cyprus & northern cyprus
a road trip around the island with the split personality
Where: Lefkosia, Kourion, Vouni, Laneia, Pera Pedi, Petra Tou Romiou, North Nicosia. Republic of Cyprus, Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, Europe.
When: October 2014
What: Ledra Street Checkpoint, UN Watchtowers, Selmiye Mosque, Olive Groves, St Nicholas of the Cats Monastery, Aphrodite’s Rock at Sunset, Cypriot Villages, Buyak Han, Shacolas Observatory, Famagusta Gate.
Counter: 2 countries
Illnesses or mishaps: Getting our hire car stuck up a hill in a futile hunt for a long-closed donkey sanctuary.
Cyprus is far more interesting than you may have given it credit for when you initially booked your flights. You'd be an idiot to dismiss this as yet another beach destination in the Mediterranean. It's a bit trite to say this but Cyprus really does have something for everyone: for history buffs and the archaeologically-minded there are Cyprus' countless historical ruins, for hedonists there are resorts like Ayia Napa, for city trippers there's the capital Lefkosia, for those wanting something more active there's hiking, swimming, sailing and snorkelling and for sun botherers there are Cyprus' stunning coastlines and beaches. All of this means that Cyprus is one of the most popular destinations for holidaymakers in Europe. Shamefully I, on the other hand, only visited Cyprus because it was one of the few remaining countries in Europe I had yet to visit. It actually turned out to be a gem of a trip which far exceeded my expectations.
Despite these major selling points, this remains an island with a split personality, having been partitioned into two de-facto halves since the Turkish invasion of 1974; to the south east is the Republic of Cyprus and to the north, the internationally-disputed Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC). Each half has its own flags, governments and currencies. The two sides are kept apart by a UN-enforced buffer zone known as the Green Line which runs nearly two hundred kilometres across the island, chopping the capital Nicosia in two (named 'Lefkosia' and 'North Nicosia'). An uneasy stalemate has existed ever since. Therefore, please see my division of this Destination Chronicle into a two-country format as an attempt to outline the island's complexity, rather than as any kind of endorsement of the controversial Turkish Republic itself.
Keen to recapture the sightseeing freedom we'd experienced when we'd driven around the islands of Malta and Gozo, and with Cyprus similarly being a left hand drive country, the temptation to turn this into a driving adventure with the help of a cheap hire car was too much of an opportunity to turn down. It would mean that we could be in complete control of our itinerary and best use the short time we had on the island. Cyprus was my 61st country.
republic of cyprus
Cyprus, officially known as the Republic of Cyprus, occupies a strategically important place in the eastern Mediterranean close, as it is, to the Arabian Peninsula. Now a member of the European Union, the island was once part of the British Empire. Since gaining independence from the British in 1960, the island has split into two: the Greek Cypriots in the south and the Turkish Cypriots in the north. The British still own two chunks of sovereign territory in the Cypriot south - the Akrotiri and Dhekelia army bases. Despite giving up the island decades ago, the fact is - the British are still here!
Driving around the island, down its winding roads, through its moon-like landscapes and frantically across its busy city streets, it is impossible to avoid the complexity of the country you find yourself in. Firstly there are warnings from your car hire company that "you're on your own" if you choose to drive to the north and something goes wrong and, if you do go, you must purchase "special insurance" (for these reasons alone our driving in Cyprus was wisely confined to the south). Also, the country's past and present complexity are played out on the radio waves which will find their way through to your car radio. Despite being on the south coast well away from the Turkish North, the propogandist Bayrak FM declares proudly to be the "Voice of Northern Cyprus". Also, expect to pick up BFBS on your drive around the island, the radio station serving the British Armed Forces, and whose transmission alludes to the continued presence of the British military on this island. It would be remiss of me not to mention at this point the ubiquitous presence of British brands and other bits like Costa Coffee, Marks and Spencer, Topman, fish and chip shops, as well as UK-style plug sockets and left hand driving! So nice to get away from it all, isn't it?! If you're from the UK a trip to Cyprus could very easily turn into a Busman's holiday if you're not careful!
