A Travellerspoint blog

One Day in the North

Nicosia and "Turkish" Cyprus

overcast 70 °F

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The plan for today was to drive north and cross the border into Turkish Cyprus. Luckily, we'd found what appeared to be a good map the day before in Larnaca. All the tourist agencies seem to either all but deny the existence of North Cyprus, or claim to have no answers to questions about travel there. We woke early because we knew we had a lot to cram into one day. We were headed first to the Greek half of the capital city of Nicosia. It is a divided city, with both countries having their own slice of it, separated by UN troops. The plethora of one-way streets and divided streets made finding a way in challenging, so we opted for a parking lot just shy of the walls.

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Our first stop was the Cyprus Archeological Museum. This is supposed to be one of the best in the country, and it did not disappoint. Lots of artifacts are displayed in glass cases, labeled in both Greek and English. Larger statues and other objects stand free on pedestals. The exhibits cover the history of Cyprus from its earliest stages to about the end of the Roman era. With our early start, we had the museum to ourselves. It was nice to be able to freely wander here and there, picking which displays to linger over. There were so many Bronze Age and Stone Age artifacts, if we tried to read every single word, we would eat up half a day! Just as we got ready to leave, a tour bus disgorged its contents into the museum. The bustling crowd chattering excitedly made me thankful once again for our early start.

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Next, we wandered through the Old Town a bit, visiting the Bishop's Palace, the town cathedral, and the Venetian walls. An obligatory stop at the tourist information office provided us with the location of the checkpoint to drive across into Turkish Cyprus. We retuned to the car, got our maps ready, and headed for the border. The crossing was quick and painless - unless you count the 20 Euro car insurance needed to being a rental across the border. We also snagged another map from a tourist info display while waiting for our passports to be stamped. This ended up being very helpful because its town names matched those on the road signs. The larger map we bought in the south had the Greek names. And you can not always tell which Greek name corresponds with which Turkish one. That is a problem, in general, in Cyprus - both halves. Nicosia, for example, is called both Lefkosa and Nicosia by Greeks. Limassol can also be Lemesos. Some are less obvious than others, but you have to be careful when you're reading signs.

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It took a lot less time than we'd expected to arrive at our first site, which would prove to be one of the best of trip. The castle of St.Hilarion sprawls across hundreds of yards of rocky, forested mountain top. The drive up there was through a "Prohibited Zone," where no stopping or photography was permitted. The reason for that was the unsmiling soldiers guarding oth the UN military post and the Turkish army base. Not really sure what the UN soldiers had to be grim about, though. Cyprus had got to be the easiest posting in the world! No shooting, the sides at peace, and a sunny Mediterranean climate. Would they rather be posted in war-torn jungles of The Congo?

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St. Hilarion is not for the feeble or asthmatic, though. From the moment you arrive, you are climbing upwards, ever upwards. The castle is built in three sections, going higher up towards the mountain peak. The outer walls and gate and watch towers are on the lowest level. The garrison stayed in the second level, above that. Finally, the royal apartments have a stunning panorama at the very top. The castle was begun by the Byzantines, and added to by the Crusaders, then finally abandoned when the Italians and then Turks took over the island. There are so many nooks and crannies to explore -- a watch tower here, the ruins of a Byzantine church there, the shell of a dining hall or a line of battlements. And all of them have incredible views, many of the seaside town of Girne (also called Kyrenia) far below, its white houses framed by the curve of the deep blue sea. This is the type of romantic ruin to wander and daydream.

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We spent a couple hours slowly working our way through the rambling castle grounds. The air became cooler as we climbed, and our breathing became deeper. This was definitely our most strenuous workout of the week. The sky clouded over from time to time as mist rolled ip the slopes -- moist sea air condensing as it rose. St. Hilarion is one of the most stunning settings for a castle that I've ever visited. Panoramas of mountain, sea, and crumbling stone walls cry out to be photographed everywhere you turn.

