Monday, February 28, 2000

TR Cyprus

TRIP REPORT
PAFOS Marathon
CYPRUS 2/24 – 2/28/00


Before I even start out on this trip I must take a minute to comment that for probably the first time in Europe I had a relatively easy time setting up this trip. The travel agency in Cyprus that worked with the marathon was professional and efficient and we only needed to exchange a few emails and faxes to set up the hotel, car and marathon entry. A few more calls and faxes to Cyprus Air and the trip was booked!

Why Cyprus? In case you hadn’t noticed I have been following the European Marathon Circuit and it moved south in the fall and has stayed south for the winter which is OK by me! But I have learned that the Mediterranean is not all that warm in the winter. It was cool in November and it was still cool last week in Cyprus; cool being high temperatures anywhere from the mid-40s to low 60s throughout that period. Many of the Mediterranean islands and resort areas are used as winter refuges by the Europeans but in my opinion I would go further south-to the Canary Islands, Madeira, etc. The weather is just not warm enough for my blood. Lido Key, Florida is looking really good to me now! It has as nice or nicer beaches that any I have seen in the Mediterranean, the water is just as blue and clear, it is a lot warmer and I can watch more than one TV channel in English. And most importantly I can follow the stock market in real time!

But the Mediterranean sure has lots of different cultures and interesting history! And Cyprus is no exception. Cyprus is the third largest of the Mediterranean islands (behind Sicily and Sardinia) and is considered to be at the crossroads of Europe, Asia and Africa since it is a short distance to all three. Geographically it is in Asia but politically it is aligned with Europe and has applied for membership into the EU. (More about this tidbit later).
It’s history goes back to the Neolithic Period, 5800 –3000 BC and it has been conquered and ruled by every major empire throughout history and there are remains of each of those empires still spread around the island. The British administered the island from 1878 to 1960 when it gained independence. The Turks invaded the island in 1974 and still occupy the northern one-third of the island. There is a buffer or neutral zone occupied by UN forces that runs right through the middle of Nicosia. We did not visit the Turkish-occupied territory because of the difficulties crossing over the border.

Cyprus has two major airports but due to limited flight schedules in the low season we had to fly into the Larnaka airport which is the northeast and drive over 100 miles to our resort hotel in Pafos which is in the southwest. Fortunately the road system was built by the British and the major roads are in good shape and of course you drive on the left side! And we did get to see a lot of the country and landscape during our drive. It looks like a typical Mediterranean Island. Rocky, rugged, hilly with sparse vegetation except where it is cultivated and irrigated. The mountains are quite high, over 6000 feet and there is even a ski resort at the top of Mount Olympus. There are many banana plantations, orange and lemon orchards along the coastal plains and hundreds of vineyards and wineries on the mountain slopes.
The high tourist season is May through September but many Brits and other Europeans spend the winter in Cyprus because of the weather. In the resort and tourist areas you almost feel like you are in England. Everyone speaks English, the menus, etc are in English, and you drive on the left side-etc! But when you go inland and up into the mountains the English quickly disappears and only Greek is spoken and all the signs are in Greek. The road maps are very poor –the local excuse is that they don’t want to publish good maps for fear that the Turks will use them in another invasion? So when you get lost which is often you have to ask a local whom doesn’t speak English for directions. It’s lots of fun.
The marathon host hotel was a 5-star resort hotel in Coral Bay –and it truly was a 5-star destination resort with spa, etc. We had a great room with a patio overlooking the Mediterranean Sea with breakfast for two for $75/night. But that rate quadruples in the high season along with the number of tourists. Cyprus is not cheap! The prices are equivalent to US prices which are cheap compared to England or France but 50% higher than comparable resorts in Spain or Portugal. Nicole kept comparing Cyprus to Mallorca and said that she preferred Cyprus because it wasn’t quite as overrun with British tourists and there was much more local culture evident. But if you were only interested in a warm (or less cold) place to spend the winter I would go to Mallorca since it is much cheaper.

But now it is time to tour the island! There are literally hundreds of historical sites spread around the island so we could only hit the main ones. And we also wanted to enjoy some of the local culture. So we headed first into Pafos. Nea or New Pafos consists of the old town center of Ktima, 3km up the hill and Kato Pafos, -the harbor, archeological zone and hotel strip along the sea. The old town center has the market where we quickly picked up the necessary souvenirs and then headed down to the harbor. The harbor is the same one used by all the past civilizations and a very large archeological zone has been established in this area to prevent development over the sites of many ancient civilizations. They are still uncovering ancient Greek and Roman settlements. There are several Roman houses (built in the late 2nd century AD) that have been unearthed that contain very beautiful mosaics that are in good condition and still have their original colors and designs. Close by are the Tombs of the Kings, tombs carved into limestone outcrops in the 3rd century BC. Since there were no kings in Cyprus during that period they speculate that the tombs were for the rich and privileged classes of that time. They are similar to the tombs in Egypt but not as spectacular. Also in the same area are the Pafos Castle (1391) and the Saranda Kolones fortress (1222).

