For many visitors, crossing into Turkish-controlled north Cyprus is akin to time travel. Gone are the busy resorts, malls and familiar international chains of the south, replaced by remote villages and a slower place of life – “the Mediterranean as it used to be” in the words of the local tourist board. This sense of suspended animation can be dated precisely to the Turkish invasion of 1974, when the north, stripped of its Greek Cypriot population, became cut off from the rest of the world, a self-styled republic recognized by no one but Turkey itself (see the section "The state within a state").
The Republic’s government has done all in its power to limit relations between north Cyprus and the outside world, and the issue of Turkish-Cypriot (and indeed Turkish) occupation of property owned by Greek Cypriots in the north continues to be a major stumbling block in any movement towards reunification. The republic’s stance on “legal” entry points and property ownership hasn’t changed, and is very clear. Nevertheless, it is now commonplace for Greek Cypriots in their thousands to cross into the north, both on day-trips and for overnight stays. This is largely due to the gradual opening up of the Green Line, the de facto dividing line between the two communities – there are now seven crossing points, and two more are under discussion. The process of entering the north from the south has been made even simpler since Mustafa Akinci became President in 2015 – one of his first acts was to get rid of irksome visa requirements. Consequently, it is perfectly feasible for travellers staying in the south to see as much of the north as they wish, with many attractions little more than half an hour’s drive away from the south’s major resorts. Others choose to spend their whole trip in the north, though this necessitates travelling via Turkey.
There is certainly plenty to draw you here. North Cyprus boasts two of the island’s best-looking towns (Girne and Gazimağusa), half the capital city (Lefkosia/Lefkoşa), three of its mightiest Crusader castles (St Hilarion, Buffavento and Kantara), and arguably the island’s most significant archeological site at Salamis. Its wilderness areas, particularly the Kyrenia Mountains, are a hiker’s paradise and many of its beaches remain mercifully free of high-rise resorts. Furthermore, any visit to Cyprus which includes both sides of the island offers the unique experience of two very different cultures: Orthodox, Greek Cypriot, and Muslim, Turkish Cypriot. There’s also the small matter of cost – being outside the Eurozone, the north can feel considerably cheaper than the south, and its tourist infrastructure, though inferior, is gradually improving.
As for sightseeing in the north, you might find that many museums and other places of interest seem rather neglected and old-fashioned, while its hotels and restaurants lack the sophistication of the south. You might also come across a cavalier attitude to published opening times – if something’s really important to you, try to phone ahead or check with the tourist office. Finally, if you haven’t had a chance to obtain Turkish Lira, don’t worry: euros and dollars are widely accepted.
Some 8km north of Gazimağusa, and signposted from both the coast road to Boğaz and the main road to the capital, is a group of ruins which are among the most important and impressive in all of Cyprus. By far the most famous and most photographed are the remains, largely Roman, of Ancient Salamis. But within a couple of minutes’ drive of this colossal seaside site are the Royal Tombs, the Monastery of St Barnabas, now a museum, and the prehistoric remains of Enkomi-Alasia. Allow a day for a full inspection, or half a day for edited highlights.
One of the most significant archeological sites in the Mediterranean, Salamis is notable not only for the richness and extent of its remains but also for its agreeable beachside setting. The site itself is huge and, despite almost a century of archeological digging, has still not been completely uncovered. The approach to the site is along a road beside a huge picnic area, and the first thing you’ll see is a restaurant (Bedi’s) with a recently added beach bar and pier and a fine sandy beach. You can park either behind the restaurant or in one of the archeological site’s two car parks. A plan of the site at the entrance (clearly signposted from Gazimağusa) offers two walking routes, one short, one long. Luckily the most important and most comprehensively investigated buildings are very close together just beyond the entrance. If you intend to view every single part of the city, it’ll involve a lot of walking so come prepared.
Founded around 1075 BC by Greek and Anatolian settlers and reinforced by refugees as Enkomi-Alasia was abandoned, Salamis was an important cultural centre throughout Classical Greek and Roman times, becoming the richest and most important city on the island for around 1700 years. Its kings claimed descent from its founder, the Trojan War hero Teucer, brother of Ajax and son of the King of Salamis, the island to the south of Athens (hence the name). Destroyed by earthquakes in 332 and 343 AD, the city was rebuilt by Byzantine Emperor Constantine II, who modestly renamed it Constantia. But the harbour silted up, there were further earthquakes, and the coup de grâce was delivered by the Arab raids which plagued Cyprus from the seventh century AD onwards. The inhabitants of Salamis moved south to where modern Gazimağusa now stands.
The first impressive group of remains are the Gymnasium and Baths, built originally by the Greeks and substantially modified by the Romans and Byzantines. At the heart of the building is the huge open courtyard surrounded by columns, and with the remains of a plinth in the centre. This is the palaestra, where people exercised or stood gossiping in the shade of the surrounding colonnaded stoa. Much of the tessellated marble flooring remains, with clearly legible inscriptions in places. To the west of the palaestra are the remains of a number of shops. To the east are the baths with the usual series of rooms of escalating heat – from frigidarium to caldarium. In places the floor has collapsed, revealing the hypocaust (underfloor heating system) beneath. Plunge pools stand at either side of the baths, the northern one (through which you enter the site) rectangular and surrounded by headless statues. There are also latrines, several octagonal pools and an aqueduct for bringing in the water.
Leaving the baths via the south plunge pool, a column-lined path leads to the sketchy remains of an amphitheatre/stadium. Beyond here is the much more impressive theatre, one of the highlights of the site. Built during the reign of Augustus (27 BC–14 AD), it has the standard Greco-Roman semicircular layout, though built upwards in the Roman manner rather than fitting into a hillside as the Greeks were wont to do. As you enter it from the north, the seating curves sharply to your left around the semicircular orchestra, the stage and proscenium straight ahead. Much restored (the new seating is easily distinguished from the original – it’s white instead of red/brown), it could originally accommodate 15,000 spectators in fifty rows of seats. In the orchestra was an altar to Dionysus, and the stage was backed by statues.
