(This post has now been expanded into a book called CATCHY CYPRUS: ONCE WAS THE ISLAND OF LOVE. A clickable cover image at the end of this post leads to a sales page where you can read more about the book and buy a copy, if you want.)
AFTER Israel, I decided to visit Cyprus, the large island tucked up in the north-eastern corner of the Mediterranean Sea.
Cyprus is an island state with a historically mixed population of Greeks and Turks, plus other smaller minorities. It passed from the Republic of Venice to the Turkish Ottoman Empire in the 1500s, came under British administration in 1878, and was annexed by Britain in 1914.
The Republic of Cyprus became independent from Britain in 1960, under the leadership of its first president, Archbishop Makarios, more formally Archbishop Makarios III, who ruled as president until his death in 1977. Britain hung onto two small bases at Akrotiri and Dhekelia, which which remain British possessions and aren’t part of the Republic of Cyprus (ROC).
In 1974, Turkey invaded Cyprus in response to a short-lived coup by supporters of union with Greece (‘Enosis’), and in 1983 proclaimed the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. Most people call this region Northern Cyprus. The breakaway republic is garrisoned by Turkish troops. Outside Northern Cyprus itself, the breakaway republic’s independence from the ROC is only recognised by Turkey.
There is a United Nations buffer zone between the two main parts of the island, which are also separated by physical barriers.
This map describes the facts on the ground, and includes the places I went to.
The four biggest cities in Cyprus are known in English as Nicosia, Limassol, Larnaca and Famagusta, the last of which is in Northern Cyprus and is known there as Gazimağusa.
Nicosia is the capital of the island. However, since 1974, Nicosia has been a divided city. In the heart of Nicosia there is an old walled city with perfectly symmetrical fortifications all round. The modern barrier between the ROC-controlled and Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus areas runs through the middle of the walled city, so that it is doubly walled! Nicosia (all of it) is officially the capital of the ROC, and the Northern Cyprus side of the city, known as North Nicosia or Lefkoşa, is also claimed as the capital of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.
The current population of Cyprus is just over one million, with almost 800,000 living in the ROC-controlled area and roughly 300,000 in Northern Cyprus. The Northern Cyprus population includes a sizeable number of settlers from mainland Turkey whose right to settle is recognised by the de facto government of Northern Cyprus, but not by the ROC.
The Turkish invaders were able to point to earlier violence against the Turkish population by supporters of Enosis, who were often extremist, as a credible pretext for invasion after the Enosis supporters mounted their coup.
After the invasion, there was a massive transfer of populations. Today the territory controlled by the Republic of Cyprus is almost entirely Greek in ethnic terms, while the breakaway territory is almost entirely Turkish. More mixed populations still live in the UN buffer zone.
After the air pollution from the bombs being dropped on Syria along the Golan Heights border, I was relieved to take a very short flight of a bit over 330 km from Tel Aviv to Larnaca.
I booked accommodation with a local woman by the name of Kim on Airbnb and picked up a hire car at the airport. Kim said that her grandson had breathing problems and that she has got bronchitis because of all of the chemicals from the bombs in Syria, some 200 km to the east.
Kim’s boyfriend was a Turkish Cypriot who didn’t support the breakaway Northern Cyprus republic. His family had owned a restaurant in Northern Cyprus. He said that because of the 1974 invasion, the proclamation of the breakaway republic in 1983, and the international boycott of the north, his family had lost everything and had to move to Larnaca in what’s now effectively the Greek part of the island. So, there was an exception to the rule.
Northern Cyprus is subject to a severe international embargo which effectively strangles its economy, which would probably collapse without Turkish support. For instance, exporters in Northern Cyprus can only export their wares to the European Union from ROC ports and airports and with ROC paperwork. They can’t export from ports and airports on Northern Cyprus. On the other hand, the ROC received lots of aid and subsidies from Europe to get back on its feet after the 1974 conflict.
There were many provocations that led up to the Turkish invasion.
Conflict had broken out between Turkish and Greek Cypriot communities in 1963, after several years of violence fomented by pro-Enosis EOKA extremists. The Turkish Cypriots withdrew to a handful of enclaves, which they fortified.
The Cypriot National Guard — the armed forces of the ROC — was founded in 1964, in reaction to the fortification of the Turkish Cypriot enclaves. One of these enclaves was Kokkina, now part of Northern Cyprus, which was viewed (with some evidence) as a port for Turkish gun-runners. The first thing the Cypriot National Guard did, after its foundation, was to attack Kokkina.
The founding commander of the Cypriot National Guard was General Georgios Grivas, who had earlier founded and run EOKA.
From its foundation, therefore, the Cypriot National Guard has really been a chauvinistic militia of the Greek community, with Greek iconography and markings to this day.
