Turkey’s Near Abroad: Northern Cyprus

If you like to travel to different countries, one of the advantages of living in Turkey is the number of nearby foreign destinations. For instance, in the time it takes for someone living in Chicago to fly to Denver, we in Istanbul can be in Baku, Tiblisi or, as we were recently, in the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.

If you don’t know, Northern Cyprus is the partitioned result of the Turkish Army’s 1974 intervention on behalf of Cyprus’s Turkish minority community threatened by Greek Cyprus terrorism and a coup that abolished the power-sharing arrangement agreed to when the British left the island in 1960. Today, whereas Greek Cyprus is a recognized nation state and member of the EU, the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus is recognized only by Turkey. Thus, Northern Cyprus is a quasi-state with an uncertain future. Turkey is NC’s lifeline to the greater world. To fly into Northern Cyprus from Europe, a plane must land somewhere in Turkey and remain there for at least an hour before proceeding to the North’s Ercan Airport.

There seem to be no international car rental companies operating in Northern Cyprus. Instead, there are a dozen or more local agencies renting cars to tourists. Ours was Sun Auto Rental, the only company we found with a desk at the airport.

I’d been curious about Northern Cyprus even before we moved to Turkey. At a teachers’ conference in the U.S. early in this decade, Kay and I had met English teachers from a university in Lefkoşa, who encouraged us to apply to teach there.

The island of Cyprus is only one-and-a-half hours from Istanbul by plane, so close that, until now, we had put off going there because we felt we could go anytime. Sound familiar? Well, for us “anytime” was this past month of October (2010), weather-wise, not a bad time to go.

Büyük Han at Lafkoşa (Nicosia)

Being in Northern Cyprus is a lot like being in Turkey itself. The official language is Turkish and the currency the Turkish Lira. However, there are some differences. Driving is on the left, a holdover from the days when Cyprus was a British colony. The country’s principal towns bear two names; Turkish Lefkoşa is also Greek Nicosia. Unlike in Turkey, in Northern Cyprus, restaurants serving international cuisines abound, although those that we tried were decidedly mediocre.

As you might expect, the only industry of any size is tourism and the majority of tourists, British. English is spoken nearly everywhere.

LA Beach Hotel where we stayed for four nights and then fled.

Pre-booking lodging, sight-unseen from the Internet, can be tricky. In our case the LA Beach Hotel near the ancient coastal city of Girne (Kyrenia) turned out to have seen better days. Its slightly seedy atmosphere extended to the kitchen, which served some pretty awful food. Our fellow guests were nearly all Brits and Germans in late middle age and beyond, many grossly overweight, others handicapped and shuffling about with canes. Although Kay and I fit this demographic chronologically, in other ways we didn’t belong. Being there sapped our spirits to the point where after four nights we had to decamp.

Koca Reis Bungalow

What we found when we moved to northeast end of the island was the city of Gazimağusa (Greek name, Famagusta) with its wonderful historic center and a nearby string of hotels along one of the loveliest beaches we’d seen in a long time. In the Koca Reis Bungalow, where we spent the remaining days of our visit, we found lodging as delightful as the beach in Girne had been depressing. In fact, Kay confessed that this was the first time ever that she experienced the joy of a beach holiday.

Ruined Baths at Salamis

Nearby Gazimağusa is ancient Salamis, a town whose centuries of history extend back millennia. The Romans were there, of course, and then after the fall of Acre to the Saracens in 1291, Famagusta gave asylum to a mass exodus of Christians from Syria and Palestine. During the Middle Ages, Famagusta was one of the most important and wealthiest cities of the Levant.  Eventually it fell to the Ottoman Turks (the last city in Cyprus to do so) after a ten-month siege that starved the Christian defenders into surrender.

Gazimağusa – Otello Tower

Among Gazimağusa’s sightseeing pleasures are the massive walls and fortifications that the Ottomans found impregnable. One of these fortifications goes by the name of Othello’s Tower, . .  .

View of the Old City from the Tower

and, standing on its battlements, it took little effort to imagine our surroundings as the setting for Shakespeare’s drama. Gazimağusa‘s walls enclose the ruins of an ancient town at whose center stands the former St Nicholas Cathedral, a giant Gothic edifice reconfigured as a mosque by the Ottomans after their victory in 1571.

St Nicholas Cathedral

A Gothic cathedral resembling those of northern Europe but having a minaret instead of a bell tower is an odd sight indeed.

Although during our eight-day visit Kay and I didn’t cross no-man’s land into Greek Cyprus, we did see most of the Turkish North.

Karpas Peninsula – Panayia Kanakaria

We drove to the string of Byzantine churches and monasteries on the Karpas Peninsula.

Bellapais Village and Abbey

On another occasion we took in Bellapais Village and Abbey, the setting for Lawrence Durrell’s memoir in which he names a certain ancient tree the “Tree of Idleness” because of the locals who would sit gossiping for hours in its shade. Today, Bellapais is a popular tourist destination, and there are two trees competing for the title Durrell invented. Of course, each tree has a restaurant attached.

Of all the sights and experiences of our brief Northern Cyprus sojourn, none pleased us more than sitting on our bungalow terrace in perfect weather relaxing with a good book and thinking that it really doesn’t take much to make a great holiday.