Limassol is at the southern coast of Cyprus. It feels like a tired old industrial city that has suddenly discovered that it sits right at the Mediterranean sea, and tourists seem to appreciate that, so they had some architect pour a lot of concrete at the old harbor promenade, and pedestrianized a few blocks where the buildings don’t look like a tired old industrial city.
They tick all the boxes, there’s a small castle and some churches and bars and souvenir shops… But somehow it doesn’t add up to a place that one would expect between Paphos and Larnaka.
Paphos is near the western tip of Cyprus. It’s a vacation town like Larnaka, but much friendlier. Much less traffic and no large hotel blocks, and no McDonald’s. Still synthetic and very touristic, but it’s nice to walk here.
New Paphos is at the northern end of Paphos. “New” is a little misleading because it’s over 2300 years old. The buildings are gone, most of the ruins are less than a meter tall – but an incredible number of intricate floor mosaics have survived. The House of Dionysos alone, now covered by a wooden structure, contains 550 square meters of mostly intact mosaics detailing Greek legends.
Further north are the Tombs of the Kings, mostly underground caverns hewn into the rock. They are unique in Cyprus because they were built in an Egyptian style. Like most tombs in Egypt, they were plundered centuries ago.
After German reunification, Nicosia is now the last divided city in Europe. Right in the middle is the Green Line, an inaccessible strip filled with ruins and watchtowers, dividing the Turkish north and the Greek south. It’s a simple formality to cross from one to the other at the Ledra Street checkpoint though. There is a bar called Berlin Wall N. 2 Checkpoint Charlie right at a barbed wire roadblock in the south. All points of interest are inside the old circular Venetian city walls.
Where South Nicosia has shopping streets and orthodox churches, North Nicosia has bazaars and mosques. The south has western polish and is clearly more affluent, but the north feels more authentic. Lots of ancient Ottoman-era buildings in the north, although many are badly damaged and neglected. The north has too many cars; the south has WAY too many cars.
It might seem that in Cyprus, all the best bits are in ruins or wrecks, but the city of Kyrenia on the north coast is beautiful too. It has a wonderful ancient feel, especially around the old harbor, which is packed with restaurants and yachts. The castle at the eastern end of the harbor is mostly intact and houses several museums.
Also went to the Bellapais monastery for my daily fix of ruins.
It helps to arrive early, before the tour groups. St Hilarion is a huge castle ruin on top of the highest and steepest mountain above the city of Kyrenia, a.k.a Girne, on the north coast, and for a while I had it all to myself.
If you were asked to invent a fairytale castle ruin and given loads of pencils, it would look like St. Hilarion. Lots of halls, vaults, little passages, countless stairs, and all with great views of the hills, the city below, and the Mediterranean sea. And gunshots, there’s a big army shooting range right next to it.
The ancient city of Salamis is over 3000 years old. It has been conquered by pretty much everyone in the region, and is in ruins today. Much of what one can see today was built by the Romans. Salamis is 12km north of Famagusta.
For an an admission price of €3.50 one gets to see the huge bathhouse, an amphitheater that is still used today, and square kilometers of scattered ruins with great sea views. From what’s left – marble columns, mosaics and marble floors, huge arches, heated floors – it’s obvious how much luxury they could afford in Roman times.
Lots of walking today, over 23km…
Crossing the border between the southern Republic of Cyprus to the Turkish north at the Derineia checkpoint is an experience. A normal city bus stops at the south side, then it’s a short walk to the two checkpoints.
On the Turkish side, the world ends.There is nothing there. For several kilometers, there is only barbed wire and ruins as far as one can see. It’s a lifeless wilderness with no buses, taxis, or people. Replace the gray weeds with sand and it would feel like a Mad Max movie. Probably a result of the 1974 Turkish invasion. I had to walk 6.5km to the city of Famagusta, my destination today.
Famagusta is charming, much more than Larnaka. It has a city wall, several picturesque half-ruined churches, a very walkable old town, and friendly people. It’s not an EU member, so mobile data went from essentially free to catastrophically expensive (€12373/GB), but everybody accepts euros. Got a beautiful apartment at Malia Let.
MS Zenobia is a ferry that sank 40 years ago just off the coast of Larnaka on her maiden voyage, due to a software bug. It’s enormous – 178 meters long and 28 meters wide. It has three cargo decks and was carrying, among other cargo, 104 tractor-trailer trucks. It’s now one of the top ten scuba diving sites of the world.
