All posts by Jim St. George

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.

There wasn’t a lot about Nicosia that was particularly memorable but this little cutie will stick with us. Look at those eyes!

We’re off to Cyprus for a couple of weeks. By far the largest Mediterranean island we had not yet been to, Cyprus is chock-full of history that we’re excited to learn more about. Given its strategic location in the Mediterranean and near the Middle East, it has been occupied by just about everyone at one time or another; settled originally by Mycenaean Greeks it has been occupied at various times by Egyptians, Persians, Alexander the Great, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, French, Venetians, Ottomans, and finally the British from the late 19th century. Cyprus gained independence from the British in 1960 but has been riven by ongoing animosity between the minority Turkish population and the majority Greeks. Of course, there’s nothing unusual about Turks and Greeks fighting; they’ve been at it pretty much nonstop since the first Byzantine and Ottoman clashes in the 14th century.

Here, the Turks and Greeks started at it again big time in the 1950s, with the Turks (making up about a fifth the population) wanting the northern part of the island to become part of Turkey. The rest of Cyprus resisted, but things got worse in 1974 when Greek Cypriot nationalists staged a coup with aid from the Greek military junta of the time. Their goal was enosis, or incorporating all of Cyprus into Greece. That was too much for the Turks so in July 1974 Turkey invaded and captured the northern third of the island. Some 200,000 people were displaced with most Greek Cypriots moving south and most Turkish Cypriots moving north. While the international community considers the island a single country and the Turkish military presence illegal, in practice today Northern Cyprus functions independently; Turkey is the only country in the world that recognizes North Cyprus.

Food is a huge highlight here, primarily Greek but definitely with a strong Middle Eastern accent

We are starting our two-week trip here in Nicosia, the capital and economic hub of Cyprus. (Similarly, North Nicosia, separated by a fence, border crossing, and UN demilitarized zone, is the capital of North Cyprus.) It is an ancient city, having been continually inhabited for over 4,500 years and the capital of Cyprus for over a thousand years. Today the old walled city is a labyrinth of winding passages feeling very Middle Eastern to me, but it had at least one nice bar where the head bartender made excellent cocktails and a couple of good restaurants. One thing I loved about the bar was that it was named The Gym. So you could leave in the afternoon and tell your partner “Hey, I’m going to the gym” and then just go get wasted. How good is that! And let’s just say the prices at The Gym and the various restaurants we went to were a fabulous surprise after nearly three weeks in Paris and Vienna.

To be honest we didn’t see a heck of a lot of Nicosia. We stayed at a Hilton that was further away from the center of the city than we normally would. The good part there was that it had a great pool that, in a city where the daytime temperatures were in the low 90s, was welcome relief. So we explored the old town a bit, and one day crossed the border into the Turkish side of the city, but we didn’t see as much of it as perhaps I would have liked.

When you cross the border into North Nicosia you trade steeples of minarets but otherwise it didn’t feel hugely different to me at least

And sadly, I will remember Nicosia as the place my iPad Mini died. I shouldn’t be too surprised; it was the same iPad I left Boston with in 2013 and I’ve used it intensively. The bad news, though, is that it will be months before we’re in a city with an Apple store. What am I going to do??

Speaking of Middle Eastern, dinner our last night was at a Lebanese place with live entertainment

And speaking of entertainment, this guy was a genuine mixologist and made great Martinis and Manhattans

Yup, that’s me at The Gym. Not as much work as it used to be….

A rare and welcome site: a failed Hard Rock Cafe. Makes you hopeful about Nicosia’s future!

OK, another cat picture

Keith & Nic enjoying Paris

A year ago or so we got an invitation to a wedding. An old great friend of ours from graduate school, Keith, was finally marrying Nic, the guy he’d been dating for the last seven years. We really wanted to go – they’re great friends and great people – but we really didn’t want to fly back from the Middle East, where we would be in November when the wedding would take place. What to do?

Suddenly the answer occurred to us. For the same money we would pay to fly back for the wedding we could fly them to Europe and make it their wedding present. And as a bonus, of course, we would get far more Keith-and-Nic time than if we were just two of the hundred-plus people at their wedding. Perfect! Needless to say, when we suggested that we would bring them to Paris (or somewhere else if they preferred) for their wedding present they liked the plan too.

Four of us enjoying the gardens of Versailles

So fast forward to late summer 2018 and here we are in Paris for a week with Keith & Nic. Still staying at the Agora St. Germain – which gets a little small after two weeks! – and still enjoying Paris. Parks, museums, cafés, long walks; beautiful late summer days in a beautiful city.

And while much of it was the same stuff we always do, Keith & Nic inspired us to enjoy a couple touristy adventures too. One day we took the train out to Versailles to visit the great palace and wander through the spectacular gardens. And on our last evening in Paris they had booked an hour-long river cruise on the Seine. Just the sort of über-touristy thing we would never do on our own … but we loved it. There were nice assigned seats facing the windows, a half bottle of red wine for each couple, and even a light meal served. Such a pleasant way to watch the city flow by (OK, we were flowing by, but whatever) and chat and just enjoy the good life.

On the boat with a little wine, a little food, and great friends

So that was our second week in Paris. From here Keith and Nic are continuing to Barcelona (our second-favorite city after Paris) on their own and we’re passing through Vienna on our way to Cyprus.

One of our favorite walks in Paris is along an elevated park, an old abandoned railroad bed. We’ve walked it many times over the years and always love the many little spots to sit and while away the time.

Traveling with Keith & Nic was great. Part of what we all liked was that there was plenty of together time but we also had lots of time on our own. My time on my own pretty much consists of going to Luxembourg Gardens and reading with this view.

Or the Gardens of the Champs-Élysées

Off on our own one morning Mark & I took a walk we’ve never done before. Down river, below the Eiffel Tower, there’s a long and narrow man-made island called the Isle of Swans and at the end of it is a small replica of the Statue of Liberty, which was of course a gift from France in honor of America’s centenary. How cute is that?

While there was plenty of time on our own, in the evenings we always regrouped for drinks and dinner. Here Nic & Keith are savoring our new discovery, the Martini Royale. Equal parts Martini Bianco & Proseco, with lots of ice and a dash of fresh lime juice, it’s wonderfully refreshing and low-carb. We’ll never be quite the same after this discovery.

Lots of reasons to love Paris

Mark loves these bicycle shots

One morning Mark & I were off to the Palais de Tokyo, a contemporary art museum. There were lots of huge installations, many of them genuinely interesting. This display of 40 clown sculptures was notably eerie.

Place des Vosges, dating from the early 17th century, was the first planned town square in Paris

A view of Paris from the elevated parkway we love so much

At first I thought this was just a random picture from Park Monceau that Mark had taken until I recognized that little figure in the left corner. It’s me!

A couple days after walking the elevated park alone Mark & I took Nic & Keith there so they could enjoy it too

I’ve seen this fountain at the bottom of Luxembourg Gardens a bunch but I don’t think I’d ever noticed the dedication before. It’s dedicated to the great explorers Marco Polo and Robert Cavelier de la Salle. And while everyone has heard of Marco Polo, de la Salle isn’t quite so famous. Unless, of course, you’re from La Salle, MI, as Mark is!

The Hall of Mirrors at Versailles

Nic, Mark, and Keith out in the gardens of Versailles

And finally, Keith and that big metal tower as we cruised by on our tourist boat