Lemesos (Limassol) is the republic’s second city and premier port, with a reputation for fast living, frenetic (and occasionally sleazy) nightlife, fine hotels and sophisticated restaurants. The rest of the region boasts numerous traditional villages, the outstanding archeological sites of Amathus and Kourion, two of the greatest Crusader castles in Lemesos and Kolossi, and, in the Troodos foothills, a wealth of pretty hill villages and vineyards, the latter linked by well-marked wine routes.
The coast east of Lemesos has its fair share of vast hotel complexes attached to mediocre beaches, though there are enough amusement parks (including the island’s largest water park) to keep children and young adults entertained. If you’re seeking something quieter, head south and west towards, and beyond, the British Sovereign Base at Akrotiri, which has blocked development in those directions. With good motorway links with Pafos, Lefkosia, Larnaka and Ayia Napa, and good links by ordinary road with the Troodos Mountains, Lemesos is one of the most convenient places to stay on the island.
The AKROTIRI PENINSULA lies southwest of Lemesos, the bulk of it occupied by the British Sovereign Base, one of two retained by the UK when Cyprus became independent in 1960. Driving through it can be a disorienting experience, since it looks and feels like a chunk of suburban England, out of place in the climate of Cyprus’s southernmost point. However much one feels that this remnant of Britain’s imperial past is somehow inappropriate to the twenty-first century, it has had the collateral benefit of stopping the westward spread of Lemesos’s unattractive sprawl.
There’s not a lot to draw the visitor out onto the peninsula itself but a few attractions are well worth the drive.
In the middle of the flatlands to the south of the Akrotiri Peninsula’s salt lake lies 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 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’s a small one-room shop run by the nuns. Part of the appeal of the monastery is that its practice of keeping cats around ecclesiastical buildings spread to other parts of Cyprus and beyond – though today you’ll see far more cats in Larnaka’s Hala Sultan Tekke than in St Nicholas of the Cats.
The Akrotiri Peninsula is of great environmental significance, having been designated a wetland of international importance in 2003 under the Ramsar Convention. It is also interesting geologically, having once been a separate island now joined to the rest of Cyprus. At its centre is a salt lake similar to the one in Larnaka, which fills with water in winter and dries out in summer. The peninsula boasts 27 natural habitats hosting a wide diversity of plants, animals and birds – the famous greater flamingo, but also the glossy ibis, the demoiselle crane and a variety of other waders, ducks and gulls.
Between Lemesos and the border with Larnaka district, and equally accessible (and well signposted) from the A1 motorway and B1 coast road, is one of Cyprus’s best known beaches, Governor’s Beach, and one of its greatest archeological sites at AncientAmathus.
Nine kilometres or so east of Lemesos centre and clearly visible right next to the B1 coast road, Ancient Amathus (Amathous) is of enormous significance in the history of Cyprus, with origins that can be traced back over three thousand years. The city was probably first established by Greek islanders fleeing from the eastward spread of the Dorian invasion around 1000 BC, though myth has it that a pregnant Ariadne, eloping with Theseus from Minoan Crete, died in childbirth at Amathus and was buried nearby. By around 800 BC the city had been settled and developed by the Phoenicians, and a new harbour built. During this time temples to Aphrodite and Hercules were established (Amathus was one of Hercules’s sons). During the Roman occupation it became one of four prosperous regional capitals, but subsequently suffered Arab raids in the seventh century AD, and attack by Richard the Lionheart in 1191. It became largely forgotten until it was identified in the late nineteenth century by British archeologists A.H. Smith and J.L. Myers, and excavated from the 1970s onwards by the French School of Athens.
Today the broad areas of ancient Amathus can, with effort, be discerned, with the open agora, or market place backed by the acropolis hill behind. The outline of houses can be seen, together with sections of wall, the rills and pipes of a water distribution system, a temple and several later Byzantine basilicas. Many of the finds from the site can be seen in Lemesos’s Archeological Museum and Lefkosia’s Cyprus Museum; others have been plundered during Cyprus’s periods of occupation – a two-metre-high, fourteen-tonne stone jar is now in the Louvre in Paris, for example.
