In this week’s special pullout section on Jewish lifecycle events (Celebrate), I write about Cyprus — and its resort town of Larnaca — as a hotspot for Israeli weddings. But with the island’s first synagogue in modern times, an inviting seafront and a culturally diverse historic district, Larnaca is an intriguing vacation choice even if you’re not getting hitched.
Just off the coast of southern Turkey (and still politically divided between Greek-allied and Turkish-allied governments), Cyprus offers the kind of lax bureaucracy that makes marriage much easier for many Israeli couples — secular, interfaith, non-Jewish or simply document-poor — who face obstacles back home, since the only legal marriage in the State of Israel is Orthodox Jewish.
But while Larnaca, seat of the Cypriot Jewish community, may be a buzzword for marriage-minded Israelis, it remains very much off the radar for Americans, as does the rest of this fabled isle.
Cyprus lies squarely at the intersection of cultures and continents, which makes for a fascinating modern-day mélange. Along these ancient shores, you’ll find Roman and Byzantine ruins, Ottoman mosques and British-colonial administrative buildings, spicy Middle Eastern and North African stews, Greek Orthodox chapels and cafés full of Russian bankers and third-generation Armenian exiles.
Larnaca is Cyprus’ third-largest city, combining the pleasures of seaside tourism with the gritty energy of so many cultures and agendas rubbing up against each other. The historic district may lack the whitewashed, photo-ready perfection of Italian and French resorts; its low-scale stucco buildings bear the grime of ages, even as they gleam in midday sun against the blue sky and sea. There’s a certain charm to these ancient, timeworn alleys, whose defining architectural features — domes and arches, golden-stone walls — are more reminiscent of Israel or Syria than of Continental Europe.
The synagogue of Larnaca is a modern take on this tradition; inaugurated by Chabad just over a decade ago, it was the first synagogue on the island in modern history. During the 20th century, Cyprus was best known among Jews for its role as a refugee transit point after War World II, as anyone who has read “Exodus” will recall. And today, a small Orthodox Jewish community — nourished by a fluctuating group of Israeli and Russian expats — is coalescing in Larnaca, while Hebrew is frequently heard on the streets.
Nicosia, the inland capital, is just a half-hour flight from Tel Aviv, and from there most vacationers head for one of the coastal resorts; Larnaca, on the South Coast bay of the same name, is the closest. Whatever else you do in Larnaca, you’ll inevitably explore that bay from one of the finest promenades in Southern Europe — a luxuriant stretch of towering palms, open-air cafés, and flowering shrubs alongside a wide, sandy beach.
At one end of the promenade — known as Athens Avenue, or “Phinicoudes,” meaning pine trees — sits the imposing Larnaca Castle. This Byzantine fortress dates to the 13th century, but it was repurposed over the years by Turkish pirates, Genovese occupiers and the British colonial administration.
You can gaze over the blue Mediterranean from the castle’s medieval walled courtyard, ogle its shiny black canons — aimed and ready to fire on seafaring invaders — and explore a small museum of excavated classical treasures, from pottery to Byzantine wall art and Ottoman ottomans.
Along the promenade, if you’re not in a hurry — and really, who here is? — you may stop for a glass of cold retsina under a grape arbor, shaded by white modern high-rises and elaborately curly streetlamps.
Many people find cuisine to be a highlight of Cyprus. Vegetarians and oenophiles savor the crisp, fresh salads, doused in pungent olive oil from these arid hills, and the local wines, which have a distinctive robustness. Larnacans can go on at length about the provenance of a particular olive or grape varietal — as likely as not, from a hillside within shouting distance — and consider their city to be the island’s gastronomic capital.
Europe Square awaits at the promenade’s north end, just past a memorial to the Armenian genocide. Built by the British administration in the late 19th century, it’s a curiously empty space whose angular white buildings and modernist sculptures give it the vague feel of a DiChirico painting. Several worthwhile museums and galleries line the square, offering a glimpse into the mosaic of cultures, lifestyles and ambitions that have taken root here.
From the square, double back into the Old Town to explore those cultures more viscerally. You may pass bridal parties gaily promenading through the picturesque alleys, heading to the synagogue (just a few blocks from the square), or gathering on the steps of one of Larnaca’s historic churches. Some of these golden-hued structures were built as Orthodox Christian chapels and are now mosques; minarets gleam in the evening sun, while domed churches still define the horizon, offering refuge to worshippers of every faith.
You may stumble upon the crumbling ruins of pre-Christian civilizations, the patterns of dwellings still evident in the shade of cypress trees; late in the day, as you drive out of town, the moon rises over the illuminated arches of an Ottoman aqueduct. What’s remarkable about Larnaca is how — just yards away from the beachside bustle — these ancient places still feel peaceful, even deserted, preserved in the sands of time.