The winter three years ago was long and cold so we decided to spend the free week we have at the end of February somewhere warm. We chose the town of Larnaca in the middle of the south coast of Cyprus, 16 km east of the airport, we found a nice hotel on the beach 6 km east of the town centre.
When we were approaching Cyprus by plane the pilot told us that there was low visibility due to a dust storm from the Sahara, Larnaca airport was open, yet the one in Pafos was closed. My back bottom! I had read the guide book from cover to cover but had found nothing about sand storms, the Cypriot woman sitting next to us informed us that dust storms were not a frequent but a regular phenomenon, they came once or twice a year. When we landed the worst was over, the first dust storm this year must really have been bad, it was worth a mention on the international news on CNN that night. During the following two days it was hazy but the dust storm didn’t hit again as predicted so that we could leave the hotel and see something of the island.
I had read in the guide book that one shouldn’t start discussions on the political situation of Cyprus as the subject was too delicate, but even before setting foot on the island we learnt that Cypriots like talking about it, the first person was the woman on the plane who gave us her point of view in detail.
When I mentioned how odd it was that the whole of Cyprus was in the EU in spite of the division and in spite of the fact that Turkey wasn’t, she cried that wasn’t the case, only the Greek south was, but she was wrong, in the course of our five days on Cyprus we had some more conversations on the subject and learnt that the truth is even odder: the whole island belongs to the EU, but only the Greek Cypriots from the south and the Turkish Cypriots from the north are members, the approximately 120 000Turks from mainland Turkey who have (been) settled in the north after the division are not - even if they were born there, the nationality of the parents counts.
The population of Larnaca consisted of Greeks and Turks, when the Turkish army invaded the north, the town lost all its Turkish inhabitants and received thousands of forcefully displaced Greeks from the north because of the ethnic cleansing policies of Turkey; the town developed as a tourist destination only in the 1980s and its population has increased to about 70 000 inhabitants, it’s important because of the airport (the biggest in Cyprus) and the port. It is not as touristy as Pafos in the west of the island but has some hotels and quite a lot of holiday houses along the beach.
When we stepped out of our hotel on the first morning into the garden and the pool area, we saw a concrete footpath running between the site and the water front and decided to walk to the centre of Larnaca, walking in sunshine and good sea air was what we had come for and five kilometres (we had been told by the hotel staff that that was the distance) didn’t seem too much. The official brochure from the Larnaca Tourist Committee claims that the footpath is 5 km long, a lie! Read 1 km and you’ve got it. As our hotel was situated in the middle of the footpath so-to-speak, we soon had to step onto the beach, the longest in all Cyprus, not very beautiful, though, the sand is dirt grey and either hard as concrete or covered with pebbles.
Soon that was impossible, too, we came to an industrial area, closed oil refineries that reached down to the water front, we learnt later that they’re waiting to be demolished, the area will be filled with hotels and holiday apartment houses, in, say, ten years the whole area will look different (nicer). We had to move up and walk beside a busy road. We were too far to turn back and still quite far from the town centre. After some time we came to a parking site and asked a man how many kilometres we still had in front of us, it turned out that the distance was six kilometres instead of five and we had only covered half of it, he offered at once to give us a lift, good man that he was. He was a refugee from the north and together with the lift we got his view of the political situation.
He took us to Larnaca Marina, a port for sailing boats and cruise boats for tourists at the western end of the promenade, a wide avenue, about half a kilometre long, between the beach and a row of hotels and restaurants with high palm trees on either side. At its eastern end stands a fort built by the Turks at the beginning of the 17th century on an old Venetian foundation, the Turks used it to watch business in the port, the British who took it over in 1878 when the Sultan submitted the island to the Queen for her services in the Turko-Russian war, used it as a prison, opposite the ticket booth one can see a room where the gallows was, partisans of the anti-British uprisings were hanged there until the end of the 1940s.
Opposite the castle is the Beyuk Mosque which is considered the first Ottoman mosque in Cyprus, before the building became a mosque it was a Venetian Catholic Church. It looked well kept, restoration work was done at the minaret, the man who had given us the lift had told us that all mosques in Greek Cyprus are well kept and in working order whereas the churches in Turkish Cyprus have been destroyed or neglected and are used as warehouses or stables.
Some 50 m further into the old Turkish quarter stands the Orthodox Saint Lazarus Church from the 10th century, a multi-domed building of a type only to be found in Cyprus. The walls are bare bricks, icons hang everywhere, the carved wooden central wall is covered with icons from top to bottom as is the case in Orthodox churches, there is no altar. Monks’ singing drafted through the church, from a tape but very atmospheric. We looked into the crypt at Lazarus’ tomb; when Jesus Christ had resurrected Lazarus from the dead, the latter moved to Cyprus and became a bishop there (or did he?). His head lies in an ornamented chest in the church, in the middle of the top cover is a round opening covered with glass through which a part of his (a?) skull is visible, people came in and kissed the spot ardently, really kissed it, I could see the damp patch. Eek!
We strolled through the old Turkish quarter, looked at tiny cafés and one room shops, visited the small market hall where we saw the biggest potatoes ever, but found the quarter quite miserable and not picturesque as suggested by the guide book. The shopping street running behind it looks a bit more modern but we were surprised at how low the standard of living is, we hadn’t expected this, after all Cyprus was at the top economically of all the ten new member states that have recently joined the EU. A taxi-driver told us that the Greek Cypriots have all reason to be content, unemployment is low, Turkish Cypriots from the north come to work in the south (the Turks from mainland Turkey living in the north aren’t allowed to) as do thousands of immigrants from Asia and Eastern Europe. Well, everything is relative.
What else has Larnaca got to offer? There’s a small archaeological museum, one for palaeontology and marine life, the town is certainly not overwhelming culture–wise, but how many tourists care especially in summer when the temperature rises up to 43°C (109° F)? I liked the town and the area, we got what we had come for and I saw and heard only five country people. Being the world champions when it comes to travelling the Germans are everywhere and often in the majority, not so in Cyprus, though. Due to the fact that it was a British colony, British tourists feel good there, we heard that about 53% of the tourists come from the UK followed by Germans, Russians (never have I seen so many Russians since I visited Moscow!) and a mixed lot from different countries. You may dislike this information, for me going to Cyprus meant killing two birds with one stone; I enjoyed warmth (20° C / 68° F) and sunshine in February and the English language at the same time!