But that is what islands are for; they are places where different destinies can meet and intersect in the full isolation of time. –Lawrence Durrell, Bitter Lemons Of Cyprus
Traveling alone has both advantages and disadvantages, the greatest disadvantage being separation from family and friends. Therefore, I was thrilled to spend a vacation week with my daughter, Allie, during her spring break from graduate school. I had already planned my itinerary before learning she would join me, so it was happenstance that our time together was spent in northern Cyprus, the Turkish-occupied sector of the island.
A note about place names: While touring within the occupied territory (Please see a previous post, “That state up north.”), I couldn’t very well call it that. The territory has declared itself the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, although only the invading country, Turkey, recognizes it as such. The international position is that the territory is illegally occupied. For the purposes of this blog, I will call it northern Cyprus, small n.
Following the invasion, the Turkish Cypriots changed the Greek place names in northern Cyprus to Turkish, so that every location has at least two identifiers. When referring to places in northern Cyprus, I will use the Turkish name, followed by the Greek name in first usage. This is not to validate the name changes, only to help me with the directional signage!
The city of Girne (aka Keryneia or Kyrenia) in northern Cyprus was extremely crowded when I arrived, narrow one-way streets, lots of pedestrians, cars at a standstill. After an hour’s worth of gridlock, I parked and searched for the hotel on foot. Once I found it, I knew Allie would love the view over the historic harbor and the castle on the far side. Founded by Achaeans after the Trojan War, Girne (GEAR-neh) today is a popular tourist destination.
After dinner, I took the Kibhas shuttle bus to the Ercan (AIR-zhahn) airport and arrived just before Allie. It was wonderful to see her. We caught the bus back to Girne and relaxed at the hotel, Allie adjusting to the seven-hour difference in time zones.
Day One: Loudspeakers from the Agha Cafer Pasha Mosque call the devout to prayer five times each day, starting at 4:30 a.m. (as we learned this morning). The breakfast at the hotel consists of boiled eggs, sausage, cheese, tomatoes, cucumbers, toast, and either coffee or tea. Afterward we walked around the Old Town to get our bearings. Bought gifts at the restored Lusignan-era Round Tower, once part of the city wall, including a talisman for my son, Nate, to ward off the evil eye. Enjoyed fresh-squeezed orange juice at a sidewalk café. On side streets, we found ancient Greco-Roman rock tombs and the ruins of the Church of Khryssopolítissa, built in the 14th century.
Walked along the promenade and the newly developed resort and casino area. We passed a statue of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder and first president of the Republic of Turkey. Statues of him are common in northern Cyprus.
We climbed the ramparts of Girne Castle for the view over the harbor. The Romans built its foundations in the 1st century AD. King Richard the Lionheart of England captured it on his way to the Third Crusade. A Genoese attack in 1373 AD almost destroyed it. The longest of its sieges, in the 15th century, lasted nearly four years and reduced the defenders to eating rats.
A hall off of the castle’s courtyard contains the Shipwreck Museum, exhibiting the remains of a Greek merchant ship from 300 BC, one of the oldest vessels ever to be recovered. In 1965 a diver discovered the ship, still carrying its cargo, mostly amphorae of wine. It was sailing to Cyprus when a storm wrecked it outside the harbor.
We ate dinner at a restaurant on the harbor. Allie enjoyed vegetarian meze, a selection of small plates, as well as the olives served at the beginning of every meal. Another favorite is halloumi, a salty cheese made from goat’s and sheep’s milk. I had sheftelia, lamb sausage.
Day Two: I bought a northern Cyprus SIM card for my phone and we set off for Saint Hilarion Castle, Allie navigating. Up a steep road and past a military post. The castle clings to the top of a mountain peak in the Beşparmak (aka Pentadaktylos or Keryneia) range, overlooking Girne and the roads running inland over the saddles. Its yellow stone blends with the rocky mountainside, so as to be barely visible. There are three rambling connected compounds, the lowest for the soldiers, servants and animals, the second for the church and the highest for the royals. The climb to the top is steep and rocky and the views up and down the coast stunning.
