Just 40-minutes after the jet’s wheels disengaged from the tarmac in Tel Aviv, our plane landed in Larnaca, Cyprus. El Al’s low cost flights have turned this summer vacation town into Israel’s closest tourist destination – even closer than Eilat. If you reserve your ticket far enough in advance, you can even enjoy the same low rate as a round-trip flight from Sde Dov to Eilat. With our two carry ons, and our boarding passes that we’d printed ahead of time, my wife remarked to me how simple and easy this trip was.
Cypriots can teach us a thing or two about tourism and hospitality. More than 2 million tourists visit the island of Aphrodite every year, half of whom are from Great Britain. This is no surprise, since Cyprus only received independence from Britain in 1960, which had ruled over the island for 80 years. Cypriots continue to drive on the left side of the road, electrical outlets are the same as those used in Britain and a high percentage of the local population speaks English.
I’m the type of person who loves to go exploring the moment I arrive somewhere new, whereas my wife loves nothing more than relaxing next to the pool, and we were able to find the perfect compromise in our recent romantic weekend getaway in Cyprus. All in all, this very affordable trip was a smashing success.
We’d reserved a nimble, compact car from Sixt, which was waiting for us at the airport upon our arrival. Unexpectedly, we found that we were expected to pay for a full tank of gas in advance and return the car empty at the end of our trip, which was a difficult feat considering we would only be there for the weekend. Just take this into account when you’re preparing your budget. (Our travel agent in Israel had “forgotten” to tell us about this detail, but when I checked the small print it was there.) But we didn’t let this small setback dampen our joy. There was little traffic during our 90-minute drive on the highway and by sunset we’d reached our destination: Paphos. The five-star Azia Resort and Spa, located just north of the city center, is not over-adorned and its simplicity reminded me of the 1980s. We didn’t book our hotel through a travel agent, but directly with the hotel. The price was similar to what we would have paid for a very simple bungalow in the Galilee with no perks, whereas here the tasty breakfasts and delicious dinners were included in the price.
Within half an hour, we found ourselves lounging on sun beds under a straw canopy near a cliff overlooking the sea. The sound of the waves crashing on the huge rocks below us, and the sight of the manicured green grass surrounding us (and the absence of children yelling in Hebrew) helped us quickly relax. As we lay there reading our novels, we would peak out every few minutes to watch the most beautiful sunset we’d ever seen slowly transform in front of our eyes. We felt such a relief after weeks of hard work and waking up at the break of dawn to watch LeBron James and David Blatt attempting to win the NBA championship.
That evening at the hotel, with the sound of the waves in the background, we enjoyed an incredibly delicious outdoor barbecue buffet dinner of all types of imaginable Cypriot meat and seafood dishes.
The next morning, we jumped in our car and set out for downtown Paphos. We walked along the new modern promenade toward the fortress and looked up at the canons surrounding it. We sat at a café and ordered a dish made with the famous Cypriot hallumi cheese and relaxed with a couple bottles of the local KEO beer. I couldn’t believe how detached we felt from our day-to-day lives at home. Let’s just say we were thoroughly enjoying Cypriot hospitality and the tranquility of the island.
After 36 splendid hours in Paphos, we bid goodbye to the beach and Alana, the concierge at our hotel who had been so helpful and sweet to us during our stay (and offered us two mugs with a picture of the hotel on it as souvenirs). We put “Kykkos Monastery” into Waze and, with our back to the Mediterranean Sea, set out in search of the green Troodos Mountains in northern Cyprus. The app did not fail us along the curvy roads to our next destination, but once we reached the mountains, Internet reception became spotty and so we were forced to resort to old fashioned maps to find out way.
The landscape quickly changed before our eyes and within 30 minutes we’d found ourselves smack in the middle of the most amazing forest of cedar trees.
Many people say that the Troodos Mountains remind them of the Galilee, but I beg to differ. In Cyprus, the forest was thicker and seemed to go on forever as we drove up along the roads that twisted up through the mountains. We finally reached our destination: The Holy Monastery of the Virgin of Kykkos.
Built in 1100, it’s the largest and richest monastery in all of Cyprus. During our visit, we heard a number of tales about miracles that had taken place at the monastery.
Even Archbishop Makarios, the “Ben-Gurion” of Cyprus, began his illustrious career at Kykkos.
After we’d spent a few hours at the monastery and the shops surrounding it where we bought souvenirs, candied nuts and almond cakes, we continued up the narrow road (trying to remember to stay on the left side of the road) in pursuit of the summit of the Troodos Mountains.
The air here was so cool and the surroundings so pastoral – it seemed like there were two Cypruses: One had hot, brown beaches and the other cool, green mountains.
We stopped along the way up the mountain at Pedoulas, where we bought luscious cherries for ridiculously low prices.
We also enjoyed a lunch of Cypriot salads, fried hallumi cheese and the traditional kleftiko (lamb cooked in a ceramic oven for many hours in lemon juice with cinnamon, thyme and oregano). I couldn’t believe how incredible this simple, homemade food tasted.
We continued on our way to the capital of Nicosia and made it there just in time for the sunset. We’d accomplished so much in just one day since everything is so close by on the island of Aphrodite.
It turns out that Sunday evenings in the Cypriot capital are a popular time among families in search of an entertaining meal in a restaurant. Surprisingly, most of the people we saw around town were Cypriots and not tourists (apparently, tourists tend to flock to the coastal cities such as Paphos, Limassol, Larnaca and Ayia Napa). People sat at tables piled high with moussaka, salads and meat dishes. Buzuki players sat at each restaurant, which added to the Cypriot ambiance and made the evening much more memorable. Even the monks in their long robes joined in the festivities and it seemed so natural for them to be singing and clapping along with everyone else.
The next day, we spent the morning walking through the old city of Nicosia, and passed by cafés that were bustling with young people, modern fashion boutique shops and also old, traditional shops. It was like a combination of south Tel Aviv and Jerusalem’s pedestrian walkways.
At the end of Ledras Street, there is a border police station that is surrounded by sandbags and barbed wire. In case you didn’t already know, Nicosia is a divided city, ruled on one side by Greek Cypriots and on the other by Turkish Cypriots.
Throughout the day, people trickle across the border from one side to the other, waiting their turn to show the bored policemen their passports before passing through. It reminded me of stories of the Mandelbaum Gate in the days before the Six Day War. From what we could see, the Cypriots seemed pretty content to continue living in this surreal status quo. In the cafés next to the border crossing, nobody seemed to give the policemen any mind, and none of the soldiers or policemen we saw in the city was carrying a weapon.
And then it was time to head for the airport in Larnaca, just a 30-minute drive from the capital (after we bought some vacuum- packed hallumi cheese in the grocery store). After another 30 minutes on the airplane, we were back at Ben-Gurion Airport.
Although we waited forever for the shuttle to take us from Terminal 3 back to Terminal 1 and the price for parking was outrageous, the three relaxing days in Cyprus had given us a huge energy boost and a reservoir of patience. And I must admit, it was good to be back home.Translated by Hannah Hochner.