When you leave the theatre, the short route swings round through the second car/coach park back to the entrance. The long route continues south, past the remains of the largest basilica in Cyprus, founded by St Epiphanius in the fourth century AD – his empty marble-lined tomb can be seen at the end of the south aisle – to a large Byzantine cistern or vouta in which water, brought via an aqueduct 50km away, was stored before being distributed to the baths. Beyond this is the large Roman forum or agora (of which there’s not much left apart from a single column) and the few remains of a temple to Zeus. Returning back past the St Epiphanius basilica, then turning off towards the sea, brings you past another Byzantine building called “The Olive Press” on the plans, but whose original purpose is unknown – it was used to house an olive press in the Middle Ages. Beyond this is the Byzantine Basilica of Kampanopetra, a slightly later, fifth-century AD building.
Continuing along the road west from Salamis, takes you to the Monastery of St Barnabas, once one of the most important Christian sites on the island, now an archeological and icon museum. This handsome monastery, said to have been built as the result of a divinely inspired dream, consists of the church of St Barnabas, behind which lie the monastery cloisters: a colonnade of pillars on three sides of a lush and well-tended garden. An extension – further colonnades and a campanile – though modern, fits in pretty well with the rest of the building.
The archeological museum, housed in rooms that look out into the garden, is less than impressive – a miscellany of Neolithic axe-heads, Bronze Age pottery and Ottoman artefacts; the Icon Museum, housed in the church of St Barnabas, is a somewhat perfunctory collection of icons lit by domestic light bulbs. A few bits of the Orthodox furnishings remain in place – the pulpit, a chair, the iconostasis. Look out in particular for the four frescoes to the right of the entrance which tell the story of the finding of St Barnabas’s body. Before leaving, take a look at what is said to be the tomb of the Apostle Barnabas himself, contained in a 1950s-built mausoleum. The tomb is along a short track that heads east from the car park, past excavated rock-cut tombs, to the mausoleum’s modern steps.
One of the great figures of early Christianity, St Barnabas, was a Jew, born in Salamis, who became one of the earliest converts to the new religion and founded the Cypriot church. Together with his cousin Mark the Evangelist and the pivotal St Paul, he travelled extensively in both Cyprus and Asia Minor, spreading the gospel. In fact Barnabas was so successful that the Jewish elders in Salamis had him stoned to death around 75 AD. Mark retrieved his body and buried it secretly in a cave to the west of the city. Over time, the location of the cave was forgotten.
Four hundred years later the Cypriot Church under Archbishop Anthemios was faced with a takeover bid by Antioch, the patriarch of which claimed suzerainty over the island’s Christians – a claim supported by Byzantine Emperor Zeno. In 478 AD, when all seemed lost, Anthemios was visited in a dream by the spirit of St Barnabas, who told him where his body was buried – beneath a distinctive carob tree on the western edge of Salamis. Here Anthemios discovered a skeleton along with a copy of The Gospel of Matthew written in Hebrew by St Barnabas himself. Anthemios shot off to Constantinople, donated the good book to the emperor and the Church of Cyprus was triumphantly granted autonomous or “autocephalous” status. Zeno also paid for a monastery to be built over the saint’s final resting place. The independence of the Cypriot Church was to become particularly important over a thousand years later when it was able to use its privileged position to shelter its flock from the worst excesses of Ottoman occupation.
Although there’s plenty to see in Girne, its possibilities are likely to start running out after a few days. Fortunately, its sandy coastline offers some excellent beaches while inland are some heavyweight sights including St Hilarion Castle and Bellapais village. Indeed, it shouldn’t be forgotten that Lefkoşa and Güzelyurt are also within easy reach.
On a rocky shore, 10km east of Girne, sits the Hazret Omer Tekke, built to house seven Muslim martyrs. It’s not easy to find – despite being a major attraction for both tourists and the faithful, it merits only a tiny sign left off the main road east of Girne – look out for it 1.8km after the massive Port Gratos hotel complex, and immediately before a “Tempo” supermarket. The story goes that the seven (the commander Omer and six of his men), now regarded as saints, were killed in the seventh century, and their bodies put in a cave. Centuries later, after the Ottoman conquest, their bodies were discovered, still in a miraculous state of preservation, and moved to a mosque and mausoleum specially built to receive them – their tombs are to the right as you enter. The beautifully designed mosque is in a spectacularly pretty setting, with views across a bay towards the mountains, but the effect is somewhat spoilt by the towering modern lamppost above it and intrusive modern toilet in the car park. The mosque itself, however, once rather the worse for wear, having been battered and buffeted by wind and rain each winter, has been given a face-lift.
Almost exactly halfway between St Hilarion and Buffavento is the flower-bedecked village of Bellapais, a tangle of narrow lanes and steep hills, with fine views down to Girne’s modern harbour. The village is synonymous with its medieval abbey, one of the most beautiful in the eastern Mediterranean. Yet, it’s not just the abbey that makes Bellapais so popular – one of its principal cheerleaders was English author Lawrence Durrell, who lived here in the 1950s and included detailed descriptions of the village and its inhabitants in his book Bitter Lemons. Bellapais is one of the principal tour-stops on the island, so it is often packed. Try to avoid high season and late morning/early afternoon.
Despite being such a popular attraction, Bellapais is not easy to find. Travelling east on the main road from Girne, turn right at the Bellapais-signposted “peace” roundabout (with its two figures holding olive branches), and, a few hundred metres along, take the first (unsignposted) main turning left. At the top of the hill turn left at the (unsignposted) roundabout, and continue on to the village. Or just stop and ask.
Bellapais abbey was founded by the second Lusignan ruler Aimery to house Augustinian monks expelled from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre when Jerusalem fell to Saladin in 1187. Known as the “Abbaye de la Paix” or the Abbey of Peace, most of what remains dates from the period 1267–84, with the cloisters and refectory being added in 1324–59. In its early years the monastery adopted strict Premonstratensian beliefs, but as time went on it started to earn a name for a variety of corrupt practices, where monks ate and drank to excess, took wives (sometimes two or three), had children, and would then only accept their own sons into the monastery as novices. Though it built up considerable wealth, its treasure was plundered by the Genoese in 1373. After the Ottoman Conquest in 1571 the abbey became derelict, and was raided for its dressed building stone – only the church escaped, as it continued to be used for worship by the local Greek Orthodox community. Vandalization of the monastery continued under the British, who even used the refectory as a rifle range.
