Cyprus is packed with ancient history. The lure of ancient settlements, mosaics, beautiful coastlines, ancient churches and monasteries meant we had to visit. What we found was so much more than we could have imagined. The island is rich with artifacts, diverse landscapes, incredible sea views, good food and adventure. Our plans to visit Cyprus were put on hold this year until a last minute change in travel plans meant we back on schedule to visit the Mediterranean island.
I didn’t have much time to plan, about 24 hours so we arrived not really knowing what to do, how to get around, where to eat, or what we must see. We were traveling with our best friends so the four of us dug into the guide books, travel blogs and maps to chart our course for the nine day trip. It was really fun to do it this way, each of us brought our unique interests to the group so we managed to experience an array of things.
We rented a car for the trip as it is really the only way to get around the island. After arriving at 11:00 at night, and working with the Europcar staff for half an hour we finally found our destination on Google maps and we were off. Through the pitch dark we navigated a crazy route through tiny roads, sharp turns and what seemed like the middle of nowhere, this would be a theme for us for the next nine days.
At about 1 am we arrived at the beautiful home we rented on Airbnb. After many attempts to open the gate to the house we failed. Two of us squeezed through the crack in the gate, made our way to the house while the two guys passed the luggage over the top of the gate. It was quite the scene with our 50 lb bags and carry ons! Once in the house we sat down at 2 am and shared a bottle of beautiful wine from Montenegro and crashed at 4 am.
Needless to say we all slept in. Our first day was spent leisurely around the house, sitting by the pool, and grocery shopping. The second day was when the exploring began. These are the top things you must see when you visit Cyprus:
Honestly, we had no idea what the sea caves were. We knew our house was half a mile from them and that they came up on every Cyprus search we did for things to do. All four of us being scuba divers the lure of caves in the sea was very intriguing. What we found was not at all what we expected but definitely as beautiful as we hoped.
The white sandstone cliffs of the island fall dramatically into the water along only in this part of Cyprus. Over the years the waves have eroded the sandstone and created “caves” or crevices in the cliffs. It is incredibly dramatic to see. We drove along the cliffs one day and found a boat wreck against the caves.
The erosion continues to this day. In fact it is highly recommended not to walk too close to the edge and definitely not to park a car there. A few years ago an entire chunk fell off and took the parked cars right along with it. In certain places there used to be markers to keep people from standing too close to the edge but many of those have also slid off the edge in erosion!
Tombs of the Kings
Just outside of the city of Paphos is a large archaeological park called the Tombs of the Kings. I wasn’t sure what to expect when we visited and in some ways was disappointed and in some ways amazed. Most of the area is pretty much in ruins, largely due to the fact that many of them are from the 4th century BC! The park is larger than I had anticipated, requiring a lot of walking. No big deal but it is super hot so make sure to bring water, that was the big mistake we made. Most of the landscape was just sand and dirt, with a few flowers or grasses in random places. There was however a beautiful ocean view.
Now the part that was amazing. These tombs are not only thousands of years old but are quite an architectural feat for the time. Sometimes it felt like we were just looking into dug out holes in the earth but when we thought of the complexity of digging all of these tombs into the landscape, and often putting them in complex underground buildings you start to really appreciate what you are seeing.
There are no fancy columns here, or massive buildings so don’t expect that. What you do see is an incredible example of what life and burials were in the 4th century. There are a few frescoes remaining and few Doric columns to be seen in a few of the tombs. Which are really impressive when you consider the date they were made.
It is definitely worth seeing this incredible UNESCO heritage site when in Cyprus! Just make sure to bring water and read up before you go to really appreciate what you are seeing.
After the Tomb of the Kings we drove to the Paphos Mosaics. These were one of the highlights of our trip to Cyprus. These incredibly well preserved mosaics are located in the Archaeological park next to the Paphos harbor. They are spread over a fairly large area, so again take water!
The mosaics were discovered by a farmer and since then Cyprus has done an incredible job preserving the mosaics and continuing to discover more and more along with drainage systems all dating back to the third and fifth centuries AD. The House of Dionysus contains almost 6,000 square feet of preserved floor mosaics in 14 different rooms. The intricate designs are breathtaking. The House of Thesus and Orpheus and Aion also house incredible floor mosaics all so well preserved it is almost impossible to believe they are that old.
As we walked through the park it was astonishing to see the various mosaic examples in the grounds some with ancient columns still standing nearby. I think they are the oldest example of such colorful, intricate, well laid and preserved mosaics in the world. I spent so much time here just studying the designs, learning what they stood for and imagining what their world must have been thousands of years ago.
Church Of Lazarus
In my explorations of the world I have learned that the temples, churches or mosques are always worth touring, whether you are a religious person or not. They are always where the money was spent in ancient times whether it was for redemption of sins, or to honor God, Allah or Buddha. For this reason the Church of Lazarus was a must see.