A pretty group of coves notable for its dark sand and bright white cliffs, Governor’s Beach lies just off the A1, and gets very busy, especially at weekends. It has all the facilities you need for a civilized day at the seaside – tavernas, showers, beach umbrellas and loungers – with easy access via a clifftop path and a number of flights of steps down to the sand. The eastward view from the beach, once merely unedifyingly industrial, now takes in the dramatic aftermath of the island’s worst peacetime disaster, the Evangelos Florakis Naval Base explosion of January, 2011. The remains of the Vasilikou power station squat next to the base’s red and white chimneys, with the radio masts of the BBC relay station at Zygi in the background.
LEMESOS (still widely known as “Limassol”) is a teeming multicultural city of just over 184,000 inhabitants, which grew substantially after 1974, when Greek Cypriots flooded in from the north. Since then, it has welcomed migrants from Lebanon, Iraq and other Middle Eastern trouble spots. Russians, too, are very much in evidence – you’ll see Cyrillic script in menus and shop signs across town.
The city centre is remarkably compact. It stretches about 1km from the castle and old harbour to the Municipal Gardens in the west. Near the castle are a cathedral and mosque as well as the cool cafés, bars and restaurants of the Carob Mill complex. Inland is the old Turkish quarter, ideal for aimless wanderings. Along the seafront a 16km pedestrian and cycle path links the old town with sandy beaches further east.
After a lengthy period of remodelling which started in 2007, Lemesos city centre has emerged transformed. Extensive pedestrianization, and development of the palm-fringed seafront, Old Portandmarina have changed what was a hot, dusty, traffic-dominated hell into a peaceful, people-friendly place in which to potter about, with lots of shops, cafés, bars and restaurants and enough museum-type attractions to be getting on with.
Once a nondescript fishing village overshadowed by its eminent neighbours Kourion to the west and Amathus to the east, Lemesos became a little more high profile when its competitors were destroyed in seventh-century Saracen raids. However, it was Richard the Lionheart who really put it on the map when he landed to rescue his sister Joan and his fiancée Berengaria from the ruler of Cyprus Isaac Komnenos.
The city received another boost to its fortunes a century later when, with the fall of Acre, the two great Crusader organizations, the Knights Templar and the Knights Hospitallers, fell back to Cyprus and made Lemesos their headquarters. When the Templars were purged and outlawed in 1307, the Hospitallers adopted their lands and their influence. Lemesos’s story during the following two centuries was one of prosperity interspersed with earthquakes and attacks from the sea. During the Ottoman occupation from the sixteenth century onwards, it settled back into obscurity, stymied by a swingeing harbour duty designed to concentrate trade in Larnaka. This trend was partially reversed under British rule, with road building and harbour improvements, and in particular by the huge growth in British Empire demand for the region’s wine. By the end of the nineteenth century Lemesos was established as a major port. Its importance has since been enhanced by the Turkish invasion, which not only denied the republic access to the port of Famagusta, but also created an influx of refugees from the north which more than tripled its population.
Immediately behind the castle lies the Carob Mill Complex, a great example of a tasteful urban regeneration project. This L-shaped group of pristine early twentieth-century industrial buildings in mellow yellow stone consists of the Carob Museum and cultural centre, and to the southwest a string of hip modern restaurants and bars (among them the Artima Bistro and the Draught Microbrewery). The museum houses some impressively large and complete carob-crushing equipment, still in use up to the 1970s, together with displays centring on this important local industry. The exhibition area hosts a variety of events, many concerned with food – Greek cooking, for example, or molecular cuisine; others involve musical recitals, concerts and lectures.
Found across the Mediterranean region, the carob tree (Ceratoniasiliqua) grows up to 10m tall, and produces broad-bean-like pods which, when ripe, turn black and fall to the ground. The pods are then eaten by animals and birds (or become stuck to the soles of your shoes), which helps to distribute the seeds far and wide.
Carob production has a long history in Cyprus. It was an important source of sugar before cane and beet (carob syrup was known as “black gold”). It is still widely used as a substitute for chocolate in baking and in health foods, and has been an ingredient in the production of everything from film stock to medicine. You’ll see carob warehouses in many of the island’s coastal towns, such as Zygi and Lakki.
Carnival (10 days before Lent) All the usual components of a carnival are held in various parts of the city: masque balls, parties, parades of floats, fancy dress, singing, dancing, eating and drinking.
Flower Festival (early May) Includes traditional singing and dancing, a craft market as well as the flower parade along the seafront. Held in the Potamos Yermasoyia district, 3km east of the old town.