Bellapais Abbey stands on a small square with trees, lawns, flowerbeds and park benches. Having bought tickets, you can walk through the entrance gateway whose ruins indicate that it was once heavily fortified. Nearby is the enviably sited Kybele Restaurant, which occupies the abbey’s kitchen court, and a set of steps to the abbey’s lofty medieval tower, topped by the vivid red and white of the Turkish and TRNC flags; despite signs warning that it’s not safe to climb, the tower is far too seductive a photo opportunity for most visitors. Beyond here a tree-shaded courtyard leads to the church, the most complete part of the monastery. Unlike Western monasteries it is flat roofed, with a rather dark, gloomy interior. To the north of the church are the cloisters, the most atmospheric part of the abbey, three sides of which are in reasonable condition, but the fourth (western) side is ruined. The four rather large poplar trees in the quadrangle, planted in 1940, are home to a loud flock of sparrows. To the north of the cloisters, with access through a superb doorway with dog-tooth edges and three Lusignan coats of arms, is the refectory. Some 30m long, 10m wide and 12m high, it is covered by a single-span stone vaulted roof, an architectural triumph considering that it stands right at the edge of a cliff. At the far end (the end with the small rose window) stood the Abbot’s high table, with, along the length of the north and south walls, the long tables of the ordinary monks. On the north wall is a small pulpit from where scriptures would be read to the diners silently munching below. Outside the refectory is a fountain where the monks would wash their hands before eating. If you look carefully you can make out the Roman sarcophagus into which it has been incorporated
Lawrence Durrell lived in Bellapais from 1953–56, detailing his experience in Bitter Lemons. To find his home, walk up from the abbey square along Aci Limon Sokak which climbs past the Tatlisulu market – there is a small hand-painted sign “Bitter Lemons 400m up on left” attached to a telegraph pole and pointing skywards. Another sign further up indicates that you’re nearly there but should really visit the Gardens of Irini guest house. Durrell’s house (dated 1893) is large and yellow, with brown doors and window shutters and a wooden-fenced roof terrace. In case you were in any doubt, there’s a ceramic plaque above the door. Across the road is the public water fountain (marked “ER 1953”), which played a prominent part in the tortuous and hilarious process of buying the house – the purchase takes up a whole chapter in the book.
Another chapter of the book is devoted to the “Tree of Idleness” that stands opposite the abbey. Durrell was warned never to sit under it because “its shadow incapacitates one for serious work”, a belief that arose from the idle hours spent by many villagers under the tree. It is now the centrepiece of a rather good restaurant.
Buffavento Castle is the second of the three great fortresses that are strung out along the Kyrenia mountains (the others being St Hilarion and Kantara). Whereas St Hilarion is easily accessible, Buffavento is more remote, with the result that you may well be the only visitor – a major plus in terms of atmosphere. However, don’t expect refreshments, information leaflets or the like – there’s not even a ticket kiosk. Part of the excitement of the visit is the wild, tortured landscape of the “five fingers” mountain through which you pass, and the winding mountain road up to the castle, which reveals views across the whole island.
Though at 940m above sea level the highest of the three castles, Buffavento is also the smallest and worst preserved, more a romantic Gothic ruin than a sturdy fortress. The castle was much damaged by the Venetians to prevent its future use, and badly eroded over the centuries by the elements (though its name means “not yielding to winds”).
From the car park, a path and steps rise steeply towards the ruins, which you can see lining the clifftop high above. Bear in mind that it requires a fair bit of hard climbing (though there are plenty of hand rails) and there’s little shade (if you get into trouble, dial T155). As you climb, the views south are particularly impressive. As at St Hilarion, the hillside is carpeted with flowers in spring.
Buffavento Castle is accessed from the main coast road east of Girne. Look out for the sign (“Buffavento 6km”) on the right, past Acapulco Beach. From Lefkoşa, take the main Gazimağusa road east, then take a left (signposted “Girne”) at a roundabout after 14km. Ignore earlier signs for Buffavento via Taskent – you’re better off sticking to the main roads. After the turn-off, a good road climbs for 13km up towards an impressive blade of a mountain (called Pentadaktylos because its five peaks look something like a hand) past a large quarry – you may have to overtake heavily laden lorries grinding along at barely walking speed – to the Buffavento turning.
The mountain road to the castle looks narrow and uninviting, and is easy to miss, but it’s well surfaced (not gravel as is sometimes reported) and meanders fetchingly off into the mountains. It certainly doesn’t, as some guidebooks say, require four-wheel drive. There are stretches where there are steep drops to the left and no guardrail, and in places you might have to dodge rocks that have fallen off the cliffs to the right, but it’s easy enough driving if you ignore the amazing views and keep your eyes on the road. After 6km a clear sign points up a steep hill to the castle car park.
Of the three magnificent castles in the Kyrenia mountains, by far the most accessible, popular and most complete is St Hilarion. Dramatically sited on a rocky crag with elegantly ruined turrets, towers and windows, it certainly fires the imagination – in writer Dame Rose Macaulay’s words it’s a “picture-book castle for elf kings” – and formed the template for both the fairy-tale castles of King Ludwig in Bavaria and Walt Disney’s Magic Kingdom. If possible, visit in spring when the surrounding landscape is a riot of wild flowers. The views from the snack bar are to die for.
To reach the castle from Girne you need to drive south along the Lefkoşa motorway as it climbs up into the mountains, and just before it gets to the top of the pass and begins its descent to the Mesaoria plain, follow the yellow signpost off to the right. A 3km side road snakes up through a military camp, past a large statue of a soldier in battledress at its entrance. (The firing range on the left was once the site for medieval tournaments.) Up a sharp hill, you arrive at a small car park outside the castle gate. The whole trip from Girne takes about twenty minutes. On this road bear in mind that you’re in a restricted military area, and not allowed to stop, let alone take photographs. This is a pity because it’s as you approach the castle that you get by far the best view.
St Hilarion was originally a monastery dedicated to an obscure fourth-century Syrian hermit who lived in a cave on Mount Didymus (“Twin peaks”). An ascetic of the most extreme kind, Hilarion reputedly never washed and built up a following thanks to banishing demons and performing miracles. The monastery’s strategic position, commanding the pass through the Kyrenia mountains and overlooking the northern coastal plain, was not lost on the Byzantines. Facing repeated Arab raids, they converted it into a castle, probably sometime in the eighth century AD. The Lusignans improved and strengthened it in the thirteenth century – most of what you can see today was built in 1228 by John d’Ibelin – and it became not only a military stronghold but also a palace for Lusignan royalty, nicknamed “Dieu d’Amour”, loosely translated as Cupid’s Castle. This was the castle’s heyday, an era of tournaments, knights and courtly intrigue, especially under the rule of King Peter I and Queen Eleanor of Aragon.