So, if the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus is propped up by the Turkish military, it could equally be said that the ROC is hostage to its own military hardliners to some extent.
Certainly, now that the dust of the initial invasion has long since settled, the Turkish-enforced division of the island stops the Greek and Turkish Cypriots from killing each other, in ways that would be worse for the Turkish population since they are still a minority and very much the weaker faction, while the supporters of Enosis have a proven streak of ruthlessness.
A friend of mine belongs to a Turkish-Cypriot family living in London. My friend’s father describes how he was forced to dig a grave by supporters of Enosis during the 1974 coup, and only escaped helping to fill it because the mainland Turks showed up in the nick of time.
(To be fair, the ruthlessness of the pro-Enosis faction was undoubtedly fuelled by the earlier ruthlessness of the Turks toward the Greeks and Armenians during World War One, and in the war that followed.)
Although the Turkish military is dug in in Northern Cyprus, it’s worth adding that the ROC is defended by Greek armed forces stationed on the part of the island that the ROC controls, in addition to its own National Guard; which in its early days was also commanded, under Grivas, by officers sent over from the Greek mainland.
So, the ROC and factions within it are far from blameless and there is a whole heap of tit-for-tat in Cypriot history, just as there is in the wider history of the region.
All the same, deep sanctions were imposed on the north, but not the south, after the declaration of the breakaway Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus in 1983. The establishment of a puppet state in a conquered region is the sort of thing that is just plain illegal in international law.
Turkey was able to cite a UN humanitarian resolution in favour of its initial invasion in 1974, the first of two that year. The second invasion, which secured the whole of the territory of Northern Cyprus, was more questionable as it took place after Greece and the ROC had reverted to democracy. But anyhow, setting up a rebel republic certainly wasn’t in the resolution!
In view of all the past bad blood between Greek and Turks, another reason why Turkey wanted a friendly state in Northern Cyprus is that a fully Greek-controlled Cyprus would have become an aircraft carrier directed against central Turkey, in the same way that the Greek islands of the Aegean threaten western Turkey. Greece and Turkey have often threatened to go to war with each other since the 1920s. So, there was that reason too.
However, with sanctions, the establishment of an actual breakaway republic has been an economic disaster for the Turkish Cypriots.
Among other things, the sanctions tend to limit overseas tourism in Northern Cyprus. And none of the Greek Cypriots I met seemed to travel to Northern Cyprus either. They refused to use a passport in their own country, which they wanted to see re-unified, even if the policies of their own government made it less likely. They complained about how the Turkish Cypriots in the north fly their flag which resembles the Turkish one. But, interestingly, I saw a lot of Greek flags flying outside of the Orthodox churches everywhere in the territory controlled by the ROC.
The constitution of Cyprus permits either the Greek or Turkish flag or both to be flown alongside the Cyprus flag in many settings. Where the writ of the ROC runs, that now means Greek flags pretty much.
Most people on the island did indeed seem to identify as Greeks or Turks in ways that trumped their Cypriot nationality and made it less likely that the island would ever be re-unified.
When I travel, I find it’s very important to have a local sim card for my smartphone. I wouldn’t have been able to do Cyprus without a local sim card, and so installing one of those in my phone was the first thing I did.
Then I went and had a really wicked massage not far from the beach in Larnaca, at a place called Physio for You at 69 Faneromenis Avenue. The woman who did it was amazing. It was €60 for 90 minutes and I really needed it after carrying a heavy backpack and going through four sets of security searches at the Tel Aviv airport.
I was to spend two days in Larnaca. I got up very early because the weather was probably 45 degrees Celsius during the day.And so at 6 am I left to see the city. I drove out to the salt lakes just outside Larnaca where birds live. The lakes were absolutely beautiful, but it was the wrong time of the year to see birds. And I also went to a Turkish mosque, the Hala Sultan Tekke, that was currently being used as a museum.
I also made my way to the beaches which looked really amazing and had a swim, and I walked around the old town of Larnaca: a beautiful area. I enjoyed visiting the Mausoleum, or church of St. Lazarus. And then I went and had some food. You can do a decent sandwich or meal for something like 3 Euros or US $7. I was happy to be in somewhere a bit cheaper than Israel, certainly cheaper than Tel Aviv.
I really enjoyed talking to Kim and her boyfriend. My plan after that was to go camping somewhere adventurous.
I travelled west, and went on a 14 km hike along the Atalante (or Atalanti) Trail near Troodos. Troodos is in the main mountain range of Cyprus, and close to the highest mountain on the island, Mount Olympos (1,994 metres). This is not the same as the Mount Olympus which is the abode of the classical Greek gods. That Olympus is on the Greek mainland. Still, the names would seem to be related.
