Cyprus – A Short Guide
Cyprus is a small island in the Mediterranean. It’s divided into two halves, a Turkish half and a Greek half. Its divided geography is like its history – complicated! The history of Cyprus is a history of its overlords and occupiers, which reads like a who’s who of history – the Assyrians, the Egyptians, Persians, Alexander the Great, the Romans, the Venetians, the Ottomans, the British. Those poor Cypriots were hardly left alone for a minute. Luckily for them though, they are now independent, albeit with political complications. Basically, Turkey invaded and occupied a little over a third of the island. That part is now administered by the ‘Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus’, a country that is only recognised by… Turkey! Under International Law, Northern Cyprus is considered illegal, and after Cyprus joined the EU, Turkey is deemed to be illegally occupying EU territory. And Turkey wants to join the EU. As I said, complicated…
Cyprus Geography – A Tour Around the Island
Cyprus is the 3rd largest and most populated island in the Mediterranean, and is a major tourist destination. It has a very warm sub-tropical climate, and is one of the warmest places in the EU. In the city of Limassol in January-February the average temperature is between 17 and 18 degrees Celsius – by way of comparison that’s about the same as London in August! Holidaymakers flock to Cyprus in droves, coming to Limassol and other popular resorts such as Paphos and Larnaca.
Cyprus has two major cities, Nicosia is the capital with a population of about 200,000, and Limassol is the second largest city with a population of about 150,000. Limassol is on the coast and is a major tourist destination, whereas Nicosia is inland and also split in two with part of the city in the Turkish occupied north. Crossing the border between the north and south of the island is less complicated than it was. There used to be a wall and crossing was difficult if not impossible. Ever since Cyprus joined the EU though things have got easier – the wall has been taken down and people can travel between the two albeit you’ll need your passport. Things are still not straightforward however – a travel guide to Cyprus suggests that taking a hire car across the border is not recommended, as you probably won’t be covered by your insurance. Best not then!
What are Cypriots like? Well it really is a country divided. In Northern Cyprus there’s the Turkish Cypriots, who speak Turkish and are mainly Sunni Muslims, and then in the rest of the island there is the majority Greek Cypriots who are predominantly Eastern Orthodox Christians. The country as a whole is one of the most religious countries in Europe.
Off the beaten track – the town of Peyia
A great way to find out more about a country to choose a little known place and go have a – either virtual or real – wander around, see what you can find out. I called up a map of Cyprus on the internet, and it was only then that it hit me just how small the place is – only about 100 miles wide and 50 miles wide. If you zoom in so that the whole of the island fills the screen, you can see all towns of any sort of size, and there aren’t that many of them either. I settled on Peyia, so lets see what the internet can tell us.
Peyia, also called Pegeia, has population just short of four thousand, and is less than 10 miles from the resort town of Paphos. As a result of its proximity to tourist resorts, it has quite a lot of cafes and restaurants. Ideally, I would have chosen somewhere a bit less touristy and a bit more of a place for locals, but if such a place exists at all, it seems to be a small village with only a couple of hundred people and virtually no information. So Peyia it is, and what better place to find out about the place than the Peyia Community Association. Once upon a time, they decided it would be a good idea to have a website, in those days when everyone and their dog were getting a website. As with so many other websites, at some point due perhaps to lack of funds or for want of a willing volunteer to maintain the site, the site disappeared from the internet. Luckily, the echoes of many of these ghost websites still exist in the form of the ‘Wayback Machine’, a long running project that archives websites for future posterity.
According to the community website, Peyia “started life as a typical, small Cypriot village of stone built houses with narrow streets built around a church nestling on a hillside overlooking the sea”. Once upon a time villagers had to collect their water from the village spring or ‘vrisi’ (this reminds me of Portugal, where this is still quite common). It was at the vrisi that everyone met especially young men who would gather to watch girls collecting water in their red clay pitchers. It was said that the water made the girls beautiful. You mean they weren’t already? I don’t imagine that was the best chat up line – ‘Hey, xxx do you want to go out some time? You look rather ugly but drink some of that water and I daresay you’ll look alright…’ There are several songs about the vrisi including ‘Spring of Peyia Woman’ which is still sung today.
Peyia still retains some of its traditions where the men still talk politics in coffee shops, people attend church, and shop in local stores. An all too familiar story is playing out however, as the developers move in, crowding out traditional stone cottages with their high rise apartment blocks, and holiday makers and expats change the sense of community. It must be a bittersweet pill, tourism provides employment and keeps the place going, but erodes the traditional way of life.
One of the top rated restaurants in Peyia is the Phidias Tavern. One reviewer had been going for many years, and described how until recently it didn’t have a menu. When you went in you’d be asked whether you wanted to eat or drink. If you wanted to eat you’d just be given a plate of meze (a selection of Cypriot dishes). Now, it has a menu and has been modernised, which seems a shame, but still sounds a great place to eat. Recommendations from reviewers include the suckling pig, pork afelia and kalimari.
Food of Cyprus
Cypriot food is very similar to Greek food – and Turkish food – in the Turkish section of the island – but they do also have their own specialities, both legal and illegal. Yes, illegal. One of their popular traditional dishes is Ambelopoulia, which is boiled, grilled or pickled songbirds. While illegal, it is not actively policed and is still served in many restaurants in Cyprus. It involves trapping birds including the popular European Robin, and over 1.5 million are killed annually.
Also popular is souvlaki and sheftalia, the latter being traditionally Cypriot and is a type of skinless sausage formed into a ball and made up of ground pork and lamb, finely chopped onion, parsley and salt & pepper. It’s wrapped in caul fat, the membrane surrounding the stomach of a pig or lamb.
Neither of these dishes are ones that you are likely to be able to – or want to – cook in your own home using supermarket bought ingredients. A Cypriot food you may be more familiar however is Cyprus Potatoes. These are a variety of potato that is widely available in Britain at least. They are thin skinned, waxy and earthy, a product of the distinctive red clay soil of Cyprus which is perfect for growing potatoes. Eat them on their own, or try a warm potato salad with feta cheese and tomatoes.