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Mediterranean island steeped in history, ancient cultures


Special to the Town Crier
The magnificent Greco-Roman amphitheater of Kourion, near Limassol, overlooks the Mediterranean Sea.

In ancient times, Cyprus is said to have been Cleopatra's favorite vacation spot. Today, it is an off-the-beaten-path destination for modern travelers seeking relaxation and a taste of the past.

Renowned for its castles, beaches, vineyards and ancient ruins, Cyprus is split between Greek and Turkish rule. Travelers with passports - and visas, if required - can cross the Green Line, the boundary that bisects the island. To experience the best of both worlds, visitors should head north for a taste of Turkish culture and south for Greek. In the center of the island sits the capital city of Lefkosia (better known to foreigners as Nicosia), shared by the Greek and Turkish portions of the island.

First settled 10,000 years ago, Cyprus has had a turbulent past epitomized by centuries of invasions. Situated near the Greek islands, Turkey and Egypt, the Mediterranean island has known many foreign influences. Each colonizing empire left its mark, adding another layer to island culture.

For those of the Hellenic world, the western shore of Cyprus inspired myths and pilgrimages. According to legend, the Akamas Peninsula's dramatic coast is the birthplace of Aphrodite. Travelers should stay in Pafos - the city closest to where the goddess of love is believed to have risen from the waves - and visit the Baths of Aphrodite along with the famed Fontana Amorosa, the fountain of love. Other sites include vaults containing the tombs of Ptolemy-era nobles and third- to fifth-century temples built to Dionysus, Orpheus and Aion.

To the south sits the city of Limassol, where in 1191 Richard the Lion-Hearted, on his way home from the Crusades, rescued and married the imprisoned noblewoman Berengaria of Navarre. Other interesting sites include the medieval fortress Kolossi Castle, Cyprus Medieval Museum and Folk Art Museum. Travelers can explore the adjacent beaches, known as the Cypriot Riviera, the Sanctuary of Apollo, and the Greco-Roman amphitheater of Kourion, which overlooks the Mediterranean Sea and where visitors can attend a concert or play.

To the north, in the Turkish region of the island, is the city of Salamis, where there are ancient Roman and Byzantine ruins. East of Salamis is Famagusta with its notable churches and Othello's Tower, rumored to be the setting of Shakespeare's play.

In central Cyprus, visitors can stop in the village of Omodos, which has whitewashed buildings with brightly painted doors. It is the perfect place for a leisurely coffee break or perusing family-run shops.

A visit to Cyprus is incomplete without tasting the local fare. Traditional Cypriot cuisine revolves around meze, little plates of savory preparations. A single meal can consist of as many as 30 meze dishes. Among the world's oldest wines, sweet Commandaria, a dessert beverage, has its origins in Cyprus.

Travelers touring by car are advised that driving conditions on roads other than main highways tend to be poor.

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