Cats. One of the redeeming features of our stop in Limassol.

Notice how this blog entry started off with a cat? Usually it’s a picture that somehow illustrates what was especially beautiful or interesting or magical about the place. But in this case we are hard pressed to find something better than a cute cat.

It’s not that there was anything WRONG with Limassol per se; there just wasn’t much memorable about our short stop here.

The long stretches of beach around Limassol are a major tourist draw, attracting loads of package tourists for long weekends from chilly places in northern Europe. We do love the beach, as you know, and we can always be happy at a nice resort on a nice stretch of sand, even if there is not much else to do in the area.

The sort of blah oversized hotel overlooking the sort of blah beach at the beloved Four Seasons hotel in Limassol

When I researched places to stay I was impressed by the stellar reviews of a hotel called Four Seasons (notably not related to the very upscale Canadian chain Four Seasons). Countless reviewers called it the best hotel in Cyprus, some even the best hotel in the world. So we booked the place, even though it was a bit on the pricey side for us. No place better to splurge than at a great beach locale.

But the destination, the hotel, the beach all just screamed out, “Mediocrity!” We did have quite good food here (as elsewhere in Cyprus), but the town lacked the buzz of Nicosia or Kyrenia. The beach at the hotel? It wasn’t BAD, but it wasn’t anything special. We couldn’t bring ourselves to take pictures because nothing inspired you to do so. The water wasn’t beautiful Mediterranean blue. The sand was darker brown than usual. The landscape wasn’t interesting. All just meh.

And the fancy hotel itself? It was OK. I can’t really put my finger on anything wrong. Many features were even quite nice. But I can’t fathom where all those lavish reviews came from. It just didn’t live up to the reviews or the price tag. And oddly, the vast majority of the other guests were Russian. How did everybody in Russia know to come to this blah hotel?

Oh well, we had a decent time anyway. Good food and lots of cats. And I got to use my Russian a little. We just don’t have many exciting pictures to offer.

Sitting down to a feast at a friendly Greek meze restaurant. The food in Limassol did not disappoint.

An exceptional beef carpaccio with delicious fresh vegetable shavings

This guy was cute until immediately after I snapped the photo, when I reached down to pet him and he slashed my thumb and made it bleed

Looking down at the village from a long hike up the mountains

From Northern Cyprus we made our way inland to the Troodos mountains in the western part of the island. Here we spent a couple days in the charming village of Kalapanayiotis. It’s got a lot of what you’d expect from a hillside Cypriot village: crooked cobbled streets, old Orthodox churches, tiled rooftops, and lots of winding stairs.

A major draw here, compared with other villages in these mountains, was a unique hotel called Casale Panayiotis Traditional Village Hotel & Spa. The hotel is made up up beautifully renovated houses scattered throughout the central part of the village. We had to go up and down the stone staircases and across the cobbled lanes to get from our apartment to the breakfast spot or the reception desk or the swimming pool. It did feel a tiny bit like living in a village.

Beautiful Byzantine frescoes in the Agios Ioannis Lambadistis Monastery right in our village

These mountains are also known for lovely Byzantine churches that were built here in the 11th to 15th centuries. After French Catholics settled in Cyprus and began to run the show, many Orthodox believers and their artists and builders fled up into the mountains where they built these churches and maintained their traditional culture out of reach. The interior walls are painted top to bottom in almost comic-strip fashion with frescoes depicting the lives of Jesus, prophets, and saints, all remarkably preserved for the better part of a millenium.

We didn’t do much more here than hiking in the mountains surrounding this town. We were surprised by just how many types of fruit we saw growing along the pathways: grapes, blackberries, figs, pomegranates, peaches, persimmons. We just kept seeing more and more, as if they were just growing randomly in the wild. Fruit everywhere, often rotting on the ground below the trees.

Not a lot more to report from this quiet spot, except that there were lots of cats here. Lots of cats and lots of fruit. Nothing wrong with that. From here we’ll head to the southern coast of Cyprus to get some beach time. And maybe more cat time.

Getting some exercise and seeing lots of fruit

Crossing a sulfur spring-fed stream

Blackberries!

And a pomegranate

This is something I’ve never knowingly seen growing before: sumac. That’s the spice that gives a distinctive look (little red specks) and flavor to Lebanese salads like fattoush.

More frescoes in the monastery

And another friendly local cat

Mark at the very high point of St. Hilarion Castle. We always love those views of the Mediterranean.

