A Cypriot Christmas

The Paphos waterfront.

The Paphos waterfront.

I spent Christmas in Cyprus. As you can see from the date, I’ve now been back for over two weeks, so you’d think I’d have already written something about the experience, but it never quite happened. Things are unsettled: I’m subletting someone’s room while they’re overseas, being in-between homes myself, and the end result seems to be that I’m more hibernating than living. No doubt it doesn’t help that there’s been a lot going on at work, and that I’ve had a cold, and that my evenings this week have been largely spent house hunting; still, it’s been long enough now that I’ve no doubt forgotten half of the things I did.

This wasn’t my first time joining a group tour rather than travelling alone/with friends/with family, but it was the first time in over a decade, and I was apprehensive about that. I knew I would be the youngest in the group – I’m a little old to be interested in tours aimed at 18-35s and didn’t want something too adventurous, which left a narrow range of options, most of which are taken by those a little later in life – and that was fine. I don’t mind being around people much older than myself, and in a way, this time, it was comforting.

They were a nice group. There were about eighteen of us, surprisingly evenly split between men and women, and all singles: I booked through a group that caters to solo travellers, so everyone was widowed, divorced, or just never-married, and that was comfortable for me. Everyone was British with the exception of one woman from New Zealand (though at least she travelled on a British passport – to her benefit, in this case). We flew into Larnaca, with long delays at Heathrow, and then had a two-hour drive out to Paphos (also spelled ‘Pafos’, which I guess makes sense given it is translated from the Greek (Πάφος)). It was a long day. Paphos is in Southern Cyprus, which is to say, Greek Cyprus– before travelling, I knew only very roughly the political and military situation in Cyprus, something I was to learn a lot more about over the next week!

We stayed in a resort just outside of Paphos, which was lovely. The weather wasn’t great (12-14 degrees Celsius, plenty of rain), but certainly warmer than London had been, and there was enough sun that I could get a feel for what Cyprus must be like in the summer (hot). I had a king-sized bed in my room which was absolute heaven. I’m not sure what it is, but somehow when I have that much room I end up sleeping almost horizontally. Bliss!

In addition to our (Irish) tour manager, we had a local bus driver and local guide. Our guide, Stella, was a matronly woman in (at a guess) her late fifties, who had a habit of repeating herself with the exact same phrasing and intonation– which I guess is not surprising giving she’s delivering tours in a language that is not her first! She was Greek Cypriot, and seemed very, very keen on pointing out different villages and telling us which ones were Greek villages, and which ones had been Turkish villages before, in her words, the “Turkish invasion of 1974”.

It occurs to me, of course, that if I’m correct with her age, she must have been at a formative age in 1974, when the Turkish troops arrived and took over 30% of the island, and it’s no wonder that she came across as bitter and disapproving. Mind you, I imagine many Cypriots feel that way – I can’t imagine what it must be like to know that your country used to be whole, and now a foreign nation has taken over 30% of it, forcing people away from their homes and businesses and lives. I know that it’s not quite as simple as that, and that some terrible things happened on both sides, of course; still, knowing that another country claims part of yours as a sovereign nation, one that no other country acknowledges, must be beyond galling.

That further struck home for me later in the week, when we visited Nicosia, which is a city split by the so-called ‘green line’ that divides the two parts of the island. As you drive into Nicosia, you can see the mountains behind the city, and upon mount Pentadaktylos, the flag of the self-declared state of Northern Cyprus has been created out of painted rocks. It’s absolutely huge (allegedly, 111 thousand square metres), visible for miles and miles, and the Greek Cypriots refer to it as ‘the flag of shame’. The Turkish Cypriots argue that it is their mountain and they can put whatever they like on it; the Greek Cypriots consider it a massive ‘fuck you’.

