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 worse 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 physical damage was repaired with commendable speed, but the affect on political feeling and morale has proved longer-lasting.
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 time 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.
Top image: Pano Lefkara village © Evgeni Fabisuk/Shutterstock
AGIA NAPA (often appearing as Ayia Napa), 35km east of Larnaka, is not everybody’s cup of tea. If you want peace and quiet, or to commune with nature, or to get to grips with traditional Cypriot life, go somewhere else. But if you’re young and want the company of people of your own age and lots of stuff to do, or if you’re a family with teenagers who are easily bored – or if you find bars and restaurants flamboyantly advertising their presence with giant cows, or elephants, or huge cocktail glasses mounted on their roofs funny rather than tacky – this is one of the best holiday areas in Europe. The area is certainly overdeveloped, but no more so than any other typical Mediterranean package-holiday destination.
Though much of the resort’s appeal is down to its nightlife, there’s now a lot more to it than that. Its remarkably compact centre sits behind a surprisingly charming small harbour (Limanaki) with some fine stretches of sand, notably Nissi beach, running west from here. Look out too for Agia Napa Monastery and the excellent Thalassa Museum, the fine amusement park in the centre of town, and the colossal Waterworld Waterpark to the west.
In addition to larger-scale projects like the Sculpture Park and the Love Bridge, Agia Napa municipality has invested time and money in a range of street art, from the “Mermaid and the Fisherman” in the harbour area through pictures dotted around the area to the rather naff “I Love Ayia Napa” sculpture in the centre of the town.
Agia Napa festivals
Folk singing and dancing (April–Oct)
Every Sunday in Seferis Square.
Youth Festival (Aug)
Free three-day event held in the square next to Limanaki harbour, with music of all sorts but mainly rock and metal.
Agia Napa Festival (Sept)
Held annually since 1985, the town’s main festival is a feast of music, drama and dance, taking place largely in the town square and monastery.
Cultural Winter (Nov–April)
Concerts and recitals put on by the municipality in the town (t23816307 for details).
Agia Napa Monastery
Amid the bars and traffic of Agia Napa, it’s something of a shock to find a beautifully renovated monastery (originally a convent) – looking like a stern elderly relative from a bygone age frowning at all the nonsense going on around her. As with many religious sites in Cyprus, it comes with a complicated and confused story. A hunter, out with his dog, discovered a cave and spring in the woods. Not only did his mangy dog develop a new healthy-looking coat after bathing in the spring water, but the hunter also found an icon of the Virgin Mary in the cave, hidden there during iconoclastic attacks on such pictures in the eighth and ninth centuries. This story led to widespread belief in the miraculous powers of the water and the icon. In around 1500, a convent was built on the site as a refuge for a Venetian noblewoman whose father had refused her permission to marry a commoner. After the Ottoman conquest of 1571 the Roman Catholic Venetians were replaced by Greek Orthodox nuns, and in 1668 they in turn were replaced by monks. Today an Ecumenical Conference Centre, its courtyard and octagonal fountain are a haven of tranquillity at the heart of Agia Napa’s frenzy.
Guns, gangs and garage
Much of Agia Napa’s toxic reputation stems from the early 2000s when turf wars between different UK garage “crews” broke out during which several people (including a young Dizzee Rascal) were stabbed. Violence broke out again with the mafia-style shooting of three Cypriots and two Romanians on the streets of the town in June 2012 and the murder of a young British soldier in a bar-room brawl in November 2012. Since then, Agia Napa has suffered the things that any holiday, or indeed any urban, area, experiences – petty theft, noise pollution, road accidents. Some local people still complain about rowdy organized pub crawls and boorish behaviour, but compared to its wild west past, the town is now relatively sedate and family-friendly.
