Island combines ancient history, traditional culture, modern resorts

SURPRISING CYPRUS

October 13, 1991|By Gwinn Owens

The phone number for the Cyprus Tourism Organization in Oct. 13's Travel section was incorrect. The phone number is (212) 683-5280.

The Sun regrets the error.

Where is the crossroads of the world?

Waiting in Larnaca Airport for our departure from a vacation in Cyprus, I made a note of all the cities listed on the arrival and departure board: Vienna, Athens, Benghadsi, Bahrain, Munich, Aden, Amman, Damascus, Cairo, London, Newcastle, Beirut, Edinburgh, Moscow, Jiddah, Sanaa, Paris, Zurich. That should settle the crossroads claim, but if not, consider history.

Tucked into the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea, and now an independent republic, Cyprus has been under the hegemony of Greece, Persia, Rome, Byzantium, English Crusaders, the Franks, the Ottoman Turks, Great Britain and a half-dozen other conquerors. Yet today, despite its proximity to the troubled Levant, it is, for a Westerner, fascinating, friendly and, somehow, familiar. Perhaps that is because it is the legendary birthplace of Aphrodite, goddess of love.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

My first visit to Cyprus, in the fall of 1990, was as a free-lance correspondent attending the ceremonies celebrating 30 years of independence. I was so impressed, however, with its vacation potential that this year I persuaded my wife to join me in a strictly touristic visit. Following suggestions of the helpful Cyprus Tourism Organization in New York, we mapped out a tour that covered most of the major points of interest.

There are basically three kinds of attractions: the lavish beach resorts (the main reason most tourists go to Cyprus), the remnants of a colorful history -- from ancient ruins to Crusader castles -- and the authentic night life in the tavernas in the old sections of Nicosia (the capital), Limassol, Larnaca and Paphos.

(There is a special and eerie fourth attraction: the fortified "Green Line" that separates Greek- and Turkish-speaking Cypriots. It runs right through the heart of Nicosia and spans the island from west to east. Behind it are the cities and towns from which the Greek Cypriots were driven. Almost everyone goes to see this frontier, especially in Nicosia, where one can peer through the barbed wire to the no-man's land on the other side.)

Those who keep up with world affairs will know the Cyprus of Western tourists is only 63 percent of the island. The rest is off limits, snatched by Turkey in a 1974 invasion and still held hostage by 35,000 Turkish troops who huddle behind a United Nations buffer zone. The Turks moved ostensibly to protect the island's Turkish minority in response to a harebrained attempt by an Athens military dictatorship to annex Cyprus to Greece (a misstep that caused the dictatorship's demise).

But Turkey also acted in an opportunistic surge of irredentism; Cyprus had been controlled by the Ottoman Turks for 300 years. It was usurped by the British in 1878 and won its independence in 1960. The Turks have coveted it since, though for 17 years world opinion and Cypriot defense have kept them behind the 1974 truce line.

Meanwhile, as if in defiance, the Greek-speaking part of Cyprus, though deprived of what is reputed to be its most attractive and productive area, has built a thriving economy. It has found jobs and housing for its 200,000 refugees from the north, has %J attracted dozens of multinational corporations seeking a stable Mideast base, and, overall, impresses the visitor as a proof that ,, real democracy can function amid the turbulence of the Middle East.

Though they are nominally in Asia, Cypriots refer to their "European democracy." Their culture is essentially Greek, yet Cyprus has more English-speaking people than this traveler has encountered in any European or Asian country, short of England itself. The language barrier simply does not exist.

Americans, however, seem not to have discovered Cyprus. It is, of course, a long distance from the United States, but Cyprus Airways and other carriers make good connections at all the major European airports.

Our first move after landing at Larnaca was to take a taxi to nearby Ayia Napa. This booming resort is itself a Cypriot response to the loss of Famagusta, once the island's glittering showplace and largest beach resort, now in control of the Turks. The fleeing hoteliers simply moved down the eastern coast to Ayia Napa, which in 10 years has grown from a village to a lavish playground where opulent hotels are springing up like weeds.

The best hotels are relatively expensive (though cheaper than comparable accommodations in Western Europe), but Ayia Napa and all of Cyprus -- offers a wide range of prices. Some hotels are not adjacent to the beach, but Cypriot law provides that all beaches are public. So one can choose a modest lodging set back from the sea and still enjoy Ayia Napa's miles of soft ocher sand.

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