Finding Cyprus: Mediterranean magic, but is it worth the five-hour flight?
A magical mix of cultures sets Cyprus apart in the Med, writes Pól Ó Conghaile. All that remains is for his family to find it...
Once upon a time, a man went into the hills of Western Cyprus.
Seeking to escape the crowds, he found a cave in the soothing shade of pine and cedar trees near Tala. He lived there as a hermit, but word of his sanctity spread. People began to bring food and gifts. Brilliantly colourful frescoes were painted on the cave ceiling. All he wanted was alone time, but 'Neophytus the Recluse' soon found himself at the centre of a religious community, a monastery sprouting among the trees.
It's a story that would make any eight-year-old yawn. But standing beside me, in that same cave, with those same frescoes popping like Instagram filters over our heads, my son Sam is riveted. "Eight hundred years ago?" he repeats to himself, wandering beneath the Byzantine faces overhead. "And they're still here?"
There's a similar moment when we step into the church, added in later centuries as Agios Neophytus Monastery grew. An old woman pulls a veil over her head and works her way around the walls, kissing the icons as she goes. A mix of candlewax and ancient fustiness smells like powdered centuries in our nostrils. In shorts and T-shirts, we feel like time travellers.
The whole visit costs us €2. Afterwards, we buy a tub of thyme-scented honey to drizzle over breakfasts back home, before threading our way down tangled mountain roads to a Cyprus crazier than St Neophytus could ever have imagined.
Phew. This island is intriguing; a stunning mix of Greek, Turkish and Middle Eastern cultures set just 265km from Lebanon (roughly the distance from Dublin to Cork). But it took us days to connect, and more than once, I wondered whether it was worth the five-hour flight.
We're on a package holiday in Paphos. Ayia Napa is Cyprus's best-known resort, but our base is the St George Hotel, a slick, pseudo-palatial four-star trickling towards twinkling seas on the west coast. The seawater is 25˚C or so, and we spend hours ambling between room, pool and the hotel's little lagoon (a breakwater holds off the choppy waters of the west).
It's the kind of place where towels are laid out to secure loungers by 8am and evenings are spent moseying along seafront and harbour, scoffing grilled fish and pizza and ice-cream and baklava way past normal bedtimes.
A sun holiday, in other words - and unsurprisingly, one also laced with ugly strip development, with English breakfasts and Irish bars. Stick to the strip and, barring a few tweaks to menus and signposts, we could just as easily be in Majorca, Corfu or the Costa del Sol. Which is fine, if that's what you're after. But I feel like the 'real' Cyprus is slipping through our fingers.
So we agree to rent a car. Our rep recommends an independent operator who brings a little Nissan Note by the hotel. She marks spots on my map in biro, leaves us with a half tank of fuel, and says she'll collect the car in three days. Twenty minutes later, we've driven off the main drag, leaving resorts like Kato Paphos and Coral Bay in the rearview mirror.
Soon, generic hotels are replaced by Saint Neophytus' Monastery, by mountain villages like Drouseia, where a woman in a blue apron watches us next to wooden shutters. We loop past Akamas Peninsula National Park, a wilderness devoid of development, and carry on towards Pilos, on the northwest coast. There, we find a German lady named Tina serving gungy, homemade cakes (below) under the shade of vines at her Art Café ("I can't make them as fast as people eat them," she chuckles).
We seek out Aphrodite's Baths - the goddess is said to have been born at Aphrodite's Rock (main photo) near Paphos, and to have bathed in this tiny grotto. It's a bit dingy and disappointing but, completely by chance, leads to the loveliest swim of our week in Cyprus.
How? Scoping from a cliff nearby, I spot a cove with water so clear I can see the sea floor. A sea stack rises; a ribbon of rocks tethering it to the shore. The sky is blue as bejaysus and there are all of a dozen people in the water.
We follow the steps down and wash the dusty drive away. Out to sea, boats ferry tourists to the 'Blue Lagoon', but I wouldn't swap our little spot.
Afterwards, at a clifftop restaurant, we order lashings of fresh sardines and grilled halloumi. Food is another avenue into Cyprus's story, we discover.
There are Greek influences in crumbly feta, stuffed vine leaves (dolmades), tzatziki or kleftiko. Turkish touches show in pita breads crispy on the outside and fluffy within, in lightly spiced sheftalia sausages (below), or velvety loukoumi swimming in powdered sugar. Meze sharing courses evoke the Middle East. After our clifftop meal, plates of watermelon and pita drenched in local honey arrive - on the house, in the Greek, family-run restaurant tradition. Bit by bit, bite by bite, a thrilling taste of Cyprus is bubbling to the surface.
I realise, of course, that not everybody wants to explore like me. That's the tension on our family holidays - balancing the needs of a busman with a general human right to relaxation. It's perfectly encapsulated at the Paphos Archaeological Site (below) when, after one too many Roman mosaics, I ask my daughter whether she'd like to see Aphrodite's Rock.
"Not really," she says.
Burn! Scooting off on our little safaris, however, allows a bit of both worlds. We explore ancient portals in weird proximity to modern life (in Paphos, the pillar where St Paul was lashed is a stone's throw from Pizza Express), devour ice-cream and dolmades, head for the hills or chill at the St. George or air-conditioned King's Avenue Mall. And ultimately, we arrive at a place where the 'real' Cyprus interacts with the 'real' us... and a Dad's realisation.
I'm no St Neophytus.
What to pack
Cyprus gets stinging hot, so stock up on sunscreen and hats, and rash vests for swimming. Bring your driver's licence for rentals, mozzie spray for evenings, and headphone-splitters for movies on the long flight. UK-style three-pronged plus are used, so no need for adapters.
3 Travel Tips
1. Our best Cypriot meal was at Mandra Tavern (mandratavern.com) in Paphos - the kleftiko could have been talked off the bone.
2. Daytrips to Nicosia, "the last divided capital in Europe", include a crossing of the Green Line separating Cyprus and the Turkish-occupied north (bring your passport).
3. Like walks? Outside of summer heat, hike between 30m walls in the Avakas Gorge (above).
Pól travelled with Sunway (sunway.ie), which has packages to Cyprus from €539pp. Flights, transfers, rep service and seven nights' B&B at the St George Hotel start from €1,969pp during October mid-term.
Ryanair (ryanair.com) flies year-round to Paphos. It takes 5+ hours.
See also visitcyprus.com.
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