Cyprus – The island of love
What to do in Northern Cyprus ?
Intrigued by the fact that Aphrodite, the goddess of love, had chosen precisely this island to be born, I visited it for the first time four years ago. Every time, three so far, I opted for the month of June to avoid the biggest crowds and highest temperatures, but also to be able to swim.
On Cyprus in June, the sea temperature ranges between 22°C and 27°C and stays like that all the way until December. In my opinion, the ideal time to visit is in June or September, when there are still enough guests so you don’t have to spend time with retired folks, and the sea and air temperatures are ideal. Cyprus is the eastern most island in the Mediterranean (with about 340 sunny days annually), and the third largest after Sicily and Sardinia. Northern Cyprus is the part of the island with the most beautiful sandy beaches. Those miles of wonderful sand and turquoise sea are enchanting. The sea in Cyprus has been declared the cleanest sea in the Mediterranean. The risk of rain or having bad weather there is minimum. Average temperatures in Cyprus range between 30°C and 35°C, and can reach up to 40°. The sea temperature can go up to 28°C. However, on this part of the coast there is a constant light breeze which is very pleasant because it reduces the feeling of heat.
You can reach Northern Cyprus only via Turkey, so if you take a charter, the plane will have to land in Antalya, where you’ll just wait on board for the flight to Ercan airport. The most convenient one has proven to be this year’s combination with Turkish Airlines with a layover in Istanbul. The trip there took two times a little bit under 2 hours plus the time spent between the two flights, depending on how good your connection is.
Although Northern Cyprus is under Turkish governance, and we need visas for Turkey, this does not apply to Cyprus. You only need a passport valid for at least 6 months to be able to enter the country.
Northern Cyprus has only recently become much more open to tourists, which is why the number of charter flights and tourists is constantly increasing. This part of Cyprus was occupied by the Turks after the war which broke out after Greece wanted to annex the island. Since then, Northern Cyprus has been a state recognized only by Turkey. Dependent on Turkey, which according to the island residents does not want to invest much into Northern Cyprus, they have remained much less developed than their neighbors. If it were up to the locals, they would still all live peacefully in one common state, but politics has again played its part and created unnecessary strife.
Now there is a considerable number of newly settled Turks on the island, but also of Russians and Ukranians and quite a lot of other nationalities seeking their place under the sun there. I’m not sure there’s enough work for everyone, but Russians usually open banks and do God knows what other legal business. For Turks, Cyprus is a gambling zone because gambling is prohibited in Turkey so the male population goes over there for a few days of entertainment. Right next to the casinos there are also night clubs with the corresponding entertainment so for them, I would say, it’s like Las Vegas with the well-known motto: “What happens in Cyprus, stays in Cyprus.”
The currency on the island is Turkish lira but euro is also accepted everywhere, although the exchange rate will not be as good as when you’re buying in lira. Bargaining is not common and the prices are mostly fixed. You can try to bargain only if the price is not displayed, but even then don’t expect a discount of more than 20%. In Northern Cyprus, the official language is Turkish, but you can also easily communicate with everyone in English. The English legacy is also visible in traffic. The island roads are very good, with two lanes in each direction, but they drive on the left. This can be a problem if you wish to rent a car. It’s all fine until you get to a roundabout, when the question is if you’ll know where to get out of it, since the drivers form a few lanes on their own. If you’re brave enough and you still want to rent a car, the minimum duration is 3 days and you can get it quite cheaply (about 40 euros), but if you wish to cross to the Greek part of the island, you’ll have to pay for additional car insurance.
Although the border between the Greek and Turkish part of Cyprus was opened 16 years ago, these two parts are still quite separated and the possibilities to cross over are quite limited. Especially for Turkish citizens who need a visa to cross, which is not easy to obtain. Born Cypriots have no problems crossing over, which also goes for EU citizens. There are no tourist excursions to the Greek part of the island, so renting a car is the only solution if you wish to explore it.
The majority of resorts are located by the towns of Kyrenia and Famagusta. Hotel categorization follows the local standards, so they’re not as good as in Turkey. That’s why you need to be careful which hotel or resort you book, and check thoroughly before booking. I stayed three times at the Salamis Bay Conti resort near Famagusta (Gazimagusa), which received the Holiday Check award for the best hotel in Northern Cyprus in 2017. Hotels are mostly large, mass-tourism, all inclusive family resorts, so it is not uncommon to see guests drinking from early morning. There are also some smaller boutique hotels on the island, whereas for private accommodation I wouldn’t know, since hotels have good enough prices that it makes no sense to look for private accommodation.
Cyprus is an island with an abundant history.
The first archeological sites in Cyprus date back to the Neolithic, and in ancient history the island was ruled by the Phoenicians, Assyrians, Egyptians and the Persians. For a long time, Cyprus was at the intersection of Europe, Asia and Africa, and it still holds signs of numerous civilizations that had ruled over it – Roman, Byzantine and Venetian. At the Congress of Berlin of 1878, Cyprus was given to the United Kingdom by the Ottoman Empire for their help in the Russian-Turkish war. The English ruled the island until 1914. Hence the driving on the left.
It is interesting that in antiquity, copper used to come practically only from Cyprus, so it was known as aes cyprium (Cypriot ore) or cyprium for short, and from that word originates the Latin word cuprum, after which copper was given the symbol Cu in the periodic table.