St Hilarion continued to be a castle of importance during the latter Lusignan period, but when the Venetians took over in 1489 it fell into disrepair and became the ruin it is now, to see action only during the mid-twentieth-century troubles, when the Turkish TMT occupied it.
Once through the castle entrance – which includes a barbican – you will find yourself in the large outer bailey originally built by the Byzantines. Follow the sign to the right for the first of many wonderful views then continue upwards along the “Main Road”. It’s a well-made path with occasional steps, and you’ll see as you climb a watchtower and, to your left, the impressive curtain wall that rises steeply to the upper parts of the castle. This outer bailey was the area into which peasants and livestock could be withdrawn when the castle was under attack.
The castle stables are now used as a small visitor centre which offers lots of sketches, and information about the Lusignans. Beyond the stables, the path winds steeply upwards to the tunnel-like gate of what is described as the “second section”, perhaps the Lower Ward. It’s a warren of alleys, buildings and rooms opening off a central tunnel, some of which were part of the original tenth-century monastery. The first structure, up to the right, is the monastery church, now open to the elements, but with a well-preserved apse. North of here is the Great Hall, now home to the Café Lusignan. Along one side of the hall is a wooden balcony hanging over a staggering view of the coast below – on a clear day you can see Turkey, some 100km away.
Beyond the hall are a group of rooms which serviced it – kitchen, buttery and privies – and a belvedere, a shaded vaulted terrace with picnic tables and arches, again with those superb views. To the left (west) of the hall are more workaday rooms and the castellan’s quarters, which contain displays with mannequins illustrating medieval life. Continuing along the path which tunnels through this clutch of lower ward rooms, you emerge into the sunlight to signs pointing one way (off to the right) to the barracks, and Royal Apartments, and the other way, onward and upward, to the third section.
You pass a very large cistern which appears to have been built rather than hewn out of the rock (it has stone buttresses), and then the path, partly steps, partly rock-strewn tracks, soars upwards. Just before you reach the top, a fork leads left to the isolated Prince John’s Tower, where several of John’s Bulgarian mercenaries were murdered. Turning right instead of following the path to Prince John’s Tower brings you to the main gate of the Upper Ward. Once through the gate, there are, in succession, a Byzantine tower, a kitchen, a cistern and a group of subsidiary buildings. Beyond them are a further set of Royal Apartments and the famous Queen’s Window at which Queen Eleanor is said to have sat. From here glorious views to the west open out, with, in the foreground, the village of Karmi. All that remains to be seen is the Western Tower and the Zirve (summit) of the mountain, marked with a sign: “732m – Congratulations! You are at the peak”.
On January 17, 1369, Peter I, King of Cyprus was stabbed to death as he slept in his palace in Nicosia, supposedly by three of his own knights. He was succeeded by his son, Peter II. Queen Eleanor – now the Queen Mother – became convinced that her husband had been killed on the orders of Peter’s brother Prince John. Despite rumours of her infidelity in the king’s absence she vowed to avenge his murder. John had taken up residence in St Hilarion Castle, which he held with a force of Bulgarian mercenaries, while Peter’s other brother James held Kyrenia. A Genoese invasion, possibly at Eleanor’s instigation, led, in 1374, to the surrender of Kyrenia, and James ended up as a prisoner in Genoa. Eleanor now turned her attention to John. Having persuaded him that all was forgiven, she warned the prince that his Bulgarian forces were planning to overthrow him. John responded by throwing several of them to their deaths from Prince John’s Tower. Eleanor’s accusations were almost certainly untrue – a Machiavellian plan aiming to both bring him closer and weaken him. The drama concluded when Eleanor invited John to dine with her and the young king in Nicosia. They ate in the very room where Peter I was murdered and, when the final dish arrived, she dramatically flung back the cloth to reveal her dead husband’s blood-stained shirt. This was the signal for retainers to appear and stab Prince John to death in his turn.
The charming city of GAZIMAĞUSA (Famagusta), is second only to Girne in the north’s tourism league table. Like Girne it boasts an atmospheric old town surrounded by crumbling Venetian walls, a legacy of its strategic position facing the Middle East. Its shops, restaurants and cafés are threaded through and between the photogenic remains of churches destroyed or damaged during the Ottoman siege of 1570–71. Immediately to the south lies the ghost town of Varosha, once the heart of Famagusta’s tourist trade, now isolated by the Turkish invasion of 1974. To the north lie a clutch of historically important sites – ancient Enkomi/Alasia, the monastery of Apostolos Varnavas, the Royal Tombs, and above all ancient Salamis – and the miles of beaches that line Gazimağusa Bay.
Confusingly, Gazimağusa is known by a host of different names. The city was renamed Gazimağusa (sometimes shortened to Mağusa) by the Turks in 1974, having been known as Famagusta, from French (Famagouste) and Italian (Famagosta), since Lusignan/Venetian times. In Greek it is known as Ammochostos. If that wasn’t puzzling enough the name Famagusta/Ammochostos is also used by the republic for the district across the Green Line to the east, of which the city is the notional capital.
The current site of Gazimağusa was established during the Byzantine era by refugees from Salamis, after that city was destroyed by Arab raids. The new city reached its zenith under the Lusignans, especially after the Fall of Acre to the Saracens in 1291 AD brought an influx of Christian merchants and craftsmen. When the pope banned direct economic ties with the infidel, Gazimağusa became a major entrepôt for the whole of the Middle East, famous for its wealth and as a melting pot of different cultures and beliefs – hence the huge variety and number of churches (one, it was said, for every day of the year). It went into something of a decline from the late fourteenth century onwards, but was fortified under the Venetians as they tried to meet the growing threat from Ottoman expansion. As at Girne and Lefkosia, this did them little good – the city fell in 1571 after a nine-month siege, thus completing the Ottoman conquest of the island. It is said that 100,000 cannonballs crashed into the city during the siege and, since no attempt was made by the Ottomans to repair the damage, the remains still stand today. Three years after the siege, Greek residents were expelled from within the walls. Many of them resettled just to the south, creating what later became Varosha. During the 1960s and early 1970s, Varosha and its beaches were at the heart of massive tourist development, only to be frozen in time by the Turkish invasion.
