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Published: September 30th 2014
Holding up the Sky
Columns that once supported the roof of a Roman basilica in Paphos on the SW coast of Cyprus - now only seem to hold up a blue, Mediterranean sky. © L. Birch 2013
It was late January; for more than a month, southern Britain had been shivering its way through one of the coldest winters in more than a decade. At Bristol airport, snow lay piled in dirty off-white drifts outside the terminal buildings – the cold, clutching at our chests with every indrawn breath of air.
It was much warmer inside the concourse and we were quite soon caught up by that buzz
that only airports have. All around us there were people arriving from or setting off for far away places. Flickering destination boards announced the latest departures - filled with the names of exciting locations; Madrid, Faro, Warsaw, Berlin and Antalya. It was the feel of a new adventure beginning.
Not that we were going very far but then, anywhere seemed better than snow covered England at that moment. Our destination was an island, the third largest in the Mediterranean and one frequently referred to in tourist brochures as “The Island of Aphrodite”. Greek mythology has it that the goddess of love, Aphrodite (or Kypria
as she was also known in Greek) was born on the island; specifically, on the seashore near Paphos in the south west which, coincidentally
A large number of fine mosaics from the Greco-Roman period are a particular feature of the Paphos ruins and should not to be missed. © L. Birch 2013
- was just where we were heading.
A 5 hour flight brought us in low over the island just as the last rays of a late winter sun were extinguished in the Mediterranean to the west. From the cabin windows, we were delighted to see that there was no sign of snow. The temperature too, as we stepped from the plane, was a pleasant 18 degrees C and a marked improvement on those we had left behind in Blighty.
Unusually for us, we had booked a hotel in advance of our arrival – the cheapest we could find. Looking through online reviews before our departure, one former guest of the hotel we had booked into had described the place as “full of old people and smells of cabbage”.
‘Oh dear’, I thought but it was too late by then, we were already committed. Arriving at the hotel after dark, we checked in at the front desk and were given keys to a room on the third floor. Dumping our bags, we then went in search of something to eat and passed a bawdy bar area full of OAPS downing rum and cokes and pints of beer. “Hmm, it’s
Underneath the Arches
The impressive remains of Saranda Kolones were originally part of a Lusignan castle that can be found in the main archeaological zone. © L. Birch 2013
full of old people”. I noted drily and shortly after locating a dining area, sniffed the air disapprovingly. “Can you smell cabbage?” I asked.
By the time I had enjoyed a couple of glasses of beer though, everything looked different and I began warming to the place. We soon discovered that we were the youngest guests in the hotel by a good 20 or 30 years but we had nothing on most of them. We were often tucked up in bed by 10:30pm, cursing later when the ‘oldies’ were still singing karaoke songs and keeping us awake at 2 o'clock in the morning. The hotel, it turned out was a favourite with British retirees who would turn off the gas and water at home before heading out to Cyprus for several weeks of winter sun and cheap beer. Some of them stayed for months at a time and over the following days, I soon began to see why. Out of season, Paphos and many of the resort towns further along the coast were often quiet and empty. It might have had something to do with the financial crisis that had so blighted the Greek economy in recent months but
Wild cyclamen blooming on the coastal strip near Paphos in SW Cyprus. © L. Birch 2013
I doubted that, this was just how it was in the ‘off season’. The sun shone most days and though not hot, it was often warm enough to walk around in shirt sleeves… yeah, I could see the attraction and it wasn’t without appeal. Tanks, Tombs and Cyclamen
With the sun shining and an atmosphere of easy-going contentment prevailing, it was all too easy to be conned into thinking that Cyprus was the paradise the brochures proclaimed it to be but it hasn’t always been like this. The recent history of Cyprus is one dominated by political divisions, unsettled claims and bloodshed. In 1974, a bitter row that had been escalating between Greece and Turkey over sovereignty of the island finally erupted into all out war. On 15th
July 1974, the Greek Military Junta carried out a coup d’etat - ousting the Cypriot President Makarios III - that was intended to unite the Island with Greece. Taking advantage of the ensuing upheaval, Turkey invaded the Island five days later under the pretext of restoring constitutional order. Its real intention however, was far less benign: Turkey wanted to seize control of Cyprus. Over the next few days, Turkey’s air
Looking like a film set from a Biblical epic... minus the extras, this citadel at the Tombs of the Kings complex - was probably in use before the birth of Christianity. © L. Birch 2013
force began bombing Greek positions across the Island and troop ships protected by destroyers landed more than 26,000 troops as well as tanks, armoured vehicles and trucks all along the Kyrenian coast. When a ceasefire was eventually brokered, Turkey had seized control of the north eastern portion of Cyprus. Despite international condemnation, in 1983 Turkey proclaimed that north eastern Cyprus would thenceforth be known as the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus – a claim only recognised by Turkey even now. Riots and sporadic outbreaks of violence have continued since the invasion and the Island’s capital – Nicosia, remains today as the world’s only divided city with half still under Greek control and the other half occupied by Turkey.
