Doors are now opening for Northern Cyprus, once known as the ‘forgotten frontier.’
Having visited Southern Cyprus a couple of times, we were keen to visit the North and see for ourselves if the place was as beautiful and as quiet as others had told us.
Flights to Ercan airport in Northern Cyprus are obliged to touch down in Turkey first before onward travel, thus adding more time to the journey. However, we flew direct to Larnaca and were met by a pre-booked taxi transfer from Pacific rental cars. They can arrange for your private taxi transfer from Larnaca International Airport to either their Pacific office in Kyrenia or your destination address in Northern Cyprus. We were really impressed by the large, comfortable taxi and the friendly, polite driver who drove us for the 75 minute journey, costing £20 sterling.
From the Pacific office we were able to collect our hire car which enabled us to have the freedom to explore places at our own leisure!
We had about a 20 minute journey to our wonderful Manolya Hotel in Lapta and a good base for travelling around. A family run hotel which I would really recommend. Our corner room with two large windows on the second floor was spacious, bright, well equipped and had great views overlooking both the sea and the mountains.
Northern Cyprus’ slice of land amounts to around 37%. Cyprus itself, is the third largest island in the Med and it’s nearest neighbours is Turkey, 65 km to the North, Syria 105 km to the East and Egypt 340 km South. Standard time is 2 hours ahead of ours.
The island’s “panhandle” beaches on the Karpaz peninsula have pure white sand stretching for miles with very few people around. Wild donkey’s are more likely to be seen than tourists! You really need a good long day to visit the Karpaz, which although has a good road now, is quite a distance, depending on where your accommodation is situated. Sadly, we only had time to travel about a third of the way…….always another time!
The whole island of Cyprus was once a British possession, but has been divided since 1974. Most of the new properties in the north have TRNC title deeds that are not recognised by anyone but Turkey, just like the north itself.
Troops landed to protect the Turkish minority at risk from a coup inspired by the Greek colonels and have remained ever since. You are certainly aware of their presence when travelling around but they can be helpful if you take a wrong road, as I experienced on a couple of occasions!.
Blessed with sunshine, scenery and history, Northern Cyprus gives many reasons for visiting.
So where did we go?
On our first day we travelled west heading for Akdeniz, known for it’s turtle beach. The turtles lay their eggs between July and August.
There is a restaurant where we popped in for a coffee before exploring. It was early morning so the place was quiet, but it gets busy when the jeep safaris drop in for lunch. Horses can be found, stabled behind the restaurant, along with some budgerigars nearby!
Akdeniz is a long beach but not as picturesque as I had anticipated, especially as it was strewn with some litter in places. Although we didn’t catch sight of any turtles, we enjoyed a pleasant, quiet walk along the shore.
We then travelled on to Korucam, a village still referred to locally as Kormakitis, where most of the Marionite population of Northern Cyprus live. We went inside Saint George’s Church, built in 1930 where there are icons and religious items dating from the 12th century.
Nearby, is the Chapel of Saint George built in 1852. On 3 November each year, a Mass is celebrated by the Marionite Community dedicated to St George and to coincide with the start of the agricultural season. Tradition has it, that after Mass, the Marionites have lunch by the sea to celebrate Saint George.
In the west of the village is the small Chapel of the Holy Virgin thought to have been built in 1453.
The village has a lovely atmosphere and warm and friendly people. Yorgo Restaurant is situated opposite the church and seems to be highly recommended with its mini meze and lamb cooked to perfection. Also serves home-made red wine.
We had a wonderful drive back to our hotel in the afternoon sun, along the coast from the village of Sadrazamkoy. This is an area of subsistence farming, where some of the produce is sold in local markets. Not much English spoken!
The following day we headed for Bellpais Monastery (The Abbey of Beautiful Peace), a masterpiece of Gothic Art.
During the 13th century, countless Christian pilgrims visited the monastery where a fragment of the Holy Cross was stored. The panoramic view of Kyrenia inspired the author Lawrence Durrel to write his famous book titled “Bitter Lemons”.
We paid to stay in the nearby car park, otherwise it is quite a lengthy walk especially for people with limited mobility along the narrow access road to the monastery. Toilets and eating facilities are available.
Augustinians were the first monks to have settled here when they had to flee from Jerusalem when the city fell to Saladin in 1187. The original construction was built between 1198 and 1205, and dedicated to St Mary of the Mountain .
