From beautiful Mediterranean beaches to exploring UNESCO sites and feasting on fabulous food, it’s time to check out the best things to do in Paphos.
Cyprus is the third largest island in the Mediterranean and makes for a perfect beach holiday. But what to do in Paphos after you’ve bathed in crystal clear waters, relaxed on the sandy blue flag beaches and eaten your fill of the island’s fabulous food? Quite a lot actually.
The island of Delos sits in the sparkling Aegean Sea in the centre of a circle of Greek islands called the Cyclades. Just a 25-minute boat trip away from Mykonos it’s one of the most important mythological, historical and archaeological sites in Greece. It’s also the mythical birthplace of Apollo, god of light, truth and music and his twin sister Artemis.
For over a thousand years Delos, Isle of Light, font of life, was a sacred place and is today UNESCO protected and part of the World’s Cultural Heritage. And it’s beautiful.
Pillars at Delos, Greece
A morning excursion from our cruise was spent exploring the sprawling ruins of the ancient shrine. The island is 3.5km south-west of Mykonos and just 5k long and 1.3 wide so this can be done in less than a day. Just as well really because the island shuts at 3 pm when the last boat leaves.
This tiny island was inhabited from 3000 BC by a population of around 25,000 and by 300 AD was completely abandoned. At one time, Delos was so sacred that people close to death or giving birth were kicked out to a neighbouring island. It would seem things have gone full circle as the only inhabitants are now the team of archaeologists working on the ruins. This makes it a peaceful contrast to busy Mykonos just across the water.
The Ruins of Delos, Greece
Delos, in ancient Greek, means clear and brought to light. You can pretty well roam as you please through the ruined streets, arcades and temples and the light gave everything a particular clarity. The pale golds of the stonework complimented the blue skies and seas perfectly giving it a softer appearance than the pristine whites and crisp blues of Mykonos. So, what is there to see on Delos? Here’s what I discovered…
The Theatre District, Delos
The Theatre from the stage
The theatre once held up to 5,500 spectators. Nearby is an underground water cistern – there was no fresh-water on Delos so drinking water was captured from the rainfall and stored in the cistern.
The House of Dionysus
The remains of many mansions are near to the theatre. Obviously ‘the place’ to live. The mansions must have been impressive with outdoor pillared courtyards, two or three levels have intricate mosaic floors. The House of Dionysus (below) has a mosaic showing Dionysus riding a panther.
Pillars and Mosaics at Delos
Window at the House of Triton
The Sanctuary of Apollo
The Sanctuary of Apollo lies at the heart of the ancient remains at the end of The Sacred Way. The remains of a massive statue of Apollo rests here although only the torso is left – probably because it was too heavy to loot. One of the hands rests in the Delos museum and a foot resides in the British Museum.
The torso of the statue is to the right of the right-hand column
Terrace of the Lions
This is probably the most famous of Delos’ sights. The lions on the Terrace of the Lions are replicas of a possible nine to twelves lions that once guarded the wealthy trading port. The remaining five original lions are now housed in the island’s museum. The lions were a gift from the people of Naxos in the 7th century BC – an imposing sight to guard the ‘sacred way’.
Terrace of the Lions
Delos Lion Statue
Most of the significant finds from Delos are now housed safely in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens but there are still some interesting and beautiful pieces in the museum at Delos so it’s worth taking a look inside at the statues, pottery and mosaics.
Statues in Delos Museum
Leopard Mosaic in Delos Museum
I enjoyed just wandering the island for a couple of hours soaking up the feeling of a place lost in time and bathed in light, seeking out carvings in the stone as tiny lizards scorted through the dust around my feet. I’d have liked to climb Mount Kynthos for views down over the island and stopped off at the Temple of Isis on the way up but didn’t have quite enough time. Here’s a few more images of what I discovered on Delos.
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Getting to Delos:
Boats leave for Delos from the Old Port of Mykonos daily, weather permitting, except Monday when the site is closed to visitors.
The first boat to Delos leaves at 9:00 am and the last one at 12:50 pm. The first boat back to Mykonos goes at 11:00 am and the last at 3:00 pm
Travel Tips for Delos:
There are toilet facilities in the museum.
It is not possible to stay overnight in Delos.
It’s very hot with little shelter so I’d advise taking water, a hat and sunscreen.
The Port city of Catania, Sicily’s second largest city, is situated on the east coast of the island, just south of where Italy puts the boot in. Mount Etna looms on the horizon, swathed in haze, huffing a near constant stream of smoke and an occasional dribble of red-hot lava.
Catania is a brooding city with many of the buildings constructed from dark grey basalt lava rock. There’s a plentiful supply. You may think at first glance that my photographs of Catania are in black and white but they’re not, that’s just the colour of the place. The city makes up for its shadowy hues with the vibrancy and atmosphere of its colourful markets, sunny disposition and the energy of a student population. So, what to do in Catania, Sicily?
