Of Cyprus’s six districts, the one centred on Larnaka is probably perceived as the least glamorous. Yet it offers one of the best combinations of attractions, beaches, hotels and restaurants. An ideal mix of working town and holiday resort, Larnaka itself has enough day-to-day reality to provide insights into Cypriot life yet enough sights and activities to keep boredom at bay, including an impressive cathedral, a medieval fort and the wonderful Hala Sultan Tekke mosque. It also boasts the island’s largest airport and a flourishing marina and therefore attracts a cosmopolitan bunch of expats, entrepreneurs and yachting folk as well as soldiers and diplomats working at the nearby British base at Dhekelia.
To the east of Larnaka is the peninsula upon which stand Agia Napa, Protaras and Paralimni, journey’s end for thousands of visitors. Long derided as the haunt of lager louts and marauding squaddies, these settlements have left behind their growing pains and are now largely well-maintained and prosperous towns, devoted to the holiday industry it’s true, but none the worst for that. They have plenty of places to stay and to eat, some fine museums, a string of blue-flag beaches and pretty boat-thronged harbours, plus a scattering of small villages (the Kokkinochoria) dotted with the sails of wind pumps.
To the west of Larnaka is an unspoilt rural hinterland of hill villages and small harbours where the pace of life is blissfully slow – driving west from Larnaka on local roads, you’ll notice the difference as soon as you pass the airport. This area includes two important Neolithic sites at Tenta and Choirokoitia, the world-famous lace-making village of Pano Lefkara, and the impressively sited monastery at Stavrovouni. It is also where, in 2011, a catastrophic explosion ripped apart the Evangelos Florakis naval base. The damage is being repaired with commendable speed, but the political fallout rumbles on.
The earliest traces of civilization in the Larnaka region are the remains of two Neolithic villages at Tenta and Choirokoitia, which date from around 7000 BC. The history of the town itself stretches over 3000 years, having been founded in the late Bronze Age as Kittim (aka Cittium). Very early on, it was settled by the Myceneans, as part of their great outward expansion from mainland Greece. In the tenth century BC it became a ruin, probably as a result of earthquake followed by invasion but, from about 850 BC the town (now Kition) was developed as a copper-exporting port by the Phoenicians. The period of the wars between Greece and Persia was another difficult one for Larnaka – the city initially did very well by supporting the Persians, and in 450 BC successfully held out against the army of the famous general Kimon, who had arrived to try to add Cyprus to the Athenian empire. Kimon died during the siege of Larnaka – his marble bust stands on the promenade in the town – but the Greeks finally defeated Persia during the time of Alexander the Great, and conquered Cyprus in 323 BC.
During the following 350-plus years’ rule by first Greece then Rome (during which it became Christian under the first Bishop of Kition, Lazaros), Larnaka became little more than a minor provincial town. This humble status continued under Byzantine rule. The last Byzantine king of Cyprus – Komnemos – was defeated in 1191 AD at the Battle of Choirokoitia by Richard the Lionheart initiating, in the following year, the period of Frankish Lusignan rule across the island. From 1489 it was part of the Venetian empire, and suffered from the preference given by the new rulers to Famagusta and Lemesos. Kition was now called Salina (after the salt lake). From 1571 to 1878 the Ottomans ruled Cyprus, and at least one village in the region did very well – Lefkara. Another name-change – the final one – occurred during this time: the town became Larnaka, after the graves (“larnax” is a sarcophagus) that were found outside the town, having accumulated over its long history. Larnaka flourished during the late Ottoman period with the town, now the main port on the island, attracting foreign consuls and merchants and their families (many of whom are buried at Agios Lazaros). Under the British (1878 to 1960), Larnaka’s importance continued until it started to be eclipsed after World War II by Famagusta and Lemesos. Following the Turkish invasion in 1974, however, Larnaka became of primary importance thanks to its airport, which became the main point of entrance for visitors to the island after the closure of Nicosia International.