To get to Gazimağusa from the south, there are two convenient crossings, both in the Dekhelia Sovereign Base area. The first is the most useful if you’re staying in Larnaka, and is known variously as the Pyla/Beyarmudu/Pergamos crossing. From Larnaka, take the coast road or the A3 motorway towards Agia Napa, and follow the signs off to the left, signposted Pyla. Drive through Pyla, and up the hill on the other side. The crossing is a couple of kilometres along this main road. Once across, you’re in the village of Beyarmudu – remember the name, since you’ll need to head towards it on your return. Drive for 9km to an intersection, cross it, and continue for another 9km till you join the main Lefkoşa–Gazimağusa highway. Turn right, and you hit the dual carriageway all the way to Gazimağusa. On your return, make sure you don’t miss the turn off the highway towards Beyarmudu.
The second option, which is especially handy if you’re staying in the Agia Napa/Protaras area, is the Agios Nikolaos/Akyar/Strovilia crossing. Drive through Paralimni and head for Derynia. Continue through Derynia, heading for Frenaros along the main E305 road, then follow the signpost right to Vrysoulles. Turn right at the T-junction, and the crossing point is about 3km beyond. Once across, Gazimağusa is just 5km beyond.
Originally built by the Lusignans, Gazimağusa’s city walls owe their present impressive dimensions and design to the Venetians, who spent half a century up to 1540 remodelling them for medieval battle; for example, building ramps up which to haul cannons, and making square towers round, so that they were proof against artillery fire. A dry moat was cut around three of the four sides – the fourth faces the sea. The northwest section of wall and the Martinengo Bastion, with a group of places of worship, were until recently a restricted area because of the presence of an army camp, but this has now been abandoned, and the whole area, and indeed the walls as a whole, are again open to visitors – British officers in the 1930s even played golf along the top of the walls.
In the southwest corner of the walls is the Land Gate, one of the two original main gates (the other being the Sea Gate) to the old town. As you approach across the bridge, look to the right for a good view of the stretch of wall to the first “Santa Napa” bastion. Once inside you’ll find the tourist office to the left. The Ravelin Bastion (or Rivettina Bastion) in front of the gate was heavily involved in the Siege of Famagusta, and when it finally seemed bound to be taken by the attackers, the Venetians blew it up, killing, it’s said, a thousand Ottoman soldiers and a hundred of their own. This was also where the white flag of surrender was flown, prompting the victors to rename it Akkule, or “White Bastion”. The innards of the bastion, a warren of passages, rooms and flights of steps, are open to the public.
As you circle the walls in an anticlockwise direction, after the Ravelin Bastion, the next major bastion – the Canbulat Bastion – is in the southeast corner. It is named after one of the Turkish heroes of the 1571 siege of Venetian Famagusta by the Ottomans, Canbulat (pronounced “Djambulat”), the Bey of Kilis. Faced with a fearsome defensive device consisting of knives attached to a rapidly rotating wheel, Canbulat rode his horse full tilt into it, killing both himself and his steed, but jamming the wheel and making it ineffective. His tomb, which is in the bastion, once had a fig tree growing out of it, whose fruit, if eaten by young women, would not only ensure conception, but also that the resulting children would be as brave as Canbulat. There’s a small museum displaying artefacts associated with the siege, ranging from costume and artillery to ship models and weapons. Look out particularly for the “memorial” tomb of Canbulat, and the reconstruction of a sixteenth-century Ottoman tent. The collection is well displayed, and a steep flight of stone steps gives access to further exhibits and views of the walls from the roof of the bastion. Just beyond the entrance to the museum, through an archway, the entrance to the port which stretches along the eastern wall of the city is marked by a large ceramic mural of the Ottoman conquest of Famagusta.
After the Canbulat Bastion, the walls swing north, parallel to the sea. Note to the left of the wall, the remains of the Hospital of St Antony, which was built using stone taken from the ruins of Salamis. Beyond them is the Sea Gate, which once provided access from the port. A squat and solid-looking fortification with a signature statue of a Venetian lion at its base, it has massive iron-clad wooden gates, Ottoman in origin, and a heavy Venetian iron portcullis (both shrouded in tarpaulin at the time of writing). The top of the Sea Gate is accessible via a steep flight of steps from inside the town at the end of Liman Yolu; the views across the town one way, and the port the other, are worth the climb. Looking north from the Sea Gate you can see a variety of ships in the harbour, many of them Turkish naval vessels (which is why the northern parts of the walls are off limits). Incidentally, a local myth says that the Venetian lion opens its mouth once a year, giving bystanders the chance to plunge their hands down its throat to retrieve treasure.
Beyond the Sea Gate stands the massive Othello’s Tower. The name is a little fanciful, bestowed by the British on the strength of the locations mentioned in Shakespeare’s play: “A seaport in Cyprus” and “a hall in the castle”. Indeed, its alternative name, “The Citadel”, is a better description. Above the entrance in the southwest corner is a large relief of the Lion of St Mark, the Venetian emblem. Despite its Venetian exterior, you can still make out the original Lusignan fortress beneath: the large central courtyard on the north side is the Great Hall. The views from the battlements are as good as those from the Sea Gate, and offer prospects of the citadel itself, as well as of the port, snuggled up to the eastern wall of the city. Othello’s Tower has been renovated in a combined Greek- and Turkish-Cypriot initiative, driven by the Technical Committee on Cultural Heritage. The fabric of the building is now in good order and is open to the public, but much remains to be done – in particular, the almost liquid sand underfoot in the Great Hall can be treacherous. As you explore the tunnels and passages of the Tower, look out for the ventilation shafts designed to clear smoke from the cannons inside the tower; a few of these were filled in with rubble, prompting rumours that the Venetians had buried their gold here rather than see it fall into the hands of the Ottomans.
Fresh from its victory over Nicosia and the surrender of Kyrenia, the Ottoman army approached Famagusta in confident mood in September 1570. Before them lay a small garrison of Venetians, no match it would seem for thousands of battle-hardened Turkish troops. Having blockaded the port (thus preventing relief from the Venetian navy), the Ottoman commander Mustafa Paşa ordered his artillery to pound the city while his engineers built trenches and a huge earth ramp to scale the walls. The Venetian defenders, hopelessly outnumbered, put up a gutsy resistance under the command of Marcantonio Bragadin and his lieutenant Lorenzo Tiepolo, cunningly moving soldiers about so that the invaders were tricked into thinking them a far more formidable force. The Venetians managed to hold out for ten months before the citadel was breached in July 1571. Bragadin agreed to a negotiated surrender where all civilians could leave the city and his soldiers could sail for Crete.
