N ot far from where I live in south London, there’s a cafe, the sort of simple joint that we Brits affectionately call a “greasy spoon,” serving up fried breakfasts and mugs of tea. It was a couple of days before I was due to leave on holiday that I noticed the poem. Hanging above one its white laminate tables, on the same wall as a soft-focus photo of Princess Di, it betrayed the owner’s affiliation with the country I was about to visit.
“Cypriot people, close family bound, Sent here by war in their homeland.”
As a work of literature, it wasn’t quite Whitman. But as I sat there eating my bacon and eggs, this naive couplet brought the realization home: You really can’t go to northern Cyprus without being aware of its politics.
Scan the timeline of Cyprus’s history and you could take your pick of invasion and upheaval. For centuries it was a steppingstone between Europe and the Middle East, with almost every East Mediterranean empire-builder — Persians, Romans, Venetians, Ottomans — passing through a t one time or another.
But the poem referred to a more recent tremor: In 1974, 14 years after the island gained independence from the British, a constitutional squabble between the ethnic Greek majority and Turkish minority led to the Turkish army landing 40,000 troops on the northern shore.
The skirmishes that followed left behind an island divided, with each ethnicity retreating behind the so-called Green Line — Turks north, Greeks south — a U.N.-enforced no-man’s-land bisecting the country from east to west. As the bitter resettlement settled into fait accompli, the northern third would raise a new flag and proclaim itself the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, a state unrecognized by all but Turkey itself. The schism, and the rancor, endures to this day.
It might not sound like the ideal backdrop for a holiday. Yet an increasing number of tourists have found themselves drawn to northern Cyprus as a quieter, more geographically spectacular antidote to the heavily developed Greek side. It sounded like what my family wanted, too — some affordable early-summer sun without the crowds, even if the political climate was less than perfect.
And so my trip here with partner and 2-year-old daughter started with a border crossing, in a city cleaved in two. We flew into Larnaca, on the Greek side of the island, then traveled up to the capital, Nicosia. In the town center, we showed our passports to officials on either side of the Green Line, and suddenly Nicosia had become Lefkosa, a place of viscous coffee and colonnaded khans (Ottoman-era inns), where the muezzin’s call rang out over the rooftops as we trailed our bags through the town and flagged a minibus to take us to the coast.
Our first stop, and the hub for travel in northern Cyprus, was Kyrenia (also known as Girne), a bustling town midway along the island’s northern shore, hemmed close to the sea by the Kyrenia Mountains, which form a spine of jagged 2,000-3,000-foot peaks running east to west for a hundred miles.
The famous attraction here is the harbor, situated in a horseshoe bay and guarded on its east side by a Crusader fortress wrapped in colossal walls. Today, most of the harbor’s Venetian-style frontage houses restaurants, and Kyrenia’s visitors flock here in the evenings to dine al fresco on mezze, kofte (a minced meat kebab) and seafood. Our plan was simple: beach by day, sunset banquets — the perfect Mediterranean recipe.
There was just one problem and, at the risk of fulfilling my national stereotype, that problem was the weather. Some freak north wind had kicked up a storm system across the eastern Mediterranean, dampening holiday spirits from Turkey to Zanzibar.
So while we could go to beaches like the one at Alagadi, a lovely curve of shoreline just east of Kyrenia famous for its nesting turtles, the hours of paddling and sunbathing we’d envisaged were out of the question. Instead, we took those British sort of beach walks where you don jackets and look for shells. Back in town, the coastline seethed, with monster waves regularly collapsing on unsuspecting couples strolling along the esplanade.
I wasn’t altogether distraught about this meteorological betrayal, for there was plenty to see away from the seafront. Like any self-respecting Mediterranean island, northern Cyprus has its share of archaeological treasures. On our second leaden-skied morning in Kyrenia, looking towards the orange-streaked limestone mountains, one of the finest was visible from our hotel room balcony.
An hour later, we walked up stone steps lined with wildflowers, and into a labyrinth of ancient stone-walled ruins. Saint Hilarion Castle is one of three fortresses dug into the Kyrenia range above strategic passes, each built by Lusignan knights who took ownership of Cyprus in the late 12th century, in the wake of the Third Crusade.
A Gothic masterpiece, it’s said to have inspired Walt Disney’s conception of the castle in “Snow White.” But that castle, of course, was home to a malevolent queen rather than a fairy-tale princess, and the prototype turned out to be as melancholic as magical, with lots of gloomy recesses and wistful Rapunzel balconies looking down over the chaotic white sprawl of Kyrenia tumbling down to the sea.