European Dance Festival Performances by European and Cypriot dance groups in the Rialto Theatre.
Russian–Cypriot Festival (early June) A sign of the growing influence of Russia on Cyprus. Dance, music, clowns, fireworks and a lot of commercial displays.
Shakespeare Festival Plays by the bard mounted in the spectacular ancient theatre at Kourion.
Amathusia Festival Performance by a variety of contemporary dance groups, music groups and choirs. Only of interest to those who want to get an insight into Cyprus’s serious music scene, though the setting, in the ruins of Ancient Amathous, is wonderful.
Ethnic World Music Festival World music performed at the Rialto Theatre.
Lemesos Beer Festival Free entrance, live music, and lots of local and imported beer. Held, like the wine festival, in the Municipal Gardens.
Lemesos Wine Festival(mid-Sept) Tastings and talks from dozens of Cypriot wine producers.
Over two weekends in the middle of September the Municipal Gardens are transformed into a tent city as the Lemesos Wine Festival hits town. The festival offers, in the words of the organizers “a revival of ancient festive manifestations of worship of Dionysus and Aphrodite” or, to the more cynical, a chance to get very drunk. Dozens of Cypriot wine producers offer tastings and talks, and there’s plenty of information on the island’s wine routes. It’s an inclusive, fun affair – giant figures dressed in traditional Cypriot costume wander around the park holding bunches of grapes in one hand and wine bottles in the other. Free buses run to the festival from all over Cyprus, and entry fees are modest.
The redevelopment of Lemesos' Old Port and Marina has revitalized the area just to the south of the city centre. A new pier, a remodelled haven full of fishing boats, and an extensive modern marina, packed with chain restaurants and interspersed with high-end shops, have turned the area into a focal point for the city. Although of burgeoning popularity, it’s fair to say that there’s little that is typically Cypriot in all this – you could be anywhere in Europe or indeed America. Access to the area is good, with a new surface car park next to the Old Port, a new two-storey one behind the marina and even a “Nextbike” rental station. And it’s a five-minute walk from the city centre.
In April 1191 Richard the Lionheart of England was sailing from Messina to Acre on the Third Crusade when his fleet was dispersed by a storm. A number of ships were wrecked on the Cypriot coast, one carrying treasure destined to finance the campaign, another his sister Joan and his fiancé Berengaria. At the start of May Richard landed in Lemesos and demanded that the ruler of Cyprus, one Isaac Komnenos, return the two women and the treasure (which loomed largest in his mind it is difficult to say). Komnenos, who had a reputation as a violent bully, refused, so Richard promptly sacked the city and went on to conquer the rest of the island. This was done under the leadership of Guy de Lusignan, one of Richard’s crusader generals and at the time nominal king of the crusader state of Jerusalem. Komnenos was captured and put in silver chains (since, so the story goes, he’d been promised that he would never be put in irons). While this was going on, Richard and Berengaria were married in Lemesos, he becoming king of Cyprus, she becoming queen of both Cyprus and England. Richard then proceeded to pick up the reins of his main priority – the Crusade. To raise money for this expensive endeavour, he sold Cyprus to the Knights Templar who, when they found it more bother than it was worth, passed it on to Guy de Lusignan, who became first in a long line of Lusignan rulers of the island.
Spreading in an arc north of Lemesos, the Troodos foothills offer an opportunity to get away from the brashness and heat of the city and the coast. This is open countryside that rises in a series of ridges towards the heights of the Troodos massif, dotted with hill villages that have supported themselves over the centuries by cultivating citrus fruits, olives and above all wine. The southward-facing slopes provide the perfect terroir for growing grapes (particularly indigenous Mavro and Xynisteri as well as imported Grenache and Cabernet Sauvignon varieties), something they’ve been doing in this area for over five thousand years.
It’s not easy to explore the foothills of Lemesos District in any systematic way. One approach would be to follow the wine routes organized by the Cyprus Tourism Organisation and contained in a useful free guidebook available from tourist centres and participating wineries.
Another approach might be to cluster the villages to be visited into geographical groups – the ones sometimes called the “Krassochoria” (Wine Villages) to the west, the group in the centre, once ruled by the Hospitallers in Kolossi and known collectively as the Koumandaria, and the villages to the east marketed, rather hopefully, by the tourist authorities as “the Cypriot Tuscany”. Or you can, of course, simply meander through the region, going where the spirit takes you. Do, though, stick to the main roads, even though this can mean a lot of doubling back – what on the map may look like a tempting short-cut between villages could turn out to be a rutted dirt road for which you’ll need a 4WD.