The ruin is 220m above sea level, and commands a long view down towards Kyrenia and the Mediterranean sea.
The cloisters and refectory were built during the reign of Hugh IV (1324 – 1351) Now, the refectory serves as a venue for lectures and concerts and a local music festival in the summer.
The east side of the inner courtyard was occupied by the chapter house and work rooms. There are some interesting stone carvings – a man with a double ladder on his back, a woman reading, a man between two mermaids, a woman with a rosary, 2 beasts attacking a man, a monk wearing a cloak and a monkey and cat under a pear tree with a man holding a shield. At the centre is a fine column thought to have come from a notable Roman building.
The eastern wall beneath the rose window is pitted with bullet holes. Two sarcophagi can be found at the entrance to the hall, used by the monks as a lavabo before entering to take their meals. Above the doorway on the marble lintel are the coats of arms of the Kings of Cyprus, Jerusalem, and the quartering of Jerusalem and Cyprus united.
The monks were turned out of here following the Ottoman conquest.
As we left, we were transfixed by a young girl with long hair posing every few yards with a ‘selfie stick.’ Obviously more interested in herself than the fascinating history and architecture!
St Hilarion Castle was on our itinerary the following day. We all remember Snow White! Here was a castle that Walt Disney used as a location on which to base his cartoon film.
In days past, the castle was known as Didymas, meaning ‘twins’ because of the two peaks that were separated by a valley.
700 metres high, St Hilarion is one of the three castles set upon the ‘Five Finger Mountains’ built to protect the Cypriot public from Arab attacks.
Looking upwards from the road below before the start of the journey, it looks pretty impressive. It was April and we had the pleasure of seeing the masses of beautiful wild flowers. Once the top is reached there is a very good view from the snack bar.
You pass a military camp on the way up with a firing range, so cannot stop. Loud shots could be heard on a regular basis when looking around the castle. Car parking spaces are available but it can get rather crowded as coaches line up along the side of the road.
My husband climbed up the steps to reach the inside of the castle, but I decided to explore at a lower level! It is not suitable for people with walking difficulties.
Arab attacks started in the 7th century through to the 10th century and the castle was there when Richard the Lionheart took the island in 1191. It became empty in 1489 when Venetians took the island.
The castle has three main sections. The parapets at the main entrance were fortified by the Byzantines in the 11th century. The lower section of the castle was used for billeting soldiers and their horses. The middle section was the royal palace.
If you look from the Queen’s window on the second floor, a wonderful panoramic view of Northern Cyprus can be viewed.
After a full day of amazing explorations it was lovely to return to our hotel then try different, nearby eating places for our evening meals. Food was great and very reasonable.
When we were out walking along the pavements, one thing is very noticeable. They are very high from the road level!
Only 10 minutes drive from our hotel was this amazing ‘Mr Pound’ shop. It only opened on 27th December 2017 and has 3 shopping floor levels and a cafe. For 700 TL you can buy a huge umbrella to put over your car and shade it from the sun! Many of the items in the shop are only 7TL. (roughly 5 TL equivalent to a pound sterling)
We went into Kyrenia on the Sunday as they had a church for Mass. Arriving early, we were able to view part of the castle before heading for the charming little chapel of St Elizabeth of Hungary, opposite the Dome Hotel. Dozens of chairs had to be but outside so as to accommodate everyone.
Afterwards we returned to the castle along by the harbour side with its boats bobbing about on the water and teeming with people, many of whom were in the restaurants and drinking places.
Soaring an impressive 21 metres into the air, there are certainly good views from the battlements of the 16th century castle lying at the entrance to the harbour. The Venetians were worried about the possible invasion of Cyprus by the expanding Ottoman Empire and so, wanted to fortify it. The castle walls were enlarged, thickened and reinforced to defeat artillery attacks, thus resisting any siege. The original drawbridge at the castle’s entrance with the protected gatehouse still exists today.
A long ramp from the north-west corner of the castle leads to the central parade ground area passing a tomb on the way. This is the resting place of an Ottoman admiral. The central area is lined with living quarters, guardrooms, and stables.
Dungeons and storage rooms can be found. Not to forget the ‘Shipwreck Museum,’ home to one of the world’s most important pieces of marine archaeology. In 1965 divers discovered the oldest recorded shipwreck which dated back to 300BC. It was a trade ship carrying almonds and wine as well as other things. The wreck has to be kept in a specially controlled atmosphere to ensure it’s preservation.