Three kilometres west of Agia Thekla (and a minute off the motorway – it’s clearly signposted) is Potamos Liopetriou, a long sinuous estuary of a small river, lined on both sides with traditional Cypriot fishing boats. Two tavernas overlook the river – the Potamos about halfway down the crowded river bank, and the Demetrion next to where the river disgorges into the bay beside a small sandy beach and a pretty little church. Even if you don’t read Greek, the picture of the killing of the dragon on the slate marker as you enter the churchyard leaves you in no doubt that the church is dedicated to St George. Potamos is a rare treat – there’s nothing quite like it anywhere else on the island.
The Thalassa Museum
Situated next to the tourist office, the Thalassa Museum (“Sea Museum”), which opened in 2006, emphasizes Agia Napa’s determination to be known for more than drunken revelry. The undoubted star of the show is the Kyrenia II, an exact replica of a fourth-century BC Greek merchant ship discovered off the coast of Kyrenia in the mid 1980s (the original is on show in Girne castle). There’s also a reconstruction of a papyrus vessel from much earlier times (9200 BC), though this is based on far less evidence than the Kyrenia II. Downstairs in the semi-basement is the Tornaritis-Pierides Marine Life Museum, a collection of stuffed birds, fish, mammals and sea turtles together with shells, corals, sponges and lobsters.
Around Agia Napa
A few kilometres northeast of Agia Napa are the fine beaches of Protaras, as well as rugged Cape Greko, perfect for exploring on foot or racing around in a dune buggy. Inland are the so-called “red villages” or Kokkinochorio, set among fields of red soil (hence the name) dotted with wind pumps and within spitting distance of the Turkish-occupied north. Deryneia, on a north slope facing Famagusta and with views across the modern part of that city, flourished until 1974, but is now a derelict ghost town.
This easternmost part of south Cyprus is easily accessible – the national motorway links it to the rest of the island, while other excellent main roads (the E306, 307 and 327) make moving around within it a doddle. It also boasts a good bus service and even well-marked footpaths.
A few kilometres north of Paralimni, DERYNEIA has a dinky square containing the usual war memorial, a small church, a village museum and a kafenío. So far so typical of many Cypriot villages. The unique thing about Deryneia, though, is its position on a hillside overlooking the Green Line, which offers impressive views over Gazimağusa in north Cyprus (the town is still defiantly known as Famagusta here). Nowhere are the effects of the 1974 invasion clearer or more affecting. At the bottom of the slope the Turkish flags, military buildings and barbed wire begin, and beyond them stretches the suburb of Varosha, once a vibrant coastal resort, now a sorry expanse of empty and increasingly dilapidated buildings.
The best place from which to view Varosha is the Cultural Centre of Occupied Famagusta, clearly signposted from the centre of the village. There’s a short video to watch, a diorama of Famagusta, and you can borrow binoculars or a telescope (free of charge) and climb up to the rooftop viewing area. The highly committed curator is happy to answer any questions, and will pick you up on your terminology if you refer to “the border” – borders are between countries, and north Cyprus is an occupied zone, not a country. You might also be told about the murders of two young Greek-Cypriot men in 1996, during demonstrations against the Turkish occupation. This makes for a sad, thought-provoking visit which emphasizes just what a disaster the events of 1974 were for both Greek- and Turkish-Cypriot communities on the island.
The area around Paralimni is dotted with villages known collectively as the KOKKINOCHORIA (singular Kokkinochorio), or “red villages”, which get their name from the rich red soil which surrounds them. This is market gardening country and is sprinkled with plastic greenhouses and the tall shapes of wind pumps which traditionally raised water from underground to irrigate the fields. There’s not an awful lot to see, though you’ll come across the odd museum – the Avgorou Ethnographical Museum (23923340) for example, well signposted from the A3 motorway, which offers an interesting if patchy picture of the past life of the village. Other notable villages in the area include Sotira, Frenaros and Xilofagou, all pleasant enough but lacking the present-day political interest of Deryneia.