OMODOS is the epitome of the Troodos foothills wine village. That’s why it attracts so many visitors and that’s why it’s lambasted for being too touristy. Don’t listen to the critics – if you’ve only got time for one village, make it this one. Surrounded by vineyards, Omodos is laid out around a large pedestrianized cobbled square which slopes gently down to Timiou Stavrou (Holy Cross) Monastery. Around the square is a bunch of souvenir shops, together with a good range of tavernas/café-bars: check out the Village Inn, for example. There’s a massive old wine press near the square, dating from the Lusignan period, while 1km north is the Ktima Gerolemo winery, which offers winery tours and wine tasting (25422122), as well as a gift shop. In addition to wine, Omodos also makes zivania, an explosive spirit, together with a number of sweets made from wine must.
Outside the entrance to Timiou Stavrou (Holy Cross) Monastery, a statue commemorates a past abbot, Dositheos, who was one of 486 Greek Cypriots beheaded or hanged in Nicosia by the Turkish authorities on July 10, 1821 during the Greek War of Independence. Inside, what was the monastery church now acts as the parish church, while several of the rooms and outbuildings have been colonized by the Struggle Museum, which has lots of memorabilia of the EOKA campaign against the British. Other areas of the monastery host an Icon Museum, which not only includes icons, but also decorative woodcarving (look up at the ceiling for a wonderful example), and an Ecclesiastical Museum. The museums give an interesting taste of how the village sees itself.
The Cyprus Tourist Organisation’s excellent guide to wine routes in Pafos and Lemesos Districts is a must for any oenophiles visiting Cyprus. Six routes are described, three in Pafos District, three in Lemesos District. The routes are also clearly signposted on the ground with signs that are, appropriately, a Burgundy colour. Each route includes a summary of the climate, terrain, vineyards and grape varieties to be experienced, a detailed description of the roads to be travelled and the villages to be visited, and a list of wineries and tavernas to be found along the way, together with a lot of advice on the storage and drinking of wine. The Lemesos District is covered by Route 4 (the Krassochoria), Route 5 (Koumandaria) and Route 6 (Pitsilia).
To the west of Lemesos city centre lie three fine attractions: the greatest Greco-Roman site on the island at Kourion, the best-preserved Crusader castle at Kolossi, and a fine private Wine Museum at Erimi. All are a short drive from each other and from the centre of Lemesos. Beyond them are meandering lanes and some surprisingly uncrowded beaches – the British base at Akrotiri stopped the westward spread of the city – and the stylish resort of Pissouri Bay.
The Kourion complex of archeological sites (including the Sanctuary of Apollo) is blessed with both archeological significance and a spectacular location. Sitting high on a hill overlooking the deep blue of the Mediterranean, its tumble of ochre columns and walls, its theatre set like a fossilized shell into the hillside, its paved roads and mosaic floors are both spectacular and well-preserved, offering a portal through which we can glimpse life as it was lived two thousand years ago. Settlement in the area goes back to Neolithic times, with the city of Kourion itself being established during the Mycenean and Dorian invasions of Cyprus from about 1200 BC. Nearly all of what you can see today, though, is of Roman origin, revealed by excavations from the 1930s onwards by a series of American teams, and from 1964 by the Cypriot Department of Antiquities.
After passing through the main entrance, visit the pavilion area which houses a relief model of the whole site as well as a small cafeteria and toilets. Immediately in front of the pavilion are two of the gems of the site. The House of Estolios, sitting under its elegant timber protective roof, gives a good idea of the sort of luxury enjoyed by a rich Roman of the fourth or fifth century AD, with its numerous rooms, courtyards, bath complex and intricate mosaic floors of fish, birds, and one of a young woman holding a measuring rod, with the word “Ktisis” (“Creation”) above it. Inscriptions tell us not only the house-owner’s name, but also the fact that he was a Christian. One inscription, at the entrance, charmingly welcomes the visitor: “Enter to thy good fortune and may thy coming bless this house”. Next to the house sits Kourion’s famous theatre, first erected in the second century BC, but rebuilt by the Romans in the second-century AD. Seating 3500 spectators, it is still used today for cultural events.