The region near Mount Olympos contains Cyprus’s historical copper mines, which were very important in ancient times, supplying practically all the copper used by Mediterranean civilisations in those days. So productive were these mines that the words for copper in Latin (aes Cyprium and, later, cuprum) came from the island’s name. Cuprum gave rise to words for copper in many modern languages, including English.
Before that, the name Cyprus may have come from an even older word for copper or bronze such as the Sumerian zubar or kubar. The image of Cyprus on the national flag is not golden or yellow but copper-coloured. At any rate it’s meant to be, if the flag is drawn correctly.
Other things that have been mined on Cyprus, all in pretty much the same area, included chromium, asbestos and sulfur.
I love the terrain, with four different types of rock all jumbled together, and the Juniper trees. One was 800 years old. There was a local black pine as well. The hiking was amazing. They had a lot of camping areas with tracks that joined each other.
There’s a really good hotel called the Jubilee Hotel which you can get on Booking.com. Also, there’s a ski field and hotel by the name of Northbase.
At the local Adventure Park, I bought three nights in a tent on Airbnb for only $40, for the whole three nights. I had a very comfortable tent with a mattress and a view of the highest mountain in Cyprus that was really to die. There were good toilet facilities, showers and hot and cold running water. I could have grilled meat on the cooking facilities. It was a real relief from the interesting but somewhat pressurized time I’d had in Israel, and a lot cooler than the heat of the lowlands as well.
The park was run by a married couple. I met the husband, George, and their son Andreas. They had set it up nine years earlier. Their eldest son, Kyriakos, was in Chamonix in France, training to be a mountaineering instructor. Andreas was studying to be a geologist in Liverpool but was back at home for the moment. He said that with EU membership a lot of the Cypriots travelled to study at a British University — no doubt because Cyprus used to be a British colony for nearly a hundred years all up, English is widely spoken on the island — and they won’t be able to do that now with Brexit. Andreas said that Brexit is really starting to bite into their hopes in that sense.
Cyprus has its own universities. But it’s interesting about how young people want to study in English in Britain, as Cyprus is just a small place and they would spread their wings a lot by doing so, the big OE (Overseas Experience) we call it in New Zealand. With Brexit they might now have to go to somewhere like France or Germany for the same experience, which would be more hassle for English-speaking Cypriots and Britain’s loss, ironically enough.
George made me some sage tea and other mountain herb teas. When I was hiking there was a lot of wild sage and other herbs such as rosemary along the Atalante Trail which was one of the trails I did, and the Troodos mountain area generally. It was great to actually be hiking. There was a full moon and there was a lunar eclipse in New Zealand (which I didn’t get to see) but anyhow, it was great to spending some nights in a tent. I brought a lot of food which I’d bought from supermarkets in Larnaca.
I also visited a botanical garden, the visitor centre of the Troodos Geopark. UNESCO put quite a bit of money into Cyprus to keep the native fauna and flora as it is, and that helped to establish the Geopark, which covers nearly 1,400 square km, and the roughly one square kilometer visitor centre, which is built on the site of an old asbestos mine. There was a museum and they gave me a free map and George gave me a map, so I had enough maps to choose what hiking trails I wanted to do. But there were other things that I wanted to do on the island as well. I wanted to get lost and I wanted to do a whole lot of other things.
I drove from Troodos to Nicosia which is the capital. That probably was an hour and a half away. I was drinking 8 liters of water a day: the temperature was probably in mid to late 40s.
However, the benefit of this time of year, prior to August is that you’re not overwhelmed with holiday-makers and it’s still the off-season.
I didn’t realize that Nicosia had a wall that ran through it. Because of the 1974 conflict, the capital of Cyprus suddenly became a front-line city. A lot of the old ruins have been preserved amid more modern architecture. There is graffiti on the wall showing that a lot of people from the southern side of Cyprus would like to be unified with the North. Also visible from the ROC side is a huge Turkish-Cypriot flag marked on a hillside in North Cyprus.
I spent a while walking around and seeing some of the sights in Nicosia.
I mentioned that Northern Cyprus faces a variety of barriers to development. But with underdevelopment also come beaches without the hordes of tourists and tourism development that are common on the ROC side. Just as in Britain’s outposts on the southern part of the island, there are many beaches in the northern, Turkish part that are entirely untouched by development as well.
One of my particular aims was to get to a crescent of sand between two headlands on the northern coast of Northern Cyprus, called the Aligadi Turtle Beach. This was to be an adventure in itself.
Meanwhile I checked in to a hostel in Nicosia called Maxim, I thought it was a hotel, but it turned out to be a hostel. However, there were only ten check-ins at that time and I had a whole dorm room to myself. The owner was a former Turkish resident of Germany who had decided to go and live in the Republic of Cyprus. He said life in Germany was becoming difficult, and he liked the Mediterranean weather. He said he ran, or had run, a hostel in Cologne. Now he was running a hostel in Nicosia.
