Cyprus in Spring 2019: Nicosia, North Cyprus and the South

This is the second of two blog posts on our visit to Cyprus in May-June 2019. The first post is here.

Go here for a picture gallery.

In Nicosia, which is now more usually called Lefkosia, we stayed 2 nights at the Asty Hotel. This hotel is outside the old city but has parking, an excellent breakfast and coffee and tea available all day. For some reason we were put in an “executive themed room” with red striped furnishings. It should have been almost twice the price of a standard room which we had booked and paid for.

The choice of eating places in a Nicosia suburb on a Sunday evening is not great and so we followed the advice of the guide book to the Syrian Arab Friendship Club a short drive away. There we had a very good meal, marred only by a group of noisy Russians nearby who were smoking a hookah pipe.

Mercs, BMWs, Audis and Range Rovers were everywhere in Nicosia and we began to suspect that most of them belonged to Russians.

North Cyprus – Nicosia and Kyrenia

The hotel told us not to drive at all to the old city saying that parking and the traffic were awful. Instead they took us there in the hotel shuttle. There was not much sign of a lot of traffic or any parking problems outside the old city.

We walked down the pedestrianised Ledras Street, presented our passports at two border posts and were soon in Turkish North Cyprus.

We had originally thought about going to North Cyprus for a couple of days in the car, but your car insurance is not valid there. Various rumours online said that you could buy more insurance there for 15 euros but this would only be third party and so we soon decided just to do a day trip.

We walked through a street of shops and bazaars selling mostly tourist things and clothes and went first to see the Selimiye Mosque which dates back to the 13th century and with its tall minaret is a major landmark in all of Nicosia.

Selimiye Mosque, North Nicosia

Next was the Buyuk Han a 16th century Ottoman caravanserai. This was nicely done up with cafes in the courtyard.

Buyuk Han caravanserai, North Nicosia

As we walked further beyond the border green zone there were more modern buildings and wider streets. We visited the Armenian Church, thought to have been established in the 13th century and now renovated.

Armenian church, North Nicosia

This church was close to the green zone and we saw a big metal barrier and barbed wire at the end of a nearby street, quite a contrast to the houses in that area which have been done up.

By then it was almost lunch time and we realised that we had seen the sights of North Nicosia. After some tea we found the dolmus (service taxi) station and were soon on our way to Kyrenia on the north coast once the minibus had filled up. It’s a fast road and we were there within 40 minutes in spite of there being plenty of traffic as we left Nicosia and in Kyrenia.

Kyrenia (Girne in Turkish) is a much nicer place. There’s a row of restaurants around the harbour where we had some excellent fish and a nice chat with the owner who had been to the UK several times and spoke excellent English.

Kyrenia harbour and castle

We also visited the castle which has an excellent view of the harbour. This is much bigger than it looks with a large open area in the middle. Some of the rooms contained life-size models of people dressed in armour.

Inside Kyrenia Castle

One highlight is the Shipwreck Museum which contains the remains of a wooden ship which sank off Kyrenia about 280BC. Its cargo included a huge quantity of almonds which have been dated to around that time.

Ancient almonds

I declined the walk round the ramparts but Martin did most of it and got some good photos of the harbour.

We finished our visit to Kyrenia with more tea – in a real Turkish tea glass this time.

Real Turkish tea from a glass – at Kyrenia

Getting a a dolmus back to Nicosia was no problem and we soon walked back to the Republic. There are plenty of good restaurants there and we had another great meal at Piatsa Gourounaki. As instructed we phoned the hotel which sent the shuttle to take us back there.

Next day we easily found a space in the car park near where the hotel shuttle had dropped us and spent much of the morning looking round the republican part of Nicosia. We did go back to the north briefly as I had seen a picture I liked in a shop near the border. When we got there we found that almost every shop was closed for the end of Ramadan holiday. So I didn’t get my picture but was very glad that we had done the north the day before.

The old city in Nicosia is now quite modernised with pedestrianised streets and plenty of coffee shops and trendy clothes shops. The Leventis Municipal Museum is one of the major attractions and turned out to contain useful displays on the history of the city. After the museum, we wandered round a bit more and had lunch near the border crossing (and an excellent ice cream for me while Martin took a long walk to the Famagusta Gate) and then went back to the car to drive south on the motorway.

The South

The Stavrovouni Monastery is in a stunning position at the top of the only hill for miles around and reachable only via a series of hairpin bends on a narrow road. The views from there are amazing.

Stavrovouni Monastery

I had plenty of time to admire the views as women are not allowed in the monastery. I did go into the small church by the car park.

Church at Stavrovouni – the only part I could go into

Martin went into the monastery but did not stay long.