I’m going to tell you about a secret town – it’s actually one of the oldest towns in the world. You’ll be surprised to learn that it’s in Southern Italy and I’m guessing that you’ve probably never heard of it. I hadn’t. Matera is one of the oldest inhabited places in the world where people have lived continuously for over 9,000 years. Just think about it – that’s incredibly old. It’s a crooked, crumbling, tumbling town filled with cave-dwellings, churches and an intense sense of history.
The view across “La Gravina” into the ancient town of Matera
Where is Matera?
Matera is a city in the Basilicata region just below the ankle of Italy’s boot near Puglia. Located on a rugged ravine which has a small stream, La Gravina, running through it, prehistoric settlers have dug their dwellings straight into the soft volcanic tuff since the Palaeolithic period. The cave-dwelling district is called Sassi and Sassi di Matera means Stones of Matera.
Sassi di Matera
Our first glimpse of the Sassi was from the opposite side of the ravine, La Belvedere. As we walked to the edge of the canyon bright green lizards scorted away from us and the aroma of fresh thyme filled the air as our footsteps bruised the leaves of the wild-growing herb underfoot. This is the best view of the town and shows exactly why Mel Gibson used it as a substitute Holy Land when he filmed ‘The Passion of the Christ’.
Sassi di Matera
The view is of a honeycomb cluster of small, square hovels layered higgledy-piggledy on top of each other. A labyrinth of steep winding staircases pick their way through the jumble of connecting cave houses and we could see where rows of flat rooftops formed the streets of the level above. The homes were originally carved out of the rock and extended with facades to look like normal dwellings connected by underground passages and tunnels.
People in Matera lived in the caves with their animals (donkeys, chickens and goats) and without running water, sewers or electricity right up to the 1950s. Poverty and disease were wide-spread and it wasn’t until Carlo Levi’s book ‘Christ Stopped at Eboli’ that people became aware of the appalling conditions suffered by the cave-dwellers in Matera. To address the situation the Italian government evacuated the caves and moved the occupants to new public housing in the modern (upper) part of the city – this took almost two decades.
We visited a reconstruction of a typical 20th-century cave dwelling, Casa Grotta di Vico Solitario.
Casa Grotta di Vico Solitario. Matera
St Antoni Church, Matera
There are around 140 rock-cut roman and baroque churches in Matera. St. Antoni church consists of four connecting churches built between the 12th and the 13th centuries. They house a crypt and vault and there are millstones and cellars used to produce wines at some stage in their history. The remains of frescoes are the main attraction.
Fresco in Matera Church
Matera’s divided into two parts, the more “modern” city, dating from around the 13th century, has several churches, museums, and squares. There’s a pedestrian area with cafes and bars where we stopped for a Peroni – it was a really hot day for November! This part of town reminded me of Goreme in Cappadocia, Turkey where we stayed in a cave hotel and the Sassi cave houses similar to the Derinkuyu Underground City although not subterranean.
Matera’s Pedestrian Area
Basilica Cathedral dominates the town’s skyline with its bell tower.
The Church of Purgatory caught my attention with its unusual theme of death, fashionable at the time of building, in 1747. Death was considered not as an end but as the beginning of a better life. There are carvings of skeletons, skulls and angels with more unusual details of flames enveloping repentant souls. The wooden door is divided into 36 panels with skulls and crossbones, sometimes crowned with headwear belonging to different classes of society, showing that all men are equal after death.
Church of Purgatory, Matera
UNESCO World Heritage Site
Matera was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993 for being “the most outstanding example of a troglodyte settlement in the Mediterranean”. Since then visitor numbers have slowly increased. Many of the caves have been renovated and used as homes, hotels and restaurants but in Sassi Caveoso, in the lower town, most of the caves have remained empty. It’s a fascinating side of town where you can wander the silent cobbled streets and twisting alleys; take steps and stairs and turn a corner for a view of tumbling rooftops and weather worn walls and get a feel for what is was to live here years ago. Only the cats will keep you company.
I can imagine Matera in 10 years time being a complete boutique town filled with cave hotels, bars and restaurants with none of the empty caves left in their original state. If you’d like to see it before that happens go now; enjoy the peace and calm of a city that’s steeped in millennia of history and where you really do feel like you’ve stepped back 2000 years in time.
La Gravina”, Matera
Disused Cave Dwellings, Matera
My trip to Matera was part of a Celebrity Cruise excursion. Many thanks to Celebrity Cruises UK for hosting our cruise. As always views and opinions; good, bad or otherwise are entirely my own.
Aya Sofya, Hagia Sophia or, in English, the Church of the Divine Wisdom, is a mighty structure defining the heart and soul of Istanbul, melding the characteristics of a city that crosses time, continent and culture. If you only have time to visit one sight in Istanbul this is it.
