Cyprus is the kind of country that gives you a warm hug as soon as you land. If you could personify it, it would be your grandmother, always offering warmth, kindness and excessive amounts of tasty food. From the minute I stepped off the airplane, everyone was eager to help, almost always responding to my thank yous with “you’re welcome; it’s my job.”
I needed to get from Larnaca to the capital city of Nicosia, so I opted for the bus that costs EUR 8 rather than the taxi, which would have cost around EUR 45 for a roughly 50 minute ride. As soon as I paid the bus fare at the counter, the lady in charge escorted the waiting passengers and myself to the parking lot where she gladly explained where I was going to the bus driver in Greek. Meanwhile, I had the gentlemen I had rented a flat from on the phone telling me that he’d meet me at the bus stop.
My landlord for the following five days picked me up from the bus station, took me to the ATM machine and a convenience store, where he treated me to an iced coffee, before carrying my luggage up to the apartment. I was overwhelmed by his kindness and generosity.
The following day my best friend joined me in Nicosia and we were both lucky enough to attend The Anglo Cypriot Theatre (ACT)’s latest youth production “Marmalade Gumdrops,” directed by renowned Egyptian Leila Saad. The play was followed by a stroll down the Old City’s two main streets, Ledra and Onasagorou -- both quite narrow and intimate.
The houses on these streets were connected by large colorful pieces of fabric to provide shade for the pedestrians and café-goers alike. The architecture felt very familiar, something of a hybrid between Mykonos’s colorful buildings and the cute, short houses of a long-forgotten Cairene side street.
Bars, restaurants and crowds were equally friendly and after a good walk, my friend and I decided to go to a Bar/Lounge that came highly recommended: “The Gym.” Let me tell you, the only organs that carry out any exercise there are your taste buds! The Gym didn’t disappoint at all; the drinks were excellent and didn’t do much damage to our budget despite the fancy air the place emits. The most expensive cocktail was around EUR 8, which is near what you would pay in Cairo.
Nicosia has been inhabited since 2,500 BC. Throughout our conversations with the locals we learned that it was occupied at different times by the French, the British and the Italians -- Venetians to be specific. When we asked about the North-South Nicosia divide, the locals’ tone usually turned bitter, describing the Turkish invasion in 1974 and how it displaced many friends and families.
Having walked the city enough to know where home was, we decided to hit the beach! We took an early bus to Aiya Napa to spend the day by the sea. The return trip cost us EUR 10 per person and about an hour and fifteen minutes to get there, but it was worth every minute.
Interior of St. Lazarus Church "When you enter the church, don't let the beauty of the pews and the alter make you forget to look up" Photo: (Salma El Noshokaty)
We decided to post up at Nissi Beach, as May is still early in the season and this was where one would be most likely to find operational restaurants and bars. The view knocked the air out of my lungs. Behold the most beautiful stretch of white sand and crystal water with a small peninsula at the edge of the beach covered in bright green grass to contrast with the aquamarine water. I have finally found where I’d like to hold my wedding – if I ever get married.
The cool thing about Aiya Napa and all of Cyprus is that all beaches are public, so you can basically bring your umbrella and chairs and set up shop for the day without being asked to leave because you are on “hotel grounds.” It brings back a distant memory of Alexandria, Egypt where such a modern day absurdity was the norm! Being the spoiled girls – or at least trying – we used the hotel facilities for EUR 10 for two sunbeds and an umbrella since we hadn't brought our own.
The food and drinks were excellent so in the forgiving spirit of vacation, we had lunch twice. After a long relaxing day of splashing around, we returned to Nicosia, tanned and with big smiles tattooed on our faces.
On our last day, I decided to go to Larnaca early to do some wandering since my friend had an early flight. The pace speeds up in the city. Teenagers cycling by the boardwalk, scooters with music blasting and early beachgoers making their way to the beach. The busy seafront is covered with cafes, restaurants and souvenir shops but the madness stopped as soon as I reached the end of the pier overlooking the medieval Castle of Larnaca.