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Our original plan was to check out some other sites in the area, but we decided to change on the fly. We pointed the car east toward the coast and the ruins of the Ancient Greek city of Salamis. No, not the Salamis of the naval battle of the Greek-Persian Wars -- that is in Greece itself. This is a town with the same name that survived through the Roman era into the Dark Ages, before being abandoned. Most of the ruins are from the Roman era, much of it from when the emperor Constantius rebuilt it after an earthquake...and did what all monarchs love to do -- renamed it after himself!

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Here at Salamis you see how much less the Turkish side is set up to exploit tourism. Although there are signs and maps set up throughout the site, there are almost no barriers of any kind. You were free to go anywhere, climb on anything, and run your fingers along that marble statue or tile floor. It is like stumbling, all alone, upon a lost city in the wilderness. The feeling of immersing yourself in history is so much stronger than it was pacing along the wooden walkways with the crowds at Kourion or Pafos. You enjoy both, yes, but here you get to not only see, but touch, climb on, and get right next to living history. You can't help wondering about the risks of this approach, though. If the north ever saw the tour bus hordes that the south does, would Salamis survive intact? Or would thoughtless visitors pry off pieces of tile flooring, mosaic stones, or damage fragile relics? Without a doubt, I enjoyed seeing Salamis this way much more than the efficiently-delivered and almost antiseptic sites of Kourion and Pafos. I don't think it is sustainable, though. Eventually, as crowds increased, barriers would have to go up, and valuable or fragile items would disappear into museums, rather than sit out under the Mediterranean sun. It is not that the island of Cyprus is off the beaten tourist track, right now. Far from it. However, few Americans do seem to come here. Hordes of Brits come to retire or vacation, along with plenty of German and other European tourists.

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I had waited many years myself to finally make the visit. Both the southern Greek half and northern Turkish half were great. I would have enjoyed more time, of course. Maybe then I could have slowed down a bit more. I knew all five days would be a cram going on, though -- just as our last day in Nicosia and the north. Still, the sights I saw over the entire trip were every bit as fantastic those last ones on our only day in North Cyprus.

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Posted by world_wide_mike 04/04/2014 16:12 Archived in Cyprus Tagged st. ruins castle roman greek cyprus nicosia lefkosia hilarion crusaders salamis lusignan Comments (0)

One for the History Books

7th grade Social Studies in a Nutshell

sunny 78 °F

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One of the reasons I came to Cyprus was the wealth of historical sights from my favorite periods of history. The Egyptians were there, the Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, crusaders, and Arabs and Turks. Essentially, Cyprus is my 7th grade Social studies curriculum in a tiny, island nutshell. Today's itinerary would bear that out. We would begin with a Crusader castle, move on to Greek and Roman ruins, drop back 6,000 years to the Stone Age, and then finish with the Middle Ages.

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Although it was my turn to drive, we decided to not mess with success and keep the Jenny Driver, Mike Navigator, tandem. It would work to perfection. We were never lost, and even navigated our way through the crowded, one-way streets of Larnaca flawlessly. We started with a couple sights in the area of our base of Limassol. First up was Kolossi, the most intact Crusader fort in Cyprus. When I travel, I usually try to get an early start. I'm not talking crack of dawn, but if I'm not on the road by the 9 o'clock hour, I'm disappointed. My usual payoff - and it held true today - is you avoid the crowds. Most of the tour bus crowd lingers over breakfast and coffee and you can at least beat them to your first destination.

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And so it was. Jenny and I had the castle to ourselves for the first half hour or so. Although there are no furnishings or decorations in the rooms themselves, it was easy to populate them in our mind with torches, tables full of ale and food, and raucous knights. The castle initially was built by the crusaders who accompanied Guy of Lusignan, who took control of the island in 1194 A.D. Later it was passed into the hands of both the Knights of St. John (also known as the Hospitallers), and the famous -- or infamous -- Templars. When that order was suppressed by the Pope, the castle went back into the hands of the Hospitallers. From there, it was seized by the Italians and finally the Turks. The spiral stone staircases, echoing halls, and arrow slits along the walls transported you back mentally to the medieval world. It was cool to pace slowly around the amber-colored stone rooms and soak up the atmosphere.

