Oct/Nov 2005   Travel

A Critique of Pure Cyprus

by Michael Spice

Living in the Middle East has provided us with at least one truly great asset: proximity to all kinds of places we always wanted to see.

We decided to give Cyprus a try this year, as we could get there quickly (about four hours from Dubai) and it has some distinct advantages: nice mountains for hiking, beautiful beaches for watersports, a wine-making region with lots of affordable village wineries, and great Mediterranean cuisine offering a mix of Italian, Greek, and Turkish cooking, with copious amounts of seafood available as well.

We crossed the deserts of Northern Saudi Arabia, and I caught my first glimpses of Syria and Lebanon, green and mountainous after the empty brown lands behind us. No sooner had we seen that strip of green than we were out over the Mediterranean, heading for one the European Union's newest members, the Republic of Cyprus. Minutes later, the long finger of the Karpas Peninsula jutted out into the sea, and we saw the new vacation homes and white beaches of Cape Greco and Agia Napa being caressed by light blue waters, and we knew for certain that the place was going to be to our liking.

That said, a strange thing did happen to us at the airport. We were queuing in the "Other Visas" line. My wife is an EU citizen, but she is also a US citizen and travels on her American passport, and I am just plain American, so queue we must. After about five minutes wait, an immigration officer came up and asked us to show our passports.

"Oh, Americans. Welcome. Please, use the EU Citizens' gate."

Not people to refuse a courtesy of this nature, we grabbed our bags and headed over to the other line where there was only one guy in front of us, instead of three or four in the other line. No big deal. But the immigration officer heads over and tells the officer in the booth to take us next, and the guy in front of us to wait. We couldn't believe it, and neither could the man in front of us, who I believe was Turkish with a British passport, possibly heading to the partitioned northern half of the island. It was almost as if the immigration officer was using us as pawns to get under this man's skin. We think that was our introduction to The Conflict. We apologized to the man in front of us and did as the officer told us.

We had decided to avoid the touristy places on the island, and so we had booked some vacation villas in the villages, away from the built-up beach areas. This would be our first vacation in some time with no major hotels involved, and it was so much better than I had anticipated. We arrived around mid-day at the Tochni Tavern, which is the home base for Cyprus Villages Accommodations. They have basically converted a hillside of village homes into a hotel complex. At the top of the hill is the restaurant, with a view of the village in the valley below and a swimming pool nearby. The simple accommodations are in the rustic houses below, made in the typical Cypriot style with cyan-painted doors, low roofs, and large, shaded balconies with flower boxes and shade-trees, which are perfect for lounging on and reading a book while sipping the economical yet wonderful local wines available for about two to three Cyprus Pounds a bottle.

Perhaps nothing will stick in my mind so much as the smell of the air on my first day in Cyprus: sweet, slightly dry, but cooler than the hot muggy stuff I had left behind in Dubai just six hours before. It was a good ten degrees cooler there. And still, it was a hot summer in Cyprus, with daily temperatures in the mid to high 30s C.

We went down to the small shop in the village below to stock up on the usual goodies: some local beer, some local wine, and whatever looked good to munch on. We were confused to see items from Poland in this very small shop; we thought it might have been the owner's converted living room. The owner was a nice Greek Cypriot who gave us lemonade and joked with us every morning when we came down to get bread. They had Uncle Ben's Sos Meksykanski, or Mexican sauce. I am not really sure what that is, though I am sure I have tried it. I guess it is a strange salsa-like concoction. I think we used to put it on chicken back in Poland. I took it as I sign of the interconnectedness of all things; or rather the interconnectedness of Europe. We had another Polish coincidence about an hour later, when we realized that most of the hired help in Tochni were from Poland. That was a truly fun aspect of being there for us. I had never dreamed I would end up speaking Polish in Cyprus to anyone but my in-laws, who were to be joining us in the early morning of the next day.

Keo is The Beer in Cyprus. You can buy it in these nice 40 oz. bottles, and unlike malt liquor, it tastes good in the hot sun. It is a crisp light ale, a well-constructed hot weather beer. One night we just sat and watched a soccer match on a TV in the public square, drinking Keo tall-boys with all the locals in Kalavasos, the next village over from Tochni, and yelling jubilantly when Famagusta scored the winning goal to earn a place in the UEFA Cup.

For our first meal in Cyprus, I had Moussaka, which is perhaps the heartiest dish on the planet: spiced ground meat and eggplant with a thick layer of béchamel on top, baked until golden brown. Plus we ordered the Mezza, which means about ten to twelve dishes of assorted salads and grilled meats and cheeses, bread, and desert, and a carafe of "village wine." I say "village wine" because that term is the one used for the mass-produced local wines that have no pretensions to greatness. Maybe they were not "great," but I know I have paid much, much more for some very pretentious wines that could not hold a candle to these basic wines. And I ask myself why? Why were those cheap wines on Cyprus so good? I thought maybe one reason was that perhaps Cypriots would not drink them if they were not good, and maybe they only produce enough for domestic consumption and a small amount of export. I also thought that it could be because wine-making was practically invented here, so maybe they have just moved up the learning curve so far that they don't know how to make a bad wine. It doesn't hurt that viticulture is thousands of years old in Cyprus, and the monasteries there have been making wine for hundreds of years. And maybe I didn't expect much at that price and was just pleasantly surprised when it wasn't vinegar. But I think it has more to do with the combination of warm sunny days and cool Mediterranean breezes at night, a dry summer and the slow pace of life that seems to allow for a quality over quantity approach. Why would they make so-so wine, when they can make not all-time great wine, but consistently nice-to-drink wine?

