x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Larnaca, the soul of Cyprus

My kind of place Vesna Maric falls for the subtle charms of this small city which has survived Cyprus's mass tourism.

Hala Sultan Tekke mosque in Larnaca is the most important Islamic pilgrimage site in Cyprus.
Hala Sultan Tekke mosque in Larnaca is the most important Islamic pilgrimage site in Cyprus.

Because it's a city full of crumbling charm, historic buildings and neighbourhoods and long sandy beaches. It's not a stunner - its beauty is more subtle, more about exploring and discovery. Larnaca is one of the few Greek-Cypriot towns that has kept its "soul" and has not succumbed to mass tourism. You can still see its artisans at work when you walk around the old market area surrounding the historic Agios Lazaros church - candle-makers, metal workers, bakers and carpenters stoop over tools and desks in darkened workshops.

The church itself is where St Lazarus was allegedly buried after his resurrection and expulsion from Jerusalem. Another joy of Larnaca is its old Turkish quarter, where the Cypriot tradition of pottery thrives; the quiet, sun-bleached streets of the neighbourhood hide ceramics workshops, where you can see the potters at work. While writing the last two Lonely Planet guides to Cyprus, Larnaca was my base for the eastern part of the island - I came to see it as a home of sorts. I have friends there and I always feel joyful when I arrive in the city. I think of the whole island of Cyprus as a place with a special atmosphere, despite the sometimes brutal development on the island. The friendliness of the locals, the great food, the climate, the beaches - Larnaca is the embodiment of Mediterranean culture.

Larnaca's hotel scene has improved somewhat in the recent years, with a couple of boutique-style hotels opening in the city centre. The best is Les Palmiers Beach Hotel (www.lespalmierscityhotel.com 00357 2462 7200); doubles from US$95 (Dh348), including taxes and breakfast with its stylish toffee-coloured rooms on the seafront. It has great service and is popular with couples and families.

Golden Bay (www.goldenbay.com.cy; 00357 2464 5444); doubles from $270 (Dh992), including taxes and breakfast is Larnaca's five-star giant. It is on the road to Dekelia, right on the beach, and has wonderful, ritzy rooms, a wellness centre, an elegant dining area and a large pool, if you are too lazy to hit the beach. If you really want to get out of town, head for Sirena Bay Hotel (00357 2382 3502; doubles from US$75 (Dh275), including taxes and breakfast, a gorgeous and eccentric little hotel that is hidden away from the world, on a small sandy beach. The place is laid out with paintings and sculptures of the artistic owners and has a great little restaurant under a vine canopy. You can visit the gorgeous wilderness of Cape Greco's sea caves from here. From the main road between Protaras and Paralimni, follow the Agia Triada church road signs, after which you will see the signs for Sirena Bay.

Larnaca is perfect walking territory, so you won't need much more than a comfortable pair of shoes for the city itself. The best place to start is the palm-tree lined seafront promenade of Leoforos Athinon, otherwise known as the Finikoudes (palm tree) Promenade. It is lined with cafes and restaurants, perfect for an early-morning coffee in the sun or late-night fun. At its end is Pierides Archaeological Foundation Museum, which houses six rooms of Cypriot finds. From here, head over to the church of Agios Lazaros and the Byzantine Museum, right in the city centre, and explore the market area surrounding it. Finally, head for the old Turkish quarter, the beginning of which is marked by the Grand Mosque. The quarter is a maze of whitewashed, tranquil streets bordered by the sea. If you want to explore further, you're best off renting a car; if you don't drive, the communal taxis, Travel & Express (www.travelexpress.com.cy), are good value for money.

The best place to meet Cypriots is over a Sunday lunch, and in the village of Oroklini, just outside Larnaca, Voreas has the best meze menu and therefore the biggest Sunday crowds. Sample the art of Cypriot meze and chat to local families, and expect to stay for at least a couple of hours and eat more than you've ever thought possible. A good idea is to brace yourself and go easy on the bread - the little dishes just keep on coming. Either get a taxi from Larnaca or drive. Meze are from $20 (Dh74) per head.

Varoshiotis Seafood Restaurant (www.varoshiotis.com; 00357 2465 5867) is Larnaca's most chic eatery, and is right on the waterfront with tables overlooking the sea. The city's smart seafood lovers come here for the excellent, beautifully presented food, the elegant interior and the endless views. Main courses start from US$20 (Dh74).

The best thing to do in Larnaca is to dive into the small streets surrounding Agios Lazaros for antique and thrift stores, as well as local crafts. One of my favourite places is Michael S Michael Antiques on Mihail Paridi 14 (00357 2465 2358), a cavernous antique shop. I can lose myself here for hours and often come out clutching an old lamp, a painting or some delicate antique glassware. The old Turkish quarter is perfect for ceramics - check out Stavrou Stavrakis on Ak Deniz 8 (00357 2462 4491) or Symeou Efthymios on Ak Deniz 18 (00357 2465 0338). Both use ancient motifs but add a personal touch.

Watch out for the very expensive frappé on Finikoudes Promenade. At around $10 (Dh51), the price tag can stick in the throat. Although smaller, Greek coffee is usually much better.

Choirokoitia is a Unesco World Heritage site that dates back to 6,800BC. The Neolithic settlement is one of Cyprus's earliest permanent human communities and reveals a relatively sophisticated lifestyle. It is just off the Larnaca-Lemesos motorway. Hala Sultan Tekke is Cyprus' most important Islamic pilgrimage site. It was founded in 674 as the burial place of Umm Haram - the Prophet Mohammed's wet-nurse, (Hala Sultan means "Great Mother" in Turkish). The mosque is surrounded by date trees, cypresses and olives, and a salt lake that shimmers in the summer haze. It's on the road to Larnaca airport. The set of sea caves just before the land's end of Cape Greco are a relaxing, deserted place with beautiful sea views. There's a permanent breeze (mind the strong sun, though) and you can get a lemonade from one of the parked-up vans and enjoy the views.

If you walk north of the little car park, down towards the rocky bay, you can get some lovely swimming in, too. It's never crowded - just visited by those who want to enjoy the silence. Vesna Maric is a London-based writer and journalist. She has written a number of Lonely Planet guides, including the two latest editions on Cyprus.