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From there, we drove to the day's highlight: the Graeco-Roman ruins of Kourion. This site sprawls along the gorgeous deep blue Mediterranean coast, within sight of the famous Rocks of Aphrodite from our first day of sightseeing. They have tumbled down homes, temples, churches, and public buildings from the Greeks, Romans, and early Christians of the Dark Ages. There are several huge villas that have been excavated to uncover not only the bases of the walls, but extensive mosaic floors. A number of these are covered by modern wooden roofs with boardwalks suspended overhead for visitors to view the protected floors and ruins. You can't accuse Kourion of being overly reconstructed (except for maybe the semicircular stone theater). It has been made VERY accessible to the visitor, though. Clearly defined gravel paths direct you and signs inform you of what you are looking at. And though the sun beat down on us making it a hot, hour-long walk through the ruins, we were never left scratching our head or mystified at what we were visiting.

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The Kourion ruins are fairly spread out, too. It takes awhile to walk their extent, which generally mean the package tours disgorging from their tour buses can't visit all of the site. For Kourion, that meant we had to put up with the 50-strong German tour group only at the theater. So, for most of our wanderings at the site, we encountered only a couple of others here and there. Jenny and are we're amused by the American guy with his svelte, blonde trophy wife who insisted on getting her picture taken posing in front of every scenic view. All in all, though, our visit to Kourion was awesome, and we had much of it to enjoy by ourselves.

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After filling up our rental car with gas (Yikes...55 Euros! About $70...), we headed east on the interstate. We pulled off at Choirokoitia, which was definitely off the beaten tourist track. This hilltop Stone Age settlement began in 6500 B.C., and is still being excavated. The dwellings are grouped in clusters of four tiny, round, stone huts. One was used by a family group for sleeping, another for cooking, and yet another for grinding grain, and so on. The scientists have built a cluster of replicas at the beginning of the site, and you see the stone remains of the originals when you climb the steep hill to the community's defensible site. It was definitely not as exciting as Kourion or the castle of Kolossi, but still fascinating for a history buff.

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Next, we drove into downtown Larnaca, and much to my amazement, navigated the one-way streets and divided roads to our destination without hitch. We parked the car and walked through Larnaca, as most of its sites are not far apart. First, we visited the church of St. Lazarus...yes, the same one from the Bible miracle, "Lazarus, come forth!" The story goes that Lazarus moved to Cyprus and preached Jesus' teachings there. In the Middle Ages, his tomb, inscribed "Lazarus, dead 4 days and friend of Jesus" was found beneath the church dedicated to his name. The interior is a really cool melding of the gold-encrusted, elaborately decorated Byzantine style and the soaring stone Frankish or Gothic styles. Icons bedeck every open space in the church, many with votive candles glowing beneath them or enclosed within polished silver frames. Candle light gleams from gold and silver everywhere you look. You can duck down into the crypt and view the tomb of Lazarus. You could even look at his bones, partially enclosed in a carved silver box which is taken out and paraded through Larnaca's streets during festivals. And most miraculous of all (okay, and just a t-a-d sarcastically), photography was not prohibited...at least not that I could see!

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Just a short walk away was the Larnaca Medieval Fort and "Museum". I put museum in quotes because that was the weakest attempt at a medieval museum I've seen in 80 countries. More than 3/4's of the displays were grainy black and white photographs -- many of places most tourists would visit during their stay on the island. There was one small glass case of medieval weapons (all from what *I* would term the Renaissance), and a couple cases of pottery cups (wow...how exciting). The fort was okay, though. The best part was its position right on the beach in the center of town. Looking over its walls, you see the waves breaking on the shore. It didn't come near capturing Kolossi's mystique, though.

