Cyprus: History in Mediterranean sunshine

Maybe it’s the crystal-clear waters, the pristine sandy beaches or the fact that this eastern Mediterranean island has more sun than you can shake a stick at. Perhaps it’s the unique culture-a heritage of every major civilization that ever existed in this one corner of the world-that attracts visitors to Cyprus.

If not, then it surely must be the great food and wine, or the fact the locals are so warm and friendly? 

The weather plays an important part in attracting tourists. During the Cyprus winter-an excellent time for visitors seeking travel bargains-visitors can expect an average of six hours of sunshine and temperatures ranging between 16 and 20 C. Visit in summer and you’ll be treated to temperatures in the low 30s.

Magic, colours
Gordon Hepburn is a retired travel industry executive who now leads groups of North American travel writers on familiarization tours. He says: “There’s just this magic about the place. When you get off the plane, it hits you-the crispness of the air, the sparkling water.

“And the colours,” he adds, pointing to the magnificent electric-blue blossoms of the jacaranda trees which line the higays and the bright splashes of bougainvillea that blaze vividly against pristine whitewashed walls.  

Long haul flight 
While it’s certainly a long haul for Canadians, Cyprus’s location at the crossroads of the eastern Mediterranean makes it well worth the extra effort getting there. It’s only a ferry ride away from Israel and Egypt-mere minutes if you fly-making it possible to broaden your travel horizons with a stopover at any of these destinations for a day or two.

The island is especially attractive for Canadians who opt for long stays in Europe. “If you’re visiting Britain or mainland Europe for a few weeks and want to get away somewhere sunny, then Cyprus is just the ticket,” Hepburn says. “It needn’t be expensive, either. You can book an affordable tour package upon arrival in Britain, particularly in the off-season. And it’s only a three- hour flight.”

Cultural wonders
The third largest island in the Mediterranean, Cyprus is indeed an island of wonders. Lefkosia (or Nicosia), the 1,000-year-old walled capital, is the perfect spot to learn more about the many civilizations that have left their mark here.

The Cyprus Museum, housing a collection of Cypriot antiques along with treasures from the Neolithic age to the Roman period is a must-see, and the Leventis Municipal Museum of Lefkosia offers an imaginative presentation of the capital’s history.

Stop in Pissouri
For those not on an organized tour, Hepburn recommends stopping at his favourite town, Pissouri. Draped on a hill with a beautiful, secluded beach at its feet, it has a variety of excellent accommodation, including the reasonably priced Victoria Hotel.

“One self- catering apartment I know of in Pissouri costs only about $700 a month in the off season,” says Hepburn. “They even throw in the use of a car.”  

Pafos, UNESCO site
For those wanting to spend their time closer to the water, Pafos-reputed playground of the gods-is the place to stay. The focal point of this resort town is a charming fishing harbour located next to historic Pafos Fort, and lined with open-air cafes and tavernas where you can partake of the island’s traditional dish, meze. This is a Mediterranean sampling of at least 30 delicacies of the region, including moussaka and stuffed vine leaves, all accompanied by locally brewed beer or wine.

Pafos, famous as a stopover for Saint Paul in AD 45, is nothing less than an open museum, a fact recognized by UNESCO, which included the whole town as a World Cultural Heritage site.

Among the treasures that led to this designation are the remarkable mosaics of the Houses of Dioysos, Theseus and Aion, beautifully preserved after being buried for 16 centuries; the mysterious vaults and caves of the Tombs of the Kings (many of the rooms at the excellent Coral Beach Hotel overlook these relics); and the Pillar, to which Saint Paul was allegedly tied and whipped.   

Frequent celebrations
Hardly a week goes by without a celebration of some kind, whether it’s a colourful homage to a saint, a panigiri (a traditional open-air village fete) or, the most important Greek Orthodox religious event, Easter.  

“The island is steeped in tradition and history,” Hepburn says. “Where else can you see evidence of great empires like the Egyptians, Persians, Byzantines, Greeks, Romans and Ottomans?”

Pausing for a moment, he adds with a wry smile: “Cyprus is also the birthplace of Aphrodite, the goddess of love. You can still visit the Baths of Aphrodite, where she would bathe before and after cavorting with her lovers. If you splash your face with water from the springs that feed the pool, it’ll keep you young forever.”