Nicosia and "Turkish" Cyprus
04/03/2014 - 04/03/2014 70 °F
The plan for today was to drive north and cross the border into Turkish Cyprus. Luckily, we'd found what appeared to be a good map the day before in Larnaca. All the tourist agencies seem to either all but deny the existence of North Cyprus, or claim to have no answers to questions about travel there. We woke early because we knew we had a lot to cram into one day. We were headed first to the Greek half of the capital city of Nicosia. It is a divided city, with both countries having their own slice of it, separated by UN troops. The plethora of one-way streets and divided streets made finding a way in challenging, so we opted for a parking lot just shy of the walls.
Our first stop was the Cyprus Archeological Museum. This is supposed to be one of the best in the country, and it did not disappoint. Lots of artifacts are displayed in glass cases, labeled in both Greek and English. Larger statues and other objects stand free on pedestals. The exhibits cover the history of Cyprus from its earliest stages to about the end of the Roman era. With our early start, we had the museum to ourselves. It was nice to be able to freely wander here and there, picking which displays to linger over. There were so many Bronze Age and Stone Age artifacts, if we tried to read every single word, we would eat up half a day! Just as we got ready to leave, a tour bus disgorged its contents into the museum. The bustling crowd chattering excitedly made me thankful once again for our early start.
Next, we wandered through the Old Town a bit, visiting the Bishop's Palace, the town cathedral, and the Venetian walls. An obligatory stop at the tourist information office provided us with the location of the checkpoint to drive across into Turkish Cyprus. We retuned to the car, got our maps ready, and headed for the border. The crossing was quick and painless - unless you count the 20 Euro car insurance needed to being a rental across the border. We also snagged another map from a tourist info display while waiting for our passports to be stamped. This ended up being very helpful because its town names matched those on the road signs. The larger map we bought in the south had the Greek names. And you can not always tell which Greek name corresponds with which Turkish one. That is a problem, in general, in Cyprus - both halves. Nicosia, for example, is called both Lefkosa and Nicosia by Greeks. Limassol can also be Lemesos. Some are less obvious than others, but you have to be careful when you're reading signs.
It took a lot less time than we'd expected to arrive at our first site, which would prove to be one of the best of trip. The castle of St.Hilarion sprawls across hundreds of yards of rocky, forested mountain top. The drive up there was through a "Prohibited Zone," where no stopping or photography was permitted. The reason for that was the unsmiling soldiers guarding oth the UN military post and the Turkish army base. Not really sure what the UN soldiers had to be grim about, though. Cyprus had got to be the easiest posting in the world! No shooting, the sides at peace, and a sunny Mediterranean climate. Would they rather be posted in war-torn jungles of The Congo?
St. Hilarion is not for the feeble or asthmatic, though. From the moment you arrive, you are climbing upwards, ever upwards. The castle is built in three sections, going higher up towards the mountain peak. The outer walls and gate and watch towers are on the lowest level. The garrison stayed in the second level, above that. Finally, the royal apartments have a stunning panorama at the very top. The castle was begun by the Byzantines, and added to by the Crusaders, then finally abandoned when the Italians and then Turks took over the island. There are so many nooks and crannies to explore -- a watch tower here, the ruins of a Byzantine church there, the shell of a dining hall or a line of battlements. And all of them have incredible views, many of the seaside town of Girne (also called Kyrenia) far below, its white houses framed by the curve of the deep blue sea. This is the type of romantic ruin to wander and daydream.
We spent a couple hours slowly working our way through the rambling castle grounds. The air became cooler as we climbed, and our breathing became deeper. This was definitely our most strenuous workout of the week. The sky clouded over from time to time as mist rolled ip the slopes -- moist sea air condensing as it rose. St. Hilarion is one of the most stunning settings for a castle that I've ever visited. Panoramas of mountain, sea, and crumbling stone walls cry out to be photographed everywhere you turn.
Our original plan was to check out some other sites in the area, but we decided to change on the fly. We pointed the car east toward the coast and the ruins of the Ancient Greek city of Salamis. No, not the Salamis of the naval battle of the Greek-Persian Wars -- that is in Greece itself. This is a town with the same name that survived through the Roman era into the Dark Ages, before being abandoned. Most of the ruins are from the Roman era, much of it from when the emperor Constantius rebuilt it after an earthquake...and did what all monarchs love to do -- renamed it after himself!
Here at Salamis you see how much less the Turkish side is set up to exploit tourism. Although there are signs and maps set up throughout the site, there are almost no barriers of any kind. You were free to go anywhere, climb on anything, and run your fingers along that marble statue or tile floor. It is like stumbling, all alone, upon a lost city in the wilderness. The feeling of immersing yourself in history is so much stronger than it was pacing along the wooden walkways with the crowds at Kourion or Pafos. You enjoy both, yes, but here you get to not only see, but touch, climb on, and get right next to living history. You can't help wondering about the risks of this approach, though. If the north ever saw the tour bus hordes that the south does, would Salamis survive intact? Or would thoughtless visitors pry off pieces of tile flooring, mosaic stones, or damage fragile relics? Without a doubt, I enjoyed seeing Salamis this way much more than the efficiently-delivered and almost antiseptic sites of Kourion and Pafos. I don't think it is sustainable, though. Eventually, as crowds increased, barriers would have to go up, and valuable or fragile items would disappear into museums, rather than sit out under the Mediterranean sun. It is not that the island of Cyprus is off the beaten tourist track, right now. Far from it. However, few Americans do seem to come here. Hordes of Brits come to retire or vacation, along with plenty of German and other European tourists.
I had waited many years myself to finally make the visit. Both the southern Greek half and northern Turkish half were great. I would have enjoyed more time, of course. Maybe then I could have slowed down a bit more. I knew all five days would be a cram going on, though -- just as our last day in Nicosia and the north. Still, the sights I saw over the entire trip were every bit as fantastic those last ones on our only day in North Cyprus.