Birthplace of Aphrodite, Cyprus has seduced and inspired generations of travellers. From Mycenean Greeks and invading Persians to sunburnt Crusaders, Ottoman pashas and, latterly, British and Russian expats, each has left their mark. Yet as well as a complex, multilayered past, the word “Cyprus” also conjures up images of dazzling beaches, shimmering blue seas, endless summers and tables groaning under platters of meze and bottles of sweet chilled wine.
And it is to this touristic idyll that thousands return each year. British visitors in particular warm to not just the climate but the familiar traces of home: cars driving on the left, red pillar boxes and even the comforting sight of Marks & Spencer amid the palms and searing heat – a legacy of decades of colonial rule. Another aspect of the island’s reputation, either enticing or off-putting depending on your interests, is as a hedonistic, lager-fuelled heaven/hell. A heady mix of cheap flights, cheaper drinks and bored squaddies from Britain’s two military bases on the island has inevitably led to some frankly grim scenes at many resorts. Yet, determined action by the local authorities in places like Agia Napa, combined with clubbers inevitably moving on to the next big thing, has led recently to a much more sedate ambience.
Venture beyond the resort restaurants knocking out fish and chips, pizza and, more recently, Russian borscht, and it’s not hard to find another Cyprus. Traces of the exotic and Levantine are never far away from elegantly ruined Lusignan and Venetian castles and teetering Islamic minarets to cool mountain villages hiding sacred icons from the very first days of Christianity. The other key attraction is the Cypriots themselves, who, whether Greek or Turkish in ancestry seem to have a shared DNA programmed to welcome visitors, particularly those with youngsters in tow – if eating out with your kids, don’t expect the tutting and disapproving glances you may be used to at home. And if you are travelling alone, be prepared to answer countless questions about your family, occupation, even your salary. Cypriots have few inhibitions about satisfying their curiosity, and it is almost certain that your mild-mannered interrogator will have a connection with your own country – cousins who work there, siblings who are at university there, or even whole extended parts of the family who have settled abroad.
Beyond the smiles there is also a deep-rooted attachment to the land itself. Older readers will have memories of the period, from the 1950s to the 1970s, when Cyprus was one of the world’s major trouble spots. First came the struggle by Greek Cypriots for independence and union with Greece, then intercommunal violence prompted by fears among the minority Turkish Cypriots, and finally the Turkish invasion of the island in 1974 which resulted in its de facto partition between a Turkish Cypriot north and a Greek Cypriot south. Bitterness caused by the split lives on. Yet, while this is a tragedy for the people of Cyprus, the easing of tensions and the opening up of the Green Line between north and south during the early years of the twenty-first century gives the island a unique selling point – it is now possible to include both sides of the divide in any planned holiday. Where else, for example, can you visit two “capital” cities simply by walking down a street or take in two distinct cultures in a single day?