|Full Steam Ahead
by Sarah Shuckburgh
A taste of the good life Sarah Shuckburgh discovers romantic ruins and deserted beaches in North Cyprus.
The Karpaz peninsula - Cyprus’s sparsely populated
pan-handle - is an unspoilt wilderness of stony red earth,
with scrubby hillsides of grey boulders and a coastline
dotted with the ruins of early Christian churches. Flocks of
sheep are watched by grizzled shepherds, astride donkeys
saddled with brightly coloured blankets. Few tourists come
here, but Karpaz is easily reached - the roads are empty,
the sandy beaches are idyllic and small village guesthouses
offer a taste of traditional Cypriot life.
Although Greek Cypriots see North Cyprus as illegally
occupied territory, border controls have relaxed. With a car
hired in the Republic, my husband and I decide to spend a
few days exploring the Karpaz panhandle, taking in
Famagusta, Ancient Salamis and Lefkoşa before returning to
From Larnaca airport, it’s a short drive to the Famagusta
checkpoint. The lookout towers and barbed wire make a
chilling sight. Pillboxes are camouflaged in orange and
green, to match the parched terrain. Drivers crossing the
border need extra car insurance, and two roadmaps - one with
Greek place names and another with Turkish. Confusingly,
many towns also have English names – what we know as
Famagusta is Gazumağusta in Turkish, and Ammochostos in
Cyprus, a small but strategically placed island on the
edge of three continents, has had many conquerors, including
English and French. My husband Guillaume is intrigued by his
compatriot, Guy de Lusignan, who succeeded Richard the
Lionheart as King of Cyprus in 1197, and whose family ruled
the island as a Catholic feudal state for 300 years.
Under the Lusignan dynasty, Famagusta became the centre
of commerce, the richest city in the eastern Mediterranean.
Today, forlorn and run-down, the town retains relics of
French rule – including a marvellous gothic cathedral, now a
carpeted mosque. The Othello Tower also dates from
Lusignan’s era - its Shakespearean name added by
19th-century British colonists. The city’s lovely
honey-coloured walls were built by Venetians who succeeded
Package tourists flocked to Famagusta in the 1960s and
early 1970s, but the resort, just south of the old town, is
now an eerie no-man’s-land between Turkish north and Greek
south. From Othello’s Tower, we gaze at its empty hotels,
out of bounds for 34 years.
A few miles north of Famagusta lie the ruins of Ancient
Salamis, one of Cyprus’s earliest city kingdoms. Dating from
1000 BC, the city flourished under Greek and Roman rule, but
eventually earthquakes silted up the port and after Arab
raids in the 7th century, the city was abandoned. St
Barnabas was born in Salamis, and, with the Apostle Paul,
brought Christianity to Cyprus in about 45AD. We explore the
sprawling ruins - an amphitheatre which once seated 15,000,
paved roads, fragments of mosaic, decapitated statues, a
colonnaded exercise yard, latrines, aqueducts and cisterns.
The ruins are in a wonderfully romantic position on a
beach of soft sand, and after lunch we swim in the warm,
choppy sea. Then we drive north, leaving half-built villas
and hotels behind as we reach the undeveloped Karpaz
peninsula. We are staying at a 300-year-old village house
with a traditional arched veranda. Kader and Zekai Altan
welcome us as if we are old friends, offering us pickled
walnuts, haloumi, sesame bread and wild oregano tea. Our
bedroom, one of ten built in the leafy garden, has an
antique four-poster, hung with lace.
Kumyali is a workaday village of crumbling houses, with
chickens, dogs and children in dusty lanes, and women
sitting under veranda arches. The mournful wail of a muezzin
wafts from a spindly white minaret. The region has been
inhabited since the Bronze Age, and was once much more
densely populated. Zekai takes us to some recently unearthed
stone tombs, 2500 years old, and the remains of a
pre-Christian town. We walk on, through the maquis scrub of
juniper, lentisc, wild olive and carob and past a freshwater
lagoon. Tawny sandhills overlook miles of empty beach and
the glittering Mediterranean.