Originally built by Byzantine Emperor Constantius I as a Greek Orthodox Church, Hagia Sophia had a hard life and survived an earthquake, fire and revolt over a period of 916 years before being converted to Aya Sofia Mosque in 1453. Four minarets were added and the vast, domed building remained a mosque until 1935. At this time Ataturk proclaimed that it should become a museum where symbols of both religions would be housed side by side to pacify both faiths.
Hagia Sofia Dome
Head upstairs, or rather up wooden ramps, for a spectacular view of the main atrium and nave from the balcony above the main entrance. Bathed in diffused golden light the people gathered below gauge the scale of the building. The central dome, reaches 55.6 m above the museum floor and is supported by four pendentives adorned with winged cherubs.
Hagia Sofia Mosaics
Ancient frescos and gilded mosaics of the Virgin Mary and Christ, restored after the mosque became a museum, are displayed under the magnificent dome alongside 19th century leather medallions gilded with the names of God (Allah) and Mohammed in Arabic lettering. More mosaics, uncovered after the Hagia Sophia became a museum, line the upstairs gallery and give an idea of the grandeur of the original decoration inside the Church.
This is a majestic, beautiful building that inspires a sense of awe and one where I felt compelled to stay awhile, even after having seen all there was to see, just to soak up a sense of time and place and the essence of Istanbul.
The Blue Mosque in Istanbul, or to give it its official name Sultan Ahmet Camii, is both a place of worship and a major tourist attraction receiving four to five million visitors every year. Facing the Hippodrome in the centre of Old Istanbul, its grey cascading domes and six minarets are one of Istanbul’s iconic views, the interior is just as stunning.
The Blue Mosque, Istanbul
This was my first visit to Istanbul and Sultan Ahmet Camii was high on my must-see list along with Hagia Sophia Mosque and The Basilica Cistern. Since they’re all in close proximity in the Sulthanamet this is the perfect place to start exploring the city.
Sultan Ahmet 1 became the 14th emperor of the Ottoman Empire in 1609 at the age of 13. In a sort of mosque face off he ordered the building of a new mosque to rival the nearby Hagia Sophia. The Sultan demanded the mosque have ‘altin minaret’ or gold minarets. His architect misunderstood and built the mosque with ‘alti minaret’ – six minarets instead. The only other mosque in the world with as many minarets was the Haram Mosque of Mecca. The religious leaders of the time were so outraged that the Sultan sent his architect to Mecca to build a seventh minaret so that the holiest of mosques could retain its superior status.
The Blue Mosque Courtyard
We approach the mosque from the West side near the Hippodrome for our first, close-up, glimpse. This is the best place to appreciate the mosque’s perfect proportions rather than from Sultanahmet Park. A step through the tall wooden gates and into the large square courtyard and we’re face to face with the spectacular dove-grey domes, marble walls and gold-tipped minarets.
At this point most people just stop and stare and the courtyard is busy with people gazing upwards in awe. The mosque is beautiful with its gently curved domes appearing to bubble upwards. We stay for half an hour exploring the courtyard enjoying the beautifully ornate cloisters and the views of the domes.
To enter the mosque itself we exit the courtyard and head around the outside to the south door which is for tourists. This also helps the prayer part of the mosque retain its sacred air. Worshippers enter through the main door after using the ablutions area.
As the mosque is a place of worship dress code is strict. Before we could enter I made sure my legs, head and shoulders were covered. We also took socks with us as shoes had to be placed in plastic bags before we could enter. Recently officials have become stricter and now there are more stringent checks to ensure that visitors dress appropriately. Robes are handed out to under-dressed tourists so if you don’t want to wear one of these don’t dress inappropriately. I visited again in 2014 and despite being covered I was still handed a robe to put on over my clothes.
Inside the Blue Mosque
Inside the mosque is cool and we notice an air of hushed calm as visitors become aware of the beauty inside. A lone worshipper immersed in prayer kneels on the deep red carpet. The building is a work of art and earned the moniker’ Blue Mosque’ because of it’s ornate decoration. More than 20,000 blue Iznik tiles in traditional Ottoman patterns adorn the walls and ceilings. Lilies, carnations and tulips are depicted throughout. We were able to see some of the tiles from the ground floor although the majority are on the upper levels and out of sight.
The interior domes are intricately tiled, painted and decorated with verses from the Koran and the sayings of the prophet Muhammad. We padded across the carpeting in our socks, necks craned upwards. Softly coloured rays of light filtered on to us through the 260 stained-glass windows.
Where: Meydanı Sokak 17, Sultanahmet, Istanbul
When: Open daily from 09.00 till 1 hour before dusk. Plan your visit to arrive mid-morning as the mosque is closed half an hour before until half an hour after prayer time – 90 minutes in all.
Prayers happen five times a day with the first call to prayer at sunrise and the last one at dusk. Avoid visiting a mosque within half an hour after the ezan is chanted from the Mosque minarets. On Friday the doors are closed at 11am and open again an hour after noon prayer.
Entry: Free but donations are gratefully accepted.