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Next, Jenny wanted to kick back and gaze out at the Mediterranean. So, we grabbed a couple Strongbow English ciders and sat on a bench and relaxed. We laughed at a dog and his master romping on the beach, and people watched. As we whiled away the time, it ticked steadily away. By the time we got in motion again, every place we wanted to visit was closed. It had been a long, sun-drenched day, though. So, we were content to make our way back to the car and begin the drive home. We had one more full day of sightseeing left, and there was nothing wrong with being rested up for it! Plus, we found a great pub to sit in, enjoy some beverages, and check out the photos we'd taken. Day 3 in Cyprus was one for the history books, and after all, that was why I was here...!

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Here is me posing in front of ancient Cyprus' most famous philosopher, Zenon of Kition, who invented the idea of Stoicism. Do I look stoic enough?

For more photos, check out my Cyprus Photobucket site: http://s721.photobucket.com/user/mikedemana/library/Cyprus%202014?sort=3&page=1

Posted by world_wide_mike 04/02/2014 12:00 Archived in Cyprus Tagged ruins church roman greek cyprus limassol larnaca lazarus kolossi kourion choirokoitia Comments (1)

Trekking through the Troodos

Mountain Monasteries, and man replaces machine

sunny 74 °F

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It was a day of winding mountain roads, hairpin turns, and sublime medieval frescoes. Jenny and I pointed our rental car towards the Troodos Mountains with a handful on the dozens and dozens of Troodos monasteries picked out to visit. We put our trust in our GPS "Jason", who had performed with mixed results yesterday. Before the day was out, Jason was fired and sequestered in the glove compartment. Man (me) replaced machine after Jason misdirected us, was horribly confused by every turn, and essentially proved himself worthless as a navigational aid. In all honesty, the signs on the road, combined with the map our hotel had given us that morning, proved sufficient. I'm pretty good at finding my way around, and once I got my bearings right after we locked Jason away, did a flawless job of navigating...if I must say so myself - ha, ha!

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With our first stop, Pedoulas and the Archangel Michael Church, we found that these medieval churches are a lot smaller than you'd expect. Despite its lofty name, this clay tile roofed stone building was smaller than my house. The inside was stunning,,though. Every bit of wall space was covered with frescoes painted on the walls. They depicted not only scenes from Jesus' life, but hosts of saints stared back at us as we slowly paced through the church. Like most churches with medieval frescoes, no photography was allowed. In Armenia a couple years ago, that had been the case except for one enlightened priest who realized no flash equals no damage to them thousand year old paintings. Would fortune smile on me today like it had in Armenia? I could only pray that it did.

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Spring is supposed to be the best time to visit Cyprus, and we were rewarded with the the gossamer blush of cherry trees in bloom near every village. The views from mountain top and valley were stunning. We were blessed with wide spots or places to pull off the road in the best vantage points, too. It seems others appreciated a good a panorama, and there were obvious places others had pulled off the narrow roads, and we followed suit when the urge to snap a photo took us. After our initial, nauseating drive from Limassol to Pedoulas, the other legs from one monastery to another seemed to go quicker. Of course, I'd like to take credit with my navigating, but I realize it was our longest stretch, with the most climbing....!

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Our second stop was at Kykkos Monastery, which is the largest and wealthiest in the Troodos Mountians. The monks throw open most of the complex -- including the gold-mosaiced hallways outside their rooms (hard to call the "cells" in such a magnificent building!). We wandered its corridors, which were the most crowded we'd see all day. The amount of mosaics on the walls was stunning. Every inch seemed to have a depiction of some saint or scene from the Bible. As crowded as it was, we were one of the few visitors who paid the 5 Euros to see the museum. As I slowly paced through the dimly lit, but treasure-packed rooms, one thing kept coming back to me. I remembered what I tell my 7th graders when I am explaining medieval Christian monasticism. In particular, I dwell in my instruction on a Mona's vows. I even have them recite a monk's vows , then spend a silent day in my classroom scriptorium creating an illuminated manuscript. But as I looked at glass case after glass case full of gold-plated crosses, censers, reliquaries, and elaborate, colorful vestments, the Vow of Poverty kept coming back to me. I acknowledge this is less excessive than the Vatican's treasure rooms, but it is a monastery! Poverty does not exist at Kykkos, and wealth was everywhere you looked. Before any Greek Orthodox challenges me on this, I do understand the difference between church and individual property.

