Road Trip #3 is a drive to the only divided capital city that exists in the world in the 21st Century – Lefkosia (Nicosia). We are also traveling beyond the divided capital city and into occupied Turkish area of Cyprus now referred to as the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (or TRNC for short because that’s a mouthful!). It’s going to be an amazing adventure delving into the heart of Cyprus’ 43-year division.
We hired a car from a friendly Greek Cypriot working in Larnaka for the weekend to explore more of the island of Cyprus. We pop in to ask him a question to confirm we are legally okay to drive where we are planning to go before heading off to the capital city of Lefkosia, “Can we actually take the hire car over the border without any issues?”
There is no problem in crossing the border, and the man responds on the one hand that there isn’t any issue but on the other he tells Steve that he doesn’t want to know about it. Telling Steve I will turn a blind eye, like we never had this conversation. The boss is a proud Greek Cypriot and the mere knowledge of heading to the “Turkish occupied side” is more or less frowned upon by Greek Cypriots who do not accept nor recognise the actions of the violent Turkish occupation way back in 1974. Even our scuba diver, Marios when we asked if he’d ever travelled to the northern area of Cyprus said he couldn’t because there were way too many red flags. It boils the Greek Cypriot blood knowing that Turkey has been occupying their northern land for 43 years illegally but it doesn’t look likely to to change.
We drive north, departing home base at 11am, along the smooth Cypriot motorway on a fine day of sunshine and puffy clouds scattering the sky. We plan on arriving to the famously divided Ledra Street for lunch. I’m hoping we turn up to an information booth that has come up on my Google Maps where we can stop and get some further information about touring in and around the northern parts.
First we need to locate a car park. We pass through the winding streets, and then repeat this a couple of times as we are getting lost through the maze of one way streets that are not updated on the offline Maps.me. We’re going a little stir crazy around and around the same streets and there’s a lot of congested traffic on these one way streets right now. Although Lefkosia is a capital city and the largest city in Cyprus, it is also unlike any of the other beachside tourist cities on the island. Firstly, Lefkosia is an un-tourist like destination which means not many holiday-makers take the time to visit this city. I love the sound of that and it’s a chance to leave the tourist beach scene behind and get a sense of the usual urban lifestyle of Cyprus.
We find a car parking lot that costs a couple of euros for parking. We walk down the street and head to the heart of the division: Ledra Street. So imagine this: a long shopping street strip with old buildings on either side housing modern shops. It’s beautifully old charm and welcoming. Plus Ledra Street is a no car zone, just pedestrian and shopping precinct, with an array of colourful shade sails erected overhead to keep the burning sun at bay. The vibe is casual, and happy. People are shopping, eating and enjoying the precinct.
And then one landscape transforms into another. Greek Cyprus abruptly ends and Turkish Cyprus or TRNC starts. It’s an intersection of hostilities and indifference where one country ends and another begins. The Greek blue and white flags flap vigorously in the breeze on one side with the contrasting Turkish red and white flags on the other. It’s not hard to know where we are at any point in time as there are lots of flags claiming attention in this small region.
Crossing the Border at Ledra Street
Out the front of the Greek Cypriot border control, just metres from the green line that divides the country is a piece of art called The Resolution by Theodoulos Gregoriou. The Resolution is an artistic interpretation and defiant protest to the violation of human rights by Turkish government in 1974. On the round cement base of approximately a meter in height, part of the text of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is written in embossed Greek letters. A stack of steel lances diagonally arranged hit the centre of the text, symbolically destroying it. It’s visually appealing to the visitor and a thought provoking piece of art to look at before entering the border control to walk to the occupied side.
Just near this piece of art is a bench seat with the word PEACE written above it. The girls comply with my request for a photo of the four of them sitting on the peace bench seat even though it’s so very hot. Today also marks out 8 months of traveling around the world and I think this photo is a great one to celebrate that milestone.
We are guided to walk through the Greek Cypriot passport control booth. A man asks us what nationality we are, and after we answer with Australian he brushes his hand in a friendly manner for us to move forward without having much more prying at passports. We’re in the section of no man’s land and walk past large pots containing olive trees until we reach the Turkish side. The olive branch, a symbol of peace or victory, stands out as we wander down and though the process of the unofficial border control. This symbol, deriving from the customs of ancient Greece, is a strange sight considering this place remains so divided. It seems the Greek Cypriots refuse to give up on their country or enosis (merging with Greece).
We line up at the Turkish border patrol area and our passports are looked at and a man enters details into a computer while sitting behind a glass window. We receive no stamp; not even a slip of white paper is handed to us which I had read might happen on previous blog posts. This is because this whole extensive set up here by Turkey is not acknowledged by any other country state in the world except Turkey themselves. So all we have is the moment to experience of walking through an unrecognised border. It defies logic really.