Then it was time to head further west towards the Akamas Peninsula, a natural and still undeveloped part of the island. After passing through the small fishing village of Latchi we parked and walked to the Loutra tis Afrodhitis –‘The Baths of Aphrodite’. In legend the goddess retired here to bathe before (and after) entertaining assorted lovers. Another legend states that if you are ‘pure and innocent’ and are splashed by the water from the Baths you will be transformed into a beautiful young nymph! I scooped up several handfuls of water and splashed Nicole but for some reason the magic spell didn’t work! But I’m telling you that I am now very popular with the boys in the changing room at the clubhouse. And Nicole is having fun teaching me how to coordinate my silk and lace underwear with my mini-skirts and see-through blouses. But I do have one question for the female readers of this newsletter. How the hell do I fasten this damn bra at the back???

But now it was time to explore the mountains of Cyprus and “Go where no tourist has gone before”. So we set off to find an old abandoned monastery on top of a mountain that had no paved roads to it! When we got to the end of the paved roads we got lost quickly and asked a farmer for directions and paid attention to the first 2 or 3 hand motions indicating turns, etc. We quickly found ourselves at the end of the good dirt road and on a 4x4 track going up the mountain –and we only had a Honda Civic! We made it over the first mountain and down the other side (after almost taking the bottom out of the car several times) before we came to a stream. At that point we wisely decided that the only course open was to retreat from whence we came! On the way back Nicole had to get out several times to move boulders of the track so we could make it back to civilization safely. Having got the ‘back-country exploration bug’ out of our system we then followed the paved roads around the mountain and up the Troodhos Mountains to the small mountain village of Panayai. We stopped at a café and enjoyed a wonderful local meal of stewed lamb washed down with a great red wine from the local winery. All-in-all it was a good day! But it was time to head back to Pafos and carbo-load for the race the next day.

Sunday. M-day! The race started in front of the Pafos castle at the harbor, ran north past the Catacombs of Ayia Solomoni, then turned west and ran up and down the hills along the coastal road to the Sea Caves at the start of the Akamas Peninsula where we had to climb a very steep hill. A few more miles, then turn around and retrace the route. The ‘gentle rolling hills’ described in the race brochure seemed like ‘big-ass mountains’ on the way back. Also race morning was the warmest day we had with temps hitting the mid-60s but fortunately they had water every two miles, which is unusual for a European race. I ran a much smarter race and kept the pace smooth and easy and did not really have any trouble but still hurt like hell the last 6 km. But I was much happier with my performance and time (3:48:37) and believe that my injury problems with the right hamstring are now behind me. Now I start the slow painful process of getting back in race-shape. It always amazes me how quickly and easy the conditioning goes and how hard and slowly it comes back? But nobody said life was fair?

We had planned to do some more touring after the race but the weather turned cool and started to drizzle in the afternoon so we found a nice café overlooking the harbor and sipped wine for the afternoon. I realized that I had made reservations and prepaid for the ‘Gala Celebration Dinner’ at the hotel. What a mistake! I won’t do that again and recommend that you pass also if you are offered such an opportunity. The meal was the typical bland buffet followed by some local musicians and dancers. Yuk! We could have had a great steak dinner for the same price!

The following day was time to leave but we still had lots to see. Fortunately most of the remaining tourist attractions were between Pafos and Lanarka. So we left early and planned our route to stop at Aphrodite’s Birthplace, The Tombs of the Kings, and several Graeco-Roman ruins in the Limassol area. One of the more interesting sites is a Graeco-Roman Theatre originally built in the 2nd century BC that is now fully restored and used for musical and theatrical performances. We also visited the Sanctuary of ApolloYlatis, the God of the Woodland, built circa 800 BC. Then it was time for a lunch break in Limassol, a large tourist resort area (yuk! too big, too much concrete, too many tourists).
But we did get to experience a Meze meal. This consists of 20 to 30 plates of appetizers or Greek finger food served with various dips. It just keeps coming and coming! Be forewarned and be hungry because it tastes great!
Our final stops were at the Kolssi Castle (13th century) and then the Neolithic ruins at Choirokoitia. The latter is an UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is a settlement of inhabitants from the Neolithic Age (5800 –3000 BC). The foundations and walls of their round stone huts are unearthed and a few replicas have be built to show what they looked like. I found it very interesting since I was able to compare it to the Neolithic Temples that I had visited in Malta.

To summarize, Cyprus has many interesting things to offer a visitor. Five days were not enough to explore it in detail. One to two weeks is needed. If you want beach weather you have to go in the high season but I would recommend early or late to beat the crowds and prices. It is clean, safe and friendly!

Before I close I want to revisit the tidbit I left you with in the opening paragraphs. Is Cyprus in Europe or Asia? The answer is Asia. But what brought the question up to me was the bigger question “how many countries are there in Europe”? This is not an easy question. I have asked several Europeans and none know off the top of their head. And when they start to figure it out it becomes complex because of countries like Cyprus. When I researched the question I found that some World Atlases showed Cyprus in Europe while others showed it in Asia? And there are many other countries in similar question.
I believe after extensive research that I now have a correct answer. But I wish to present a similar challenge to my readers. And I am offering a prize or reward for your efforts. The first person to provide the correct answer to the question “how many countries are there in Europe” will win a bottle of European wine (probably French).
If nobody gets the correct answer then the closest (and first if there is a tie) will win!
What’s the deadline? I am leaving on Thursday for another trip to Southern Europe and Africa (still too damn cold, windy and rainy here!). I tentatively return on March 10th and will publish the correct answer and winner in that trip report.

Good luck to all!

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