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Our next stop proved difficult to find. We navigated to the village all right, but where inside Kalopanayiotis was it? the guidebook siad the three stone buildings were "clearly visible", but it took us awhile. Once again, no photos were allowed inside the actual church. The frescoes were every bit as gorgeous as those at at Archangel Michael. The church at Kykkos, by the way, was relatively modern...it had burnt down several times in its existence, the most recent in the 1800s. There was quite a bit of construction going on in the village. Many Cypriots come here from the plains and coasts to escape summer's heat. Some renovations were clearly going on at the monastery of Agios Ioannis Lampedistis. I imagine if I came back in 5 years I'd have a hard time recognizing the place.

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Our final monastery on our itinerary turned out to be the best. It was the most remote -- out in the countryside, miles away from a farm village. Our guidebooks had said that if you can visit only one to make sure you saw Agios Panagia Forviotissa. It was our favorite, too, though I doubt that is what Forviotissa stands for...! The frescoes and subjects painted were so obviously medieval Byzantine. I recognized the clothing, armor, hair styles, and especially the deep, soulful eyes that appear on Byzantine art. After we had reverently paced our way through the tiny stone church, Jenny and I both remarked we'd seen nothing about photography not being allowed. We asked I the elderly attendant and he waved us onto snap pictures to our hearts content. I doubt he expected us to break out the tripods and camp out for 45 minutes like we did. We weathered the storms of other visitors, holding off on our shots while they visited (though most came in went within a few minutes). The pictures we got were amazing, inspiring, and simply made our day.

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We drove back to Limassol content and with beatific, monk-like smiles on our faces. We also had a much smoother trip...with Jason securely locked away in the glovebox. Earlier in the day, we had burst out laughing when his voice came out from the glovebox recommending a change to my route -- after I had hit the "sleep" button. Our route seemed much smoother under MY navigation. But, after all, "Michael" means "like unto The Lord" in Hebrew. Don't believe me? Look it up!

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Posted by world_wide_mike 04/01/2014 22:21 Archived in Cyprus Tagged cyprus monasteries michael troodos archangel kykkos pedoulas Comments (0)

Navigating our way around Cyprus

Sunshine, Roman and Greek ruins, mosaics...all add up to a beautiful first day!

sunny 72 °F

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Driving on the "wrong" side of the road is one of the few drawbacks of visiting Cyprus. I had my initiation last night, driving our rental car home from the airport in the dark, in an unfamiliar palace, and with a GPS that was speaking Russian to us. Today was Jenny's day, and she did great. We left Limassol on a beautiful, sunny morning and drove West towards Pafos. We navigated just fine, though "Natasha" babbled at us from time to time and provided no enlightenment. Jenny swore she had changed the language to English, and it wasn't until later that afternoon that I figured out that language and "voice" were two separate controls! Goodbye Natasha, and hello "Jason" (yes, Jason M, that was his assigned name!).

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Our first stop was the Rocks of Aphrodite, a formation of limestone stacks off the coast. As we swung onto the coastal road, we noticed a military rescue helicopter practicing land and sea rescues. We weren't the only car pulled over to snap photos of it. We pulled off the road at a few spots to take photos of Aphrodite's Rocks, then continued on.

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Our next stop was a gorgeous 9th century Byzantine church. It's five domes are in a cross shape and were a beautiful oasis of peace in the town's hectic traffic. Inside, frescoes on the wall depicted Saints' lives and Biblical scenes. It was a lovely church, and I didn't even even resent that I couldn't take photos of the frescoes. Then it was on towards the west coast town of Paphos. This is a favorite retirement spot for Brits, and you could tell the town did a good job of catering to foreigners. Cafes line every street, and everywhere you go, someone is willing to sign you up for a boat cruise, snorkeling, car rental - you name it! It helps that the archeological ruins there are a UNESCO world heritage site. Our first stop was the Crusader castle guarding the harbor. From its rooftop, we got our bearings for our exploration of Paphos.