The long stairway to the uppermost battlements wove through a solemn forest of cypress trees, which clung improbably to the sheer north face of the mountain. In Prince John’s Tower, the crumbling chamber was spattered with sheep pellets suggesting that a local herdsman had taken refuge there. For added atmosphere, the echoing whip-crack of gunfire echoed intermittently up from an army firing-range below.
Later, when the gunfire soundtrack had been replaced by operatic thunder, we explored another Gothic treasure, the Bellapais Abbey, but by now it was teeming with rain.
“Sorry about this, girls,” sniffled a waterlogged Scottish bride, cowering beneath an awning with her bridesmaids, reminding us that some people had it worse. Nonetheless, it was difficult to appreciate the magnificence of the abbey’s tranquil cloisters through the fog of our own self-pity.
Back in Kyrenia, we gazed despondently at the imposing buildings erected by the latest arrivals. In 1998, when Turkey’s government banned gambling, the country’s casino operators promptly moved their operations across the Cilician Sea, turning Northern Cyprus into a mecca for Turkish gamblers.
A further incentive to build big followed, as resolutions proposed in the Annan Plan, the seemingly endless U.N.-brokered reunification negotiations, hinted that land previously owned by Greeks would be handed back — unless it had been heavily developed by the Turkish occupiers. The prospect triggered a building boom that far outstripped demand. Today, there are thought to be around 12,000 unfinished construction projects in Northern Cyprus.
Sitting in Kyrenia’s pretty harbor, you could insulate yourself from the more excessive consequences of these hasty constructions, but our next port of call would prove to be a different story. After three days on the north coast, we caught a dolmus (minibus) east, the road curling round the bony knuckles of the Besparmak (“five-finger”) mountain, before arrowing over the lemon-lime patchwork of the Mesaoria Plain, where groves of olive trees had grown lopsided in the wind.
A day later, and the weather had improved, though the same couldn’t quite be said of the surroundings. Dominating the eastern shore of North Cyprus was Famagusta Bay, which takes its name from the medieval town that sits at its southern end. But most of the tourist accommodation is further north, along the miles of beaches that line the shore.
It had been a while since I’d encountered the sort of high-rise development that so blights many Mediterranean shores, and I’d forgotten how malignant it can feel, how obtrusive. The apartment that we’d booked online was set in a sprawling complex near Iskele, and although it was great for amenity, it also felt cynical and cheap, as if it had started to fall into disrepair as soon as the last slap of cement dried.
The beach was nearby, but the highway running around the bay had been built almost on top of the sand. The only way to avoid the thundering traffic was by ducking through a malodorous storm drain that ran under the road. The beach was strewn with flotsam, and as we walked along it you could see several more monoliths, sad and half-built, erupting out of the surrounding fields. Whatever sort of seaside Eden the bay might once have been, developers in a rush to cash in before the political winds shifted seemed to be writing its epitaph in concrete.
Thank goodness for Karpas.
On the map of Cyprus, a panhandle stretches out from the island’s northeast coast for 50 miles, reaching towards Turkey’s underbelly like the upper mandible of a hand-puppet crocodile. The Karpas Peninsula, as it is known, is famed for offering something more sedate and traditional, less encroached-upon by the changing skyline inland.
We ventured there by car with Sedat, a primary-school teacher-turned-guide, who hadn’t lost his scholastic flair for simplifying complicated stories. “Turks call it an ‘intervention,’ the Greeks call it an ‘invasion,’ ” he said, recalling the Turkish landing of 1974, amid tales of gun-running fishing boats and martyred student militants, broken treaties and elusive reconciliation.
But then, as we pushed out onto the isthmus, the hills reasserted themselves above the scattered villages, and politics slackened its grip on Sedat’s narrative.
We visited a series of churches: first the ruins of a Byzantine basilica in Sipahi, with its intricate mosaic floor, then a grottolike chapel down by the sea, where Greek Cypriot Christians — permitted to make day trips from the south since the border reopened in 2003 — had lodged votive knots of tissue paper into every crevice. Another church, Ayios Philon, had wildflowers growing in the roofless nave and sparrows nesting in the cupola.
