts. There were signs warning people not to climb the rock, as it’s massive, and I’m surprised that there weren’t people who actually tried to do so. The water around the rocks was a stunning turquoise and blue combination, made only brighter by the white and gray of the beach’s pebbles. I took a non-nudey “Birth of Venus” pic and grabbed a smooth gray and white stone to take home with me.
After taking the requisite cheesy lovey-dovey pictures (it's the goddess of love, people!), we got into the car and headed off in the direction of the ancient city of Kourion. It is located on a sovereign base, so it was technically on UK soil, so we once again drove through towns that catered to the holiday crowd. We grabbed some McDonald’s on the way because we were looking for something familiar to eat; we were definitely souvlaki’d out. There was no actual exit for Kourion, so we got off at the Episkopas stop, the biggest city near the site. We followed street signs and drove up and down through neighborhood streets, much like we did when we were in Australia. We drove until we ran out of road, which was coincidentally where we stumbled upon a hopping stretch of beach packed with vacationers in seaside bars. Resisting the urge to grab a drink, we backtracked to a highway before finally reaching Kourion. The site sits on top of a cliff and actually overlooks the beach bars we had discovered earlier. The water faded into this mist that looked like it merged with the clouds and created this eerie, yet beautiful, scene with the cliff sides.
Kourion was primarily a Roman city built in the 1st century AD. It’s rather spread out, and you’re only able to access the various parts on foot. After buying our tickets from some park rangers, we grabbed a map and headed to the nearest place of note: The Epistolys house. There was a tarp overhead, shading us from the ever-brutal sun. There are several mosaics scattered throughout the various rooms of the house, the most interesting and intact of which was the one of creation personified. We also saw a mosaic that was constructed later with Christian symbols. We strolled through the nearby forum to the House of the Gladiators, named for the mosaics inside it. The floors are beautifully preserved and depict fights between various types of gladiators and their actual names. There are several types of gladiators, some that fight against animals (a bestiarius), others that fight with a net and trident (a retiarius), some that chase down their opponents to tire them out (a secutor), and the most commonly recognized, the Thracian, who fought with a short sword. The house itself was very spread out and clearly used to be in the possession of some wealthy Roman. After a quick trip through the nearby House of Achilles, named for the mosaic that shows the scene from mythology where Odysseus recognizes Achilles dressed like a woman to avoid fighting in the Trojan War, we got back in the car for more sightseeing.
After leaving Kourion, we drove to the nearby Sanctuary of Apollo Hylates where there is a completely reconstructed temple dedicated to the god. Even though we were JUST at another nearby site, and should have gotten in with our Kourion ticket, we still had to pay to enter this newest site. There wasn’t a ton to it, and we were getting a little bit jaded by ruins at this point. After a stroll through the agora ruins, and a few pictures with the temple, we got back in the car and headed back to the hotel.
It was after showering that I noticed the spots where I missed putting on sunscreen: on part of my forehead and along my hairline, giving myself a sweet unibrow and headband sunburn. Sexy, thy name is Courtney. Despite my new Anthony Davis look, we were starting to get hungry and wanted to get some grub. It was happy hour, so we took advantage of Elliot’s access to the Executive Lounge and got some drinks and apps. We had really good gazpacho, these mini chicken kebabs, Koufka with pork, penne pasta with tomato, and chips. The food was pretty tasty, and the lady running the joint kept coming over and pouring me glasses of wine and giving Elliot beers. Even though we kept saying that we didn’t want anymore to drink, she insisted, saying “Ahh have one more; I’m leaving soon” as she was already pouring our drinks. This woman was on a mission to satiate our thirst. While we were being bam-booze-ld, a bride came in to take wedding pictures in the lounge. Elliot and I exchanged a look, because there wasn’t exactly a view, but I guess the photographer wanted some of the knick-knacks stored in the glass cases to be in the shots. She looked incredibly glamorous, and we started to see people from the wedding party arriving at the hotel, so we decided to get closer to the action to people watch.
We sat at the bar by the pool and watched these beautiful, glamorous people arrive in expensive suits and designer gowns. Someone clearly important was getting married, and all of high society Cyprus was there for the occasion. While we creeped on everyone, I had a glass of Cypriot red wine and Elliot looked classy with a scotch. I had also brought down the sweet peanut pie that our room service guy had given me. The atmosphere was so dreamy, and the peanut pie and drinks so good, that we once again felt like we were in paradise. Hooray for sweet peanut pie!
Unfortunately for me and my bedmate later that night, we both learned that sweet peanut pie should really be called “sour butt surprise”. I don’t know what the hell was in that thing (ingredients were all in Greek), but my stomach mutinied against it and made my and Elliot's night miserable. The whole night. We had to get up super early in the AM to catch our flight, but that wasn’t a problem because my evaporated sweet peanut pie was scary enough to wake the dead. A rotten egg would've been offended by the smell. Damn you, sweet peanut pie!
Even though we had a night from hell, we still managed to wake up in time for our early flight from Ercan to Ataturk back in Istanbul. While at the airport, we were behind some little kid and his family. My stomach was killing me as it was, and this butterball is standing there wolfing down a foot long sandwich in 30 seconds flat. If I didn't have such a stomachache, I would've been impressed. To make things worse, he took a picture of himself doing so with his selfie stick. It was definitely an “Ugh. People.” type of moment.
Despite the late night farts, interrogations from border patrol guards, and witnessing footlong sandwich guzzling, Cyprus was a beautiful and underrated place to spend a vacation. The weather was perfect, there were archaeological sites galore, and food that was a fusion of Greek and Italian cuisines was delicious. If someone hands you a sweet peanut pie, however, make sure that you politely decline…
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