Walking with Solos in Northern Cyprus - Part 2
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Excursions, history and politics
On Wednesday most of us opted to join the
excursion to Famagusta. We left at 9am and returned around 6.30pm so it was a
very full, fascinating day, particularly enhanced by Merrek’s insightful
commentary on his island’s history. Priced at £35 with an excellent lunch in a
beachside restaurant and including museum entrance fees it was, again, good
Our first stop was St. Barnabas’ Monastery and Icon Museum near the ancient Roman city of Salamis. The site consists of a church, now an icon museum, a monastery housing a small, but stunning, archaeological collection of Cypriot artefacts dating back as far as the 7th Century BC and a mausoleum built on the spot where the Saint’s remains were (reputedly) discovered. The patron saint of the island, Barnabas was a Disciple and one of the founders of the Greek Orthodox Church who is celebrated on the 11 June with a special mass and large festival. Since partition, after a gap of 31 years, this event was reinstated in 2005 and many Greek Cypriots are now allowed to visit, perhaps a small glimmer of hope for the future.
The next visit was to the ancient city of Salamis,
founded around the time of the Trojan Wars and the capital of Cyprus as far
back as 1100BC. A fascinating Roman site that extends over 36sqm, though much
still awaits excavation. The remains of
the Palaestra, the city’s gymnasium used for exercise and pampering, with its
wonderful columns now overgrown with wildflowers, is particularly atmospheric. The
theatre, which once seated 15,000 spectators, is partially restored and occasionally
used for outdoor events.
After a good lunch in a beachside hotel,
which gave us a chance to catch our breath, and following a quick walk along
the beach, we headed towards Varosha the ‘ghost town’ of Famagusta. Until 1974
this was the island’s main tourist destination and playground of the rich and famous,
located around a stunning golden sandy bay, it covers a 6sqkm area and has over
3,000 empty, dilapidated, buildings. Initially,
we drove around the barbed wire fenced perimeter, patrolled by the Turkish
Cypriot army, then to the beach where we got a real sense of both the scale and
desolation. From our vantage point we viewed bombed, deserted, looted and
overgrown blocks of apartments and hotels, incongruously, as we walked by locals
sunbathing on the beach and a luxury hotel behind us - a surreal experience and
stark monument of unresolved partition.
A city with roots dating back to 274BC, in
medieval times Famagusta became the most important port on the island,
inevitably, fought over by many countries. Its impressive city walls, 9km long
and, in some places, 9 metres in width, are a reminder of a once glorious past.
The compact old city with its winding lanes is home to tourist shops, cafes and
many churches - apparently the Venetians (as usual, they were here too) built
one church for each day of the year – many of which are now converted into
mosques or derelict. After free time
wandering around and enjoying delicious baklava in a café, we boarded the mini
bus and headed back to the hotel. A very insightful and enjoyable day.
Cyprus’ strategic position midway between
Europe and the Middle East has been prized and occupied by many nations,
latterly becoming a dominion of the British Empire until independence in 1960,
which proved unpopular with Greek Cypriots who wanted unification with Greece. Following
years of guerrilla warfare – on both sides – and in spite of the presence of a
UN peacekeeping force, tensions and atrocities continued culminating in the
1974 Turkish invasion. Many thousands of Greek Cypriots fled to the south of
the island and Turkish Cypriots to the north with the border then sealed. The
border was opened in 2003 for both sides to return to their original villages
to see what they had left behind, but despite international efforts to
facilitate reconciliation the island still remains divided amidst entrenched
Back at the hotel, we experienced such incredible
storms on Thursday evening, which continued into Friday, that our final walk
was cancelled. As an alternative, Merrek organized a trip to Nicosia, the
island’s capital and the only partitioned city in Europe. Since Cyprus joined the EU in 2003, a
softening of restrictions has enabled both sides to cross the border with
relative ease. As Northern Cyprus is much cheaper – for example a litre of
petrol is the equivalent of 70p compared with £1.30 - many Greek Cypriots cross
to buy food, petrol and other goods and to meet old friends.
By now, day 6 of the holiday, with Covid-19
looming large and a combination of museums and public buildings closed,
together with the inclement weather, we had the streets to ourselves with no
other tourists in sight. A slightly eerie feeling but, if you didn’t mind the
sogginess, wonderful. We stopped at a section of the green line - the 140 mile
long border which divides the island drawn up by the Brits in 1960 - which runs
through the middle of the city which is, at one point, just a flimsy
fence. From here life on the Greek side looked
rather more affluent. This was later in evidence as we walked through streets
of the old city which still has a considerable number of abandoned or
dilapidated Ottoman style houses and merchant villas.
In the heart of the old town is Buyuk Han, built
in 1572 as an inn for merchants and their animals to stay overnight. Well-preserved,
the rooms now house small artisan shops selling a range of goods such as lace,
antiquities, ceramics, artwork and corner cafes where, in spite of the rain, a
few old men played tavla (backgammon) accompanied by their Turkish coffee. In
the only other café open we enjoyed a cappuccino (12TL, about £1.30) and sampled
a delicious halloumi borek with honey, typically eaten by the locals for
breakfast. A quick visit to the nearby covered market revealed empty stalls but,
luckily, the Locum - Turkish Delight – shop was open. We sampled many different
traditional varieties, flavoured with rosewater, pistachio, bergamot, orange,
lemon, to name but a few. Delicious. This being the only shop open we all came
away with lots of goodies to be taken home as presents.
Being on holiday during the escalating
Covid-19 pandemic was a strange, unusual, experience as the island went into
lockdown. In spite of this, Merrek and everyone at Hotel Lapida were calm and,
if they were (understandably) concerned about cancelled flights, bookings and
redundancies, they didn’t let any of their concerns affect the very high levels
of service and care shown to our group, leaving us to fully enjoy the holiday. Also
worth mentioning, many in the group felt the holiday offered exceptional value.
With costs in Northern Cyprus at least 20% cheaper than the South, it also
means your spending money goes a long way too.
With email addresses exchanged amongst the
group we hopefully will be able to meet for a reunion supper when Covid-19 is
behind us. The restaurant of choice - Turkish Cypriot, naturally.
My ‘solo’ Solos walking holiday was a great
success. And when the shops are open again I’ll buy my own rucksack. And work
on my uphill fitness. Well, I will once I’ve stopped eating the Turkish Delight
– with no visits permitted under the current lockdown there’s no-one to give it
to. Every cloud!
Chrissy Nason travelled on behalf of Silver
Travel Advisor with our partner, Solos Holidays, on their North Cyprus Walking
holiday 7–14 March 2020.
With thanks to Mike Kirwan for sharing some
of his photos for this article.
Silver Travel Advisor recommends Solos
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