But on an early spring day in Paphos it is hard to imagine the trauma caused by events that have literally split the Island in two. Perhaps there are scars, even here but they are not immediately evident. The biggest draw in Paphos was its archaeological remains and in particular, a rather fine collection of Roman mosaics that had been attracting visitors for years. Cyprus has a long history of human settlement dating back almost 10,000 years. Evidence of the island’s
Quite stunning when seen in abundance, Persian cyclamen - like these at the Tombs of the Kings - really do just pop up everywhere, even on the walls of the ruins. © L. Birch 2013
early - and later settlers - can be found everywhere and one of the delights of modern Paphos is its proximity to the remains of, what was in Greco-Roman times, the island’s capital – now simply referred to as ‘Old Paphos’. The whole of Paphos was granted World Heritage Status in 1980 and though you have to shell out a few Euros to enter the main site, it is well worth it.
All the same, a lifelong abhorrence of fees and fences did have me carrying out a quick perimeter reconnaissance but the archaeological site was very well fenced and it soon became clear that sneaking in via an unlocked gate was not going to be an option – unless I was particularly keen to experience the standards of accommodation provided by the local police constabulary that was. Somehow, I rather doubted it would even come close to those of a cheap, back street hotel catering predominantly for OAPS. So, I paid the entry fee and went in the front door instead. The first thing that strikes you is just how big the site is and unless you tire easily of looking at ancient ruins, it will take the
Exploring pre-Christian burial chambers at the Tombs of the Kings near Paphos. © L. Birch 2013
best part of a day to get round it all… and of course, having paid to get in – I fully intended to get my moneys worth. But I needn’t have worried about that. It may not have the dramatic impact of somewhere like Angkor Wat in Cambodia but the ruins include - amongst other things - the extensive remains of a Roman basilica, an amphitheatre, a fortified church and of course the famous mosaics; all of which, were totally absorbing – all the more so perhaps because Britain too was colonised by the Romans and shares a similar history to many Mediterranean locations… albeit in a less pleasant climate.
Being someone with a keen amateur interest in botany, the second thing that struck me were the wild flowers. In England, there was snow and bare branches but in Cyprus there were wild anemones, asphodels and cyclamen everywhere. The cyclamen were particularly amazing. It’s one thing to see them as potted plants in the high street florist shop back home… quite another to see them growing in such rich profusion in their natural habitat. This was a spring flowering variety known as Cyclamen persicum
(the Persian Cyclamen) which had
The Church of Ayia Kiriaki
In the middle of town, this intriguing church sits among the impressive ruins of a Roman temple complete with mosaics and fluted columns. © L. Birch 2013
hybridised naturally and was flowering in a range of colours from white through to deepest pink. And they really were everywhere; growing in drifts among the ruins, sprouting from rock faces and even from the old masonry of the ruins themselves. It was ludicrous. I took so many pictures of flowering cyclamen that it soon became a bit of a joke. “Did you get those ones over there Laurie?” Viv would say sarcastically, pointing off vaguely into the distance. Was she having a laugh? Course I’d got them.