A volunteer had just offered to help him out. She had got a hostel going in Cyprus as well. She had been in the British Army for 22 years and had only recently retired. She said she had been involved in Afghanistan and that that was terrible; that she had lost three fellow soldiers in her last tour of duty. She added that many of her army friends were suffering post-traumatic stress syndrome.
She also said that a lot of the children would stab you and so that a lot of soldiers were scared of children, because they did actually kill soldiers. She said that the Taliban were coming out of the caves and they were laughing at yet another army that had failed to conquer or hold Afghanistan. Anyhow, that was a thing in itself.
The hostel was having another storey added and needed a lot of work. I had to watch for the large hoses all over the stairway steps. Obviously, safety was not an issue.
Before I drove out to Alagadi, I found had to take out a new car insurance policy all over again.
It seemed that my current insurance for Cyprus did not extent to Northern Cyprus, no doubt because the companies responsible aren’t allowed to offer financial services in that part of the island on the grounds that if they paid out on a prang, they would only be helping the Turks to dig in further.
The cost of petrol, or gasoline, is also quite remarkably different in the two parts of the island. Basically, on the Turkish side it is twice as expensive as on the Greek / ROC side. So that’s something additional to bear in mind for the tourist and the traveler, and it must only add to the locals’ hardships on the Turkish side.
It took three attempts to actually find the turtle breeding beach. There were three beaches known as Alagadi. One was a beautiful undeveloped swimming beach, which I swam at. The second was a beach with a restaurant. And the third beach was where the turtles bred. There was a joint conservation effort going on with the University of Sussex. For the last thirty years people had been going to the beach and identifying where the turtles have laid their eggs. And then they put wire protection, with a stick, over where the eggs have been laid, and keep an eye on the nests.
Here’s an infographic on sea turtles in Cyprus, including pictures of the three species that lay their eggs on the island.
It’s amazing just how far inland the turtles came in to lay eggs. They go a long way inland, and sometimes halfway up a hill, to lay eggs. The nature documentaries make you think turtles lay their eggs right on the beach, but it isn’t necessarily so. (Likewise, in New Zealand, there are penguins that waddle a long way inland and breed in forests, and don’t just live on the beach either.)
Unfortunately, the occurrence of rubbish, plastic and plastic bottles also seemed to be more prevalent in Northern Cyprus. No doubt this was a consequence of underdevelopment and lack of concern for the tourist image.
After that I went back to Nicosia. And then I drove to the gorgeous beach town of Kato Pyrgos, which was also on the northern shore of Cyprus but in the ROC-controlled part, just north of the Paphos Forest, which also likes close to Mount Olympos and Troodos.
From Nicosia, the easiest way to get to Kato Pyrgos from the capital was to drive almost all of the way through Northern Cyprus and not to go back to Troodos, even though Kato Pyrgos and Troodos aren’t far apart as the crow flies, and linked by mountain roads.
In the Paphos Forest there are quite a few campgrounds, camping areas and hiking areas all the way through between Troodos and Kato Pyrgos, with the main mountain road passing through Kykkos and another town called Kampos.
Northern Cyprus runs along the northern coast almost all the way to Kato Pyrgos. The Kokkina Exclave, as it is now called, lies just west of Kato Pyrgos. A historically Greek town, Kato Pyrgos was used as a base by General Grivas’s newly-founded Cypriot National Guard when it attacked Kokkina, in 1964.
At Kato Pyrgos I wandered around and took in the lovely seaside scenery. Then I drove down to Kykkos through the Paphos Forest.
In addition to his role in politics, Archbishop Makarios had been the patriarch of Kykkos’s famous monastery, and was buried nearby.
I didn’t realize how long a drive was actually going to be, on the mountain roads of the Paphos Forest!
There was a serious forest fire, and two fire trucks came past me; so I was feeling quite anxious about doing all of that driving.
Like many a hot island, Cyprus faces water problems. I spoke to a guy who was an engineer, I think, and he said that Cyprus has had desalination plants for quite some time.
Another thing about Cyprus is that there are a lot of locusts. And because of climate change, there has been an increase in the numbers of beetles that attack the trees.
Eventually, I went back to Nicosia by the route I had come, to fly out of Cyprus.
At one place I just drove through the Greek immigration point to the Turkish side because there had been nobody on duty. Somebody said that’s what Cypriots are like — just laid back.
But the immigration on the Turkish side wasn’t. They kept me there for an hour because they rang the other side and said why didn’t you stamp this woman’s passport?
However, I got to Nicosia in the end and flew out to Britain for my latest visit; about which, by a curious reversal of timing, I have already posted a couple of blogs!
Now, here’s the clickable cover image of Catchy Cyprus, as promised:
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