Cyprus is only 100 kilometers (~65miles) from Turkey so you could actually see one from the other. The ferry ride was about 3 hours, much longer than it should have been. On it I sat next to an older Turkish man and his son. He started speaking to me in German which was exciting. I'd expected more people to speak German but almost none who I met did. Then he told his son to sit next to me because he spoke English. Well, he did quite well actaually and we chatted most of the trip. He'd just finished highschool and was going to the American University in Girne to study Computer Science. He wanted to go to America afterwards. I'd met many people who wanted nothing more to go to America. I would ask them, "But what about our government? You still want to live in the US?" and all wanted to. They didn't seem to care as much about that, despite not liking Bush. They all spoke of money and opportunity. That dream is still alive.
As my boat neared Cyprus, I got my first look. We arrived in Girne and I scurried off the boat amid the chaos of disembarking. I headed through customs easily and received a wonderful entry stamp. It was blazing hot and the docks were about 1 mile from the city but since I thought we were going to dock at the main harbor, I was very lost when I stepped outside. After walking around for awhile I eventually made it to town and found a run down but cheap place to stay. I must say, I thought Turkey was a developing country, but N. Cyprus was really the land before time. Due to international embargos, the only country they are allowed to trade with is Turkey, though that has changed within the last month or two. Very few items are new on the island and on top of just looking run down, lacking enough paved streets, and anything over two stories, they didn't have a public water system so everyone had tanks on top of their house. The water ran out on me TWICE in the middle of taking a shower. And that's not mentioning the fact that for the 10 days I was there I didn't once have a hot shower. Life can be hard sometimes.
On a strange note, despite being a former British colony and many things being in English, few people spoke it. Northern Cyprus was truly isolated. Perhaps more noticable than the TRNC's poverty were the omnipresent Turkish military bases. Girne has around 20,000 residents yet is home to three military bases.For every two Cypriot Turks there is one Turkish soldier. Although Cyprus as a whole has entered the EU (which I find very strange), the North is still cut off. I'll explain more when I get to crossing the border.
After having found a place to stay for a whopping 10 EUR a night (rip off), I set out to explore. Girne is actually extremely extremely small and really didn't have much to offer. The buildings were very run down, the streets were bad (if they were paved) and 20 year old cars were the norm. Towards evening, I settled on a kebab place. I was sitting reading a it about Cyprus and decided to ask one of the waiters what he recommended I do. He didn't speak English but communicated that he was going to get someone who did. So a younger, yet tall, Turk came and sat down. He spoke English fairly well and had apparently gone to the American University himself. We talked about the island and it turned out he was actually the owner of the restaurant (as well as of another). He offered to take me to a crusader castle I wanted to see (because there was no real public transit to it) and then after giving me my meal for free and talking for two hours or so, he took me up the mountain in his car with his wife to see an old abbey. It was closed but he knew someone who worked there and they opened it up for us (It was dark, around 8pm) so we were the only ones there. There was a cool breeze and the entire area smelled like jasmine.
Since Cyprus is actually a very very small island, I decided to base myself in Girne and daytrip everywhere else.
I took a minibus from Girne to the capital of Cyprus (both North and South) known as Nicosia or Lekosa. Turks used both names so it didn't seem to be a big deal. All cities had dual names and I thought people may get upset if one used the Turkish name in the south or Greek in the North but nobody cared at all. The bus ride took around 25 minutes and cost about one Euro. The bus station was a bit less than 1 mile from the city center. I met an Irish guy who was looking at buying property in the North (as it's quite cheaper) who had to go cross the border and then catch a flight back to the UK from southern Cyprus.
I entered Nicosia through the Kyrenia Gate into the walled city. Nicosia was much livlier than Girne with considerably many more people living there. I stopped first to get a map of the city, make sure I was allowed to cross the border and then headed into the walled city. Nicosia is the only divided capital in the world. First I sat down to have some lunch as I was quite hungry. Afterwards, I continued on seeing such things as a 500 year old Turkish bath (Hamam).
I also noticed that in Girne as well as Nicosia there were still many bullet holes to be seen from the 74 war. One of the more beautiful sites to see in Nicosia was an old church that'd been converted to a mosque. There were many of these in Cyprus. It was a bit confusing as inside the layout was church-like and you could still see stained glass windows depicting Mary, Jesus etc. But of course there were huge signs in Arabic and rugs everywhere. I also saw a lot of money being poured into the north by USAID and the UN. There were many signs for various projects around Nicosia.
