Singapore and Hong Kong are set to launch their second attempt at a travel bubble on 26 May. But for wanderlust souls looking to explore further, TheHomeGround Asia brings you on a virtual journey in Through the Eyes…, where we ask expatriates in Singapore what they love most about their home countries. In this installation, artist Polina Korobova shares a glimpse of the island nation Cyprus, her childhood home located in the eastern Mediterranean Sea, with stunning beaches, homely tavernas and eclectic bars.
Despite having a landmass 13 times that of Singapore’s, Polina Korobova thinks that Cyprus feels smaller.
“In Cyprus, it’s small, and you feel it,” she shares. “That was my first observation, that it is safe, small, and intimate… So it is very pleasant every time you go back. It’s like going back to a giant family… That’s literally Cyprus in a nutshell.”
Ms Korobova was born in Russia but had moved to Cyprus when she was 12. She spent four years there before leaving for Singapore, where she now lives and works as a producer at an advertising agency. Some of you might know her as the Glitter Queen, an artist who creates dazzling pieces of body and performance art using glitter, face paint and digital graphics, as well as paints and builds sculptures using an array of weird and wonderful materials.
Despite having spent a relatively longer time in both Russia and Singapore, Ms Korobova still calls Cyprus “home”, as most of her family still resides there.
But Cyprus’ homeliness goes beyond familial relations, for Ms Korobova believes that Cyprus has a way of making everyone feel that way: “It’s a place where you will feel loved and welcomed, regardless of where you come from.”
Indeed, as she relates tales of her childhood adventures and haunts, it is easy to get lost in the belief that Cyprus is a charming small town, despite its size.
The beachfront city of Limassol
Her hometown of Limassol, Cyprus, is where Ms Korobova holds the most memories. Located on the island’s Southern tip, Limassol is the second largest urban area after Nicosia, the capital.
The city has a stellar reputation, coming in third in TripAdvisor’s Top 10 Travelers’ Choice Destinations on the Rise around the World, in 2014. If Ms Korobova’s own experiences are any indication, TripAdvisor’s verdict is wholly unsurprising.
“Limassol is like a hip cousin,” she describes.
The town has much going for it, and offers up different parts of itself to please everyone. It has an endless expanse of beaches for beach bums, a thriving old town for history buffs, lots of hidden bars for party-goers, and is also the closest major city to Cyprus’ highest mountain, Mount Olympos – perfect for nature lovers.
The beaches, especially, are a true gem: “You can literally walk for hours, and it’s just beach and water. It’s beautiful.”
This was not something fully appreciated by Ms Korobova when she was a child, which she attributes to being an angsty teenager reluctant to wear a bikini in public. Now, as an adult, Ms Korobova has learnt to fall in love with all that Limassol has to offer.
“Because I left, now I know what I’m missing,” she says.
She recounts one of her fondest memories from her visits, which happened on a beach in Limassol: They had been paddle boarding as a family, and while standing on it, Ms Korobova was struck by the sheer beauty of the “glistening waters”.
“It was so calm,” she recalls. “We just sat on the boards after paddle boarding quite far out, sat down, and held each other’s legs so we wouldn’t float away. And we just talked. I looked at the water and was like, ‘Why did I not do this for so long?’ It was so sweet.”
It’s not all just calm waters and resort vibes, though. Limassol is a city that knows how to turn it up in equal measure. And for those looking for something a little bit more happening, Ms Korobova recommends her favourite bar: Sousami.
“It’s in this small crevice in the wall in Old Town, and it’s really hidden,” she describes. “And every time you go there, it’s such good fun.”
She adds, “You can come on a normal day, and it’s chill music and good people. You will always find people to talk to. Sometimes, they even have live concerts. They also have a garden outside, and it has stairs that everybody sits on, chatting.”
To top it off? Tables at Sousami are boards that emerge from the wall, and it comes complete with disco balls and a fireplace.
“It’s really weird and random,” Ms Korobova laughs, “[but] for me, that’s like home.”
When night falls in Cyprus, all bets are off.
“Night in Cyprus can go so many ways,” says Ms Korobova.
“You can go to a random person’s house party, or you end up at the park or beach, talking to someone until 4am,” she shares.
“We have this thing we used to do when we were teenagers,” she calls. “We would go to the dam in the mountains and just sit on the car boot, and watch the water and the stars.”
She adds, “You really never know where the day takes you in Cyprus because nobody has anything to do. Everybody’s chill, so it’s really fun.”
A town that feeds your belly and soul
A part of Cyprus that Ms Korobova really misses is the concept of tavernas, which are essentially family-run restaurants, and they do a jolly good job of making customers feel like family.
She recounts, “[When you enter], this big Greek man will come up to you and hug you like you’re his. And they’re like, ‘Are you hungry?’. Most of the time, there’s no menu. They’ll just [ask you what you feel like] – fish, meat, or vegetables. And then they just start bringing stuff, like bowls of hummus and fresh pita bread. And then their grandma comes out, and you start drinking with them, and they don’t let you leave.”