Things went largely to plan until during the hand-over ceremony when Mustafa Paşa, up until then courteous towards his opponent, suddenly exploded with rage, killing several Venetian officers and cutting off Bragadin’s ears and nose. A massacre of the remaining Christians in the city followed. Bragadin, after several weeks’ imprisonment, was publicly executed, his body quartered, and his skin, stuffed with straw, sent riding on an ox through the town before being sent to the sultan in Constantinople. The treatment of Bragadin so incensed the Venetians that it was said to inspire their forces at the Battle of Lepanto a couple of months later, halting Ottoman expansion in the Mediterranean. Bragadin’s flailed skin was rescued from Constantinople in 1596 and returned to Venice, where it still rests in the Basilica di San Zanipolo.
Within the walls, the old town of Gazimağusa is an appealing jumble of ruined churches, odd bits of medieval masonry, cafés, restaurants and shops, tree-shaded and flower-bedecked and much of it pedestrianized. The best approach, once you’ve entered through the Land Gate and perhaps visited the tourist office, is to head up the main street Istiklal Caddesi towards the central square, Namik Kemal Meydani, perusing shops and cafés as you go. East and south of the main square is a maze of narrow streets and alleys, good for souvenir hunting, and overlooked by picturesque ruins. You can imagine a similar scene in medieval times, though with the great Gothic churches intact, rising above people’s homes.
Dotted around the old town are numerous minor churches, often in a poor state of repair but full of interest. A good place to start is just off Namik Keymal Beydani, on Kisla Sokagi opposite the distinctive glass-dotted dome of a hamam, where, next to each other, two little fourteenth-century churches stand. They are invariably identified as the churches of the Knights Templar and Knights Hospitaller, the latter based on the Hospitaller coat of arms above the western door. One is now a cultural centre and art gallery, the other, surprisingly, is a bar. A short walk northwest, by the Othello Tower, is the ruined St George of the Latins, one of Gazimağusa‘s oldest churches. Based on the height off the ground of its surviving windows, and the presence of a parapet, it has been speculated that it was a fortified church predating the Lusignans. There’s little left now but a single wall with large lancet windows, precarious but undoubtedly romantic. Beyond St George of the Latins, a walk along Gengiz Topel Cad then left onto Server Somuncuoglu Sok brings you to the northwest corner of the town. Here the churches of Agia Anna and St Mary of Carmel, the Armenian Church and the converted Tanners Mosque are clustered together in the angle between the walls that meet at the Martinengo Bastion. Since this is near a military zone, access can be tricky, and photography is definitely a no-no. Back at Namik Keymal Beydani, a stroll due south brings you to St George of the Greeks which is (or was) a large Byzantine Orthodox Church (all that remains are three apses and a flying buttress at one end and the entranceway on the other) – while a little further southeast takes you to Agios Nikolaos and Agia Zoni which are small and pretty, the first a ruin, the second pretty much intact.
If the old town of Gazimağusa is full of ruins dating from the Ottoman siege, the “new town” of Varosha, now officially MARAS, is a sad reminder of a more recent conflict. Having been expelled from the old town in the 1570s, the Greeks established a prosperous settlement here, surrounded by orange groves. Over the years the population of the new town eclipsed that of the old and in the twentieth century its beach area, Glossa, became an upmarket resort, “The Monte Carlo of the Middle East”, visited by the likes of Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman. During the 1974 invasion, the Turkish army seized Varosha in its entirety, forcing its Greek population to flee to the south. Today, sealed off by fences, barbed wire and checkpoints, it festers in the sun, its high-rise hotels crumbling, its cracked tarmac claimed by weeds and scrub.
For almost forty years the fate of Varosha has been a painful source of resentment among Greek Cypriots and a strong bargaining tool for the Turks who have deliberately avoided any development of the resort. Various proposals have been put forward to end the impasse – the latest to turn the town into a UN-administered buffer zone which would allow Greek Cypriots to return as an act of goodwill, rather than a prelude to reunification. This would, it is thought, help grease the wheels of Turkey’s accession to the EU. In August 2012 President Demetris Christofias said Varosha “can, as in the past, be a bridge of peace, hope, cooperation and cohabitation”, and it has been one of the issues mentioned in ongoing negotiations during 2015 and 2016.
GIRNE (still widely known by its Greek name Kyrenia or Keryneia) is the most beautiful town in Cyprus, owing to its ravishing harbour, mighty Venetian castle, and a backdrop of sharp and craggy mountains. It even has a pleasant climate, courtesy of those mountains, which bring cooler air and a greener landscape than in the rest of Cyprus. Following a lengthy period of street development and road works, Girne is now an easy city to navigate – the main approach road from the motorway ends in a central roundabout which is next to the main square Belediye Meydani and a large car park. It’s also the main public transport hub. From this roundabout, the city’s two main streets head east and west. In addition to road improvements, the whole city centre and harbour area have been tidied up, with clutter removed, buildings painted and streets cobbled or block paved. Girne is a place that all visitors to the island should try to take in, for the day if not longer.
Apart from the harbour and the castle, there’s much else hidden away amongst Girne’s steep serpentine alleys. The Anglican Church, the Cafer Paşa Camii, the Ottoman Cemetery and the Chrysopolitissa Church attest to the spiritual life of the town, the tiny Folk Art Museum and Icon Museum to its cultural life, and the Bandabuliya together with a host of shops to its commercial side. Finally, Girne’s numerous cafés and restaurants offer the opportunity to eat, drink and socialize with friendly locals, or just enjoy the views and the chance to people-watch in comfort.
Girne was established in the tenth century BC by the first Greek invaders of Cyprus, the Mycenaeans, and can therefore claim to be the settlement with the longest history of continuous occupation anywhere on the island. During the time of Classical Greece it was one of the ten kingdoms of Cyprus. In the seventh century AD, Arab raids led to the building of a castle by the Byzantines, possibly on the site of an earlier Roman fort, later added to and strengthened by the Lusignans and then the Venetians. Although the castle was never taken by force of arms, it was starved into surrender by the Ottomans in 1570.