PARALIMNI, which took over the role of regional capital when Famagusta was cut off by the Turkish invasion of 1974, is easier on the eye than a lot of people give it credit for. Though not exactly worth a special trip, it can be a welcome respite from the frenetic coastal strip. A big open town square boasts no fewer than three churches, all in a row – the big, brash new Agios Georgios, the mellow arcaded old Agios Georgios, and the appealing Panagia. Also around the square are a statue and memorial to local EOKA leader and regional commander-in-chief Tasos Markou (who disappeared during the 1974 invasion); a wind pump typical of those that dot this region’s landscape; and a rather good children’s playground. Around the corner from the square is an open-air theatre, and the town hall, frequently the scene of local weddings. Paralimni offers a range of shops and numerous bars, cafés and restaurants.
Beyond Cape Greko, and facing east, PROTARAS is a family-friendly version of its big brother, Agia Napa, along the coast. A long, linear strip from Agia Trias in the north to Fig Tree Bay in the south, Protaras largely fills in the space between the E306 Paralimni to Agia Napa road and the sea. In particular, it spreads along a one-way main street that loops down then rejoins the E306, with spurs heading east to the beaches. Its attractions are particularly human in scale and child-orientated – the Ocean Aquarium, the Magical Dancing Waters, the mini-golf courses and amusement arcades. Like Agia Napa, Protaras also has its share of intimate Blue Flag beaches.
Protaras beaches and Fig Tree Bay
Protaras more than outdoes Agia Napa in the range and quality of its beaches. At the far north of the town there’s the fishing shelter of Agia Triada (just past the aquarium), there’s bonny little harbour with a modern church, locals fishing off the rocks, and the ever-present Helen Snacks van providing sustenance. Just a couple of kilometres south, at Paralimni, a paved terrace overlooks a harbour full of fishing boats. There’s a taverna (with no name) with a terrace offering fine views of the harbour, and the photogenic church of Agios Nikolaos on the end of the promontory to the right. Beyond the church, palm trees sweep down to the sandy beach of Louma Bay and its clutch of hotels. Further south a number of other beaches have equally good sand and numerous hotels and restaurants – Pernera Bay, Potamos Bay, Vrissi Bay and, the jewel in Protaras’s crown, Fig Tree Bay, known for its beauty across the island. In some ways Fig Tree Bay (also known as Protaras Bay) is a victim of its own celebrity – the natural allure of its pellucid water, fine sand and, yes, even a few fig trees, has been tempered by wooden boardwalks, concrete steps, showers, and the roar of speedboats and jet-skis – but its setting is still hard to beat. A new paved walkway meanders northwards along the coast from Fig Tree Bay to Pernera.
Sun, sand and barbed wire
The area around Agia Napa is one of the regions of the south most affected by the Turkish invasion of 1974 – in much of it you cannot but be aware of the Green Line, of the UN troops manning it, and of Turkish-occupied north Cyprus in many places within clear view beyond. The area, too, has a continued UK presence in the British base at Dekelia. If you stay within Agia Napa itself, then the only indication you’re likely to have of this is the possible presence of British soldiers (though the town is supposedly out of bounds to them). But the short trip to Deryneia will give you a good view of ruined Varosha, left high and dry by the invasion, and you can visit Gazimağusa (Famagusta) in the north by using either of the crossing points in the area.
For many visitors to Cyprus, all they see of LARNAKA (the old spelling “Larnaca” is still commonly used) is its blinding-white salt lake, visible as you come in to land at the airport, or whatever can be glimpsed from the windows of a coach speeding off to the resorts to the east and west. This is a pity, because the city has a unique character and atmosphere worth sampling for a couple of days. It also makes an excellent base from which to explore the rest of the island, connected as it is by motorway to Pafos and Lemesos in the west, Lefkosia in the north, and Protaras and Agia Napa in the east.