Our first stop in Cyprus after leaving the capital was Kyrenia, the main tourist destination of Turkish-controlled North Cyprus. Like Nicosia (and really everything around here) Kyrenia has a long and storied history. Alexander the Great’s successors fought over it, the Romans and Byzantines ruled it, no less an historic figure than England’s Richard the Lionheart captured it.

By the 19th century the city’s population was roughly split between Muslims and Orthodox Christians, but with the onset of British rule in 1878 many of the Muslims fled to nearby Anatolia in Turkey. As a result when the Turks invaded Cyprus in 1974, then, the city was primarily Greek Orthodox. Those Greeks, though, largely left after the invasion so today the city is primarily Moslem (as evidenced by the mosque immediately adjacent to our hotel, whose daily 5:17 AM call to worship you couldn’t miss). The Greeks certainly haven’t forgotten, though. The driver who took us from Nicosia down to Kyrenia lamented that while they had always gone down there when he was a child they were no longer welcome.

Kyrenia’s old harbor and the view from lunch

What is Kyrenia like today, then? I was expecting something a little down-scale, maybe economically depressed as a result of its separation from most of Cyprus and its status as an illegally occupied zone. We’ve had plenty of experience where the Moslem parts of countries are just a lot less vibrant because of the anti-alcohol and just generally anti-fun impact of the religion. And I was wrong. It seemed like a lively, successful town. Lots of development, lots of bars, no problem getting beer or wine or better when you’re out and about. In fact there was a lot to love about Kyrenia.

Our first full day there we hired a driver to take us to the two major sites out of town, St. Hilarion Castle and Bellapais. St. Hilarion Castle sits maybe 10 miles southwest of Kyrenia, high up in the mountains. St. Hilarion was a monk who escaped here from persecution in the Holy Land and for whom the Byzantines built a church and monastery in the 10th century. Fast forward a few years and it became an important defensive stronghold given its strategic location. Today it’s just a great place to hike around and enjoy the fabulous views. Oh, and according to at least some rumors it was the inspiration for Walt Disney’s Snow White. Now that’s some important history.

Mark below St. Hilarion Castle. You get dropped off just a little way up that hill – where you see those buildings on the left – and then climb and climb and climb to the very top.

Next stop on our little day trip around Kyrenia was Bellapais, a charming little village up in the mountainside above Kyrenia. The main draw is an abandoned Augustinian abbey that dates from the early 13th century. The ancient church, still beautiful, was abandoned in 1974 when the Greek Orthodox fled to the south in front of the invading Turks. Just how beautiful are the abbey remains? Beautiful enough to occupy the front cover of Lonely Planet’s Cyprus edition. You know you’re hitting the highlights of a country when you recognize that shot!

Lonely Planet’s Cyprus guide

And the view on the day we visited

The next day we went up to a beach a few miles West of town, a pretty nice Mediterranean beach. This late in the summer the water is wonderfully warm so that made for a pleasant few hours. At first I was annoyed by the loud music blasting out of the speakers (it’s common around the Mediterranean but that doesn’t mean I have to like it) but eventually I got used to it and, when I was out swimming, even enjoyed it. The food situation there was just too grim to contemplate having lunch, though, so we went back to town. Later that day Mark toured the castle right in Kyrenia while I laid around and was lazy. This was the castle that Richard the Lionheart had captured so it, too, had some great history.

Did I mention a beautiful Mediterranean beach?

And finally the other major thing to do in Kyrenia is to eat, and we found some great food. There are lots of reasons to love Turkey, but the food is high on the list. Just around the corner from our hotel was the aptly named Corner Restaurant, right on the town’s harbor, and they had some of the best food we’ve had in a long time. In a short three-night stop we ate there three times and loved it every time. One dish in particular – a baked eggplant thing with small shrimp and some Middle Eastern spices – was just amazing. Unlike anything we’ve ever had and we had it every time we went there. And I would have it again in a heartbeat if I could ever find it on a menu.

So that was Kyrenia – a beautiful little place with a somewhat sad history if you consider centuries of fighting and even modern-era massive displacements sad. I do. But all that notwithstanding, a beautiful, vibrant city.

Evening at the harbor

The edge of the mountain on down to the sea, from St. Hilarion Castle

There I am, up near the top

The haunting interior of the 13th century Orthodox church in Bellapais, abandoned now for over 40 years

Our little beach west of town

The Kyrenia castle. Richard the Lionheart strode here…

Me with some very fresh fish at the Corner Restaurant

And Mark there, too, this time with that amazing eggplant-and-shrimp dish on the left. The fried fish in front wasn’t too shabby either.