During the occupation that followed, Girne declined and stagnated, but saw something of a renaissance during the British period as the new rulers built roads and developed the harbour. It became a busy port, exporting carob pods, importing goods from Greece and Turkey, and building ships. Prosperous and with a delightful climate, it was no wonder that British civil servants, streaming back from the collapsing empire, saw it as a paradise to which they could happily retire. However, this Levantine Shangri La changed as Cyprus gained its independence in 1960, and was then riven by intercommunal friction. Girne was one of the first places to fall during the 1974 Turkish invasion. With properties being looted, and then confiscated during the early post-invasion years, British expats left in droves, their number falling from 2500 to a couple of hundred. The spaces left by them, and even more by departing Greek Cypriots, were filled by Turkish Cypriots relocating, mainly from Lemesos, and by Turks coming in from the mainland. Since then, the Brit expat community has burgeoned once more, though issues over property ownership in the north have stifled the second-homes market.
Girne Castle has a confusing architectural history, having been adapted, destroyed, rebuilt and improved so many times. The Byzantines first built a castle here, perhaps on the remains of an earlier structure, in the tenth century AD. Rectangular in shape, it was reinforced and extended during the Lusignan era, with the addition of living quarters and a moat. Its present form took shape under the Venetians in the sixteenth century, with the addition of the west and south walls and the construction of three new bastions. The British used the castle as a prison and as a police academy, and, during the late 1950s, to incarcerate EOKA fighters.
Never taken by force (though it was almost destroyed by the Genoese in 1373), the castle did succumb to the Ottomans in 1570. It is said that the Venetian commander of the castle negotiated a truce with the Ottomans until it became clear how the siege of Nicosia turned out. When the Ottomans presented him with the severed head of his Nicosian counterpart, he promptly surrendered.
Busy with excursion boats, laced with wooden pontoons and bristling with masts, Girne’s medieval harbour is one of the most picturesque in the Mediterranean. Almost perfectly circular, its western side is dominated by the massive Girne castle, while the harbour entrance is now protected by a long breakwater built after independence. The horseshoe-shaped quay is taken up with restaurants and small hotels, some in converted carob warehouses, others in modern buildings, with balconied upper storeys and canopied ground floors. Nearby is the Customs House, converted by the British from a medieval tower to which, during troubled times, a chain was slung from the castle to prevent access to the harbour. It is now occupied by the tourist office. There’s an even older, ancient harbour immediately to the east (you can see it from the Venetian tower of the castle) and a much newer, modern one even further east beyond that.
The best place to cross over from the south if travelling to Girne is at the Agios Dometios checkpoint west of Lefkosia city centre. It’s not well signposted – drive west along Leoforos Agiou Pavlou, and when the road bears sharply to the left immediately after Nicosia Racecourse, look out for a sharp right turn. The crossing is a few metres up this side street. Once across, you’re in Metehan, and it’s no more than a well-signposted half hour’s drive to Girne. But do memorize the route after the crossing so that you can find your way back – the signposts are for Metehan, and there’s no mention of it being a crossing point.
The western part of north Cyprus is not much frequented by visitors, yet it’s easy to access following the opening of more crossing points from the south. The region’s main town, Güzelyurt, is worth a brief wander for its archeological museum and the Agios Mamas Church. But it’s the twin ancient sites of Soli and Vouni that are the real draw.
The site of the ancient city of SOLI has few equals in north Cyprus, possibly on the whole island, thanks to its instant comprehensibility and the quality of information provided. It offers a detailed picture of life in late Roman and early Byzantine times, in a city set on a hillside overlooking the Mediterranean.
You’ll find the site just after leaving Gemikonaği, travelling west on the coast road. Look out for a small sign pointing to the left just after the announcement that you’re in Yedidalga (Potamos). The sign is easy to miss, but the huge roof covering part of the site isn’t.
Soli was originally settled in the eleventh century BC – its first mention in written records is as “Si-il-lu” in an Assyrian tribute list. According to legend, it was named after the Athenian philosopher Solon, who, while visiting his friend King Philocypros, suggested he built a new capital here, pointing out the excellent natural harbour and fertile soil. Soli soon flourished, though siding with the Ionians against the Persians led to it being sacked in 498 BC. Biblical scholars will also recall Soli as the site of St Mark’s baptism by St Auxibius, and it soon became an important Christian centre, particularly once the Edict of Milan (313 AD) had legalized the religion throughout the Byzantine empire. By the seventh century, however, the harbour was silting up, and a succession of Arab raids, especially the one in 653 AD, led to a gradual decline, such that by the ninth century AD Soli had been abandoned.
Soli is vast, and only part of it has been excavated. Once you’ve parked and bought your ticket (get hold of a plan) you’ll see the ruins of the third-century AD Roman town down the hill to the right – the agora, a portico, the remains of a nymphaeum – and immediately ahead the remains of the great Byzantine basilica, protected by a roof, and with wooden walkways to allow visitor access. In fact, the remains you can see are of two basilicas – Basilica A, dating from the fourth century, and Basilica B from the sixth century. Basilica A had a wooden roof supported on stone columns, and had mosaic floors, some geometrical, others with the figures of birds and dolphins. The most famous of these representations is of a swan against a blue background, with flowers, dolphins and a duck. In the apse is a dedication: “Jesus, protect those who had these mosaics made”. Basilica B was built entirely of stone, and instead of mosaics made of cuboid tesserae was floored with opus sectile tiles (larger pieces specifically shaped for the job). Though the mosaics take pride of place, other parts of the basilicas are also explained – a presbytery, an atrium, a column which still lies where it fell in the eighth century AD, and the “Mystery of Soli” – a staircase or ramp leading down to what’s thought to be a tomb dedicated to St Auxibius or even a treasure house (unfortunately sealed off).
Up the hill behind the basilica is an early third-century AD Roman theatre, extensively renovated and sometimes still used for performances. There’s very little left of the original masonry – the British pilfered most of it for use in the building of the Suez Canal and Port Said.
The site of the ancient city of SOLI has few equals in north Cyprus, possibly on the whole island, thanks to its instant comprehensibility and the quality of information provided. It offers a detailed picture of life in late Roman and early Byzantine times, in a city set on a hillside overlooking the Mediterranean.
You’ll find the site just after leaving Gemikonaği, travelling west on the coast road. Look out for a small sign pointing to the left just after the announcement that you’re in Yedidalga (Potamos). The sign is easy to miss, but the huge roof covering part of the site isn’t.
