Cyprus // Lemesos and around //

Agios Nikolaos ton Gaton (St Nicholas of the Cats)

Just after the environmental centre, a narrow road leads off the main highway, heading due east across the southern edge of the salt lake. After about 2.5km, a parking area on the right marks the entrance to the monastery of Agios Nikolaos ton Gaton. Originally established in 325 AD, the present buildings date from the thirteenth to the fifteenth centuries. Surrounded by citrus groves, and altogether rather unprepossessing, the monastery owes its celebrity to the presence of the cats that give it its name. They were introduced, it is said, by St Helena, to keep the monastery clear of snakes or, as another racier version has it, to replace young boys as companions for the monks. The monastery was abandoned after the sixteenth-century Ottoman invasion, but has since been taken in hand by an order of nuns who are bringing it back to life (and who look at visitors rather as if they expect them to make off with the silver). There seems to be a cheerful acceptance of modern life – air conditioning, plastic patio furniture – as well as the retention of older things, not only the buildings themselves, but in the grounds, an old well and water trough. The practice of keeping cats around ecclesiastical buildings spread to other parts of Cyprus and beyond – indeed, today, you’ll see far more cats in Larnaka’s Hala Sultan Tekke than in St Nicholas of the Cats.