Saint Hilarion was named after a hermit monk who lived there. In the 10th century AD a monastery and church were built. In the 11th century, the Byzantines fortified the site in order to defend the coast against Arab pirates. In the 1300s, Prince John, brother of the king of Cyprus, suspected his Bulgarian guards were plotting against him. One by one, he invited them to his rooms on the top of the mountain and threw them over the side to their deaths. We chose a different route down. The design of the castle in Disney’s Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs was inspired by precarious-looking, ramshackle Saint Hilarion.
Next we toured Bellapais Abbey (The Abbey of Peace), the ruin of a monastery built in the 13th century. Author Lawrence Durrell wrote Bitter Lemons Of Cyprus about his years in the small village of Bellapais in the 1950s.
As we stroll along Girne’s harbor in the evenings, maitre di’s relentlessly canvas us to patronize their cafés. Every night we enjoy live music drifting from a restaurant below our balcony window–guitar, hammered dulcimer, shepherd’s flute and bongo. Allie calls it gypsy jazz. We fall asleep to it every night.
Day Three: Received an enewsletter from my health plan, entitled “Try the Mediterranean Lifestyle for Better Health.” And further, “Eat Like the Greeks.” Woke up to rain–a museum day. We decided to drive to Lefkoşa (aka Lefkosia and Nicosia), cross to the Greek-Cypriot side of the divided capital city and visit the Cyprus Archaeological Museum.
Each day of traveling solo is, for me, like assembling a one-thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle, involving challenges with driving, wayfinding, language, currency, the metric system, menus, bathroom fixtures and more. Even with Allie navigating, it was a jigsaw of a day.
We drove through a downpour from Girne to Lefkoşa. Navigating through the Turkish Old Town was difficult–tight, twisting one-way streets. However, we finally found a parking lot and stepped into the courtyard of Büyük Han (Great Inn). Built by the Ottomans in 1572 AD, it was the largest roadside inn on Cyprus. In the center of the open court is a mosque with a fountain. The British used it as a prison. Now, after restoration, it houses art galleries, workshops and cafés.
At the Ledra Street pedestrian crossing from the Turkish to the Greek side, we learned we were not allowed to pass without bringing our rental car along. It was rented in the south and I’m guessing they don’t want them abandoned on the north side of the buffer zone. We were told we must drive our car through a different checkpoint, if we wanted to visit.
We retrieved our car but went to the wrong crossing, the one reserved for UN and military personnel, where we were redirected to the Kermia (aka Agios Dometios and Metehan) crossing. After circling and asking for directions, we found it, passed through and parked near the museum. Then I realized we didn’t have euros for the pay-and-display machine. Only Turkish liras. Found an ATM, went into a shop to convert euro bills to coins and finally made it to the museum. See? A jigsaw.
Fortunately, the Cyprus Archaeological Museum was worth the trouble. The museum houses treasures from island digs, including pottery, jewelry, coins and sculptures, dating from the 8th century BC through the Bronze and Iron ages and the Greco-Roman periods. Some of the items on display had been excavated from the sites of ancient cities I have already visited, Kition and Kourion.
Back in Girne, we dashed through the rain to a nearby restaurant and huddled beneath the propane heaters under the awning. The staff were consumed with battening the hatches against the drizzle. The waiter brought platters of fresh fish to the table for me to examine before choosing. I ate three small seabass, grilled and served whole, and Allie and I shared a veggie meze.
Day Four: Sunny again. We headed east to visit the Karpaz (aka Karpas, Karpass, Karpasia and Kırpaşa) Peninsula, about two hours out of Girne. In Büyükkonuk we stopped to visit the traditional olive-oil mill. The village is surrounded by old orchards and the district is a large oil producer. Picking season starts at the end of September and continues until the end of December. In the museum, Allie and I each took a turn at pushing the large millstone around the stone basin as if we were crushing olives.
We drove a back road, single-lane, to Sazliköy, where we found a dirt road out-of-town to a small Byzantine church, Panagia Kyra. Supposedly, the ruins of an ancient city surround the church but, as with most historical sites in northern Cyprus, it is unmarked and poorly maintained.
Backtracking toward Girne, we turned off at Kaplica and headed up the switchbacks. Expansive views of the coast. We stopped for sandwiches before finishing the climb up the mountain to Kantara Castle. A UN van full of young men (off-duty soldiers?) joined us for the hike. The castle was built by Byzantines in the 10th century as a watchtower. At 2,100 feet above sea level, it was well positioned to monitor the sea on both sides of the peninsula.