It’s now resting on its side at a depth of 42 meters. Trucks are scattered around it. Most decks can be visited, but parts that aren’t steel have collapsed, creating big internal spaces. We went through the length of the upper passenger deck, through a series of narrow doors, 60 meters total. Lots of fallen partitions, cables, carpet shreds, toilets, and the forward gallery that is now a cavernous space reaching from the top of the wreck to the seafloor. Very impressive!
Cyprus is a large island near the eastern end of the Mediterranean. It’s in Europe, although Asian Turkey is not far to the north, and Syria, Lebanon, and Israel are not far to the east. Cyprus is divided into the Turkish north, and the Republic of Cyprus in the south which is an EU member country, speaks Greek, and uses the euro.
The city of Larnaka is in the south. People come here for the beaches. Historic buildings are few and eclipsed by countless faceless hotels, strangled by slow-moving car traffic. The beaches are lined with fast-food restaurants; it takes some effort to find good food. Larnaka doesn’t have much charm during the day but awakes at night. Well, I am not here for a beach vacation.
Nightlife in Tirana also looks a lot like in western cities. It’s cooler in the evening and people fill the numerous cafés, especially in Tirana’s new hip party district, Blloku. That means “block” and it was reserved for the communist party elite. They didn’t seem to have seen the contradiction in this term.
Joined a walking tour to get some local background. Albania went from a totally isolated stone-age communist open-air prison to democracy in 1991, and it was not easy for the older generation. Suddenly they had unheard-of new things, like bananas, Coca Cola, banks, money instead of vouchers, supermarkets, and cars. (Driving licenses came later.) People started calling all these new things “banana” and proudly placed empty Coca Cola bottles on their mantelpieces. The younger generation caught on very quickly.
Today Albanian identity – according to the guide – is defined by four things: the country, the language, driving a Mercedes, and raki schnapps.
Tirana, the capital of Albania, evokes images of old bearded men riding donkeys through a Soviet-era concrete wasteland. In reality Tirana is a modern European capital. Many parks, small streets lined with old trees, international shops, and bakeries, bars, and restaurants that would thrive in Paris or Berlin. Not only in the center but out in the suburbs too. The communist past rarely shines through, but there is no ancient town, most construction dates from the 20th century. A very friendly city!
At the eastern edge of the city, near a funicular to the top of Dajti hill, is Enver Hoxha’s command bunker. It’s absolutely huge, far larger than the one in Gjirokastra. Much of it is a museum describing the time of WWII and communism, but there are complete apartments and communication rooms filled with original equipment too, and art installations including one that simulates a mustard gas attack. I didn’t know they had gas masks for horses. They even had an enormous theater extending over two floors. None of this was ever used.
Downtown is a curious structure built by Enver Hoxha and his daughter as a cultural center. It’s a pyramid with narrow glass strips extending from the ground to the top. It’s completely smashed, even higher up because it’s shallow enough to walk up.
Albania has a long coastline, opposite Italy. I felt that I should have a brief look at this part of the country too. I chose Golem Beach near Durrës because it’s close to Tirana, the capital.
It’s pretty similar to any mass tourism place around the Mediterranean: a chain of hotels along the coast and another row behind that, uninspired architecture, and countless umbrellas and recliners on the beach (first picture). At least the beach is sandy here; elsewhere there are often pebbles. I was anticipating that and got an upscale resort away from the masses.
I don’t actually enjoy beaches much, but a few hours in the warm water and in the shadows at the edge of the water was fun. The food is… unrefined. The hotel has its own gun emplacement, a communist legacy.
East from Gjirokastra, higher up in the mountains, without 300-year old Ottoman architecture but also not really discovered by tourist hordes, is the small town Përmet. It’s uncharacteristically flat, built along a river, but the true attraction are the mountain villages above.
Getting there means climbing, some steep 550 meters to the two I chose, Lipë and Leus. The latter has an orthodox church with fantastic paintings, for a village consisting of little more than wooden shacks for animals and people. Some people have odd priorities. The weather is extremely hot, but there are wells with cold fresh mountain water.
Gjirokastra is another world heritage town further south, less than 30km from the Greek border. It seems that every town in Albania has several hundred meters to climb on steep, cobblestoned alleys from one side to the other, and Gjirokastra is no exception. It so happened that the bus stop is at the bottom and my chosen hotel at the top. In between is a gleaming white Ottoman-era old town, centered on the bazaar neighborhood.