The day we came into Larnaca airport, it turned out, was a weird one. The baggage handlers went on strike shortly after we had picked up our bags and left the airport. My in-laws ended up not being able to leave Warsaw, because there would be no one to handle the bags when they got to Cyprus. Although the strike ended in what must have been less than 12 hours, the airport had gotten backed up, and they came in a day later. So according to our schedule, our second day in Cyprus was to be a wasted day. But that was okay. I spent the day driving around in the right-hand steer Opel Astra we had rented. In Cyprus, you drive on the left like in Britain. We went to Larnaca and hung out at the one really touristy beach we went to the whole two weeks, Mackenzie Beach, and watched jets landing at the adjacent airport.

The area around the airport in Larnaca is all tidal salt flats, which gives it a strange effect of hardly ever looking the same due to different water levels and densities. It is this weird washed-out white sometimes, and at other times it's sort of mirror-like with vapor lines wavering over the water. At night, it is often foggy.

A couple days after the in-laws finally got in, we moved on up to the mountains to a place called Koilani. The mountains were cooler, and we had a double villa with a large courtyard that had orange trees and an outdoor hearth for making bread in it. It was nice, and we had a great time rambling about on a trail that circles Mount Olympus, the highest peak on Cyprus.

After a few days there, we moved on to the town of Polis, a quiet place on the west coast. It boasts of having some of the best fish restaurants, and clearly this coast has the best sunsets in Cyprus. While we were there, the orange groves were still producing ripe fruit. The villa where we stayed was in an orange grove, and the kitchens had juicers in them, so we drank fresh-squeezed orange juice at almost every meal. If there is one thing I can barely get enough of, it is this. "It's not just for breakfast anymore!" I'll go along with that, if it is fresh-squeezed!

We tried Zivania, the Cypriot Water of Life, in Polis. It is a grappa-type liquor, but as my father-in-law said, it tasted just like bimber, the Polish moonshine that many a Pole made and consumed while waiting for the Soviet Empire to crumble.

We went snorkeling around an off-shore rock that was near the Baths of Aphrodite, the center of the Cult of Aphrodite that existed there in ancient times. There is another place that is called the Birthplace of Aphrodite, on the road between Paphos and Limassol. We went there, and it was another interesting and monumental seastack-like rock formation. I wanted to snorkel, but there was a cold, deep-water current coming ashore at that spot, and I could barely stand it. I might have tried it with a wet suit, but I'd left mine in Dubai.

Near Limassol, there are the Kourion ruins, an ancient Greek city that we spent a day at, beautifully perched on a bluff overlooking a nice kite-surfing beach. It was there and at the Troodos monastery high in the mountains that I really got a sense of the island's role in history. The Greeks, the Romans, the Byzantines, the Knights Templar, the French Lusignans, Genoans, Venetians, Ottoman Turks, and Britain have all held title to this place. The Apostle Paul was there. Richard the Lionhearted and the crusades used it as a rest stop to and from the Holy Lands.

But to really "get" Cyprus, it was necessary to go to Nicosia (Turkish name) / Lefkosia (Greek name), the divided capital. We went on my 36th birthday, July 21st, 2005, and I had a massive hangover from the bottle of Ardbeg from the night before that my father-in-law and I were sipping from while we played cards. It was bright, sunny, and 38 C, which is just over 100 F, the hottest day of our whole trip. I struggled.

Cyprus has an even bigger hangover from the events of July 1974. It has been the Turkish Republic of North Cyprus in the north ever since. The Turkish Army moved in to protect the minority Turks from the Greek Cypriot agenda of reunification to Greece. They have never left, and this paradise has a line running down the middle of it. The Green Line. The UN still stands guard over this two or three city block-wide buffer zone, which is a no-man's land, a ghost town. Shops still advertise wares that went out of stock or out of production three decades ago, right in the heart of a European capital city. It is a massively walled city; the battlements circle the city in an eleven pointed star. The walls were built by the Venecians to keep the Ottomans out. That obviously did not work, as the Turks are very much still there. Just over half of the old town inside the walls is in the Northern, Turkish section. As for Cyprus on the whole, the Turkish Republic holds 38% of the island, and the land it holds is said to be the best farmland on the island.

Sidebar: In Greek Cyprus, the sweet known as Turkish Delight is called Cyprus Delight.