On the way back to Girne, we stopped along the Old Coast Road near abandoned carob warehouses, so that Allie could dip her toes in the Mediterranean Sea. Carob used to be a major export of Cyprus. The carob tree produces edible pods that are ground to powder and used as a substitute for cocoa.
Day Five: We drove east again, this time to the ruins of the ancient city-state of Salamis on the east coast. Salamis was supposedly founded by Teucer, son of Telamon, who dared not return home after the Trojan war because he had failed to avenge the death of his brother, Ajax. (Telamon, mentioned in the Illiad, was an Argonaut, one of Jason’s crew.)
The earliest archaeological finds are from the 11th century BC. The copper mines in the area established Salamis as an important stop on early trade routes. Like Cyprus in general, the city-state changed hands many times over the centuries.
Before the Turkish invasion of Cyprus, the site was being actively excavated. Since the invasion, an international embargo has stopped the digs. Allie and I strolled the site, visiting the different excavations.
- Gymnasium, surrounded on all four sides by standing columns. Prior to the invasion, numerous headless statues, were displayed here.
- Public baths, adjoining the gymnasium, with remaining mosaics
- Theater, which seats up to fifteen-thousand spectators
- Agora, lined with the bases of columns but now overgrown and unnavigable
- Temple of Zeus, same
- Basilica of Saint Epiphanos Epiphanius, dating to 400 AD
- Basilica of Kampanopetra
- Roman villa
- Various walls, cisterns, a reservoir and a colonnaded, paved street
After sandwiches and coffee, we explored the nearby Necropolis of Salamis. The tombs have been looted over the years but, in the small museum, we got an idea of the treasures buried with the deceased. The so-called “Royal Tombs” or “Tombs of the Kings” were more likely the final resting places of the wealthy. Some of the rich were buried along with their horses and chariots. The bones of the horses are still visible in the vaults. These tombs are as large as houses. Commoners, however, were buried nearby in the Necropolis of Cellarka, where steps were hewn into the rock leading down to small hollowed vaults. One-hundred-and-fourteen tombs have been excavated to date.
According to the New Testament, Paul the Apostle preached in the synagogues of Salamis. The Cypriot-born Barnabas began working with Paul in 45 AD to spread Christianity. He was stoned to death at Salamis around 61 AD. His followers buried him secretly with a copy of the Book of Matthew. Centuries later, when the tomb was found and opened, the manuscript was still there. Saint Barnabas Monastery and Church were built near the tomb in 477 AD.
Allie and I visited the church, renamed by the Turkish Cypriots the Saint Barnabas “Icon Museum.” Politics! The monastery now displays archaeological treasures from the Stone Age through the Byzantine Period. At the chapel built over the tomb of Saint Barnabas we climbed down into the vault and saw the tapestry-covered sarcophagus. It is unclear whether his remains are still there.
Day Six: Allie’s last day. We slept in and enjoyed a leisurely stroll around town, stopping for Turkish coffee. Bought some dried fruit, almonds and bananas and ate a picnic lunch along the promenade.
We celebrated Allie’s trip over dinner with another Mediterranean feast. At the end the restaurant manager served us complimentary glasses of brandy. Along the waterfront, we stopped to listen to one of the bands we’ve been hearing from our balcony all week. While they played and sang, young people danced, waving their arms and shaking their shoulders, the men dancing with the men and the women dancing with the women.
Earlier in the day, a stray dog befriended us and followed us around. Strays are everywhere in Turkish-controlled northern Cyprus, freely roaming the streets, sleeping on sidewalks and begging for treats. They are friendly and their ears are tagged, suggesting they have perhaps been neutered. We passed a homemade outdoor dog shelter near a café, with crates, cardboard boxes, blankets and newspapers available for sleeping quarters.
South of the buffer zone, I didn’t see a single stray dog during my six-week stay. Instead, feral cats are ubiquitous. Countless colonies of them laze in the sun and sniff for scraps under the café tables. As I walked to my hotel in Lefkosia one night, I counted forty of them within three blocks. They appear well fed, but are scruffy, their fur matted, their faces scarred from fighting.
Feral cats in the south. Stray dogs in the north. A world apart.