A short walk to the northwest lies the Roman Agora (marketplace) and public baths, and beyond them the House of the Gladiators, a third-century AD structure so-called because of its vivid mosaics of gladiatorial combat, and the House of Achilles, a fourth-century AD Roman villa named, again, for a mosaic showing the revealing of Achilles’ true identity by Odysseus in the court of the king Lycomedes at Skyros. These are the highlights of the site, though in among them are subsequent remains of early Christian origin. There are also fine views of the forbidding eroded terrain to the north and across fields and stables to the beach and the sea to the south.
Something of a real-life Indiana Jones, George H. McFadden was a graduate of Princeton University (class of 1930) who became the leading light in the excavation of the Kourion archeological site. In charge of a University of Pennsylvania excavation team, he was working on the site off and on for nearly twenty years from 1933, wintering on site and returning to America for the summer. Work stopped when the US entered World War II in 1941 and resumed in 1948. Though some doubts have been cast on the rigour of his methodology, his work certainly drew attention to the importance of the site, and paved the way for further work by the Cypriot Department of Antiquities from 1964. McFadden is still revered in the area, and his death by drowning at the age of 46 in a sailing accident on April 19, 1953 is regarded as a great tragedy. As the framed eulogy in the Museum rather floridly put it, “It was fitting that he should find his end in the Greek and briny sea whence came the goddess of beauty herself to his beloved island – Cyprus”.
Based in an attractive traditional house in the village of Erini, some 10km west of Lemesos centre, the excellent Cyprus Wine Museum provides the lowdown on over five thousand years of wine production on the island, as well as, of course, the opportunity to sample a few vintages. With almost divine appropriateness, shortly after the museum was opened in 2004 wine flasks were discovered close to Erini village and dated to around 3500 BC, among the earliest evidence of wine production in Europe. Divided broadly into the past (upstairs) and present (downstairs), you’ll find lots of information on these discoveries and the evolution of the famous Commandaria sweet white wine under the Knights Templar. There's a range of good-quality wine-related merchandise for sale, effective use is made of quotations from ancient writers and depictions in ancient mosaics, there are photographs and tableaux, an interesting audiovisual presentation and a useful pictorial wall map of the vineyards of Lemesos and Pafos districts.
A recent development – the Commandaria Orchestra (and friends) – is based at the museum, which plays a variety of classical, Greek and Cypriot music all over the region. It’s worth noting that the museum might open a few minutes late on a Sunday morning – it depends on the length of the service at the local church, at which the museum curator (and son of the owner) is a chanter.
Eleven kilometres west of Lemesos, at the southern edge of the village of the same name, is Kolossi Castle a great brutalist lump of Crusader military architecture, impressive in both its dimensions and its state of preservation. Originally built by the Knights Hospitaller in 1210 AD on land granted to them by the Lusignans, it became far more important after 1291 when, following their retreat from the Holy Land, the Hospitallers made Kolossi their military headquarters. It fell into the hands of their rivals the Knights Templar in 1306, but was returned to the Hospitallers six years later when the Templar order was dissolved. Although the Hospitallers subsequently moved their main operation to Rhodes, Kolossi Castle remained their command centre in Cyprus, controlling more than forty villages in the region (still called “the Koumandaria”). In 1426 the castle was destroyed in a Mameluke attack, then rebuilt in its present form by Louis de Magnac in around 1454 – his coat of arms can be seen, together with those of Jerusalem, Cyprus and Armenia, in a recessed cross on the eastern external wall of the castle.
The castle follows the classic medieval design of a square keep. The sides are 16m long on the outside, 13.5m on the inside, and 21m tall. Accommodation inside is on three floors, and the views from the crenelated roof are worth the climb up the steep spiral steps.
As interesting as the castle itself are the ruins in its grounds. The main building, which looks for all the world like a church, is actually a sugar factory, and although there is no access for visitors, the aqueduct which brought water to the cane-crushing mill can clearly be seen. The millstone is still in situ. In 1488 the sugar factory was transferred from the Hospitallers to the Venetians, following their takeover of the island, and production continued into the seventeenth century, when competition with the West Indies finally brought Cypriot sugar production to an end.
Top image: Achilles' House Kourio Basilica at The Sanctuary of Apollo at the Kourion World Heritage Archaeological site near Limassol (Lemesos), Cyprus © Georgios Tsichlis/Shutterstock