Our last night was spent at Teacher’s House, a traditional building in the village of Maroni near the south coast. We drove down to Zygi on the coast and had another fish by a pebble beach watching the sunset.

Sunset at our last dinner at Zygi

Breakfast at Teacher’s House was the only really traditional one we had with scrambled eggs mixed with green vegetables.

We were due to fly out late that evening and so essentially had another day. We started at the neolithic site of Choirakoitia not far north of Maroni. This is the oldest permanent human settlement found in Cyprus going back to 7000 BC. Steep steps (with just a few trees for shade) take you to the top of the site where there are also some good views.

Choirakoitia, the oldest settlement on Cyprus

There’s an easier way down on a track at the back of the site which also goes past some reconstructions of round huts which represent how the people lived.

Reconstructed houses at Choirakoitia

Nearer to Larnaca we stopped in the village of Kiti to see the 11th century Panagia Angeloktisti church which was open and contains a 6th century mosaic of the Virgin Mary. We also found a large supermarket nearby to get some picnic food for lunch which we ate overlooking the Alyki salt lake near Larnaca.

Hala Sultan Tekkesi is a late 18th century mosque on the edge of the lake and is one of very few mosques we saw in the Republic. It stands on a sacred place in Islam where an aunt of the prophet Mohammed fell off her mule and died.

Hala Sultan Tekkesi mosque

Navigating through Larnaca was easy as we drove further east to Agia Napa. We did stop there to buy an ice cream, but Agia Napa consists mostly of a very long street 2-3 blocks inland and full of souvenir shops, bars, burger places and quad bike rentals. If there is a way to drive along by the sea, we did not find it. A short stop there was enough for us. If I was going to stay in Cyprus for a week in the sun I would definitely choose the Paphos area over Agia Napa.

The very south-east tip of Cyprus is a national park called Cape Greco. The scenery is mostly scrub and there are some hiking trails. You can drive along parts of the park but an assortment of masts has ensured that the road to the very end is blocked off. There’s a really nice modern white church at one stopping place complete with paintings inside.

Church near Cape Greco

Our last meal was at another guide book recommendation, Voreas in the village of Oroklini just off the motorway near Larnaca. It took a while to find this restaurant, because, as we found in other places in Cyprus, the signs to it petered out some way away from it. I ordered souvlaki and it was delivered to our table with the skewers hanging off a metal rack which seemed to have been designed for this specific purpose.

My last dinner – souvlaki as delivered to our table

The flight home from Larnaca to Leeds was uneventful except that it was an hour late. We arrived home in daylight at 4.30am.

Impressions of Cyprus and Practicalities

This was our first visit. We kind of expected something like Greece, and found it to be quite like Greece with a veneer of Britishness. They drive on the left, drink a lot of tea, refer to the ground floor as number 0 and have British-style bacon and even sometimes baked beans for breakfast.

Reconstructed houses at Choirakoitia

Familiar shaped postbox, Nicosia

Apart from breakfast the food was mostly Greek with some Turkish influence. It always came in huge quantities. Except for the restaurant owner in Platres all the people were very pleasant and friendly. As in Greece there are plenty of cats, usually hanging round outdoor restaurants, but unlike in Greece, we saw only one goat.

It was hot, reaching 35C some days. Another time I would think about going in late April or early May when the wild flowers might also be better. But bougainvilleas were in full bloom and we saw oleanders in flower everywhere, even growing wild.

We flew on Jet2 from Leeds/Bradford, which is the most convenient airport for us, and rented a car from Elephant car rental in Paphos. The car rental agent met us at the airport at 11pm and was very helpful. There was no extra charge to drop the car in Larnaca. The roads are generally good with fewer potholes than any near our home. Traffic is fairly light and there is only the occasional mad driver usually on the dual carriageway motorway. Parking was free every where even in Paphos and Nicosia.

Always using we only booked accommodation in Paphos and Polis before we arrived and arranged the rest once we were there. It was all very clean and very cheap at 50-60 euros a night for a double including breakfast. Wifi worked fine everywhere including in plenty of restaurants as well as hotels.

For guide books we used Lonely Planet Cyprus, which also includes North Cyprus, and the Sunflower book Landscapes of Cyprus which has car tours and walks.

As when we were travelling in Spain and Portugal last summer, I did get a sense that the UK is falling behind with its failure to provide adequate Internet and mobile services and its failure to upgrade its airports. Both Paphos and Larnaca airports were infinitely better than Leeds/Bradford with ample space, free wifi and plenty of choice for shopping and eating. Larnaca also has jetways and so you don’t have to walk out to the plane in the rain.

My first blog post on this trip is here.

Picture gallery: Cyprus in Spring 2019: Nicosia, North Cyprus and the South

Click to enlarge

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