In the seaside town of Larnaca the stone church sits dramatically amongst souvenir shops, restaurants and cafes. If we didn’t know the significance of the church it would have been easy to just appreciate it for the incredible Byzantine architecture. The original structure of the church was built in the 10th century. The simple stone interior is decorated with massive paintings, intricate gold work, and an incredible, massive chandelier.
Beneath the church is the tomb of Agios Lazarus. According to the bible he was a friend of Jesus Christ whom he brought back from the dead. There are many artifacts, marble sarcophagus and other tombs under the church as well. In 1589 the Ottomans took over Cyprus and turned the church into a monastery. Eventually it was sold back to the Orthodox community who have maintained possession of it ever since.
It is definitely worth the trip to see the church, just make sure you cover up before you enter. I had covered my head and shoulders but not my knees and was called out and sent outside to wrap more of the cover ups outside around me.
(Larnaca is one of the 20 ancient cities in the world which has been continuously inhabited. People have been living there for the last 4,000 years!)
Kalavasos-Tenta Archaeologic Site
Discovered in 1947 this 9,000 year old settlement is covered by a large, beautiful tent structure to protect it from the elements. The round houses (now visible only by the stones in the ground) were all built closely together. Originally there would have been a wall around the settlement. It was so fascinating to walk along the raised walkway looking at the footprint of the homes. Given the tiny size of the homes it is impossible to understand how they lived in them.
Standing under the tent, overlooking the entire settlement I was lost in thoughts about how far we have come in society. At certain points in my travels I find myself overwhelmed by how lucky I am to see the things I have seen. This settlement is one of those things I have seen. Interestingly it is not the prettiest or most elaborate thing but to understand more about the world history, to see how things were built well enough to last 9,000 years is just astounding.
The Kalavasos-Tenta site is a bit off the beaten path outside of Kalavasos village, in the Larnaca district. We asked locals for directions when our GPS got turned around and they were all more than happy to oblige.
Off Roading in the Akamas Penninsula
One afternoon we decided to take our SUV off road along the sea on the Akamas Penninsula. The desert landscape runs along the sea for miles. There are windy roads, gorges, no roads and rocky roads. A few bars and restaurants along the way and then just vast lands set again the hilly landscape. I love this part of the island for the contrast of the party life in Paphos and Larnaca. It is peaceful, undeveloped nature. We spent about two hours just driving along the coast line. There seemed to be a few paths to the sea so bring your bathing suit, and walk the paths for a swim to cool down in the summer heat.
Viklari, The Last Castle Restaurant
This is a must do in itself, not just a meal but an experience. The Last Castle is located along the Akamas Penninsula. It is in a very obscure location which adds to the insanely cool atmosphere. The restaurant only serves lunch until 5:00, I would book ahead to make sure you can get a table. We were lucky both times we visited as we didn’t have reservations but were able to get great tables along the edge of the castle ruins overlooking the sea.
The route to the restaurant is on a rocky windy road, at one point a U-shaped road barely wide enough to fit two cars dips down into a gorge and then back up again, once back up you will drive a bit further on rough road and then onto a very narrow road toward another gorge, then up a hill to the castle ruins. It sounds crazy but really it is pretty easy driving. The view up to the castle ruins doesn’t do justice to what you experience when you arrive.
The restaurant sits on the edge of the hill overlooking the sea. Each table is a large stone slab all situated under the lush grapevines (which had grapes dangling down when we were there). It is a reprieve from the Cyprus sun, and even though it is open air it is very comfortable even on a hot day. The menu consists of either rotisserie pork or chicken, salad and fries. For veggies they had an amazing lentil dish with salad. The food was delicious, the beer was cold and the service was great. The family run restaurant still maintains their roots no matter how popular they become. If you want your choice of the full menu then go earlier as they do run out of dishes towards the end of the day.
We loved our experience at The Last Castle we went twice and both times were just incredible. The unique location, grapevine covering, beautiful blooming flowers everywhere and rustic entrance transport you away from the rest of the world to a world you don’t ever want to leave.
Okay, so this wasn’t a tourist destination but it was definitely an experience. While drinking wine on the patio of our Airbnb one night a very large creature moved across the patio. J. jumped up to close the door to the house but the creature moved through the doorway before we could stop it. The other three of us jumped up to help remove this creature, massive banana spider (as large as our hand) from the house. As four grown adults jumped around, creating an obstacle course to remove the spider (there was a demand from the ladies to not kill it), the spider scrambled to find safety. Finally after about five minutes he found his way back outside. Crisis averted, we did not have to sleep outside.
Later when we headed to bed just by chance I looked by my bedside table and there was another one! J. and I freaked, then moved rugs, set up pillows along the floor to create a path to get him out the door. The concern was he would run under the bed and we would not be able to sleep in our bed but might have to go to the car for the night. Luckily this one escaped outside as well.
Thinking we averted the banana spider crisis altogether we all relaxed until a day later when our friends found one in their suitcase! After they removed the spider we all went about emptying our suitcases, checking for more, then repacking and zipping everything up. It made for quite the adventure!
There is so much to see in Cyprus I have to write two separate posts, so make sure to check out the post about the painted churches and monasteries in Cyprus.