One might think Cyprus is just another beach resort, but one might think wrong. This destination is often skipped, but this piece of land in the Mediterranean Sea has everything a backpacker likes!
A Glimpse of the Cypriot Life
My trip started in Larnaka. The city lacks a bit of charm but it’s a good way to feel the pulse of the Cypriot life before things start to get serious!
I stayed here half a day and one night to rest from my flight. I had to wake up at 4am and I had slept maybe two hours. To be honest my eyes were half-open and even the dark circles had dark circles under them...
Although I was tired, I didn't want to spend all my day sleeping. So, as soon as I arrived I dropped my bag and went to explore the city.
It has a few interesting spots such as the beautiful byzantine church, the waterfront promenade, the mosque... And good places to eat! Enough to keep you busy at least half a day!
The next day I took an early Intercity Bus (the company connecting the major cities) and went to the capital Nicosia for two nights.
The Divided Capital
Here, two worlds collide.
On the Turkish side, men are mostly wearing black clothes only and women do not always have their word to say. It is not rare to meet women entirely hidden behind a burqa. Fortunately, the mentalities are changing, mostly among the youngsters.
On the Greek side, life is more liberated. Their entrance in the European Union changed a lot of things.
The capital is the very last one in the world to be divided by what they call the "Green Line", an imaginary line separating North Nicosia (Turkish Cypriot) and Nicosia (Greek Cypriot). And, in between, a no man's land that you will have to cross to reach one side or another (take your passport with you).
Do not look for the Green Line painted on the ground, you won't find it! The line was actually established when a British military commander divided up the city on a map with a green pen, the name remained ever since.
Note that in North Cyprus the currency is the Turkish Lyra and in the Republic of Cyprus it is the Euro. Although both currencies are accepted in North Nicosia, exchange offices are widely available, and if you don't want to lose money, I advise you to change your Euros for Turkish Lyras (and vice-versa)!
Where Nicosia left me a bit disappointed, unless you love shopping and museums, North Nicosia was memorable! The latter feels way more authentic with mosques, markets, bazaar, and landmarks... and tons of coffee shops! You must try the Cyprus Coffee or Turkish Coffee, as they call it in the North. For any coffee lover, it is a must-taste!
The superb Büyük Han is one of the finest buildings on the island. It used to be an inn during the Ottoman period, now a Cultural Center.
It is a treat to explore, especially in the soft morning light while it is still quiet and all the locals prepare their shop and restaurant for a day of work, waiting for the crowd of tourists to arrive.
I spent most of my morning here taking the sun while watching life go by before to head for the Selimiye Mosque, North Nicosia's most important landmark.
This former cathedral is now a mosque and the inside is pretty unusual as you can witness both architectural characteristics coexist in the same building.
When the Ottoman arrived in 1571, they stripped the building of its Christian contents and added two minarets to mark their territory. BAM! It is quite funny.
Peeing all over the floor wouldn't have had the same impact but would have been easier...
The next city on my list was Kyrenia. As usual I took a bus and headed to the North. The city is super close to Nicosia, the journey lasts only 30 minutes and you can visit it as a day-trip from the capital but you would miss all the breathtaking places in the region!
Governed by the Sea
Kyrenia's (Girne in Turkish) harbour is famous, and it is comprehensible. It is super pretty!
The huge byzantine castle sitting right next to it is really impressive and is very interesting. From its ramparts there are great views over the Old Town and the harbour with mountains in the background. It is especially picturesque at sunrise and sunset.
In the castle, right after the entrance, there is a painter named Gülerman Devin. He is sitting there every single day, painting and selling his works. His oil paintings representing places in the region are gorgeous and the man is genuinely kind and friendly.
If you're looking for a souvenir or a gift directly bought from the artist and not made in China, that's your man!
I know what you're thinking : "How the hell will I carry a giant painting in my bag?". Well do not worry, they are about the size of a post card, or a bit bigger, and cost between 5 and 10 euros depending on the size. I carried one for two weeks and we both survived!
A Castle's History
The next day would be a long one!
My plan was to go to Buffavento Castle in the mountains. Unfortunately, there are no means of transportation to reach the place. The easiest way is to take the bus going to Famagusta and ask the driver to drop you off the Buffavento Restaurant.
From here it is a 7.8km walk on the road to reach the castle. I say "road" but it is mainly a dirt road where no car is passing by. In less than two hours I reached the castle which stands at 814 metres so prepare yourself to hack a lung! Take enough water and food with you.
The ruins of the castle are unbelievable! It is hard to understand how the people back in time managed to build it. The views on the Beşparmak mountain range are incredible!