The Turkish Cypriot side if vastly different to the Greek Cypriot side. The signs are different, the money is Lira and the churches are replaced with mosques. As soon as we walk through we are at the North Cyprus tourist bureau collecting glossy maps and brochures promoting all the key cities and attractions of northern Cyprus. A lovely Turkish woman behind the counter is more than helpful with handing out the tourist marketing brochures to Steve. But there’s something else, other than the obvious physical aspects, that changes from south to north. It’s the vibe. We have the feeling that the men sitting at the local cafe seem to stare at us, and it’s this feeling that doesn’t quite put us at ease. But we walk though the stares and the uneasy feeling. We’ve done it many times before in the other more conservative countries.
What do we call this part of Cyprus anyway? As a foreigner we’re likely to call it North Cyprus. But if you were Greek they’d call it Occupied Cyprus or Occupied Territories (as they also have the British bases here still that were negotiated with independence). Whatever the name, it’s all the same deal. Cyprus is a divided country which is often referred to in international relations and political media as the Cyprus Issue or Problem with neither side finding common ground as to how the Cyprus Issue is to be resolved. Greek Cypriots still yearn for enosis, while Turkish Cypriots call for partition.
As we walk up the street, it’s certainly more low-key in regards to the type of shops on this side of the border. There are plenty of market stalls that line either side of the street, but the big name branded stores are not here. People seem to be staring more on this side of the road too as previously we blended in without any attention directed on us. Men are sitting at a cafe under the big sprawling green trees as we walk past to an unused and run down water fountain.
We purchase an icy cold drink for the kids. It’s a great way of getting some instant coolness and it keeps them quiet while we meander through the Turkish occupied side of Cyprus. Here the currency has changed too to the Turkish Lira, rather than the Euro, to purchase goods but they readily accept Euro with a quick conversion using a handy calculator.
The whole process of crossing this “border” has got our older girls quite curious about why it’s a border when it’s not really a border and why it’s not recognised by anyone in the world. On the other side, they’re asking Steve and me why it is so? It doesn’t make sense. How can Turkey do what they’ve done? Why have they done this? What’s the purpose? Some really good questions are being asked, but unfortunately there is no clear and concise answer to any of them. It’s a grey area for the international community, let alone my ability to explain the situation succinctly, and one that has only further solidified after 43 years of negotiations and stalemates. These colourful umbrellas change the mood somewhat!
A Brief History of Turkish Occupation (as far as my limited knowledge of it is…)
Most of the Turks who had settled on the island during the three centuries (307 years to be exact) of Ottoman rule remained when control of Cyprus—although not sovereignty—was ceded to Britain in 1878. Many, however, left for Turkey during the 1920s.
At the moment I’m reading a fictional account of the British occupation of Cyprus and it’s a very interesting read that helps me understand the dynamics of past years. The book is called Aphrodite’s War by Andrea Busfield which is set in Cyprus in 1955 in the midst of the Cyprus Emergency where growing tensions emerge between Greek Cypriot guerrilla warriors (EOKA or National Organisation of Cypriot Fighters) and the British colonists. The EOKA are trying to get Britain to leave their country and realise their long dreamt ideal state of political enosis – the union of Cyprus into a Greek state.
The British gave independence to Cyprus in 1960. But between independence and the Turkish invasion in 1974 was a string of inter communal violence. The raising of enosis was again placed on the agenda and disregarded Turkish partition (otherwise known as taksim). A Greek Cypriot led enosis coup d’etat was the impetus for Turkey to send military troops to the northern coastal town of Kyrenia and start the push south to occupy what they believed was their right to the previously held Ottoman jewel and to protect the minority of Turks from the possibility of enosis.
It’s a long and sordid history of occupation, violence and discrimination. It’s an amazing timeline that I didn’t really know much about until living here. I really enjoyed reading all about it on Lonely Planet’s site here and the BBC’s timeline of the events leading up to Turkey’s invasion here.
We wander past an ancient Turkish bath facility commonly known as a Hamman in Turkish, where foreigners are also invited to participate in the mass bathing each Friday. Maybe next time I say. The girls couldn’t think of anything stranger to be honest. But for me it sounds like a pleasant, albeit revealing experience. Cleansing the body clean in a large bath full of women doing the same thing. All the soaps and scrubs that you could need can be purchased at the local market too. But what feels more strange than jumping into a bath full of naked Turkish women is simply being here in this place just across the street and feeling the lingering angst of history that continues to exist today on this road that divides one country into two unwillingly.
After exploring the Turkish side of Ledra Street, we return and walk back over the border. This time there’s a bit of a line up as we re-enter Greek Cyprus. The sun is hot and it’s beating down on the girls so much so that they are starting to shrivel their faces up in despair.