Soli was originally settled in the eleventh century BC – its first mention in written records is as “Si-il-lu” in an Assyrian tribute list. According to legend it was named after the Athenian philosopher Solon, who, while visiting his friend King Philocypros, suggested he built a new capital here, pointing out the excellent natural harbour and fertile soil. Soli soon flourished, though siding with the Ionians against the Persians led to it being sacked in 498 BC. Biblical scholars will also recall Soli as the site of St Mark’s baptism by St Auxibius and it soon became an important Christian centre, particularly once the Edict of Milan (313 AD) had legalized the religion throughout the Byzantine empire. By the seventh century, however, the harbour was silting up, and a succession of Arab raids, especially the one in 653 AD, led to a gradual decline, such that by the ninth century AD Soli had been abandoned.
Soli is vast, and only part of it has been excavated. Once you’ve parked and bought your ticket (get hold of a plan) you’ll see the ruins of the third-century AD Roman town down the hill to the right – the agora, a portico, the remains of a nymphaeum – and immediately ahead the remains of the great Byzantine basilica, protected by a roof, and with wooden walkways to allow visitor access. In fact, the remains you can see are of two basilicas – Basilica A, dating from the fourth century, and Basilica B from the sixth century. Basilica A had a wooden roof supported on stone columns, and had mosaic floors, some geometrical, others with the figures of birds and dolphins. The most famous of these representations is of a swan against a blue background, with flowers, dolphins and a duck. In the apse is a dedication “Jesus, protect those who had these mosaics made”. Basilica B was built entirely of stone, and instead of mosaics made of cuboid tesserae was floored with opus sectile tiles (larger pieces specifically shaped for the job). Though the mosaics take pride of place, other parts of the basilicas are also explained – a presbytery, an atrium, a column which still lies where it fell in the eighth century AD, and the “Mystery of Soli” – a staircase or ramp leading down to what’s thought to be a tomb dedicated to St Auxibius or even a treasure house (unfortunately sealed off).
Up the hill behind the basilica is an early third-century AD Roman theatre, extensively renovated and sometimes still used for performance. There’s very little left of the original masonry – the British pilfered most of it for use in the building of the Suez Canal and Port Said.
A Maronite community has existed on the Koruçam Peninsula for at least nine hundred years, though it has now shrunk to a few hundred people. Maronite Christian beliefs originated in Syria and the Lebanon, and arose from an arcane seventh-century dispute about the nature of Christ. The Maronites lost the argument, were declared heretical, and had to take to the hills. They came to Cyprus, it is said, on the coat-tails of the Crusaders: they’d helped their fellow Christians against the Muslims in the Holy Lands (though one theory postulates that they were simply joining a Maronite community which was already on the island). The Maronites congregated on the Karpaz and Koruçam peninsulas – the former disappeared through emigration and intermarriage, the latter are, just about, still there. During the troubles of the 1960s the Maronites sided with the Greeks, and following the Turkish invasion in 1974, were harassed, issued with identity cards, and refused citizenship. Most left for the south, or went abroad. Since the progressive opening up of the Green Line since 2003, however, Maronites who had made their lives in the south can now visit freely. The future of their distinctive language, a fusion of Aramaic and Arabic, is less rosy, and its demise as a living language is predicted within a few decades.
There are two crossing points in the Güzelyurt region. The Astromeritis/Zodia crossing, opened in August 2005, is one of the better-signposted and is also one of the quietest crossing points. Astromeritis is a fast 30km west on the A9/B9 motorway/dual carriageway from the outskirts of Lefkosia. Once across into Zodia, it’s only 3km to Güzelyurt. The Yeşilirmak/Limnitis/Kato Pyrgos crossing is the most recent, built jointly by the north and south and opened with great fanfare in October 2010. Again, it is easy to find – a ten-minute drive east from Kato Pyrgos brings you to the crossing point, after which it’s a scenic 32km drive to Güzelyurt. This makes possible a number of enjoyable routes through the north. Lefkosia–Girne–Güzelyurt–Kato Pyrgos, for example, is certainly feasible in a day, in either direction, or try Astromeritis–Güzelyurt–Kato Pyrgos.
Whatever the festivals are called, in North Cyprus they usually include a wide variety of activities and events, not all directly relating to the subject contained in the title. So the tulip festival includes a pinball competition, an olive festival a darts competition. And many also throw in a beauty contest for good measure.
Tepebasi Tulip Festival (mid-March) Walks and displays to celebrate the Cyprus tulip (Tulipa Cypria) and a wide range of activities – including bicycle tours, dancing and a pinball competition, in villages near Lapta.
International Famagusta Art and Culture Festival (May) Huge music, theatre, ballet, visual arts festival held at various venues in Gazimağusa.
Girne Living Culture and Art Festival (whole of June) Turkish and Cypriot drama and music festival held in Girne’s amphitheatre.
Lapta Tourist Festival (June) Huge range of competitions aimed at and put on by the expat community – pool, table tennis, remote-controlled boats – there’s even an “alcohol-drinking competition” (details at wcyprusscene.com).
Lefke Walnut Festival (June) Festival of walnut-based sweets in the village in the western part of north Cyprus.
Iskele International Folk Dance Festival (end of June) Week-long festival where folk dancing groups from all over the world take part, staging a series of nightly performances.
Gecitkale Hellim (Halloumi) Festival A variety of events and demonstrations revolving around the Cypriot cheese halloumi – cooking, photography (not just photographs of cheese), beauty and fashion competitions.
International Girne Olive Festival Dance and drama, music, food (with an olive theme) and drink, shooting and darts competitions. Starts in Kyrenia Castle, then moves to the village of Zeytinlik.
The Turkish Republic of North Cyprus (TRNC), as it has called itself since 1983, is still in many ways a pariah state, and this lack of international recognition continues to starve it of investment. Global chains such as McDonald’s and Starbucks are conspicuous by their absence and its tourist industry is still dwarfed by that of the south. In part this is self-inflicted: the shabbiness of many of its museums and attractions contrast markedly with the magnificence of its totalitarian-style military monuments and the regular sight of Turkish troops and bases, often incongruously close to tourist attractions, can be a jolt to the senses. The empty shells of Orthodox churches and monasteries that dot some parts of the landscape are also an uncomfortable reminder of the wonton destruction that followed the invasion or “intervention” as the Turks put it. While the north remains in political limbo, its future seems to hang on demographics – with Turkish settlers now outnumbering Turkish Cypriots, north Cyprus increasingly feels like an offshore province of Turkey rather than the independent state that it claims to be.