capital of the greek south
The Cypriot capital has three names: the Greek Cypriot side to the south is called Nicosia but is also known as Lefkosia. The part of the capital which falls within the boundary of the Turkish Republic is called North Nicosia. Each half acts at the capital city for each of the republics. For the sake of consistency I will use Lefkosia for the south and North Nicosia for the north. This complexity over names is perplexing for the uninitiated visitor seeking a simple Mediterranean holiday. You simply cannot avoid having to deal with the fact that the capital of Cyprus has the unenviable record of being the last divided capital city in the world: the Green Line, so-called because it was the British who drew the line on a map of the country using a green pen, cuts the Cypriot capital in half. The Green Line manifests itself physically in two lines of barbed wire, concrete-filled metal drums and general piles of debris which run parallel to each other but which are separated by a strip of no-man's land in between. Any houses or buildings falling into the catchment of no-man's land are empty and abandoned and perimeters are watched by UN-staffed watchtowers or CCTV cameras. You happen across it at the most inopportune and incongruous of moments - like the time we left our trendy restaurant, walked to the end of the street a mere twenty metres and were faced with a dead end guarded by a white UN booth dressed in barbed wire. Away from the Green Line itself, the UN's presence on this island is difficult to ignore: soldiers wearing the characteristic UN blue berets saunter down streets as you shop and large white vehicles marked 'UN' in large black font, like those I've seen in Israel and Kosovo, park right next to you in the car park. Holidaying alongside an international peacekeeping force is a strange sensation to say the least!
The Ledra Street crossing into TRNC makes a rather unremarkable capital city that little bit more remarkable. Lefkosia is, otherwise, a city of beige apartment blocks, beige streets and beige shops. Unfortunately, the shorts I'd chosen to wear for my main day in the capital were also beige. The capital also bears the hallmarks of turbulent economic times: shops lie empty and impressive theatres are closed. This doesn't, however, mean that Lefkosia isn't worth a visit. It's a place where nothing in particular is beautiful to look at, but where the sum of its parts is pleasant enough. The view from the Shacolas Tower looking across to the half of the capital run by the Turks is a case in point. For €2 you can get the lift eleven floors up to see Lefkosia in all directions of the compass. Out towards the north, a gigantic TRNC flag, featuring the crescent moon, can be seen dressing the hillside (it also lights up at night - an illuminated provocation to the Greek south). The observation floor doesn't need to be particularly high up as there are very few, if any, buildings taller than it.
A UN checkpoint dressed in barbed wire a mere twenty metres from our restaurant declares "United Nations Buffer Zone: No Unauthorised Entry".
corinthian columns & dramatic coastlines
Kourion was the undisputed visualhighlight of my trip around Cyprus. It was the stunning image of a lone Corinthian column foregrounding the dramatic backdrop of an undulating coastline with vivid blue waters which features on the front cover of Lonely Planet's guide to Cyprus. I was desperate to see it. As a homage to Lonely Planet, I thought I'd have some fun with my copy and the exact same scene now laid out in front of me - the results of which you can see below! Personally, and perhaps ignorantly, ancient Roman sites all look alike to me. But Kourion was a little different: its dramatic hillside location overlooking the sea served to give the place extra drama.
The dramatic sights of a Corinthian column and the jagged coastline of southern Cyprus.
vouni, laneia & pera pedi
cypriot heartland villages
One of the principal benefits of any driving holiday is the chance to go off the beaten track - to go to places other tourists do not reach. We wanted to hunt down some authentic, characterful rural Cyprus after the banal and beige architectural homogeneity of Lefkosia. Think a Cypriot version of 'Last of the Summer Wine' and you'll get close to how these places felt. The mud brick houses crumbling beautifully, cacti collapsing elegantly over walls, petite stone churches gracing humble village squares and a myriad of flowers in full bloom rising from a seemingly endless array of terracotta pots arranged along window sills and gravity-defying tilting balconies were the perfect antidote to the concrete boxiness of the capital. If you're lucky, you'll also see groups of ancient men playing backgammon at a broken down tabletop. Our quest to seek out the donkey sanctuary at Vouni were scuppered by the economic realities which have been faced by Cyprus in recent years: the economic downturn, which has hit Cyprus more than most, forced the closure of this place. Here's a tip: if you're basing part of your itinerary on something in a travel guide which is two years out of date - and it's a little out of your way, too, it might be circumspect to check online first for a more up to date picture before setting off! As it was, the photogenic journey up to Vouni, which sits half-way up the Troodos Massif mountains, was pretty much worth the time and effort we'd spent trying to get to the sanctuary. Driving through the landscape in places is a destination in itself.
Hilltop village lit gold by the sunset - seen near Vouni.
Laneia village's Cypriot charm (can you spot the grasshopper?)
Pera Pedi: a characterful doorway with vegetation growing out from underneath.
petra tou romiou
Further along the southern coast is Petra Tou Romiou, otherwise known as Aphrodite's Rock. Here you can take in the stunning views of the jagged rocks jutting from the deep blue waters and, if you time it right like we did, witness the sun set from one of the perfectly positioned roadside car parks further along the coast. The sea meets the horizon as far as the eye can see and, thus, when the sun dips below the horizon it appears to drop into the ocean. Seeing the sun set at this location was a real highlight of our driving adventure around the island and well worth the wait. The sunset has got to be the best I have ever seen travelling.
