The Stuff of Myths

The old-fashioned island of Cyprus inspires Mediterranean idylls

LOOK! There! Aphrodite's birthplace!

It was near midday. We were standing on a high bluff on the coast road from Limassol to Paphos, on the southern end of the island of Cyprus. I looked somewhat quizzically at my friend Andreas. He is a college professor, an author, an expert in fluid mechanics, and a very smart man. He knows that Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love and beauty, was not really tossed up -- a piece of foam -- from the Mediterranean Sea at Petra tou Romiou, yet at least for a moment he indulged himself in a childlike suspension of disbelief.

It's not difficult to understand why. On Cyprus reality and mythology are continually bumping up against each other. Cyprus is the third largest island in the Mediterranean, close to Turkey, the Middle East, and Egypt. Bartered for as it has been over the better part of 9,000 years, occupied, colonized, given as a gift from Antony to Cleopatra, Cyprus, together with its people, has learned to endure. The country today is little explored by Americans, although the British, the Germans, the Scandinavians, and lately the Russians are frequent visitors. I recently completed my fourth trip since 1989.

Cyprus is an island divided. The more southerly two thirds of it is controlled by the Republic of Cyprus; the northern third is occupied by Turkey. The division followed a Turkish invasion in 1974. The north is in a tourist sense largely undeveloped, a circumstance that has its own allure. Current regulations allow a person who is staying in the Republic of Cyprus to visit the north on a day trip, by passing through the United Nations-controlled gate in the capital, Nicosia. Because no country other than Turkey recognizes the so-called Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, it may be entered from outside the island only via Turkey. Anyone who does arrive this way, though, could be barred from entering the Republic of Cyprus later.

These political realities and bureaucratic contrivances may suggest to some that visiting Cyprus is dangerous. Indeed, the question of safety was raised by The Atlantic's editors when I proposed this piece. I dutifully consulted my Cypriot friends and government authorities. They were dumbstruck. Cyprus unsafe? Surely I was joking. Incidents occasionally occur along the cease-fire line between the two portions of the island, and it is true that several people have been killed since 1974. The last major incident involving foreign visitors occurred in 1985, when three Israelis were murdered on a boat moored at the marina in the town of Larnaca. The perpetrators proved to be foreign terrorists, and Cyprus cracked down hard, warning that tourists were welcome but violent criminals were not.

Cyprus continues to be a major Middle East listening post and a convenient headquarters for foreign journalists. In four trips to and around the island I have never felt uneasy, let alone frightened. During one of my visits I met with Glafcos Clerides, the President of Cyprus, at his office in Nicosia, and though security precautions were obviously in effect, they were much less intrusive than similar precautions taken here in the United States. At my two meetings with the former President George Vassiliou a single, fairly bookish administrative assistant was his only protection.

IF you wanted to train yourself to be an accomplished tourist, Cyprus would be a good classroom. The island is small, just under 3,600 square miles, with a maximum length of 150 miles and a maximum width of sixty-three miles. Renting a car is a good idea. You can choose, as I usually do, to use one of the seaside hotels in Limassol, the industrial hub of Cyprus, as a base. Or you can find comfortable accommodations in many other places on the island. Cyprus has a wide variety of options, from American-style hotels to tourist apartments to rooms. Because I find packing and unpacking one of the least attractive aspects of travel, I would rather pay for two rooms -- keeping the one in Limassol while staying someplace else overnight -- than pack up to move from place to place. Limassol makes a good base in part because it is only an hour's drive from both Paphos, the ancient Roman capital, and Nicosia; in forty-five minutes you can be in the Troodos Mountains. I make my visits in summer, and though it is hot, the mountains are cool, and even at the shore the temperature is moderated by sea breezes.

Life in Cyprus is familial and simple. Cyprus feels like the 1950s in all the good ways. Although Limassol has a gaudy tourist strip where large nightclubs and dance clubs throb the night away, Cypriots bent on enjoyment prefer family barbecues, village and town festivals, and day trips to the beaches or the mountains. Many Cypriots straddle life with one foot in the professional camp, as doctor, lawyer, or engineer, and the other foot in the camp of sons and daughters of the soil, as farmer, vineyardist, or fisherman. However they earn their living, Cypriots routinely press their own olives for oil, pickle their capers and their caper vines, and grow their own produce. As they head out for picnics or weekends in the villages, the two-lane road from just above Limassol to the Troodos Mountains is choked with traffic. Some families keep summer homes in the mountains even though their city houses are only an hour away by car. This is not an act of pretension but, rather, a way to escape the summer heat.

You can see much of Cyprus in a week -- a particularly appealing idea if you'd like to combine a stop there with a visit to, say, Israel, Egypt, or Turkey. Two weeks in Cyprus is ample time to be infused with the spirit of the island, and three weeks to a month would be an unabashed luxury. I find prices reasonable for most things and downright inexpensive for others. For instance, I usually stay at the Miramare Hotel, on the Mediterranean, in Limassol. The Miramare is a medium-sized first-class hotel just off the tourist strip, with a great view, a huge and beautiful pool, and an outdoor bar. The rooms have balconies and air-conditioning, and breakfast is included in the rate: about fifty-five Cypriot pounds, or $98, a day.

Cyprus is a treasury of fascinating archaeological sites. Because such a range of peoples have dominated the island, it offers layers and layers of insights into earlier civilizations. So rich is this cultural heritage that it is not unusual for the winter rains, in washing away bits of soil, to reveal ancient coins and artifacts -- all of which, as one might suspect, are by law the property of the people and government of Cyprus. Cyprus provides a generally uncrowded human-scale opportunity to gaze at the past and envision life in another age.

PAPHOS, in the southwest, is so archaeologically abundant that the entire town is on UNESCO's World Heritage List. Vibrantly colored, intricate mosaics dating from the fifth and sixth centuries have been beautifully preserved by many centuries of undisturbed slumber beneath the local sand. Most of these are to be found in what remains of a large villa built long ago by a wealthy family and now conserved and maintained by the Cyprus Department of Antiquities.

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