In particular, Ms Korobova suggests that visitors try mezze, or ‘small dishes’, a concept that is unique to Greek or Middle Eastern cuisine. Getting mezze in Cyprus is an experience in and of itself: “You never know what you’re going to get,” she says.
“You can either choose meat or fish,” Ms Korobova explains. “And then they just bring you all the different dishes together with bread, salad, and dips. You get a little bit of everything.”
Proteins aside, Ms Korobova also speaks highly of Cyprus’ produce: “Singapore is decent, but it’s nothing compared to places like Greece or Cyprus. Literally everything tastes so good. My little sister used to eat tomatoes like apples, because they’re so sweet.”
If you are lucky enough to be in Cyprus in December, you are in for a treat, as it is strawberry season!
“You get these ginormous strawberries, baskets of it, for like five euros [US$6]. And you just sit there and eat those strawberries for hours, because they’re so good.”
But if the above has yet to convince you of the appeal of Cyprus, perhaps their bakeries will, for Ms Korobova considers bakeries a must-visit whenever she returns home.
“They have everything! Everything is fresh. There’s a sandwich station; there’s the sweets, like all the baklavas (a pastry dessert made of filo pastry, typically filled with nuts and sweetened with syrup or honey); there’s fresh juice and fresh milk; olive pies, halloumi (a type of semi-hard cheese) pastries, and [so on],” she enthuses.
“It definitely will make you fat if you indulge,” she warns jokingly. “Sometimes when you’re drunk, you walk in and it’s the happiest thing on Earth.”
Quaint villages and road trips
Venturing on a mere 45-minute drive north of Limassol will land you in Troodos Mountains, where the island’s tallest peak, Mount Olympos, sits. Here, adventures abound.
The mountain range sees hikers, cyclists, and even skiers in the winter months. For those less athletic, Troodos also offers breathtaking views, cascading waterfalls, stunning architecture, quaint mountain villages and tranquil monasteries, making it a popular spot with locals and tourists.
Ms Korobova recalls that her parents used to take them to a mountain village called Kalopanayiotis. There, they would stay in a little house on top of the mountain, sitting by the fireplace, and enjoying wine together.
“I remember walking around, and it was cold,” she relates. “And they have grape vines everywhere, so my dad would just grab frozen grapes from the tree.”
A longer drive out of Ms Korobova’s hometown will bring you to the beach town of Ayia Napa. And while Limassol is a city by the beach all on its own, Ms Korobova insists that Ayia Napa has “the most beautiful beaches”.
As an artist herself, Ms Korobova also relished a school trip to Nicosia, Cyprus’ capital, where she managed to get up close and personal with the local arts scene.
She shares, “There were some amazing exhibitions… We [had] so much fun meeting artists, going from one gallery to another, exploring. I really love that!”
And while Cyprus may be about 13 times larger than Singapore, which seems like a whole lot, the travel distance from one town to another is not far at all. The Troodos Mountains, Kalopanayiotis, Ayia Napa, and Nicosia can all be accessed in approximately an hour (or less!) by car from Limassol. With less time spent getting around, more time can be devoted to immersing yourself in all that Cyprus has to offer.
Bringing home the essence of Cyprus
But alas, all travels have to come to an end eventually, and when you leave Cyprus, Ms Korobova says, it will be with a “full belly and a nice suntan.”
For those looking to bring a part of Cyprus home with them, Ms Korobova suggests Zivania, a Cypriot brandy made from a distillation of a mixture of grape pomace (the skins, pulp, seeds, and stems of grapes) and local dry wines. Referred to as ‘firewater’, the island’s national drink dates back to the 14th century, and was an essential first-aid staple in every Cypriot home.
“It’s like vodka, but more hardcore,” she describes. “It’s a warm, [feel-good] drink, but it’s also really strong.”
If you need something a little more family-friendly, Ms Korobova says that baklava is always a safe bet. Otherwise, the nation is also known for its olive oil, with bottles and tins readily-available for purchase even in the airports.
Essentially, “something you can consume”, underscores Ms Korobova. “For me, it’s always food… it’s the best part of Cyprus.”
Some useful phrases
It is useful to have some basic phrases at hand. Greek (south) and Turkish (north) are the official languages of the Republic of Cyprus. Although English is widely spoken, when in Cyprus, try these phrases in Greek / Turkish:
Hello – Yassou / Merhaba
How are you? – Tee kahnis / Nasuhl-sunuz?
Good morning – Kalimera / Gunaydin
Good bye – Yassou / Allahaismarladik
Good night – Kalinichta / Iyi gejeler
Yes and No – Ne / Evet and Ohi / Hayir
Thank you – Efharisto / Tesekkur ederim, sagol
Please or You’re welcome – Parakalo / Lutfen
I don’t understand – Den katalavaino / Anlamiyorum
How much is it? – Posa ine? / Ne kadar
Do you speak English? – Milate angliká? / Ingilizce biliyormusunuz?