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Paphos' highlight is the archeological park with a half dozen Roman era homes with stunning mosaics preserved. The homes and buildings themselves were often a jumble of toppled walls and columns, but the colorful mosaics with tiny stones depicting various scenes from Graeco-Roman mythology, were in excellent condition and brightly-colored. The best mosaics are under wooden or other rooftop coverings to protect them from the elements. Thankfully, there were no photo Nazis, and you were free to take pictures of them to your heart's content....which I did (big surprise!).

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We spent several hours there, wandering the ruins of the homes, as well as exploring the Roman theater, another Crusader fortress, and simply enjoying the bright flowers adding splashes of red and yellow to the sandy colored stones underneath the vivid blue sky.

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After a late lunch, we journeyed on. Our next stop was the Tombs of the Kings. These rocky tombs in various states of disrepair were built during the Hellenistic age. That was when much of the Mediterranean and Asia was ruled by descendants of Alexander the Great. it was cool to wander the rolling, scrub-covered hills, listening to birds and the gentle rush of the ocean surf below us, while exploring the rocky tombs.

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Next,, we took in the lovely view from a hilltop village, and then drove up and over the hillsides to the northwest coast of Cyprus. We zipped along what was supposed to be a very scenic stretch, but found restaurants, hotels, and vacation homes squatted on all the best viewpoints. We stopped to hike through a botanical garden to the Baths of Aphrodite. Cyprus is supposed to be the birthplace of the Greek goddess of love, so a number of sites are sacred to her on the island. Frankly, it was a bit of a disappointment. It was nothing more than a tiny, wooded pool underneath a trickle of a waterfall.

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Our drive back to Limassol and our hotel started out as a bit of an adventure. "Jason" steered us off the main road onto what turned into a dirt road that Jenny swore was someone's driveway. His help was problematic, at best. Add that to the GPS' non-intuitive interface, and the fact that every place in Cyprus has 4-5 English spellings of its name, and you have a navigational aid that often doesn't. We are a bit worried about how it will do in the Troodos Mountains, when we go to check out a bunch medieval monasteries. We'll pray for the best, though, and hope that our "wrong" driving stays limited to the side of the road...!

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Posted by world_wide_mike 03/31/2014 13:38 Archived in Cyprus Tagged ruins tombs roman greek cyprus kings aphrodite mosaics paphos Comments (0)

At long last...Cyprus!

Flying towards the Mediterranean island I've yearned to visit for years...

sunny 64 °F

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Most people seem to know vaguely that Cyprus is somewhere in the Mediterranean, so I thought I'd include this map. I have been wanting to visit the island for years. History's greatest civilizations washed over its shores, nearly all of them leaving behind relics that can be visited today. As some of you know, the island is divided into a southern Greek half and a northern Turkish one. Technically two separate countries, and even featuring a UN peacekeeping force, war has long since disappeared here. In 2003, the Turkish side opened its border to Greek Cypriots and there was a spontaneous to reconnect with their northern Turkish brethren. The Cypriots on both sides were, by their actions, telling their governments they didn't like being divided. The wealthier Greek Cypriots began to take weekend trips up to northern Cyprus, where they were warmly welcomed. Ever since then, there really hasn't been a need for a UN force. Doubtless, it is the easiest and most sought after posting in the United Nations! Sure, hard liners on both sides of the border can probably be found. Heck, there are anti-government separatists in America!

So, all this really means is I'll be visiting TWO countries on this short, Spring break trip. And for the curious, that will bring my total to 81 nations. For me, though, it means a chance to immerse myself again in Greek, Roman, Crusader, and Turkish history. Jenny and I will spend 5 days on this beautiful, warm island. The posts that follow will hopefully show why this island has been in my dreams for decades, but now will be part of my waking experiences.

Posted by world_wide_mike 03/29/2014 07:06 Archived in Cyprus Tagged travel roman greek cyprus Comments (1)

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