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: Country Nos.61 and 62
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 misguided to dismiss this as yet another beach destination in the Mediterranean. It sounds trite to say it but Cyprus has 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 and left me berating myself as to why I hadn't visited sooner.
Cyprus is an island with a split personality, having been partitioned into two de facto halves since the island's 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, slicing the capital Nicosia in two. An uneasy stalemate has existed ever since. This explains why the capital also has three names: 'Lefkosia', 'Nicosia' and 'North Nicosia'. A visit to Cyprus is an opportunity to add 'visiting a capital city with three names' to your list of quirky travel experiences.
Keen to recapture the sightseeing freedom we'd experienced when we'd driven around the islands of Malta and Gozo, and with Cyprus also being a left hand drive country, the temptation to turn this into a road trip with the help of a cheap hire car was too much of an opportunity to pass by. It would mean that we would be in complete control of our itinerary and make best use the short time we had on the island. Cyprus was my 61st country and the Turkish Republic my 62nd.
republic of cyprus
The Greek South
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 owns 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 continue to linger.
Driving around the island, down its winding roads, through its lunar-like landscapes and 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". Indeed, for these reasons alone our driving in Cyprus was wisely confined to the south; there's nothing a traveller hates more than unnecessary hassle - especially when time is precious. The island's complexity is quite unavoidable, finding its way into your car through radio broadcasts. Despite being on the south coast far away from the Turkish North, the propagandist Bayrak FM declares proudly to be the "Voice of Northern Cyprus". Then there's the transmission from BFBS, the radio station serving the British Armed Forces, a firm reminder, if any were needed, of the continued presence of the British Military on the island. And there are other reminders of Britain. Everywhere. British brands are positively ubiquitous on the south of the island: Costa Coffee, Marks and Spencer, Topman, fish and chip shops. If you're travelling to the island from the United Kingdom don't bother packing your socket adaptor either; electricity outlets are the UK variety too. So nice to get away from home for a while, isn't it?! Indeed, a visit here has the potential to trigger an acuteand lasting case of deja vu for any Briton.
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 abandoned and perimeters monitored by UN-staffed watchtowers and closed circuit camera. It is a sight you happen to come across at the most inopportune and incongruous of moments; a matter of metres from our cute little restaurant we were faced with an abrupt dead end dressed in barbed wire and under UN guard. 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 uncompromising black font, like those I've seen in Israel and Kosovo, park next to you in the car park. It must be said, holidaying alongside an international peacekeeping force is a strange sensation indeed.
The Ledra Street crossing into the Turkish Republic makes a rather unremarkable capital city far more remarkable. Lefkosia is, otherwise, a city of beige apartment blocks, beige streets and beige shops. Unfortunately, the shorts I'd chosen to wear during my saunter around the city were also beige. The capital also bears the hallmarks of turbulent economic times: shops lie empty and impressive theatres closed. This doesn't, however, mean that Lefkosia isn't visit-worthy. It's a place where nothing in particular is beautiful to look at but, for 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. At night it is provocatively illuminated. The observation floor wasn't particularly high up as the buildings in the city are on a human scale - no bad thing in my opinion.
A UN checkpoint dressed in barbed wire a mere twenty metres from our restaurant declares "United Nations Buffer Zone: No Unauthorised Entry".
Kourion was the undisputed visual highlight of my trip around Cyprus. I'd seen Kourion before. It was the stunning image of a lone Corinthian column foregrounding the dramatic backdrop of an undulating coastline with vivid blue waters which featured on the front cover of my Lonely Planet guide to Cyprus. Kourion's dramatic hillside location overlooking the Mediterranean give it an impact lacking in many of the other Roman sites I have visited.
The dramatic sight of a Corinthian column and the jagged coastline of southern Cyprus.
vouni, laneia & pera pedi
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 experience authentic rural Cyprus after the banality and beige homogeneity of Lefkosia. 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 seemingly ancient men playing backgammon at a broken down tabletop. Our quest to seek out the donkey sanctuary at Vouni were dashed by the economic realities 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. The drive itself proved to be the destination.
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. Fittingly it took place on our final night as the sun was beginning to set on our Cypriot adventure.
Aphrodite's rock - said to be the birthplace of the Greek goddess.
Got to be the best sunset I've ever seen travelling...
turkish republic of northern cyprus
The Unrecognised Country in the North
The Turkish North of the island, whose full title is the rather mouthful 'Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus' is a self-declared state on the northern half of the island. 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 but who, likewise, do a bad job of pretending. Welcome to 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 in the Med. As I pressed on towards the checkpoints, signs high up on buildings bemoaned the status of the city as 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 quickly fades, with derelict buildings and poor infrastructure soon colouring your judgement. Whilst Lefkosia is scrubbed clean and perfectly pleasant, 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. This, in my eyes, makes it infinitely more rewarding and interesting. Whilst Lefkosia is smart and boring, North Nicosia is dilapidated and fascinating and a photographer's dream. Unsurprisingly the Turkish cultural influence in particularly pronounced through stereotypically Turkish things like Ali Baba tea, kebab shops and obligatory Turkish baths. A different kind of symbolism exists 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 TRNC shopkeepers, somewhat putting money before patriotic pride, are more keen on accepting Euros.
The principal sights of North Nicosia can be seen by following the blue line through rambling, deserted streets and up busier shopping streets, including the Selimiye Mosque, buildings from Britain's colonial days and the Venetian column. The line, perhaps symbolically, fades in and out at various stages. Of course, in my opinion, the main attraction is none of these things. For me, it's the very act of walking along an unremarkable high street, albeit with a brief bit of travel bureaucracy along the way, and into another country which is the most fascinating aspect of all.
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.
Standing in a country which doesn't exist. The flags of both Turkey and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus dangle from 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. North Nicosia's dilapidation has an evocative, photogenic quality all of its own.
- 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.
- 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. If you wish to drive into the northern half of Cyprus, bear in mind that special insurance is required and that vehicle recovery services are unlikely to come to your rescue if you break down.
- Cafes and restaurants accept Turkish Lira in the TRNC, but also Euros. It probably isn't worth you changing currencies for a simple day trip to 'the other half' of Lefkosia.
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