Outside the main archaeological zone, there were a number of sites that could be explored around town and even better, these were free. For me, the best of the many sites dotted in and around town was the church of Ayia kiriaki and Fabrica Hill out to the north of town. 'The Hill' was something of an anomaly; a great, lime stone outcrop that was completely surrounded by suburban housing estates on the outskirts of town and preserved as a sort of park. It was riddled with a honeycomb warren of tunnels and pre-Christian burial chambers carved with intriguing little niches that still held candles, Christian reliquaries and modern day offerings
The View from Agios Georgios
One of the rewards of doing the coastal walk between Agios Georgios and Coral Bay are spectacular views, like this one out toward Geronisos Island. © L. Birch 2013
to various saints. It also provided further opportunities to get that perfect cyclamen shot as, once again, they were everywhere - growing like weeds and seemingly ignored by the smartly dressed Cypriots cutting through the park on their way to work.
The other site, Ayia Kiriaki was intriguing because it was basically a perfectly preserved Roman-era temple with mosaic flooring and fluted columns but right slap-bang in the middle of it, someone had built a Greek Orthodox Church. My playful side imagined the builders turning up with hangover's each day and not noticing anything until the final brick was laid when one of the craftsmen, stepping back to admire his handiwork, bumps into a Roman column. "Who put this bloody thing 'ere?" He exclaims, scratching his head in puzzlement. In all likelihood however, it was probably done quite deliberately - either as a means to 'Christianise' a site considered pagan or because of the site's perceived spiritual importance.
And if you hadn’t had enough of ancient ruins, the so-called Tombs of the Kings 2km outside town were also worth a visit. These old tombs and citadels, hacked out of sandstone cliffs near the shore, owe their popular name
Abbey Ruins - Coral Bay
The ruins of an old coastal abbey on the outskirts of Coral Bay can be seen as you approach the resort, heading south on the walk from Agios Georgios. © L. Birch 2013
to their apparent resemblance to castles… even if they are underground castles. The whole site was part of a vast pre-Christian necropolis first used as far back as the 3rd
century BC. And yes, OK – there might be one or two cyclamen here too if you happen to be poking around in early spring.
Trips on local busses will also get you to places like Agios Georgios 20km along the coast north of Paphos (from where you can walk the 8km back to Coral Bay if you have a mind to) and to Polis – a pretty little north coast town where Aphrodite’s Baths can be found. If you’re really feeling adventurous, you can go even further afield; up into the Troodos Mountains perhaps or south along the coast to Limassol. Crossing the Green Line into Turkish held Northern Cyprus is reputedly easier than it used to be. More crossings onto the ‘Turkish’ side have opened up recently but there have long been problems crossing the border. Going from the Greek to Turkish side seems OK but only some crossing points allow you to ‘pop’ back across the border coming from the other direction - an interesting complication
A Lusignan Fort, repaired by the Ottomans in 1592, stands guard at the entrance to Paphos Harbour. © L. Birch 2013
if you happen to be staying on the Greek side and have forgotten to take a toothbrush with you.
All too soon it was time to move on but not before we had decided to join the oldies in the bar on our final night at the hotel. Working on the assumption that - ‘if we couldn’t beat them, we were better off joining them’ - we took a table right in the middle of the fray, determined to find out what all the fuss was about. By now, we knew many of them as if we were regulars who had been turning up for years but karaoke… perhaps that was a step too far. To my utter astonishment, the singing standards were surprisingly good. There wasn’t a single drunken, out-of-tune rendering from anyone who stepped up onto the stage – even if it had sounded like that from underneath my pillow at 1 o’clock in the morning.
Eventually of course, there were polite calls for us to get up on the stage and have a go ourselves but with equal politeness; we declined (the sight of half the room turning down their hearing aids would have been so demoralising). There could be no competing with this bunch anyway. These were pros who spent their summers at home belting out hits by Tammy Wynette and Frank Sinatra while soaping themselves in the shower – just to be prepared for their winter holiday in Cyprus. No, it was better to know when you were beaten. And if we ever happened to come back this way again? It wasn’t likely but you never knew for certain. Hmm, perhaps I should start practicing... just in case. Now how did that song go? “And more, much more than this.... I did it my way”.
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