Cyprus has always been a favourite destination for sun worshippers. But as well as great weather, beaches and hospitality, the country has a fascinating history, both modern and ancient. I took two day-trips away from my sun-bed to investigate…
Our crazy Austrian tour guide, Robin – think a sportswear-clad Kiefer Sutherland with a beer belly and a mullet – picked us up in his minibus at 8.30am from our hotel in Protaras for trip number one to the nearby Salamis, Famagusta and Varosha, all in North Cyprus.
The Turks have occupied the northern part of Cyprus since they invaded in 1974. Only Turkey recognises North Cyprus as a country in its own right – as a result, you need your passport and a visa to enter this “country” that is considered by everyone else to be an occupied part of the Republic of Cyprus. The north and south are separated by a buffer zone called the Green Line which runs from the east coast to the west coast, bisecting the capital, Nicosia, in the middle. It is so called because a UN official initially marked the buffer zone on a map in a green pen.
Half an hour, and about 20 jokes from Robin, into our ride we passed through the Green Line at a checkpoint where we had to get out of the minibus, show our passports to Turkish border guards, fill in visa forms and get them stamped. We drove for a further twenty minutes in North Cyprus before reaching the first of our three stop-offs:
Salamis is the Cypriot version of Pompeii – the ancient Greeks settled here on the east coast of Cyprus in around 1100BC creating a huge city which was once the island’s capital. It is now in ruins following a massive earthquake, but its remains include a well-preserved Roman theatre, a colonnaded gymnasium and a series of bizarre headless statues which were decapitated by Christians out to oust Roman paganism.
6km south of Salamis is the port city of Famagusta, where we had 90 minutes to explore before rejoining our tour group. 90 minutes is just about long enough here – it’s a pretty little city with a variety of architectural styles left as a legacy of the different rulers it has had. We were enjoying a walk around the city’s Venetian walls, but when an old man dropped his trousers and defecated in plain view of bypassers, it was time to return to the main square and have a glass of Efes beer. We were interrupted by the wailing of the call to prayer from the Lala Mustafa Pasha Mosque, which was once a beautiful cathedral. When the Islamic Turks came to power, they half-heartedly added a minaret and a few megaphones before proclaiming it a mosque.
It was soon time to pay up and leave. As well as having a different religion and language, North Cyprus has a different currency – the Turkish Lira (1TL = 2€), although the Euros of the Republic of Cyprus are accepted at most places.
Varosha is on the outskirts of Famagusta and is one of the most haunting places you will ever see – in fact its nickname is the ghost town. In the 60s and 70s, it was a popular tourist resort with loads of high-rise hotels and apartments alongside one of the best beaches in Cyprus. However, after the Turks invaded northern Cyprus in 1974, this area was caught in the no mans land of the buffer zone. The shops, restaurants and hotels have now been derelict for almost 40 years and are falling to pieces. We were allowed onto the beach on the Famagusta side of Varosha, but a fence marks the area which is out of bounds. The taking of photographs of the ghost town is strictly forbidden and there are armed guards on the lookout for illegal snappers. I imagine there are some things worth being shot for, but taking photos of derelict hotels is not one of them, so I do not have a photo of my own to show you how eerie it is here – I pinched the one below, taken by someone a lot braver than me, from google.
Trip number two took me to the inland city of Nicosia, which is the capital of Cyprus, and is the island’s biggest city by far with a population of over 210,000. It is also the only divided city in the world – it’s the capital of both the Republic of Cyprus and North Cyprus, and the two areas of the city are separated by the Green Line. There’s a 24 hour checkpoint at the top of the pedestrianised shopping street called Ledra Street in the south part of the city.
Frustratingly, our coach tour of Cyprus’ highlights only gave us 45 minutes in Nicosia. This just about meant we could leg it up the clean-looking Ledra Street with its high street shops, cross the Green Line, show our passports and get our visas stamped by the Turkish border guards and enter what was almost a different world. Within a few steps, we could feel the difference between South and North Nicosia. This area is a lot more ramshackle with old men sitting outside cafés sipping Turkish coffees, mosque minarets poking above crumbling buildings housing market stalls and drivers impatiently beeping their horns.
Our time was soon up – I didn’t even get chance to try a proper Turkish kebab – and we ran back across the border stopping only to have our visas re-stamped into the Republic of Cyprus (or paradise, as our tour guide referred to it).
I’ve not got a lot of interest in history to be honest – I found history at school shockingly boring and dropped out of studying it at 13. But the history in Cyprus is so interesting I enjoyed my two trips to North Cyprus, and would like to do them both again if I ever return to the country.