For supper, Kader produces olive bread, hot from her
wood-fired oven, and dozens of courses, including giant
snails, prickly caper-stalks and a carob-pod dessert. We
drink chilled red village wine and home-brewed zirvana, the
potent local liquor.
Breakfast the next morning is equally interesting – hot
lamb, grilled haloumi with baked olives, fried dough, boiled
eggs, halva, figs and bread with homemade carob jam.
Embroidered cloths cover jugs of rose water, pomegranate and
terebinth juices. Meanwhile, our hosts breakfast on
cigarettes and Turkish coffee.
Guillaume and I spend an enchanted day exploring the
peninsula’s uninhabited valleys, swimming in secluded bays,
stopping for drinks and lunch at cafes, some of them run by
Greeks. This is the only region in Cyprus where Greek and
Turkish speakers still live side by side.
Zekai has written many books on Cypriot folklore and
food, and he also hosts a weekly radio programme. On our
last evening, he invites me to be a guest on his show. The
next morning, before I can say no, we find ourselves
following Zekai’s car at top speed towards Nicosia. We
arrive at Radio Mayis at exactly 10am, race upstairs to a
small studio, put on headphones, and the programme begins.
My interpreter is a charming septuagenarian who condenses Zekai’s lengthy Turkish monologues into succinct English. I
talk about how I prefer staying in rural villages with
traditional food, rather than in crowded concrete resorts.
During the news-break, my interpreter, Hüseyín Kanatlı,
offers to show Guillaume and me around the capital, and we
leave Zekai on air, taking phone calls from listeners.
Mr Hüseyín directs us through the 16th-century Venetian
walls, and into a labyrinth of narrow streets, bustling with
immigrants from Anatolia. Within minutes, we notice that
everybody recognises our guide – including the President and
First Lady, who stop for a chat - and he admits that he too
is a celebrity, with his own television show.
From the roof of the Saray Hotel we get a panoramic view
of two cities – Turkish Lefkoşa, with a jumble of red roofs,
alleys, minarets, British colonial architecture and distant
hills; and Greek Lefkosia, ten times the size, a modern
European city with wide boulevards and glittering buildings.
A derelict strip marks the buffer zone between north and
south, guarded by UN watchtowers. This is the ‘Green Line’ –
named after the ink with which a British officer sketched
the boundary in 1963. Blue and gold EU flags flutter on one
side, and flags with the Turkish Cypriot moon and star on
the other. Nicosia is the last divided city in the world.
With our erudite (and famous) guide, we stroll through
the Belediye Pazari, a cool, covered bazaar with
intoxicating aromas of spices and fruit. We look into the
Selimiye Mosque, formerly St Sophia’s Cathedral, built by
Guillaume’s favourite, Guy de Lusignan. The Ottomans added
two minarets in the 16th century, but the lofty gothic
architecture survives and the stone portals still feature
sculpted saints. We explore the narrow streets of the
Arabahmet district, passing carved doors and mashrabiya
balconies. Many alleys end in border blockades.
We pause in the Büyük Han, a handsome Ottoman courtyard
which once served as a caravanserai for merchants and their
camels. Over lunch, Mr Hüseyín tells us that he, like Zekai,
was born in the south. Their families lost everything in
1974. Many thousands of Greek Cypriots, evicted from the
north, suffered similar losses. While politicians debate
intractable difficulties, Mr Hüseyín is committed to
teaching Turkish to Greek-speakers, and Greek to
Turkish-speakers. He tells us that he voted against
unification in the recent referendum, because he thought the proposals were unfair to Greek Cypriots.
After lunch, he directs us towards the checkpoint outside
Nicosia, where we will cross back into the Republic.
“One day, Cyprus will again be one island,” he tells us.
“We Cypriots, both sides of the line, have very much in
North Cyprus Tourism:
First published by the Telegraph