Next morning we were off along the coast road to Kantara castle, a 45 mile journey from Kyrenia. This is the easternmost of the castles on the Girne Mountains and described as the most romantic. It is 700 metres from sea level and overlooks the northern shoreline, the Mesarga Plains and KarpazPeninsula.
Kantara sits on a very rocky summit of barren granite and sandstone bedrock.The road climbing up to the castle is narrow and winding. During 1228-30, Kantara was occupied by the troops of the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II. During the Genoese invasion, the regent John of Antioch was smuggled out of prison in Famagusta disguised as a pot-tinner to a hideout in Kantara.
We seemed to be the only visitors at the time. While my husband took to climbing I was content sitting in the sunshine gazing across the miles of countryside and the sea. On a clear day you can see the coast of Turkey and Syria. I was offered Turkish coffee by the man in the pay booth – a nice gesture.
Kantara was used as a beacon station to communicate with Buffavento Castle to the west. The significance of Kantara began fading in the 16th century when Venetian military strategists were depending more on firepower than elevation for protection. In 1521 they relocated their garrison which left the castle open to raiders looking for the treasures told of in legends.
The towers and walls are still standing with the outer entrance leading into the rather overgrown barbican. The north and south towers guard the inner entrance to the garrison, latrines and a cistern. The highest point is the lookout tower, from where flares were lit to warn of impending danger.
The ruins of a quadrangular building – ‘The Queen’s Chamber’ stands on the summit thought to have been much coveted by treasure-hunters in the 19th century. The building was probably situated on the Byzantine observation point and was probably a fortified chapel, destroyed by the Turks during naval bombing in 1525.
On our way back down in the car, I was alerted to a ‘whip snake’ by the side of the road. This is the most commonly seen snake in Cyprus and grows up to a length of 3 m. The non venomous, adult form is shiny black with a bluish tint.
With the dawn of another day, following a relaxing breakfast, we were off in the opposite direction to the Guzelyurt area. Here we visited St Mamas Church and the Archaeology Museum.
St Mamas is one of the most beautiful and best kept of Orthodox churches that are preserved as Icon Museums. Built on the site of an Aphrodite temple. It was constructed during the 18th century AD, on the site of an early Byzantine church.
It has a central nave, apse, and two side aisles with a dome rising above the nave at the altar end. Columns are decorated with carvings, vine leaves and faces. Two marble pillars are on either side of the Holy Door .
A magnificent crystal chandelier hangs in the centre of the apse with hundreds of droplets.
The legends of the young St Mamas are most interesting. A marble sarcophagus of St. Mamas can be found, forming part of the north wall of the church. The tomb lid has been pierced, allegedly by someone who thought the tomb contained treasure. A hole now oozes a liquid that is said to have curative properties.
The Guzelyurt Archaeology Museum, close by, is a treasure trove of historical artefacts. The Natural History section occupies the ground floor and contains an interesting collection of specimens, ranging from stuffed birds, sea specimens, rock samples, snakes and lizards preserved in formaldehyde, and some strange aberrations of nature, that includes a two headed lamb.
The archaeological part of the museum is on the upper floor and has a good layout of rooms with artefacts. Exhibits date from the Stone Age, and the Bronze Age. Gold jewellery is on display including the “Golden Treasure of Soli”, a great hoard of bracelets, rings and necklaces. A gold wreath was found in 2005 by the water department in a drain behind the theatre at Soli. The display also contains photographs of the serendipitous discovery.
What other treasures still lie hidden, I wonder?
Our time in Northern Cyprus had been packed with fascinating history and places to see. From castles, monasteries, wild life, turtles, handicrafts, endemic bird species and museums to great authentic food. It is a ‘must’ to taste the speciality kleftiko lamb (slow roasted in the oven), or fresh-caught fish such as lagos or minerio.
Northern Cyprus is certainly more naturally beautiful than the south with its profusion of beaches, picturesque chain of mountains, flora and fauna and 38 fantastic species of orchid. It also has a ‘ghost town’ which we never got time to visit.
‘Quiet….? Well it is in places, but now it is getting busier as people learn of it’s attractions.
This once forgotten frontier is now being seen as ‘enticing’ as visitors want to taste the experience themselves!