On the top, I easily understood the meaning of its Italian name "Buffavento", "Challenger of the Wind".
There are some hikes starting from the parking below, and one of them is part of the 240km long Beşparmak Range Trek traversing Northern Cyprus.
The portion of the trek starting from the parking will lead you through one pass and the forest to the beautiful village and abbey of Bellapais (Lonely Planet's Cyprus cover photo). There are no buses either to reach Bellapais from Kyrenia, so it was kind of a 2-in-1 opportunity.
Honestly, once I reached Bellapais, I was dead! The whole hike was more or less 20km going up and down. Once I reached the village I could have asked for a taxi to bring me back to Kyrenia, which is 6km away, but I am a bit greedy, I admit, so I walked... 🤫
Saint Hilarion Castle is the number one sight in Kyrenia's region. Although there is, once more, no transport to reach the place unless you are motorized, part of a tour, or willing to pay the taxi, there is one hidden walking path leading to it.
From Zeytinlik Mosque, head for the mountains, cross the highway and find the path leading to them. If you have a map or a GPS it will be way easier as it is not signposted ! From Kyrenia's centre it is a 2-hour walk.
I visited a lot of castles in my life, but this one is one of the coolest and funniest to explore! It is huge, way more than what I expected. It is built on different levels and some parts are unbelievably built on the mountain's crest. The views on the plains from the top are gorgeous!
The next day, I packed my stuff and headed to Famagusta (Magusa in Turkish).
I hesitated before to go there because I couldn't find a cheaper place than 32€/night to sleep. But oh well! Il faut savoir se faire plaisir!
The Fortified City
The city is mostly visited from Kyrenia as a 1-day trip by tours but, again, it's really worth it to spend a few nights here. I found myself liking the city very much, way more than Kyrenia or Nicosia due to the relatively quietness and laid-back vibe of the place.
In the same way as Nicosia, there is a big cathedral reconverted into a mosque, now flanked by a minaret. The Old Town is scattered with dozens of church ruins.
Famagusta was a fortified city, therefore the Old Town is surrounded by large Venetian walls. In February, dandelion's yellow flowers take over the ramparts and it is super nice to walk through these flower fields while admiring the city down below.
Bougainvilleas are also blossoming all around, adding a beautiful splash of vibrant color to the already beautiful warm toned buildings.
Strolling in the Old Town streets at the end of the day when all the tourists are gone and the light turns golden is magical.
Instead of having to find my way once more to go to Ancient Salamis (which stands 10km away) due to the lack of transport, I decided to take a break for one day and do nothing. By "nothing" I mean not walking 20km to reach some tourist site.
The Dead Zone
In Cyprus, there is one story that particularly touched me : the story linked to the city of Varosha. I walked along the beach from Famagusta until I reached the barb-wired fences.
Josephine Quintero, the author of Lonely Planet's Cyprus Guide, tells the story better than myself :
« Before 1974, the Varosha (Maraş in Turkish) district was a thriving community of Greek Cypriots. Many owned and ran the large resort hotels in what was considered Famagusta’s Riviera, overlooking perhaps the island’s most amazing beaches.
In August of that year, with air raids and Turkish military advances in the North, Varosia’s residents fled, leaving uncleared breakfast dishes and taking with them little more than the clothes they wore. Many left on the assumption that they would return within a few days, once the emergency was over and a semblance of normality was restored. That didn’t happen. The Turkish army marched on the town unimpeded, and to this day Varosia has remained empty.
Now the barricades at Varosha are one of the island’s most haunting sights, a lingering reminder of the dark days of 1974. Apartment blocks, shops and houses have remained untouched for 44 years, and are covered in dust and sediment. A looted car dealership still stocks a single 1974 model, entombed in its showroom, frozen in time. The grand hotels of this once booming resort town now have bare windows and shell-fire deposits, and have been left to slowly decay like giant hollow sentinels on the coast.
The city also held Varosia’s wealthy Archaeological Museum. No one knows what happened to its vast collection after the initial lootings. This is impossible to verify due to the town’s isolation. Historians fear important pieces have been relocated or sold on the black market.
Varosha and the rest of the ‘dead zone’ are surrounded by barbed-wire fences, and metal drums block the streets, preventing passage within. »
A Step Back in Time
The journey from Famagusta to Pafos takes more time than kilometers!
I had to go first from Famagusta to North Nicosia by bus, cross the border to Nicosia on foot, and then wait for 1h30 for the next bus leaving to Pafos, which would take three more hours to reach.