Although the capital, Northern Nicosia was not really very big and after seeing almost all of the northern part of the city in a few hours, I decided it was time to make my way to the border. The only way to cross into the south in Nicosia is through the Pafos Gate. The border was only open for a month or two before I arrived so I was very excited to be one of the first to get to make the trip. I approached what was actually a fairly relaxed Turkish side. I waited in a very short line, had my passport glanced at and received a white piece of paper which was a "visa" for the north. I simply wrote in my name, nationality and passport number and headed for the border. Leaving the Turkish side was uneventful, however, the UN buffer zone was another story. It's about 1k (.6miles) wide at that point and within it is literally a few city blocks that haven't changed a single bit since 1974. I mean destroyed buildings, bullet holes and morter craters, barbed wire, sand bags etc. There is a huge hotel which was caught in the middle and is now used to house the UN troops. There were even shops completely abandoned as they were in 1974. It was like a time warp.
After walking through no man's land which actually did seem very tense, I came upon the Greek side. As I put together after returning later to the North, it's not at all possible to get a Greek stamp. Why? Because if there were an entry/exit stamp at this border it would amount to de facto recognition of Northern Cyprus which at the moment is only officially recognized by Turkey. The Greeks refer to it, in a Palestine-esque way, as "occupied territory." In fact, they aren't only still mad and unforgiving about the war but there is loads of propaganda at the border crossing to prove it.
After entering the Greek side, it was as if I was magically transported back to Europe. There was a regular pedestrian zone like all European cities have, loads of very tall apartment buildings, fancy western stores like H&M, Woolworths, McDonalds etc. On the advice of an American couple I met, I headed to Woolworths where one could go to the top of a tower and get a great view of the city. The pictures I took there really highlight the difference between the North and South. Quite a stark difference.
I walked around and saw what else I could. There was a Greek orthodox church for example. Butt the South was expensive too. They use Cyprtiot Pounds (equal to British pounds) and I spent a fortune there on just little things. I crossed back across to the North, picked up another stamp. After checking out the other side, I was very glad to be in the less touristy and developed North. In fact, there were very few tourists in the North, just older British couples who were there for a week and the odd ones that lived there. But it wasn't touristy overall at all.
I went back to Girne with the bus and the next day took another to the eastern side of the island, to the city of Famagusta. It's actually quite small and there wasn't loads to see. The city was walled as well and there was another pretty converted Church to mosque. There was also an old Venetian palace. Atop the walls right on the ocean, I was busy complaining about the incredible amount of trash and broken glass when I got into a conversation with an older British woman about how much of a shame it was that the Turks were so dirty and how could they expect people to keep visiting their country if they treated it like a garbage can. Her husband came up and we got into a long conversation about all sorts of things. He was retired and had sold diesel generators all over the world (Saudia Arabia, Syria, Nigeria etc). Even to Iraq during the embargo. He gave me a crash course on how to get around trade embargos. He shipped them to Northern Cyprus though they never actually arrived, instead going to Syria and then overland to Baghdad.
As we were both going to the nearby castle anyway, we headed there together. For those Shakespeare fans among you, the castle was called "Othello's Tower" because the play was set here in Famagusta in this very castle. It was a bit run down but still enjoyable. Aftwards they offered to take me to ancient Salamis, exquisite ruins of an ancient Kingdom on Cyprus. As I had no car and public transport didn't exist, this offer saved me an expensive taxi ride.
We drove 20 minutes or so north and arrived at the ruins set right on the beach. We entered and immediately came upon a beautiful roman courtyard. To his credit, my British companion was quite well educated and knew a great deal about architecture and history and explained a great deal about the site. Leaving the steam room I noticed a fresco of Jason resisting the nymphs on his quest for the golden fleece which was my favorite tale from Greek mythology. For those of you who don't know, the golden fleece was in the ancient kingdom of Colchis, or present day Georgia. We wandered around, seeing a nice ampitheater, the latrines and various other structures such as the beautiful writing on the floors. It was all marble. Afterwards we had some fresh cherry juice on the beach and then walked through the water a bit. As it was already past 5pm by then, they asked whether I wanted a ride back to Girne as they were staying there too. I accepted.
The entire trip I was most excited about crusader castles, they being one of the main reasons I came to Cyprus. On the way back from Famgusta, we passed by the dirt road which led to one. As I'd piqued their interest as well, they pulled off and began up the extremely narrow and very very bumpy mountain road. We went about 10minutes and the ride was so rough that they called it off (also because it was getting darker and we wouldn't have enough time anyway). I thanked them for their hospitality and they dropped me off downtown near where I was staying. Now realizing the way to get to the castle "Buffavento" (meaning: buffeted by the winds), I figured out a way to get there. I arose early the next day and hopped a bus towards Famagusta again. I asked to be dropped on the side of the highway right by the sign for the castle. It was about a 15 or 20minut drive from the city.