The pedestrian streets in the heart of Lefkosia are like any old town in Europe, full of cafés and bistros and shops selling name brand clothes and shoes. We went to the Ledra Museum and Observatory, which is ten stories or so tall, and from the top, you can really get a look over the wall into North Nicosia. Two things strike you almost immediately.

The first is the massive Turkish / Turkish Cyprus Flags painted on the side of the mountain to the north, with the quote in Turkish by Ataturk. I've no idea what it says, but I am guessing it's similar in tone to the sign at the border entry to North Nicosia that says "Turkish Republic of North Cyprus—Forever!" Although, that is not too likely if the Republic of Cyprus plays its cards right and can finagle concessions out of Turkey through Turkey's attempts to join the EU, a process in which Cyprus would have a veto on Turkey's aspirations. Besides, the EU wants Cyprus united, which is supposed to make the living standard in the North closer to the South's.

The second thing is that the same flags, huge cloth ones this time, are lilting in the breeze like two massive pieces of nationalistic laundry suspended on a guy-wire running from minaret to minaret at the Selemiye Mosque, the former Agia Sofia Cathedral at the very heart of Nicosia. These signs of defiance and pride by the Turkish North are meant to make the Greeks in the South see red. Literally. The Greeks fly blue flags, like in Greece. If you didn't know better, you might think it was the Bloods and the Crips that are locked in this strange standoff.

The Greeks tend to discourage travel to the North, and there are loads of invective in the graffiti and posters that wallpaper the "Checkpoint Charlie" passageway: the Ledra Palace Hotel Crossing. The Greeks seem to be doing this to discourage people from crossing the line, but hundreds, maybe thousands of Turks cross this line daily to work in the higher wage South. It is the sight of these workers that makes me realize that they really do need each other.

I found it a little odd that the Goethe Institute and the Fulbright Foundation had office space in the Green Zone, but of course so did the UN, so maybe if you are a humanitarian group you can get a good deal on office space there. That got me to thinking that instead of dividing the country, they should say that they are going to make it a one big WIFI zone, and that it will be henceforth known as the Silicon Line, a high technology free trade zone, the profits of which would be split evenly to the North and South, and which would act as an incubator for both new businesses and better North-South relations. But the sensible proposal tends to just wash away to nothing in the face of these types of disputes: the deeply-held, prejudicial, ethnic-mistrust kind. But surely, you've got to start somewhere.

So we enter the North, and guess what? We are still in Cyprus. The cafés still bustle, only they serve Efes, the Turkish beer instead of Keo. We realize that no businesses are avoiding doing business in Turkish Cyprus over this dispute. The town is bustling, and as we wind our way past the old Gamblers Inn, the interesting courtyard of the Great Inn and the Turkish baths to the heart, the very center of Nicosia, the Selemiye Mosque, we see the difference in the people. Despite being on the grungier side of town, Turkish Cypriots seem really nice. The children smile at us and wave or say hello. The street stall vendors talk to us, and are not too pushy about selling stuff.

We take our shoes off and enter the former cathedral, now mosque, and are astounded by the awesome space in this once Christian church. For without pews, without gaudy baroque gold enamel everywhere, no religious artwork, just white walls, and latticed windows, the clean white walls and arches go up, up, up, and there is a massive padded carpet that runs the length, from the ambulatory in the apse in the East to the royal portal at the front of the nave in the West. The carpet has big bands on it running diagonal to the cross layout of the church. These bands run from northeast to southwest, perfectly perpendicular to the Qebla, the direction to Mecca. They mark the rows that worshippers will line up on while praying together facing their holy city.

It was the strangest thing to be in a massive Gothic church and yet not be in a church at all.

Yesterday, here in Dubai, I heard the call to prayer, the beautiful high-pitched chanting of a true believer, beckoning his brethren to return to their daily fifth opportunity and obligation to worship and pay subservience to God. And I realized something: I do not know why in my heart I criticize them for their religion. It hurts me not at all for them to believe as they do, and I want them free to do so. I owe them that. The same goes for all the Christians I know who I criticize similarly. In both cases I only fault them for putting their faith before their reason.

I want to be free to not believe much at all, to allow my reason the chance to understand God in a purer form. Further, I think I can believe in God, but I don't think the Almighty actually is bothered to speak to people. If she did, why would she do it in, you know, Aramaic, or Greek, or Arabic? And why would she use a man's voice instead of her own?

On the question of God's gender, how can God have gender? And how could God the Creator be anything other than the life-giving force that is female? I really think God is a hermaphrodite, if anything. But this is all metaphor anyway, isn't it? For what purpose would God have sex organs? But without sex organs, how do you know if God is male or female? You've just got to believe it, because an old man said so, a long time ago.

On the Cult of Aphrodite: the worship of the beautiful and divine goddess of love and beauty, born of the sea. According to the myth, Ouranos' (Heaven's) own genitals were severed off and thrown into the sea, and from there she arose. Considering my previous questions about God's genitals, this does seem to be the answer. If I had to worship a metaphor, maybe I would worship you, dear Aphrodite.

And by that I think I mean I will retire in Cyprus.


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