I took the bus from Famagusta at 9am and I arrived at roughly 3.30pm to Pafos.
Still, I had more than two hours of light left to explore the surroundings of my hostel. Everything being close by, I could visit a few landmarks such as the charming Chrisopolitissa Basilica and the catacombs of Saint Solomini with its huge tree full of votive rags.
Then there is Fabrica Hill, which is not considered as a main tourist attraction. But during this time of year (February), this archeological site is bustling with blossoming dandelions! Coupled with the peaceful atmosphere and panoramic views over the city, the place definitely worth the trip.
I finished the day walking on the promenade watching the sunset.
Pafos is known for its two major archeological sites : the Tomb of the Kings and Pafos Archeological Site itself.
The first one is interesting without being amazing. Although the 3km walk on the waterfront to reach the site is very pleasant (or you can go by bus).
The second is the most incredible of all Pafos archeological sites.
It covers a wide area capped with fields and fields of wild dandelions flowers and encompasses a lighthouse, an Odeion, an Agora, a fortress in ruins, several cave tombs and above all, houses that contain incredibly well preserved mosaics. The latter are the most fabulous sights on the site! It is really moving to realize upon seeing them that they have stood the test of time for more than a thousand years.
The next day was all about exploring the close surroundings. I've been to the overly famous Petra Tou Romiou (Aphrodite's Rock) and I still don't really get all the fuzz it generates. It is a big rock in the water. Period. No more, no less.
BUT the cultural belief, saying that it is allegedly the birthplace of the goddess Aphrodite, is pretty cool. Thirty minutes there, are enough to explore the place.
Then I took a bus to go to Coral Bay and, further, the village of Agios Georgios. The latter is a super peaceful place with a beautiful church overlooking the ocean. There is also a tiny harbour which you can reach through a small path and walk around.
The Akamas Peninsula
On my last day in Pafos, I wanted to visit the very famous Lara Beach on the Akamas Peninsula, but this is a very remote place only accessible with a 4WD or by walking 17km (round trip) from Agios Georgios. I wanted to, but then I thought : "Let's face it, it's just a beach."
So instead, I took a bus to reach the village of Polis lying on Akamas Peninsula's north coast.
It was so worthy!
The village itself is super small and the pedestrian center is like two small streets crossing each other, but still, it is really pretty!
From there I went to the Baths of Aphrodite (which is literally just a pond) from which the Aphrodite Trail starts, a 7km circular path in the Akamas Forest.
I wanted to push it further, so instead of walking just this busy trail, at some point I diverted from the trail to reach the westernmost part of the island, walking along the coast.
On the way, I reached a viewpoint named Fontana Amorosa.
The views are breathtaking, the waters are amazingly turquoise and clear, and there is no one, just the waves crashing on the rocks and the song of the birds... I felt very lucky and grateful to have this beautiful place all to myself on a sunny day.
Some boards are on display here and there, warning you to not touch any military debris as it might explode and kill you... Lovely...
I don't know if these boards were outdated or not but, oddly enough, I didn't want to give it a try and leave a leg or an arm behind!
After a few hours, I reached the tip of the peninsula. A little shrine facing the ocean is all there is. I sat there and contemplated this endless stretch of blue for a while.
On the way back, instead of walking the same trail, I came back through the lands and after a few kilometers going up, I reached the peak of Moutti tis Sotiras at 370m. From there the path meets the Aphrodite Trail which I took to go back to the Baths of Aphrodite.
In total, the updated trail was 21km-long.
I reluctantly left the Akamas Peninsula and took a bus to go back to Pafos.
The next morning I took a bus to Larnaka and was back to my trip starting, and ending, point.
Larnaka's Salt Lake
There was one place near Larnaka I wanted to see before to leave : the Hala Sultan Tekke Mosque and the Salt Lake.
It's easily reachable from the city center and it is on the way to the airport.
The mosque lies on the shore of the Salt Lake where you can spot some flamingos. The circular trail around the lake, called Aphrodite Path (because why not), is 12km long and is quite nice, especially the portion that goes through the cereal fields as far as the eye can see. It feels like you're in the countryside with no buildings for miles around.
All good things must come to an end, and so is my trip to Cyprus!
Don't think that because it is an island you travel around quickly. The country will easily keep you busy for one month.
If I would have had 10 more days to spend here, there are a few more places I would have loved to go to. Any suggestions? Lefkara, Stavrovouni Monastery, Ancient Salamis, Capo Greco, Troödos Mountains and the Karpas Peninsula.
Do not hesitate to check these places out!