Interior of St. Lazarus Church "The alter is so intricate,you can't tell where the wood ends and gold begins" Photo: (Salma El Noshokaty)
My next stop was the Church of Saint Lazarus. This is where Lazarus of Bethany was presumably buried 30 years after being raised from the dead by Jesus Christ. Lazarus was appointed as the first bishop of Larnaca when he was forced to flee his homeland and reside in Cyprus. The church has undergone many architectural additions over the years, even being converted to a mosque by the ottomans in 1589, before being changed again into a church that offers both Catholic and Orthodox services.
Exterior of St. Lazarus Church "The contrast in architectural styles is very obvious once you step outside" Photo: (Salma El Noshokaty)
Wide view of the St. Lazarus Church "The Church subtly dominates the square" Photo: (Salma El Noshokaty)
On the inside, the church is exceptionally beautiful, covered in gold and dark wood with big luminous chandeliers and a beautiful alter. It has carried its turbulent history with grace; I couldn’t stop myself from lighting a candle and praying for hope and acceptance.
The Larnaca Pier "Some lonely lovers locks on the pier a la Pont Des Arts" Photo: (Salma El Noshokaty)
As I stepped outside, I decided that I’d like to check out a crystals and jewelry shop nearby – according to my delusional GPS. After walking, and dragging my carry-on bag behind me for a good 25 minutes, I found the shop closed – at 1:30pm. I asked the shop nearby for a cab company I could call to get to the beach. When asked by one of the owners asked where I was from, “Egypt” prompted matron and other people to break into a Greek chatter.
A gentlemen stepped up and told me that he would drive me to the beach as he was heading that way and that the entire shop would feel offended If I refused! So for the first time in my life – and I don’t endorse this behaviour of course, so don’t do like me – I got a lift from a random stranger. He helped me unload my luggage and told me to go to his friend’s café where I would get a discount if I mentioned his name. I thanked him and we parted ways but the words that kept resounding in my head were "random kindness."
I concluded my trip with an ice-cold cocktail on the beach, where the attendant decided not to charge me any money for the sunbed as it was cloudy so it wouldn’t have been fair. As I headed to the airport, I knew I would be back. I was irrevocably in love with this kind and graceful country. Cyprus was never on my travel list, it was a spur of the moment thing that my best friend cajoled me into. I guess like the best things in life, unplanned journeys can bring us the most joy, teach us to let our hair down, drop the travel guides and to-see lists and just experience things.
A view of the Larnaca Medieval Castle overlooking the Mediterranean, looks familiar, right? Photo: (Salma El Noshokaty)
· For accommodation: We booked a two-bedroom apartment five minutes away from the Old City of Nicosia at a very reasonable price (under EUR 100/night). It was perfectly clean. It is listed under “Suite for You” on booking.com. Mario the landlord has another apartment in the city center that he rents out so don’t hesitate to ask him; he’s lovely.
· For the Internet: You’re better off buying a local SIM card if you'll be using GPS for getting around. Otherwise, almost all beaches, cafes and restaurants offer free Wi-Fi. The card should cost under EUR 20. My experience with MTN was great.
· For food: Check out Evroulla on the side street (Stoa Klokkari Rd) between Ledra and Onasagorou streets in Nicosia. They have an excellent mixed platter for two.
If you fancy seafood, Pyxida (Menandrou 5, Nicosia 1066) is on the pricey side but is worth every penny. Try the shrimp in garlic sauce.
· For drinks: Hit The Gym (85, Onasagorou, Nicosia 1011). Try the Passion Lychee cocktail. Another choice that is more low-key for drinks would be Pieto (Lidras 207, Nicosia 1011) – they also provide you with an infinite supply of chips and nuts when you order a cocktail.
· For getting around: To travel between cities, check out the Intercity Buses website (www.intercity-buses.com). They are the cheapest option. For moving around in the city, the average cab fare doesn’t really exceed one euro so you can befriend a local tax-driver and take his/her number to call when you need a pick up. To get to Nicosia from the airport, take the EUR 8 bus. It costs about EUR 45-48 for a cab and it’s not a long ride.