We get through, again without a stamp or anything officially recognising that we have crossed an international border. The main change in the streetscape is the colour of the flags and the type of shops lining the streets. I think about the amount of money that is required to keep up this border farce. It must cost a fortune for both sides.
From here we enjoy lunch at a small and non air-conditioned Greek Souvlaki shop. We order the tastiest chicken Gyros I think I’ve ever tasted for 3.80 euros each while the girls take an opportunity to shop and look at the bargain baskets at the shops and enjoy some air conditioned relief. We walk back to the car and drive to Metehan Kermia, a border crossing for vehicles so that we can explore northern Cyprus for the rest of the afternoon.
Welcome to the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC)
We cross the border. It’s very straight forward. There’s a booth where passports are checked and scrutinized but not stamped and extra car insurance is purchased. Due to our car being hired in the southern part of Cyprus, we need to take out extra car insurance while driving in the north. It costs just an extra 20 Euros and lasts for three days over the border. Steve pays and receives a certificate-like insurance policy. It’s quite a fancy certificate, one like the kids might receive in a spelling test, which I’ll keep as our official stamp ie. a replacement for our passports not getting stamped through a border control.
Once through the border control area, we are facing the impressive Kyrenia Mountain range. Its highest peak is Mount Kyparissovouno looming at 1,024m and is just as impressive as our visit up the Troodos Mountains but smaller than Mount Olympus. But the mythical story about how the mountain range was formed is a story worth sharing.
The Kyrenia Mountains are also known as the Five Finger Mountains. They run for 120km parallel to the northern Cypriot coastline. The range is known as Pentadactylos in Greek, Beshparmak in Turkish, and Five Fingers in English. The Five Fingers can be seen from the fingered peak that is one of its main features. The first area extensively settled by mainland Turks after the Turkish intervention in Cyprus in 1974 stretches from the eastern part of Ayios Amvrosios to the Karpass Peninsula and across the Pentadactylos mountains.
The mountains are composed of a narrow fold of limestone with occasional deposits of marble. Their name comes from a colourful legend that tells how the Byzantine hero Dighenis, forced to escape from the Arabs leaped from Asia Minor onto North Cyprus. He is obviously a giant as he landed with his five fingers leaving their impression on the jagged peaks of Mount Besparmak (five fingers mean besparmak in Turkish). Legend then tells that Dighenis used his other hand and threw a boulder across the island where it landed in the area of western Cyprus, or near old Paphos. Extraordinary legends marking nature for an eternity.
We are driving straight for the range and are left wondering how we are going to get beyond the looming mountains that we are driving towards. Our southern Cypriot sim cards no longer work in the north so we are offline for the rest of the day.
As we drive closer to the base of the mountain range, we see the obvious Turkish mark of a painted flag the southern slope of the mountain range. It may no longer be a land full of jumping giants, but it is a land of the giant Turkish flag and an abundance of smaller red and inverted white flags parading themselves along the streets, motorways and hills in the north. It’s at once blatant and in your face. Such large-scale marking of ownership. Like a flag on the southern side will somehow cement the impression that Turkey has rights to claim ownership. How could you not miss the message that says this part of the world is ours! I do feel for the people of Cyprus who have been forced to live with British occupation and now Turkish invasion and had to partition their island country into thirds. A terrible aspect of the brash ugliness of political power in the world then and today.
The translation of the words under the flag read, “How fortunate is the person who can say I’m a Turk”. Certainly not the Greek Cypriots!
1st Stop: Kyrenia | Girne
Situated between the Five Fingers Mountains and the Mediterranean Sea, Kyrenia is a lovely old port city. The main attraction here to see the horse-show shaped harbour which has become the symbol of the city. It is here that old buildings from the Venetian, Ottoman, and British Colonial periods merge along with modern restaurants, bars and small boutique hotels as well as rowdy backpacker haunts. It’s where there’s a lovely concoction of old and new are showcased to enjoy. Walking along the horse shoe shaped harbour promenade we take advantage of taking some photos with the magnificent yachts and boats as background.
On the fringe of the harbour stands the historical Girne Castle which represents the largest and oldest preserved castle in all of Cyprus and bears indelible traces of the Byzantine, Lusignan and Venetian periods and houses an extensive museum.
We stop for a drink harbour side to freshen ourselves and seek refuge under the shade of the tourist umbrellas. We enjoy the relaxing atmosphere that is here and would like to have stayed longer to explore more of this city. In fact, if we come back to Cyprus we would definitely stay for a couple of nights in northern Cyprus to see more of this third of the country.
On the radar for next time is a stop off to see St Hilarion Castle. As we are coming down into the pass of the mountain range on our way to Kyrenia, we passed a sign post with St Hilarion on it. It was originally built as a monastery and named after the monk who chose to live in hermitage here. A monastery and church was built up in the mountains in the 10th Century and the Byzantine’s commenced its fortification in the 11th Century to keep Arab pirates at bay. Anyway it’s an amazing stone structure atop of a craggy stone mountain top and is an impressive line-up of historical sites in northern Cyprus.