Larnaka is easy to get to know. The road that follows the beach between the marina in the north and the fort in the south – Leoforos Athinon – has a host of hotels and restaurants along the landward side and a sunbed-and-parasol-packed beach to the seaward, lined by the stately palm trees that give the pedestrianized seashore its name – Foinikoudes (Palm Tree) Promenade. Many of the main sights, including the Municipal Cultural Centre, the ancient church of Agios Lazaros and the old fort, are a few steps away from this axis. Further west are the town’s archeological and natural history museums, the site of Ancient Kition, the Municipal Theatre and the impressive old Kamares Turkish aqueduct. South of the fort, along Piyale Pasa which continues to skirt the sea, are Skala, the old Turkish area now dominated by craft shops, the distinct holiday area of McKenzie Beach, and the huge salt lake with its haunting, palm-shaded Hala Sultan Tekke.
Larnaka’s cathedral, Agios Lazaros is just around the corner from the Grand Mosque – between them they marked the border between the Greek and Turkish Cypriot parts of town. Lazaros was one of the earliest Christians, having, famously, died and been brought back to life by Christ (see box below). Dating from the ninth-century AD when it was built to house the remains of the saint, the church has been through many changes. The southern portico was added in the eighteenth century, as was much of the internal woodwork – the iconostasis, the altar and the bishop’s throne. Finally, in 1857 the belfry completed the building as it now stands. The inside of the church has the usual Greek Orthodox sumptuousness, all carvings and gold leaf and brass, if a little muted by a fire in the 1970s. Look out in particular for the twelfth-century icon of St Lazaros, and, down some steps to the right after you’ve entered, the (empty) coffin of the saint himself.
Foinikoudes (Palm Tree) promenade
Lined with hotels, cafés, restaurants and its titular palm trees, Foinikoudes probably shouldn’t work, yet it does. Thronged with pedestrians, joggers, cyclists and mothers wheeling buggies, it radiates relaxation for both residents and holiday-makers. Try it on a Sunday evening, when it is thronged with Cypriots of all ages – family groups, children chasing after each other, flirting teenagers, old folk taking the air, as well as a fair contingent of visitors.
Hala Sultan Tekke Mosque
On the shore at the far end of the salt lake from Larnaka is one of Cyprus's most important Muslim sites, the Hala Sultan Tekke Mosque. With its elegant domes and minaret peeping out from a grove of palm and cypress trees on the shimmering edge of the lake (if you’re lucky the lake will be full of pink flamingos) the mosque is extremely atmospheric, only slightly marred by the distracting wind turbines located on the hillside behind.
The reason for the mosque’s veneration is the presence of the tomb of Umm Haram, variously described as the friend or wet nurse of Mohammed. One of the earliest followers of the Prophet, the story goes that she accompanied an invading Arab force in 649 AD, was immediately thrown by her mule and was killed. A mosque was built on the site of her burial beneath, legend has it, stones from a prehistoric dolmen that stood on the spot.
There’s a public footpath (the Kyprida Afroditi) along the edge of the lake to the mosque, with periodic benches (you’ll need them if it’s a hot day). Entry to the mosque’s environs is through a couple of elegant gateways, and past a sign directing you to recently discovered prehistoric remains. A hexagonal kiosk (sadirvan) outside the mosque’s entrance allows the faithful to wash their feet before prayer – non-believers simply have to remove their shoes.
Inside, the mosque is attractively human in scale, the floor lined with decorative prayer mats. The tomb of Umm Haram, guarded by a golden gate and lush green curtains, takes pride of place, while five other tombs, including that of the grandmother of King Hussein of Jordan – erected around 1930, it’s a big, white two-storey affair – can be seen in a separate alcove off to the left. Yet another legend attached to the mosque is that the three stones of the dolmen that stands over the graves flew here from Mecca on the day of Umm Haram’s death, and that the fifteen-tonne crosspiece was once suspended in midair, before coming to rest on the pillars. Incidentally, the current mosque is not particularly ancient, having been built in the early nineteenth century. But the whole scenic set piece reminds you that Cyprus lies on the very border of Western Europe and the Middle East.
Despite being less overtly touristy than other island resorts there are a fair number of things to do dotted around Larnaka, many involving the sea. For divers it has one major advantage: the wreck of the Zenobia, one of the finest in the Mediterranean. Dive-In (24627469) and Alpha Divers Dive Centre (99866383) both arrange dives to the Zenobia as do Dive Zenobia, who also put on a range of cruises and fishing trips.
