What to do in Cyprus? Why is it anything special? Just another sunkissed Mediterranean island, you say?
Here are ten reasons why I beg to differ.
- Cyprus is where cheese squeaks… If you’re bored with cheese being so cheesy, you need some Halloumi. It doesn’t taste like cheese. Imagine something salt-tangy with the mouth-feel of chicken, and you’ve a hint of its gastronomic magic. It doesn’t behave like cheese, having a melting-point high enough to allow it to be fried into crispy, chewy slabs of pure Wow. And it doesn’t sound like cheese. Wet your finger and rub it against a window: that’s what Halloumi sounds like. Eat some. You’ll see.
- …and where dinner chirrups. Traditional Cyprus cuisine is generally magnificent (in the simple, effortlessly alluring way so characteristic of Mediterranean countries). Generally, but not universally. Because there’s a dark side, and it’s called Ambelopoulia. It’s illegal under EU law, and many modern Cypriots would love to wash their hands of it. Yet it endures. It’s vile. (Warning: bird-lovers may find following these links rather disturbing).
- Cyprus has its own languages. If you’re learning either Turkish or Greek to prepare for a trip to Cyprus, be prepared for confusion: each language exists in Cyprus in a strongly dialectic form. In other words, you might still look an idiot (but hey, that’s not necessarily a bad thing). Learning Greek from the online Kypros Greek audio course? Good, you’ll have a Cypriot twang – but if you bump into someone using true Cypriot Greek, well, best of luck. Oh, and if you know Greek already, beware of using the word malaka or malakas. In Greece, it means “mate” or “buddy”; in Cyprus, “wanker”.
- It’s A Rapidly Parching Land. If you read Colin Thubron’s Journey Into Cyprus – and I really, really recommend you do so – and if you come away with the urge to drag your walking boots on and do something similar…remember to take a big water-bottle. Not only does Cyprus get very hot indeed (causing major problems for British Army troops stationed there), it’s also suffering water shortages – part mismanagement, part reduced rainfall since the ’70s. Walkers beware.
- Cyprus can horrify. In December 2008 the former President of Cyprus, Tassos Papadopoulos, was buried in Nicosia after dying of lung cancer. Almost exactly a year later, someone lifted the 250kg marble slab capping his grave, dug up his coffin and stole his body. Since Papadopoulos had been a bitter opponent of the United Nations plans to reunify the occupying Turks with the EU-approved Greek government, political motives seemed likely. This was macabre even for Cyprus, an island that has endured half a century of human tragedy. However, 3 months later his body has been found – after an apparently unsuccessful attempt to extort money from his family.
- Cyprus Can Get Cold. If you get high enough, that is.
- Northern Cyprus Has Something To Prove. The south is the Republic Of Cyprus, enjoying all the benefits of European Union membership – and the north is the EU-illegal Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (unless you’re Greek, in which case it’s probably given a much less polite name). Northern Cyprus isn’t internationally approved. It relies on Turkey to stay afloat, and it’s often desperately stretched for resources. Cross the Nicosia-dividing border for the day and you’ll find the urban fabric visibly patchier, with rotting buildings aplenty. What you’ll won’t find is a frosty welcome, because Northern Cypriots want and need tourism and they’ve a lot to offer scenery-seeking visitors, from beach to abbey to mountain to monastery to harbour. And where else in the world can you see a flag that covers a mountainside (below)?
- Cyprus Is Almost In The Middle East. It’s 44 miles south of the Turkish coastline, 65 miles east of Syria. If that was all land, you could cycle it in a day. It’s an extraordinary place to find a British outpost, but that’s the case even today (more correctly, a British Sovereign Base Area – and Cyprus has the only two currently in existence). The Middle East over the horizon, the British garrisons, Greece ten times further away than Turkey…the geography alone makes things complicated.
- A Social Rift You Can See From Space. Look at Nicosia on Google Earth and zoom in on the star-shaped wall enclosing the old city. You’ll see a grey smudge of a line winding erratically north-south. On either side, the city is bright and alive, but everything within this filthy ribbon of land looks sick, a wasteland dotted with shattered, roofless buildings. It’s called The Green Line, and it’s anything but eco-friendly. It’s what makes Nicosia the world’s last divided capital city – but it extends beyond, west and eastwards for 180 miles, dividing Cyprus from shore to shore. You can cross at the right places with the right papers but you have to be back before nightfall, (see comments) – even now, almost 30 years since it was first laid down with the scrawl of a crayon on a map. For 3 decades it’s drawn United National peacekeeping troops to Cyprus (including my father – so it’s part of the reason I grew up there). It’s time-travel history, ugly and fascinating.
The wine of kings and the king of wines.
– Richard The Lionheart
- Cyprus is the home to the world’s oldest named wine still being bottled.In the foothills rising from Limassol to the Trooodos mountain range lies the Commandaria region: a collection of 14 villages authorised under Cypriot legislation to produce the sweet, voluptuously-bodied wine known as Commandaria. It’s made nowhere else. The name? At one time Cyprus was the property of Richard Plantagenet of England, better known now as “Lionheart” (and back then as “the absent king”). Being typically strapped for cash, he sold it to the Knights Templar who then flogged it to one-time king of Jerusalem Guy de Lusignan who owned the large feudal estate known locally as La Grande Commanderie. Thinking it sounds a lot like Port? Legend has it that Commanderie grapes were exported to Portugal, and the rest is history. If you leave Cyprus without owning a bottle of your own, you’ll kick yourself for years. Believe me when I say this.