But I have other plans for our one-day adventure in Northern Cyprus. I really want to travel up the tail of the stingray shaped country. The maps online are not working as best as they could, and the map handed to us gives us names in Turkish not original Cypriot names. So it’s like pinning the tail on the donkey game, and we pick a point on the map and drive to it. That point happens to be Kaplica Beach.
2nd Stop: Kaplica Beach
Previous to the Turkey occupation, Kaplica was a Greek Cypriot village which was depopulated of Greek Cypriots and resettled with Turkish Cypriots. Today the village attracts many camper vans and holidaymakers to it’s quiet and pristine white sandy beach. So we stop here for a swim and stroll along the beach.
The water is again crystal clear and I think it’s warmer than down south! People are in the water with just their heads bobbing out on the surface of the sea. There are some rocks nearby so Steve and I go for a walk over to explore, and I spot an amazing camera shot around the corner. It’s become one of my most favourite shots.
The kids are enjoying sitting at a table at the beach café with a cool drink or ice-cream. Only Dacey is keen to get into the water and enjoy the bath swim. I look around turning my head out to the never-ending landscape that is water and realise we are sitting out on the tail of the sting ray. I’m thinking out there is Turkey, Lebanon, Syria and the other Levant countries. I have been programmed through watching too much Australian and North American news channels to be scared and fearful of these countries. But right here, knowing I am just a head bobbing in the water makes me feel insignificant to all the news and events that unfold in our living rooms.
We do not have any Lira on us so getting water and drinks and ice-creams has used up all of our euro and it’s pointless getting money out of the ATM as we are not staying in this occupied Turkish land. So we share a cola, dry off and hit the road again making our long journey back to the southern part of Cyprus.
3rd Stop: Heading home via Famagusta | Gazimagusa
There’s nothing like getting lost on the back streets of a country when you have no internet to direct us home via Google Maps. But we have been able to use to Maps.me at times as an offline resource in finding our way in and out of northern Cyprus.
And as the sun makes its magnificent exit for the day over the Kyrenian Mountains, we are cruising south bound to the city of Famagusta (now called Gazimagusa) where we will be able to make our border crossing back into southern Cyprus.
On the way we pass many homes and resorts that are partially built. It’s a ghost town of inert construction, partially completed resorts before an economic downturn hit the island and the rest of Europe in 2008. It never really started back up again. So in its wake is stilted homes and half complete concrete shells of constructions with overgrown grass and weeds growing around them. It’s a ghastly site. It seems that most of northern Turkey occupied Cyprus is struggling with this continued down turn, except for the major cities of Kyrenia and Famagusta. In these metropolises are private pockets of shiny light casinos for the high rollers to fly and out of to make their mark and create their destiny. But for the ordinary people, it looks like life is a struggle to make ends meet.
We drive to the Beyarmudu border crossing and are in a long line of cars being questioned by Greek Cypriot border controllers. Some boots are opened and vans are emptied. It’s always an uneasy feeling sitting in the car and trying to act normal at these types of places. Should we be stony faced like our passport photos reflect or can we continue breathing throughout the ordeal? We watch two minivans in front emptied of the young men who are standing on the kerb clutching their bags and belongings and being questioned by the Greek Cypriot border control and we wonder whether we’ll be next.
A lovely rounded at the girth man approaches our car and Steve hands him our bundle of passports. There’s a white sticker on the back where I have written their names in black Texta only to keep track with the constant handling out and collecting back our passports every time we move country. We have been on 12 flights this year! The pile of navy blue passports is handed over through the driver’s window. He has a British accent and a friendly manner and asks us a couple of questions while we’re seated in the car – firstly where we’re from, what we’ve been doing today and if we’ve purchased anything like liquor or cigarettes. Then he asks if anyone has asked us to bring anything back for them over the border and where we landed originally.
You see the Greek Cypriots do not allow anyone who lands via plane in the northern part of Cyprus to move past its borders and enter southern Cyprus because the flight and the stamp and the whole Turkish presence and occupation is simply not recognised. Not by Greek Cypriots and no other country in the world except Turkey. It’s such a farce. All the answers to this lovely gentleman are an easy no. He glances at the car’s window, and on it is a sticker from Larnaka. And then he tells us to enjoy the rest of our stay and we’re on our way.
It’s a quiet drive back into the Larnaka along the motorway in the deep night. Everything here feels like home after being across the border in the so-called Turkey occupied land today. Funny how home occurs wherever you live somewhere for an extended period of time.
It’s been a big day of traveling out to the corners of this island country Cyprus and we are all very grateful to be able to get a sense of the tragic situation that this island finds itself in.