For beach-based activities try Central Water Sports (99465855), in the hotel complex north of town on the Larnaka–Dhekelia Road, which offers the full range of parasailing, windsurfing, waterskiing, wakeboarding, speedboat/pedalo/canoe and dinghy rental, as well as banana boat rides. For a land-based adrenaline rush try Quad Bike Safari (24647729) on Dekelia road. Otherwise there’s ten-pin bowling at K-Max Bowling Centre (77778373) in the same complex as the K Cineplex.
As with towns and villages across Cyprus, Larnaka loves its festivals, and the major religious festivals are celebrated in the town with unrivalled enthusiasm. In addition, there are several celebrations that are unique to the town.
Procession of St Lazaros (April)
Celebration of the feast day of the town’s patron saint, which involves a procession through the streets headed by the icon of the saint normally kept in the church.
With pagan roots going back to ancient Greece, Anthestiria celebrates the arrival of spring with parades of floats where the emphasis is on fresh flowers, which are carried down to the seafront.
Larnaka Summer Festival (July)
A great celebration of the arts – drama, music, dance, film and poetry – at venues across the town.
August Village Festivals (August)
Look out for village festivals throughout the region – live music, traditional Greek dancing and lots of food and wine.
Once little more than a tumbledown ruin, Larnaka’s fort, at the southern end of the promenade and separating it from Piyale Pasa and the old Turkish quarter, now provides a fine ending to the long promenade and beach. The fort was built during the reign of the Lusignan King of Cyprus, James I (1382–98 AD); it then fell into disrepair, was rebuilt by the Ottomans in the early seventeenth century, and was used as a prison by the British. Once through the Ottoman two-storey building which blocks off the end of the promenade, and past a row of medieval canons, you’ll see to the immediate right a wooden staircase leading to the fort museum. Though it’s all a bit jumbled, broadly Room I contains displays of early Christian artefacts, Room II photographs relating to the Byzantine period, and Room III an excellent collection offourteenth- to sixteenth-century Byzantine and Islamic glazed pottery – the greens and browns of the sgraffito ware are truly stunning. There’s also a reconstructed “divan room” – the sort of place where you’d lie around puffing dubious substances in your hookah. When you go back downstairs, you’ll find that the lush gardens (which host summer evening concerts) are worth lingering in. In the far right-hand corner a flight of steps gives access to the battlements, with fine views across the city.
The Sinking of the Zenobia
The wreck of the Zenobia lies in 43m of water some 1.5km off Larnaka. The story of its sinking remains something of a mystery. A brand new roll-on/roll-off ferry, launched in Sweden in 1979, the Zenobia embarked on its maiden voyage to Syria in 1980, sailing from Malmö and through the Straits of Gibraltar. As it approached Greece, steering problems started to develop, and the ship began listing to port. It became clear that a computer malfunction was causing excess water to be pumped into the ballast tanks. The problem apparently solved, the ship continued to Cyprus. While in Larnaka harbour, however, the listing recurred and got worse. Eventually the captain was ordered to take her out of the harbour, in case she sank and became a hazard to other ships. Anchored offshore, the situation got worse, so much so that the captain ordered the crew to abandon ship. In the early hours of 7 June, 1980 she turned turtle and sank.
Compared to the usual shipwreck, the whole drama was played out relatively slowly, and as a result there was no loss of life (though several divers have been drowned in the wreck since). Apart from the catastrophic failure of a state-of-the-art ferry, the mystery is that despite her intrinsic value and the €200 million cargo she carried (including over 100 lorries), no investigation was ever carried out, and the owners never tried to collect the insurance. It’s an ill wind, though – the wreck of the Zenobia is now considered to be one of the best dive sites in the world.