In Dipkarpaz, the peninsula’s main village, the winding roads were populated by leathery men on tractors and headscarved women. A rusty abandoned bus, which would have seemed an eyesore amid the shiny new complexes of the bay, now looked rustic and almost comely, grown over by grass and flowers.
The peninsula’s easternmost third is a national park, and here the land felt almost protean. Wild donkeys watched us impassively from the roadside; the surrounding meadows were dyed red and yellow where poppies and daisies rioted among maquis trees and gauzy tufts of wild fennel. At Golden Beach, a breathtaking sweep of coast with a few inconspicuous wood bungalows tucked in the dunes, we paddled in the sea for the first time in six days.
Yet even on Karpaz the casinos were encroaching. At the peninsula’s western end, the so-called Bafra tourist complex had been courting Turkish investors since 1990. Dominating the skyline was Artemis, which was modeled on the Turkish ruins of Ephesus (though I doubted that Ephesus’s architects would be thrilled with the cumbersome homage). The concrete shell of another complex, this one inspired by the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, was erupting from the plot next door.
“Local people are opposed to the casinos. The people who come here stay locked inside,” said Sedat, as we stopped off to have a look at this partially realized Euro-Asian Vegas. Adding insult to injury, the locals aren’t even permitted to place a bet. Gambling is banned for natives.
A couple of days later — our last before heading back across the Green Line for our flight home — I stood on the medieval walls encircling the Old Town of Famagusta with mixed feelings about North Cyprus.
At my feet, the maze of old Famagusta with its trove of ruined Byzantine churches – roofs missing, iconographic frescoes faded – was further monument to its many riches. But the merest glance south, towards a gray crop of distant buildings, reminded me that the political backdrop was hard to escape. These were the skeletons of Varosha, a forest of deserted hotels that, pre-1974, had been the most popular tourist spot in all Cyprus.
In all likelihood my London cafe-owning family had played and sunbathed here, too, I daydreamed, before the partition had led to its abandonment. For the sake of harmony, and a sustainable future, I hoped that one day they’d feel able to return.
Wismayer is a freelance writer based in London (www.henrywismayer.com). On Twitter: @henrywismayer.
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Kemerli Konak Boutique Hotel
Dereboyu St. No. 7, Zeytinlik, Kyrenia
Fantastic boutique hotel on the outskirts of Kyrenia. Rooms are bedecked in traditional art and furniture, the service is impeccable and there’s a lovely outdoor pool. Doubles start from $82.
Arkin Palm Beach Hotel
Nadir Yolu, Deve Limanı, Famagusta
Among the most highly rated of the larger hotels in North Cyprus, the Arkin Palm Beach has all amenities you’d expect from a five-star resort, and a thought-provoking location adjacent to the ghost town of Varosha. Doubles from $219.
Kordonboyu St. (opposite the Dome Hotel), Kyrenia
Popular with locals and visitors alike, this long-standing restaurant might not have the harbor views, but its menu of kebabs and mezes comprises some of the best food in the region. Main courses from around $12.
Istiklal Caddesi No. 25, Famagusta
Delightful daytime cafe on a winding lane in Famagusta’s Old Town, serving great coffee and local food in an Ottoman-era courtyard.
The Crusader castles
Three stunning 13th- and 14th-century bastions dominate strategic passes over the Kyrenia mountain range. Saint Hilarion is the closest to Kyrenia, while Kantara commands amazing views of Karpas to the east. For an energetic adventure, tackle the steep footbath up to Buffavento. Entrance fees range from no charge (Buffavento) to $3 (Saint Hilarion).
Trekking in the Kyrenia Mountains
A network of well-marked trails wind through the Kyrenia Mountains. The highly regarded Sidetour agency ( en.side-tour.com ; 011-90-392-815-3008) offers a wide range of day and package trips that include mountain hikes of various durations. Their eight-day, all-inclusive Walking Kyrenia tour costs about $550 per person.
The Karpass Peninsula
North Cyprus’s 50-mile panhandle is an absolute must-see: a time-warp region of crumbling churches, rustic villages and wild coastline. The easternmost third is a national park roamed by wild donkeys. The peninsula can easily be explored independently by car. Alternatively, expect to pay around $60 per person for an organized day tour.
Loggerhead and green turtles nest on beaches in North Cyprus, notably on Alagadi, just east of Kyrenia. The Society for the Protection of Turtles in North Cyprus can help arrange free sightings between June and September (www.cyprusturtles.