Aphrodite's rock - said to be the birthplace of the Greek goddess.
Got to be the best sunset I've ever seen travelling...
The Turkish North of the island, whose full title is the rather mouthful 'Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus' is a self-declared state in the northern half of Cyprus. Turkey is the only country in the world to recognise Northern Cyprus as a state, with the rest of the international community regarding it as occupied land of the Republic of Cyprus. If you want to experience the other half of the island, be sure to take your passport with you - you'll not get through the Green Line checkpoint without it. You'll also need to fill out a short visa application form which gets stamped in and out (and which you get to keep if you're a passport stamp hunter like I am). Flags of the Republic of Cyprus and the EU mark the point at which you leave the European Union and head into, well, somewhere else. It's not clear what you're entering into - a frozen conflict? A part of Turkey, technically? Who knows - what I am sure of is that both sides seem a little tired of it all: on the Turkish side, a guard sits asleep in the sun, on the Cypriot side, the woman waves us through as if we are inconveniencing her by showing our passports at the window of her booth. This is a conflict frozen in time but played out daily by border guards pretending to care. Welcome to the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus...
capital of the turkish republic of northern cyprus
North Nicosia can be accessed via the Ledra Street checkpoint which sits incongruously at the end of one of the city's main shopping thoroughfares. Saunter past Topman and Debenhams, coffee shops and frozen yogurt stalls...and you arrive at a series of white booths manned by security personnel from the Turkish Republic along with threatening looking signs of soldiers holding machine guns and warning that photography is strictly forbidden. Despite the warnings, I managed to get a few shots by using my city map to mask my camera. This is probably the last thing you expect to come across when out for some Sunday shopping. But there it is: a dose of harsh war reality slap bang in the middle of what could be yet another simple, and in my eyes, unadventurous sunny holiday destination. Before you go through to the north, signs high up on walls bemoan the status of this, the "last divided capital city" in the world.
It would be facile and lazy reportage to say that stepping into North Nicosia is like stepping into another world. For the first few streets, cafes and restaurants do their best to match the cosmopolitan feel of Lefkosia. However, this charade soon fades, and derelict buildings and a poor infrastructure soon colour your judgement (oh, and don't drink the water here either). Whilst Lefkosia is scrubbed clean and perfectly pleasant (but unremarkable), North Nicosia's off the beaten track areas are full of dangling cables and dumped rubbish. It is clear to see that this half of Cyprus is way behind the rest of the island - arguably making it more characterful and quirky compared to the southern half of the capital, which lacks a bit of character with its anonymous beige buildings and tidy beige streets. Whilst Lefkosia is smart and boring, North Nicosia is run-down and interesting - a bit of a photographer's dream. Unsurprisingly there is a pervasive Turkish cultural influence in this part of the city evidenced through stereotypical things like Ali Baba tea, kebab shops and Turkish baths.
Follow the blue line through rambling, deserted streets and up busier shopping ones to see the main sights Northern Nicosia has to offer, including the Selimiye Mosque, buildings from Britain's colonial days and the Venetian column. Of course, the main attraction is the very fact that walking along a high street, having your passport checked, and then proceeding effectively takes you from one country and into another. It's this transitioning which is fascinating, rather than the cities themselves. There's a different symbolism to contend with in the north: the crescent moon flag of Turkey is re-imagined in white for this strange and controversial part of Cyprus. There's also the chance to pay for things in Turkish Lira, rather than in Euros - although shopkeepers, somewhat putting money before patriotic pride, accept Euros too.
The Selimiye Mosque dominates the skyline and is the main landmark of North Nicosia. Here it is seen from across the border in Lefkosia's Shacolas Observatory.
North Nicosia's decaying charm: a faded entranceway of yesteryear with intricate metalwork on the windows.
North Nicosia's decaying charm : a minaret points, cables criss-cross and plaster clings.
A rusty UN watchtower stands guard at the North Nicosia / Lefkosia border. It appears as old and tired as the frozen conflict itself.
A woman in traditional Turkic clothing walks past a building in the Old Town with the flags of both Turkey and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus dangling from its shutters.
travel tips, links & resources
- Be sure to take your passport with you if you think you may get the urge to cross the 'border' from the Republic into the TRNC. As you can see, North Nicosia has bundles of character.
- It might be an idea to check which places you're planning to visit online, as well as in your travel guide. We were sadly disappointed on several occasions. Also bear in mind that Monday in Cyprus is a day when some attractions can be closed.
- If you plan to visit a Hamman (Turkish baths) be sure to check the gender-specific schedule. Some days are for women or couples only.
- Seriously consider driving if this is at all possible. It means you get out into heartland villages where very few tour buses or public transport will take you.
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