West of Larnaka
The area to the west of Larnaka is an almost polar opposite to the in-your-face tourism and the ever-present political division to the east. Instead you’ll find a rural hinterland of farmland and small villages, with Venetian towers, churches, monasteries and convents, little ports like Zygi, and Troodos foothill villages. In particular, look out for Neolithic settlements at Tenta and Choirokoitia, the eccentric museum of naive artist Costas Argyrou at Mazotos, a camel park in the same village, and a museum of embroidery and silver (and lots of lace and silverware shops) in Lefkara.
The big bang: January 11, 2011
In the early hours of January 11, 2011, thousands of people in Larnaka district were awoken by a huge explosion at the Evangelos Florakis naval base just outside Zygi. A hundred containers of gunpowder and other explosives being stored at the base (confiscated from a Cyprus-registered ship taking them from Iran to the Gaza Strip in 2009) had ignited, either spontaneously or by the spread of a bush fire. Thirteen people died in the blast, among them the commander-in-chief of the navy, and damage was caused throughout the area. Cars on the Lemesos to Larnaka motorway were showered with debris, almost all the windows in Zygi were smashed, schools in both British Sovereign bases had to be closed and the BBC transmitters broadcasting to the Middle East went off the air. The power station at nearby Vassilikou, which produced around half of the country’s electricity, was destroyed. As a result, a rolling programme of power cuts had to be introduced, and generators brought in from Greece and Israel. Disputes as to who was to blame started immediately and continue to this day.
Beyond the Neolithic site on the F112, at the top of a long hill, stands CHOIROKOITIA itself, a village that occupies a long ridge with splendid views. It is reputedly the site of two influential medieval battles. The first was between Richard the Lionheart and Isaac Komnemos the then ruler of Cyprus, in 1191 – it is said that the final capture of Komnenos took place at Choirokoitia. The other battle took place in 1426 during the latter part of Lusignan rule. King Janus of Cyprus lost to a Mamluk/Egyptian army (partly because he couldn’t give his troops the wine they wanted before battle), was captured, and spent ten months being humiliated before he was ransomed and returned to Cyprus. There’s not much left to see of this “Battle of Choirokoitia” – just a small church where Janus was captured, and the remains of a Knights Templar tower where the crucial lack of wine became apparent. They’re a few hundred metres up a dirt track west of the village, signposted respectively “Panayia tou Campou” (the church) and “Vasilicos Ekos” (the tower).
The Costas Argyrou Museum
On the edge of Mazotos village is the excellent Costas Argyrou Museum. Costas Argyrou was a local man, born in 1917. During his fifties he visited Larnaka’s archeological museum, which inspired him to devote the rest of his life to art. Untrained and working in the naive tradition, he started producing the range of paintings, sculptures, mosaics and woodcarvings now on show here. The themes are religion, mythology and the history of Cyprus, all created with an understated sense of humour and an eclectic use of materials. Next to the museum is a small church in which the artist had wanted to be buried along with his wife (he died in 2001). The authorities refused permission and he was buried in the local cemetery, so now two empty tombs take up the central floor space. There’s a final footnote to this remarkable story. Argyrou designed the museum building himself, but, being as untrained in architecture as he was in art, it experienced all sorts of structural problems, which became the bane of its administrators.
Death on the Green Line
Ever since the Turkish invasion in 1974, incidents have flared up along the Green Line. Two of the worst happened in 1996. That year was the 22nd anniversary of the Turkish invasion of Cyprus, and to mark the occasion over two hundred bikers left Berlin to ride to Lefkosia in order to demonstrate against the occupation. Under pressure from the UN, the bikers were persuaded not to cross into north Cyprus. However, on August 11, a group of Greek-Cypriot demonstrators ignored this and entered the Buffer Zone near Deryneia. Facing them were several hundred members of the Grey Wolves, a Turkish far-right group, as well as military personnel armed with batons. During the confusion, a young Greek Cypriot called Tassos Isaac was surrounded by a mob and beaten to death. Three days later, on August 14, during further demonstrations sparked by Isaac’s funeral, Solomos Solomou, a relative of Isaac, climbed a flagpole in the Buffer Zone to pull down a Turkish flag. He was shot three times and died at the scene.