Also at the top is an amazingly well-preserved castle with imposing arched hallways, now housing WWII guns, and a tiny Fiat tank that looks like its mother had an affair with a steam locomotive. It seems that they were no good in battle and only three are still in existence.
Deep underneath the castle is a huge depressing bunker made from connected tunnels where all the important people were supposed to be when any of the communist leader Enver Hoxha’s numerous enemies decided to attack. It was finished in 1980 and never used.
Accursed mountains ought to be difficult to leave, wouldn’t be much of a curse otherwise. Theth certainly is; sixteen kilometers on the most brutally potholed gravel path at the edge of the mountains at little more than walking speed makes sure of that. I half expected bats chasing us. It didn’t help that I got the child seats in the back of someone’s 4WD, next to the world’s biggest reserve fuel container. The panoramas made up for the inconvenience, as always.
So I made it back to Shkodra, with enough time for some of the lical attractions. You’ll find the iconic Mesi bridge in every travel guide, but strangely enough, none of the pictures show the much bigger modern concrete bridge right next to it. On the other side of Shkodra, the Rozafa Castle ruins shouldn’t be missed. Great views of the town, the mountains, and the huge Lake Skadar from its walls.
Komani Lake near Skodra is gorgeous – very long and narrow, and framed by steep mountains on both sides. They run ferries that run up the lake for four fantastic hours, with another wonderful view after every bend.
There’s a van running from the ferry terminal to the town of Valbonë, which isn’t really a town but a series of guesthouses spread out in a long narrow valley. Valbonë manages to upstage even Komani Lake – there’s a panorama of steep mountains all around, some forested and others rocky and snow-capped. Beautiful!
This is my first post at the new site, and it’s not even in Asia. Consider it a test run. Why Albania? A friend is highly recommending it, and warned that it should be visited before it gets too modern. Albania has only recently woken up from Soviet-style hibernation, shut off from the rest of the world.
Albania’s only international airport is at Tirana, the capital. The transfer shuttle got cut off on the tarmac on the few hundred meters from the plane to the terminal. Twice. Immigration is easy and efficient.
But I didn’t go to Tirana, and got a taxi to Shkodra in the north of the country instead, close to the mountains. It’s all very peaceful and beautifully restored, with little traffic. Downtown has a wonderful Italian small-town charm, with lots of restaurants, bars, and small shops. Everybody I met was very friendly. A good start!
Final stop Bangkok. Good place to replace the polarizing filter I broke a few days ago. Bangkok is into refrigerated malls bigtime, perhaps no surprise in hot and humid tropical weather. Traffic somehow managed to become even more dysfunctional than last year, and pedestrians have no rights even at zebra crossings and the rare pedestrian lights. All taxis forbid transporting weapons like guns and durians, many have cameras that record passengers, a few have SOS buttons. Life in Bangkok is becoming rougher, although still much more pleasant than most other Asian megacities.
Food is brilliant as always. Had a huge lunch at one of my favorites, the Baan Khanitha.
To hours west of banglok is a historic village that shows life in Thailand at the time of King Rama IV. The entrance is a wooden covered bridge with rows of stalls on both sides. Everywhere are costumed people doing period things, like theshing rice, and selling period products. They even have their own old currency, copper coins with holes to string them up, which must be purchased at the entrance.
On the way to Bangkok is the bridge over the river Kwai, built during the Japanese occupation 1942-45 to connect Thailand to Burma (now Myanmar). Thousands of POWs died during construction. The bridge is still in use, and also a tourist attraction. You can walk across, but must step into one of the safety platforms when a train approaches.
Hua Hin, the beach town favored by the Thai Kings… I fondly remember a sleepy white city with wide boulevards and sandy beaches, where a rickshaw once took me to the train station.
Well, no more. It’s a crowded mess of traffic and tangled power lines, and the beaches are mostly private and difficult reach. The King’s Home homestay is lovely though, an eclectic museum filled with everything from oil paintings to tacky figurines, in the best way, run by two old ladies. And it’s easy to find good food.
