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Full Steam Ahead
North Cyprus

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 the south.

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 Greek.

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 the Lusignans.

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 common”.

North Cyprus Tourism:
First published by the Telegraph

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