A few weeks ago Ben and I returned from a month spent exploring Israel and Cyprus. Israel deserves a post of its own, for now I want to focus on Cyprus, a strange and beautiful land of hazy mountains, abandoned villages, British tourists, plentiful grape vines, Greek Orthodox churches, olive groves, fig trees, occupied territory, cliff-lined beaches with pristine water, and my favorite part- halloumi cheese (which I endeavored to eat every single day until I got sick of it and took 2 days off).
To start with some basics, it’s a fairly small island nation of about 1.1 million people in the Mediterranean Sea, close to Turkey and Greece, and is a part of the Eurozone. With Greece it shares language, food, important mythological history (it’s the birthplace of Aphrodite and Adonis), and history dating back to the Bronze Age. Fast forward to the early 1900s, the British used it as a military base during the First World War and it became a British crown colony in 1925. How did Cypriots feel about this? Well, Greek Cypriots hoped for eventual union with Greece while Turkish Cypriots maintained that they were a separate ethnic group and wanted a partition between Turkish and Greek Cyprus.
Following Cyprus’s independence from the British in 1960, Turkey invaded in 1974, occupying 1/3 of the island and in 1983, Turkey declared the occupied section of Cyprus to be “Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus”. They really weird thing about this is that no other countries in the world recognize this and the UN condemns it. But because it’s occupied territory, when you visit Nicosia, the split capital city, you have to cross a ‘green line’ when entering ‘Northern Cyprus’ which entails handing your passport over to some officials inside a kiosk in the middle of a main shopping street. Which we did. It was uneventful.
The result of British colonization is that you drive on the left, all street signs are in Greek and English, and there are a lot of British tourists, especially near the coastal resort areas such as Larnaka, Ayia Napa, and Paphos. Also it seems that many British people retire there or have second homes. The result of Turkish occupation is a perceptible sadness and anger. The people we spoke to just want a united country.
So, why did we choose to go to Cyprus? Well, since we had plans to go to Israel on a 10 day Birthright trip, we decided to extend our travels while we were over there and go visit another country. Cyprus was the cheapest flight from Tel Aviv. And now we know why.
After spending two weeks in Cyprus I feel that I understand it even less than when I arrived there. The culture escapes me, and the country overall had an eerie vibe due to the number of abandoned villages, hotels, restaurants sprinkled throughout. The young people have fled the country or at least gone to the main cities to make money, so rural Cyprus is mainly composed of very old people and, at the time, 2 very confused American tourists. If you’re wondering what the deal is, except for a bit of tourism, the economy is in the toilet. And if you want more info than that, you can try googling it, but even then, we have found there’s a black hole on the internet when it comes to Cyprus. Basically, there’s a few things going on: the Greek financial crisis of 2012, Russian mobsters using Cypriot banks as a tax haven, lack of natural resources (except for recently discovered natural gas, which Turkey is claiming rights to), and occupation by Turkey.
One place we stayed at was an adorable Airbnb apartment in the Troodos Mountains with an incredible view overlooking a pretty little town with orange roofs and heavy grape vines, a church, and a backdrop of hazy peaks. Our patio had all kinds of flowers, vines, lavender, and sage that we used to cook with. It was definitely a slow pace of life there. Imagine: cicadas thrumming loudly, lizards frozen on the walls, pine scents, hot days and cool evenings.
There were two autonomous dogs at this villa who expected our constant affection: a beagle named “Koúkla” (‘Doll’ in Greek), and Waffle, the friendly half-blind golden retriever who accompanied us everywhere. When we decided to explore the town on our first day, he trotted a few steps ahead of us, tongue flailing, tail wagging, turning around every so often to make sure we were still following along. He walked us straight into the tiny (only) supermarket where we stocked up on cheese and some other more questionable food items.
Waffle was a great tour guide, but finding restaurants and places to buy food in the mountains was no easy feat. It seemed that most times we went to go procure nourishment, everything nearby was closed. One evening we put on our nicest attire (which was not very nice), and drove to a town called Alona. We had heard rave reviews about this village, and combined with our mild starvation, our fantasies of this place were getting a little extravagant. At the very least we hoped to enjoy a hearty meal (maybe some live music or an interesting conversation with locals?) and to stock up on some more groceries. Well there was 1 grocery store (closed) and 1 restaurant, where about 20 old men sat outside drinking and all stopped talking and stared when we walked up. Finally one man approached us with a few lines of English and whispered that the reason the supermarket is closed is because the owner died 40 days ago. We wound up dining there after all (that also took some convincing), and the options were either french fries or cilantro-smothered chicken.
Another time we were restaurant-hunting and came across a place that looked like a huge restaurant (it had about 20 large tables all set up), with an elderly couple sitting outside. After a little back and forth, they understood we wanted food and so they unlocked the door, flipped on the lights, and let us choose our seats. Shortly thereafter they brought us a feast of tomatoes, cucumbers, bread, halloumi, and lamb, (clearly leftovers of some kind from their fridge but hey we were famished so it didn’t matter). Though the lamb was the scariest piece of meat we had ever seen, Ben and I soldiered on, stuffing everything in our faces and trying not to laugh or gag in the presence of our kind hosts. At one point the woman came over, picked up my fork, jabbed at a tomato on my plate, then flung it out the window and off the balcony, smiled and walked away. Rotten I guess.
I know it seems that I’m painting a pretty dark picture of a country that is bathed in sun and blessed by natural splendor and salty cheese. And for sure- how can I expect people to dote on our holiday-making first-world butts when there’s no means for them to provide for themselves? Plus, we purposefully avoided the tourist areas, without realizing what that would actually mean in terms of available amenities.
It’s just not what we had expected, that’s all. And I can’t fault Cyprus for that.
So let me show you some photos of our trip so that you can see, it’s a fine place, it’s just going through a hard time.