Within Nicosia, you can still see bullet holes from the fighting. (There’s also a massive statue commemorating Cypriot freedom from the British, but that’s another story altogether.) And then, of course, you have the checkpoints. Nicosia, as I said, is a city split down the middle. Streets are simply blocked off, many with armed guides watching to make sure no one crosses without authorising. You can cross– with passport in hand, of course– but I ultimately elected not to: mostly, I think, because I thought it would take too long, and we had limited time. Still, it was chilling to see those checkpoints, and those young armed guards.

Negotiations to solve the Cyprus conflict are ongoing – it’s been in the news again only this week, in fact. Allegedly, things are going well, but Erdoğan has insisted that Turkish troops will remain on Cyprus forever, which is clearly going to be a sticking point for the Greek Cypriots. It’s been forty years, now, and it’s hard to imagine that it will be easy to solve that issue. But… I don’t know. I was reading after my return about Varosha, a resort in Famagusta in Northern Cyprus, which was one of the most popular holiday destinations in Europe until 1974… when, following the ceasefire, it was fenced off completely and just abandoned. It’s an entire town that has been abandoned, everything left as it was, for now more than four decades. I find it a chilling thought, and part of me would like to see it (from outside, of course; you can’t get too close because there are armed guards even now), and part of me thinks that would be just too sad.

Complicated, man.

Other parts of the trip provoked much less thought on my part, at least! We saw some absolutely stunning Roman-era mosaic floors, and ruins from even earlier than that. We also saw Aphrodite’s supposed birthplace, and I washed my face in the spring water from her bath, which supposedly will give me eternal youth and beauty. We were supposed to head up into the Troodos mountains, but it snowed so much the police refused to let us up there; I suppose it would be bad for tourism if a bus of British tourists had an incident! That was disappointing, but these things happen.

Beyond that, much of the week seemed to revolve around food. We had a buffet breakfast in the hotel every morning, a meze lunch, and than a buffet dinner– a lot more food than I am used to! The meze lunches were amazing: it would be dish after dish after dish of interesting food, served with local wine, and finished with a local dessert of some kind. It’s easy to say ‘oh, I’ll only have a little’ but when all those plates come out… oof. I also thoroughly enjoyed drinking sketo – Cyprus coffee – which is the same as Turkish coffee but referred to differently for, well, obvious reasons (one also buys ‘Cyprus delight’ instead of the obvious). I enjoyed zivania, the local spirit, rather less (they refer to it as ‘firewater’ and our guide swore blind that she uses it to clean her windows. Enough said).

So that was my week. I enjoyed the group I was with, although some of them did – being of a certain age and background – have a few prejudices I would have preferred to avoid (no, people do not migrate to or seek asylum in the UK so they can claim benefits). That’s to be expected; I’m sure I said some things that they were horrified by too! Mostly, they were lovely.

It was a different Christmas to the one I had last year, and no doubt different to the one I’ll have next year, but I’m glad I decided to do it that way: different was good. I skyped my family on Christmas day, and although the package I sent them didn’t arrive until after Christmas, at least I was part of the celebrations, even from so far away.

The worst part of the trip was definitely getting home: three hours delay in leaving Larnaca, which meant we arrived at Heathrow at midnight, and then it took two hours for me to get through border security (this is where having an EU passport would be useful)… but that was fine, because, oh right, our bags didn’t come out until 3am. I then had to get to Paddington for the hotel I’d booked into, which meant catching the Piccadilly line (hurray for night tubes) to King’s Cross, and then a bus back to Paddington and… well, by the time I made it to my hotel, it was 5am, December 31st.

Which is why I was fast asleep in bed by midnight on New Year’s eve.

I liked Cyprus – it’s probably a place better suited to a spring or autumn visit, but there’s plenty of history and culture and natural beauty. I probably wouldn’t go back (though never say never), but it was different to anywhere else I’ve been, and I really appreciated that. Our tour manager is a Cuba expert, and that’s really taken my interest: another place with an interesting political history! We shall see.

(Cyprus photos are here.)

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