Famagusta/Gazimagusa (all of the city names are bilingual), is a city the name of which translates to A City Hidden in the Sand. The old part is enclosed by Venetian walls. Traces of life from that era are present at every step. One of the most beautiful edifices is Lala Mustafa Pasha Mosque. Originally a cathedral built in Gothic style, it was turned into a mosque after the Turkish conquest. Within the city is what used to be the largest resort on the island of Cyprus – Varosha. Now it’s a fenced in area guarded by about 5000 Turkish soldiers, while huge hotels and previously magnificent manors have been falling into disrepair in plain sight for years. After the Turkish occupation in 1974, 45,000 Cypriot Greeks were exiled from their homes, and the area closed. Famagusta used to be the main tourist city on the island, with 36 hotels. The city that never slept. They used to call it New York of the Mediterranean. Famagusta was visited by the biggest celebrities of the time, like Sophia Loren, Brigitte Bardot, Paul Newman… Now it’s a ghost town. Despite the fact that the majority of the population has fled the city, Famagusta is one of the three biggest cities in this part of Cyprus.
Kyrenia/Girne is a charming harbor city dominated by a large medieval castle with walls as a reminder of the period of Byzantine rule over Cyprus. The castle was erected by the Byzantines on Roman foundations, while the Venetians built an entire fort from it. The fort is home to an interesting museum with remnants of a ship from the times of Alexander the Great, but also interesting images of life from that era. Arm yourselves with a hat and water because the tour of the fort is quite exhausting, and the sun relentless. Looking down from the hill above Kyrenia is the Bellapais Abbey, a wonderful place with a great restaurant and view. You should definitely visit it if you get the chance.
Nicosia/Lefkosa is the main political, administrative, banking, business and commercial center of Northern Cyprus. About half of the total population lives here. The majority of historical buildings are located within the Venetian walls. Frequently, right next to ugly residential buildings. An indispensable spot for tourists is definitely Buyuk Han – a former hotel from 1572 now holding a plethora of small souvenir shops, cafés and galleries, and located on the Turkish side.
The obvious difference between the two parts of the city is visible as soon as you cross the border. Nicosia is also the only divided capital in the world. It is interesting to see this demarcation line in the middle of the city. The Turkish part of Cyprus actually seemed a bit terrifying without stores, tourists or women in the streets. It was Sunday, but I had felt safer in the streets of Istanbul than here. The small groups of men seen occasionally in the city that’s half empty seemed kind of spooky. On the Greek side, however, the situation is quite different, and you can see right away that you have entered the EU.
Multinational fast food restaurant chains, stores and tourists put me at ease as soon as I crossed the border. Crossing is very simple, a stamp in your passport and you’re already there. The city has 5 border crossings in total. Some are only for pedestrians, and some for cars as well. Besides the two different flags (of Greece and of the Republic of Cyprus which is a part of the EU) fluttering in the Greek part of the city, you’ll immediately notice all of the popular clothing brands and supermarket chains. You don’t see that in the Turkish part. The streets in the Greek part are also broader and cleaner. The city looks livelier.
If your accommodation is near Famagusta, you’ll also be very near the biggest Roman settlement on the island – Salamis. For over a thousand years, Salamis had been the island’s capital and harbor until it was destroyed by the Arabs in 648. For archeology aficionados, this is an ideal site with very well preserved remnants of a theater. Built 2000 years ago, it could receive about 15,000 spectators. Nowadays it’s renovated and hosts summer plays.
Karpaz is the northernmost part of the island from the edge of which in clear weather you can see the Turkish and the Syrian coast. Intact nature with beautiful beaches is characteristic of this part of the island. As you drive around, the peninsula is dominated by olive and eucalyptus trees. In the past, eucalyptus was brought to the island on purpose, in order to dry out the marshland and prevent a malaria epidemic. In this part of the island you can also find 60 different types of orchids. One part of Karpaz is a nature reserve for birds and wild donkeys, which are a tourist attraction. They do not belong to anyone and are quite tame. They come up to people and eat from their hands whatever is offered to them. There are countless donkeys all over Karpaz.
Another favorite spot on the island is the Golden or Aphrodite’s Beach. Legend has it that this is where Aphrodite was created from the sea foam. It’s no wonder, since the beach is amazing. The sea is turquoise and so clean that sea turtles have decided to lay their eggs precisely there. For that reason, the area has been declared a reserve, construction on the beach is prohibited, and this guarantees that the intact natural beauty of the landscape will be preserved. Swimming on this beach is truly a unique experience. Miles of sand with only a few swimmers guarantee pure enjoyment in this true pearl.
Cypriot cuisine is Mediterranean cuisine dominated by Turkish influence in this part. Indispensable elements are cold meze and sheftalio (a dish made of beef, onions, tomatoes and vegetables). You’ll also be able to enjoy kebab and other fine meat specialties with their traditional spices. If you like brandy, you should also try home-made brandy called zivania. Zivania is made of grapes and is very strong.
Northern Cyprus is a still undiscovered tourist destination which can offer beautiful solitary beaches with turquoise sea, excellent Cypriot/Turkish cuisine and hospitable hosts, and is definitely to be recommended when all the other destinations are still cold and the sea not suitable for swimming. Here you can experience bad weather for only 25 days a year. Can you think of a better recommendation than that?