The two murders had several consequences. They represented a spectacular public relations own goal for Turkey and the north, having occurred in front of a scrum of journalists and photographers there to cover the demonstrations. The killers of both young Greek Cypriots were easily identified from numerous photographs and videos taken at the scene: Isaac was killed by a combination of Turkish settlers and Turkish Cypriots, Solomou by none other than the minister of agriculture of north Cyprus. Isaac and Solomou have since became martyrs to both Greek Cypriots and to citizens of Greece, and the whole tragedy drew further attention to the bitter division of the island.
Mazotos Camel Park
Some 10km west of Kiti, by the sleepy village of Mazotos, and well signposted (look out for little silhouettes of camels), is the Mazotos Camel Park, a sure-fire hit with families. In addition to over fifty haughty, lugubrious camels (rides last 15min) there are ponies, donkeys, goats, ostriches, loads of amusements (a flight simulator, table tennis, bumper cars, mini-motorbikes, trampoline, bouncy castle) and, oddly, reconstructions of a Cypriot farmhouse and a Bedouin tent. There’s also a souvenir shop, an ice-cream kiosk, a swimming pool and a surprisingly good restaurant.
The three valleys that run north from the main Larnaka–Lemesos roads (to Kalavasos, Tochni and Choirokoitia), contain two extremely important Neolothic sites, both well signposted from both the A1 and the B1.
You can’t miss the TentaNeolithic Village – it’s protected by a sort of modern wigwam, erected in 1995, that can be seen for many kilometres around (including from the A1 motorway that passes nearby). Discovered in 1947 and further excavated between 1976 and 1984, the site was probably originally settled about 9000 years ago. It consists of the remains of clusters of circular huts made of limestone, sun-dried mud bricks and probably timber. Around 150 Neolithic people lived here, with their sheep, goats and pigs (but not cattle, for some reason). The dead were buried under the floor or just outside the huts; there were no grave goods, but numerous utensils and ornaments (now in museums in Lefkosia and Larnaka) were found.
Access to the site is via wooden steps and walkways, and huts are clearly numbered and explained on information boards. Look out particularly for Structure 35, where red ochre was worked (it contained a large stone basin with lumps of partially worked ochre and the stone tools used to grind it), and Structure 11, which had ochre wall paintings of two human figures with arms raised. Entry to the site includes a pamphlet which outlines its history and the finds associated with it – just enough detail to contextualize what you see, but not enough to be tedious. Tenta really is a must-visit – all archeological sites should be this imaginatively displayed and clearly and comprehensively explained.
Chorokoitia archeological site
The Choirokoitia archeological site, originating about 9,000 years ago,is of similar age and type to the Tenta one, but is much more extensive, and contains modern reconstructions of what the circular huts might have looked like. Discovered in 1934, and excavated from 1936 to 1946, with additional work having been done since 1976, Choirokoitia became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1998.
The site lies on a steep hillside, accessed via a lung-busting flight of steps. Uniquely, this Neolithic village had a massive defensive wall (of which a stretch of around nearly 200m still stands to a height of 4m or more on the side not protected by the river), and there’s a vast entrance structure consisting of three flights of steps designed not only to allow those entering the village to climb up from the lower, external level, but also to act as a first line of defence against enemies. The huts vary in size, though are usually around 10m external diameter, 5m internally, and as at Tenta are built of stone and sun-dried mud bricks, with a probable timber superstructure. Interestingly, huts are clustered together around common courtyards, presumably according to function or family size, with this open area being used for activities such as grinding corn. The reconstructed huts at the bottom of the actual site were made as far as possible using only materials, techniques and skills available to the people of that time, so the mud bricks were made without moulds, and only pine timber was used. In addition to four complete reconstructed huts, a couple of “cut-away” reconstructions house excellent information boards.