What I thought would be an enjoyable walk turned out to be quite a hike. I began my walk up the twisty mountain road. It turned out to be around 4 miles to the castle which took quite a long time, not to mention the sun was unforgiving. Luckily the temperature was a bit cooler at that altitude. It took quite a while to get the castle and I couldn't even see it until the very end but I arrived finally at the base of the mountain it was perched atop. There was a small gravel lot with an olive tree in the center where you could park and where you started the steep walk up. There was one person there who turned out to be an older German man. He'd just gotten down and was resting from the walk. We chatted a bit in German and he took off. He told me it was a good 45min further up to the top which wasn't exactly what I'd wanted to hear. Luckily, there were some shoddy and seemingly new concrete steps poured for most of the way making the hike upwards easier and safer, yet still very steep.
Aside from the German, there was nobody else there. Buffavento was built on the top of a mountain peek. The earliest mentioning of it is from 1194 when Richard the Lionheart conquered it in the crusades which means it was obviously built sometime before that. I was thrilled. I'd really gotten into the Crusades period and especially the Knights Templar (who btw owned the entire island of Cyprus for a time) and was really elated to be on such a journey. After a breath-taking (literally) walk up, I arrived at the castle gate (though this is taken from inside looking out). Nobdody there, no tickets, nothing. If you could make it out to this castle then you could go. It was too remote to do anything with, i.e. no entrance fee, nothing. It was just there.
The castle itself was actually fairly small for two reasons. Firstly, it's remote location made it next to impossible to get to even today, so back then, they didn't have to build huge walls to protect it. It was also used at times for a prison and it's remote location also made building it difficult. I took quite a few pictures of the castle and you'll see how there firstly isn't lots left of the castle in the first place and secondly that it really wasn't huge. There were some very crappy guard rails that were obviously very new but very poorly made. At times they were so far away from the side of the steps that you'd actually have to lean towards the edge to be able to reach them (i.e. they weren't flush with the walkway). That was a bit counterproductive not to mention unnerving.
The castle had about three different levels and the stairs around it were crumbling away making it necessary to be VERY careful when walking. The castle itself was truly magical and the absolute most amazing thing in my entire trip and the views were even better. I took many a shot of the views from atop the mountain. I descened the mountain after spending an hour or so completely alone with the castle all to myself. On the way back down I actually ran into some people, first a nice British couple and later another German. I made it back down to the bottom and after a nice break, I began my long hike back to the highway. I walked the 4 miles back and on the way took another flower shot and ran into a friendly herd of goats. I arrived back on the road caked with dust, covered in sweat, very thirsty and thoroughly exhausted.
I waited for a minibus to pass by and the only one I did see didn't stop when I waved. I tried hitchiking which took a little bit but eventally worked. A Turkish truck driver stopped and I climbed up into the big rig. He didn't speak any English/German but was very friendly and nodded when I asked "Girne?" It was a quiet ride back but I was very happy to have a ride. He dropped me near town and I walked home. Later that evening I saw a strange military parade remniscent of some 3rd world dictatorship. It was a raising of the flag, preceeded by a parade. I was told this happened every friday. I went to bed very early and the next day slept in rather late. I'd wanted to go see the biggest and supposadly the best castle "St. Hilarion." I grabbed a minibus towards Nicosia and was again dropped on the side of the highway near a sign. It was about 3:30 which was really late. The castled closed in one hour. I knew it would be impossible to walk up ther ein time so I waited around trying to hitch a ride with cars going up. I found one coming down and offered to give them money to run me back up. They said the castle was closing soon and it didn't make any sense to do it as there was too much to see. I should go tomorrow. They did give me a free ride back to town though.
That night for some reason it was actually quite cold and I didn't have any sheets at all on my bed. Needless to say, I woke up the next day with a fever and feeling sick. That meant that I couldn't see the biggest castle and that it would make me miss my ferry back to Turkey. All in all, I stayed in bed about 4 days with a fever between 99 and 102. I ventured out of the room about once a day to buy food and two or three english/german newspapers and magazines. I missed my ferry but had it changed to an open return which was no problem thank god. One evening the owner of my rundown "hotel" decided to spend a few hours telling me stories from the days of yore. I had went out to check email and he was sitting outside as usual drinking tea. Since I felt a lot better I sat down and had tea. He told me about growing up while it was a British colony, that he was not Turkish but just "Cypriot" though he of course spoke Turkish. He told me about how classes in school were called off during the war but new classes were created. It was in highschool when he learned to use a pistol and machine gun. They learned how to handle weapons and were taught to always carry an extra bullet to commit suicide if captured by the Greeks. It was an intense conversation but a unique one.
I ended up spending more time than I wanted to in Cyprus because of being sick and finally mustered up enough energy to take the ferry. I regret missing the second castle most. But there's always next time.
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