Ko Payam is one of the northernmost Thai islands off the west coast. It’s a little difficult to reach, which may be the reason why it hasn’t really been discovered yet except by Westerners who spend the winter here. No hordes of tourists, no fancy hotels, just a few quiet beach resorts. There isn’t much tourist infrastructure at all, besides motorcycle rentals. The only way to get here is from Ranong, a small town north at the mouth of the Kraburi River, which is the border to Myanmar.
I had been advised on the boat that the nicest place on the island is Ao Yai on long Beach, a 5km walk from the pier. Ao Yai is just a small cluster of restaurants and a dive shop where people are so terminally relaxed that they won’t dive until the end of the week. Oh well…
So I just walk a lot on the island, and discover things like that the bridge over the only river has been under construction for over ten years and the locals kind of lost interest. Entire forests of rubber trees, each with a little spout and a little bucket to collect natural latex.
Change of scenery… I am following the sun and went to Ko Lanta. That’s an island south of the tourist epicenter of Phuket and Ko Phi Phi, and far quieter than these. The beach resorts are widely spaced along its west coast, and it’s all sand and not paved. To get there I had to pass a night in Phuket Town, and it was actually much more pleasant than I remember from earlier trips. The Thai cuisine might have something to do with that.
So what to do on Ko Lanta? Diving of course. Saw a shark and several turtles. Followed one with a bright read shield for several minutes, so close that I could have touched it. Amazing how these creatures are so slow and awkward on land, and so quick and elegant under water!
It happened that the hall of the my chosen villa was full of French and Quebecois people, including a couple who live nearby. They know all the best restaurants so we got on a flock of motorbikes and had an excellent lunch. Much of the afternoon we stayed at their place, a big house filled with Balinese art, and a pool in a tropical garden.
The town of Ubud uses to be a sleepy artist colony, but now it’s strangled by thunderous traffic. A disappointment.
I seem to be having a lot of connectivity issues… Catching up.
Diving on Gili Air, and enjoying the mellow atmosphere of the island that is so sadly missing on Gili T. Then on to a couple more days on Bali – but not in those frenetic southern towns, but in a villa out in the fields. I don’t expect to be doing much at all, other than some fine Thai dining.
The idea was to head east, but since the weather is turning rainy (and tropical rain means serious business) and the forecast east is just awful, I am turning west. When my connections didn’t work out and I got stuck in Lombok for many hours, my moto driver turned out to be a professional guide and too care of me. Saw many interesting places, including an ancient cross-faith palace templp. In the end I even met his family and a happy crowd of local children.
If I hadn’t insisted, he wouldn’t even take a fee. So if you ever find yourself east of Bali, give Rahmat a call: +62(0)81917946551 (also WhatsApp), or firstname.lastname@example.org. A good friendly guide can make all the difference if you want to see more than just tourist photo opportunities.
Anyway, Gili Air is like Gili Trawangan was ten years ago: just the right mix of barefoot Beach promenade, pretty restaurants, and pretty little resorts (mine is the Orong Village). Had a red snapper for dinner, grilled with lots of garlic by the fisherman who had caught it hours earlier.
It takes time to reach Sumbawa – a boat from the Gilis to Lombok, the crossing Lombok to a harbor on the other side, then a ferry to Sumbawa. I arrived at the Yoyo’s Resort at 2 o’clock at night, after many hours in a very crowded minivan. A guy with a flashlight was waiting for me.
Yoyo’s is very unlike Gili. It has most of a large bay to itself. Lots of green space ringed by steep forested hills. There’s almost no people in these parts. It’s a place to sit on a bean bag, read books, and hope for Wifi. The weather appears to get worse the farther I go east though, didn’t see much sun today.
The Gilis are three small islands off the coast of Lombok,a few hours east of Bali. All three were badly hit by a magnitude-7.2 earthquake seven months ago. All cement structures collapsed, no building on the beach survived, and all three islands had to be completely evacuated.
But now you can barely tell. There are still a few collapsed buildings, and not all the rubble has been removed, but the Gilis are definitely back in business. There’s still no motor traffic, but the largest of the three – Gili Trawangan, also known as the party island Gili Tralala or simply Gili T – has not improved. The beach promenade is now paved, and packed with shops back to back. The old mellow vibe is completely gone, although you’ll still find rasta guys offering ‘shrooms and marijuana.
But a bit back from the beach the hustle is gone, and small guesthouses with a few traditional huts around a pool and bar dominate. The downside is poor connectivity and no hot showers…