After the exertions of the site, especially if you’ve climbed right to the top, you could do worse than stop for drinks and a snack at the Chrismarie Bakery at the entrance to the car park.
The best-known hill village in this region is PANO (UPPER) LEFKARA (there’s also Kato – Lower – Lefkara just down the hill, but there’s not a lot there), which stands at almost 700m above sea level, at the end of the excellent E105 that climbs up to it from the Larnaka to Lemesos road. (Parking is not allowed on the streets – they’re too narrow – but there’s a new two-storey car park at the top of the village, near the post office.)
Though pretty enough, Pano Lefkara’s main claim to fame, attracting numerous tour coaches to the village, is its lace, embroidery and silverware. A local, probably apocryphal, legend suggests that Leonardo da Vinci was so impressed with the lace that he bought some for the altar cloth for Milan Cathedral. Today the village exports goods all over the world. Women in the village (seen patiently working their needles outside) are said to pass on their skills to their daughters when they get to the age of ten, while the men ply their trade making silver ornaments and jewellery. It is difficult to fathom how true this is today, and a lot of the stuff you’ll see on sale is manufactured elsewhere, but there is still a good proportion of top-quality lace and embroidery for sale here. Be prepared, however, for ferociously hard sells and cunning subterfuges to get you into shops. Try D & A Lefkara Handicraft centre (t24342686) on the left before you enter the village, or Harry and Maria Loizou (t24342204).
Clearly signposted in the village centre, the Patsalos Museum of Traditional Embroidery and Silversmithwork (to give it its full, rather long-winded, title) is located in a magnificent old house with blue doors and shutters (it belonged to one of the richest families in the village). A visit to the museum gives you a feel for what real Lefkara lace and embroidery looks like, and also displays furniture, textiles and pottery in a series of elegant, high-ceilinged rooms.
South of Pyrga, and accessible from the old Lemesos to Lefkosia road (the B1), the monastery of Stavrovouni (“Hill of the Cross”) – the oldest in Cyprus – tops an impressive 690m hill that rises steeply from the surrounding plain. According to legend the original monastery was established by St Helena in 327 AD to house some of the numerous relics she brought back from Jerusalem – a piece of the True Cross, the whole of that of the penitent thief, and pieces of rope and nails used in the Crucifixion. The monastery buildings were destroyed in 1426 after the battle of Choirokoitia, again in 1570 during the Ottoman conquest, and yet again by fire in 1888 – so the current buildings date from the late nineteenth century.
With strong historical links with the monasteries of Mount Athos in northeastern Greece, the monks follow a similar regimen, setting aside a third of their day for prayer, a third for physical labour, and a third for rest. For the same reason Stavrovouni is the only Cypriot monastery that follows the Mount Athos practice of banning females – even baby girls are not allowed within its precinct. Ironic, really, given that the monastery was allegedly established by a woman. Photography is also banned (the whole mountain sits in the middle of a military zone). So men who visit the monastery must leave their cameras and their female companions at the gift shop/bookshop entrance. Women are allowed into the church at the opposite side of the car park, though this may be scant recompense.
St Helena, relic-finder general
Saint Helena (Agia Eleni) is a figure shrouded in mystery. The mother of the Emperor Constantine, nobody’s sure where or when she was born, where she spent her early years, or even whether she was married to Constantine’s father Constinius or was just his mistress. However, she burst into history when her son, by then emperor, asked her to visit the Holy Land to find and recover Judeo-Christian relics. Her trip took place during the years 326–328 AD – by which time she was in her seventies. While there, she investigated the scenes of Christ’s birth, crucifixion and ascension, and had built the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and the Church of the Mount of Olives over the first and last of these. During the excavations, she is said to have discovered parts of Christ’s tunic, ropes and nails used to bind him to the Cross, the cross of the penitent thief, and the True Cross itself (identified by its power to cure the sick). On her way back to Rome, the story goes, she came to Cyprus and built more churches, leaving relics in Tochni and Stavrovouni. She died around 330 AD, and her tomb can today be seen in the Italian capital.