|Postcard from Cyprus|
Strictly speaking, this is actually from Athens. I was only meant to have a short stopover here before returning to London. But Olympic Airlines decided just last week to scrap my 14:40 flight and rebook me on the 09:15 out of Larnaca instead. So rather than sit at Athens airport for 8 hours, I've headed into town for a brief spot of sightseeing, lunch and of course, to write an e-postcard recalling my weekend in Cyprus. The latest stop on Ireland's World Cup quest.
It wasn't a great start. I arrived at the Flamingo Beach hotel in Larnaca on Friday night to find I booked myself into a place where the hot water wasn't very hot, the beds too small (I had to sleep diagonally on twin beds pushed together) and was a 2km walk to the city centre. Which would preclude any plans for late nights in town.
But of course, it didn't.
The walk along the coast into the city centre down dark unlit "streets" (in the loosest sense) wasn't too bad. A quick souvlaki and stroll later, I stumble across an Irish pub. I honestly never go looking for them but I always seem to find one on my travels. It's as if they act as homing beacons for Irishmen abroad. That's certainly true of The Blarney Stone pub, I go in to find many from the London branch of the supporters club already there and have set up base camp. All plans for an early night go out the window, as Friday night here also happens to be karaoke night.
Despite going on countless Ireland trips over the years, we've never encountered a karaoke night. That anomality is soon righted as we literally take over the event, rare is an Irishman who's afraid to get up and sing. Those present were treated to the sight of (amongst others) the club chairman playing air guitar to Johnny Cash songs, and me, wowing all and sundry with a rendition of The Bee Gees' How Deep Is Your Love that will never be forgotten (at least if those who were there have their way). I should have quit whilst I was ahead, but no. I had to go and spoil it all by attempting Squeeze's Labelled With Love in too high a key...
The next morning, I took a leisurely wander around Larnaca. It's very much a seaside resort town, all activity centres on the palm lined promenade along the beach, but places of interest await anyone venturing into the narrow streets and alleys beyond the coast. Went to the Church of St Lazarus, which is of huge significance to the Greek Orthodox Church. Inside, it is surprisingly small and incredibly ornate. You can also descend into St Lazarus's tomb, a bad idea if you're over five foot five.
Because this was a holy place you had to be respectfully dressed before you could enter. So I had to cover up my shorts with a skirt (what sarong with that?) available at the door. That’s one of the advantages of not being a heavy drinker. You can go exploring early in the morning, and the chances of running into fellow supporters capable of taking blackmail-worthy photos are wonderfully minimal.
In the afternoon, we boarded our buses to take us on the hour long drive to Nicosia, where the match was held. Rather than drop us off in the town centre, the bus driver stopped way in the outskirts. Possibly in conspiracy with the owner of a nearby bar. I legged it into town to have a gander. Sadly as it was Saturday afternoon, everything was shut in a Spanish siesta kind of way.
Everything that is, except for the bars. The ones down Ledra Street, the main pedestrian promenade, were taken over by Irish supporters. About 12,000 made it over and were spilling out onto the street, but all impeccably behaved, causing no trouble.
Walking to the end of Ledra Street brings you to a guarded partition wall. Nicosia bills itself as the last divided capital of the world. A peek over the wall to the occupied Turkish side reveals a desolate no mans land that resembles the aftermath of an atom bomb blast. It's spooky stuff.
The match was at the impressive GSP stadium, seemingly built to accommodate visiting supporters. We occupied three sides of the stadium and outnumbered the locals by about 5 to 1. Cypriots seem to lean towards Greece rather than assert any independence. Their national anthem was the Greek one. And local TV did not show the match, preferring to cover the Denmark v Greece game instead.
It was a woeful performance by Ireland; I have never seen them play so poorly. Stephen Elliott gave Ireland a 6th minute lead, but the team proceeded to ball watch, back out of tackles, give the ball away and let Cyprus run the match. It took a series of fine stops from Shay Given (including a penalty save) to preserve the 3 points. We now need a win against Switzerland on Wednesday to make the play-offs. And on the evidence of this, it's very unlikely.
Upon arriving in Athens this morning, I of course hot-footed my way to the Acropolis. It's surprisingly dull and cloudy in Athens today, but that's probably just as well as I wouldn't fancy hiking up the hill in the heat. The last time I was here, the Parthenon and surrounding area was under renovation. It has all been completed and access is a lot easier. The Acropolis now looks even more majestic and a visit to Athens just to see it is recommended. Omonia Square in the centre of town has been finished too and looks much smarter, with less chaotic traffic. A portend of things to come in London with the Olympics on its way?
So there you have it. Cyprus wasn't the most modern of places but a fine time is to be had there indeed. Just make sure you stay somewhere nearer the city centre. I hope to be off watching Ireland in a play-off match in November, but after last night,that is in hope rather than expectation, and wildly optimistic hope at that.