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Sure, It's Got Some Sick Beaches, but Cyprus Will Entrance You With its History + Culture

July 30, 2014
cyprus beach
cyprus beach

Cyprus has beaches like Agra Napa. (Photo: Alamy)

By Winston Ross

On a map, beneath the long shadow of Turkey, Cyprus cuts a diminutive jib. As a tourist destination, the island has long been billed as a land of “sea, sun and sand.” A nice spot to drape a towel, gorge on meze and guzzle Commandaria, Cypriot wine.

But there is so much more to this ancient place, a rich convergence of culture and history that can be explored year-round — at least for now.

I got a sampling of these treasures on a January expedition to the island: some of which are inaccessible to the general public, most of which are open, but crumbling. I also ate too much of some of the best food ever to slide down my gullet, and left wishing I had another month to explore Cyprus. Not for the sea, sun or sand, but for its trove of ancient jewels.

I flew into the island’s largest airport, Larnaca, rented a car, and drove to the 193-room Golden Bay Beach Hotel, a five-star built with ’80s-era charm and style. The grand suite had a swing chair in its separate lounge and a sublime view of the Dhekelia Beach on the private balcony. And the complimentary Turkish breakfast offered plenty to sustain the day’s adventure: a United Nations-guided tour of the “buffer zone,” a 90-mile-long strip of land that runs between its Turkish-controlled north and Greek-speaking south since the former invaded in 1974.

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Famagusta cyprus
Famagusta cyprus

The ruins of St. George of the Latins in Famagusta. (Photo: Getty Images)

The UN patrols this strip of land daily. I got special access, but there are several sections of the buffer zone that are accessible to the public. The buffer zone is an eerie, beautiful place, dotted with both guard towers and bucolic farmlands. There’s also the world’s oldest operating copper mine, the Skouriotissa, another sight to behold.

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That night, I had my first of three experiences eating a traditional Cypriot meze in the island’s modern capitol of Nicosia, at a restaurant called Palia Plateia in the city’s Old Square (Plateia Kyriakou Karaoli). As the only customers in the place, the owner served us himself, chatting in expert English as he brought out one incredible dish after another: fava beans, the Cypriot fried cheese halloumi, sumptuous fried sausage and meatballs, among many others. Thankfully, he’d warned us at the outset not to go overboard on the breads and dips that comes out first. Save room, he said. You’ll need it.

The next day, we headed north to Famagusta, which lies in the so-called “Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus” — a “country” recognized only by Turkey. Even though Cyprus is a member of the European Union, half of it isn’t. To get to the Turkish half, you must buy special car insurance, display your passport and have a separate piece of paper stamped for entry. Forget about using Greek your cell phone for awhile; it won’t work in the north.

Golden Bay Beach Hotel
Golden Bay Beach Hotel

Larnaca’s five-star, 193-room Golden Bay Beach Hotel features glittering views of Dhekelia Beach. (Courtesy: The Golden Bay Beach Hotel)

Across the border, in the Famagusta district, lies the well-known ghost town of Varosha, fenced for four decades since the Turkish invasion. But there is another town just next door that remains open to the public — the Walled City of Famagusta, built in the 10th century.

I was lucky in January to have a guide, Rita Severis, who runs the Costas and Rita Severis Foundation, which works tirelessly to protect Cyprus’ historical treasures. I’m told there are few better experts than Severis, and I learned that she’s not only a scholar, but a captivating storyteller. My favorite is the story of Papa Maneas, who on Easter in 1925 brought a congregation of Greeks into the Walled City to celebrate, despite fears that the many Turks in the city would try to stop them. As the priest entered the city’s main square, he came upon hundreds of Turks celebrating Holy Friday, sipping coffee and smoking narghile.

“They drew their swords, and lined up left and right of the square,” Severis says, her eyes ablaze. “Papa Maneas raises his cross, asks everyone to be quiet. Then, in pure Turkish language, he starts praying for the prosperity of the Turkish people. The soldiers put away their knives, and escorted the priest to the edge of town. They waited there until nightfall for him to return, and guided him back through the city.”

This tour of the city — which she will give you, too, if you look her up — included a walk from one end to the other, from the Othello Castle to the Gothic-style Lala Mustafa Pasha Mosque, where Lusignan kings were once crowned. Most of these artifacts lie steps from one another, and are completely open — which makes them vulnerable to vandalism and ruin.

Related: The 10 New UNESCO Sites You Must See Before You Die

“I believe there’s been more destruction here since 2004 than in the previous 500 years,” she said.

This should be a UNESCO World Heritage Site, agree both those on the north and south sides of the buffer zone, but the island’s divided status makes requesting that designation tragically complicated. Severis hopes she and others working on the issue are near a solution, so that she can begin to see the Walled City revived.

Even after a full day in this place, and four on the island, I had only scraped the topsoil of Cyprus’ deep heritage. Someday, hopefully, I’ll spend a summer there, and soak up some of that sea, sun and sand.

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