Northern Cyprus: Familiar yet strange
Only 65km south of the Turkish Mediterranean coast lies a country where the sea is a deeper blue, the architecture speaks of a different past and Turkish is spoken with an alternative intonation. Often visited in private by diplomats resident in Turkey, the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus turns out to offer more variety and surprises than its small size and its physical and cultural proximity would suggest.
The castle walls bake harder in the relentless sun, their ancient thirst unquenched by the tepid waters of the Mediterranean lapping at their foundations. In the harbour, boats and holiday-makers stare idly at one another. Visitors trickle out of the shipwreck exhibition and handicrafts museum. Soon the swimmers and divers, water-skiers and sunbathers will gather from their beaches and pools, the cafes will spring to life, fish will grill and guitars play. The ancient ruins of Bellapais will resound to classical melodies and hotel bars to the latest techno-sounds.
It could be one of several southern Turkish destinations. But take a closer look. The homely architecture of Girne (Kyrenia)’s quay is of a different stone and arch; the seventh-century castle bears imprints of Lusignans, Genoese and Venetians - and Bellapais is a medieval monastery, first built for migrant priests from Jerusalem, the expanded by Hugh III of France.
Gothic mosques, hill-top hideouts
As one native succinctly puts it, “There is nobody left who has not invaded Cyprus”. The hyperbole is light. Between the fall of Eastern Rome and the 16th century Ottoman advance, this island spent almost four centuries under the yoke of Crusaders, French nobility and Italian city states. The twentieth century brought 35 years of British rule. And even before annexation to Rome, Cyprus’s early development, its strategic location and the copper deposits from which its name is thought to derive had attracted the interest of Phoenicians, Archaeans, Assyrians, Egyptians, Persians, Greeks and others.
The resulting special cultural blend is evident not only in Girne but also in “Othello’s city” Famagusta (Gazimaðusa), the divided capital of Nicosia (Lefkoþa) and throughout the Turkýsh Republic of Northern Cyprus. No image is more typical than that of the 14th centýry Gothic cathedrals of St Sophia, St Catherine and St Nicholas, converted into mosques by the Ottomans. The triple fortresses of Buffavento, St Hilarion and Kantara, lining the Kyrenia or Beþparmak (“Five Fingers”) mountain range are assumed to have been constructed in Byzantine times to counter Arab raids. They later served as summer palaces and today provide visitors wýth a cooler breeze as well as dramatic vistas of the northern Cypriot countryside and coast, up to 950 metres below.
Looks alike; tastes different
Besides castles, churches, monasteries and mosques, the sights of northern Cyprus include a miscellany of ancient cities, walls, gates, tombs, mansions, bazaars and inns. The famous Green Line and the latter-day political monuments must also be seen and meditated upon. But even without all these, the island would lure more than the occasional tourist with its long season, its broad quiet beaches, its relaxed atmosphere and the opportunities it offers for climbing, caving and horse-riding.
Just as the island history of Cyprus has endowed it with multiple cultural contrasts, so has its insular geography bequeathed it a fauna and flora familiar yet strange. Its 362 native, migratory and transitory birds include two endemic species (the Cyprus wheatear and warbler) and an endemic sub-species (the Cypriot scops owl). Likewise, the Cyprus (Medoþ) tulip is specific to the island and one of the 32 extant orchids is found only in the north. Salads and stuffed vegetables also prepared in southern Turkey have a special island flavour. Even the lemons have a fragrance of their own.
Flights and beds
For Turks, northern Cyprus once epitomised the luxury break. Names like Jasmine Court and Salamis Bay dominated the travel agents’ newspaper advertisements. Today, while many “mainlanders” jet off to more distant destinations, the TRNC is attracting tourists from Europe, Russia and the Middle East. Even so, daily flights from Ankara and Istanbul are quick to book up, especially at the weekend, thanks to the thriving casino business and the buregeoning universities. All passports are accepted, and visas are issued on arrival.
Lovers of beaches, pools, waiter service and 24-hour air-conditioning, as well as families with small children, are advised to stay at one of the many four and five-star hotels – such as Girne’s up-market The Colony – and to explore the hinterland on day-trips. The more adventurous should hire a car (not forgetting to drive on the left) - and consider staying in so-called motels: holiday village or boutique hotel-style accommodation where fresh local produce is more likely to be on the menu.
Out on a limb
Camping is not to be ruled out – say, on the northeastern Karpaz peninsula, the remotest part of the 3,355 square-kilometre territory. Here, the beaches are wider, the sea clearer and the hotels fewer and further between. Renowned for its unusual wild donkeys, the peninsula is also a top spot for sea turtles.
(DIPLOMAT - June 2005 - Ankara)