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Exploring Northern Cyprus (From Nicosia to the Karpaz Peninsula)

Frequent travelers, Liz and her husband are keen to discover new places and share their experience with others.

Formerly St. Nicholas' Cathedral, now Lala Mustafa Pasa Mosque in Famagusta.

Formerly St. Nicholas' Cathedral, now Lala Mustafa Pasa Mosque in Famagusta.

Why Visit Northern Cyprus?

North Cyprus is officially called the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus and is recognized only by Turkey. But, in spite of being largely disregarded by the international community, tourism in Northern Cyprus has steadily been growing in popularity since the turn of the century. Indeed many are so taken by this part of Cyprus that they return time and again. But why? What lies behind the allure of Northern Cyprus?

Climate

Located in the southeastern sector of the Mediterranean Sea, Cyprus benefits from a mild climate and retains warm temperatures for much of the year. This makes it a favored holiday destination for many northern Europeans, looking to escape the colder temperatures of their own countries.

History

The third-largest island in the Mediterranean, after Sicily and Sardinia, Cyprus came about from the collision of two tectonic plates, which caused the uplift of the land from the sea. There is evidence of civilization on the island going back over 10,000 years, with plenty of interesting historical sites and artifacts to keep the most inquiring tourist happy.

Cost

Turkish Lira is the main currency in the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. Recently this has lost value against other currencies, making it a favorable time for foreigners to visit this part of the island. Tourism is less developed in the north and generally, hotel prices and other costs are cheaper than those in the Eurozone of the south.

Holiday Criteria

Our Story

So why did we choose to visit northern Cyprus? There were two reasons. Firstly, we were searching for a holiday to a warm destination in November. Secondly, with Brexit imminent and the threat of potential disruption to travel within the European Union, we were looking for a place outside the EU. Northern Cyprus ticked both boxes and, as an added bonus, prices were very reasonable. In addition to this, we had taken a day trip from southern Cyprus the previous year, liked what we saw over the border and wanted to return to explore more.

Highlights of Northern Cyprus

Following a day trip and a 13-night stay in Northern Cyprus, here are seven places we would recommend to fellow travelers:

  1. Famagusta.
  2. St. Barnabas Monastery.
  3. Salamis.
  4. Karpaz Peninsula.
  5. Bellapais.
  6. Kyrenia.
  7. Nicosia.

1. Famagusta

Famagusta, or Gazimagusa, as it is known locally, is a fascinating city. It is one which we have visited several times and one which we could return to, as there is so much of interest to see here and it encapsulates a lot of Cyprus's history. Here are a few suggested sites to visit. If you call in as part of a day trip, aim to cover the first four plus a glimpse of the Ghost Town. This will whet your appetite to return.

St. Nicholas Cathedral, Lala Mustafa Pasha Mosque (A)

This eye-catching structure is visible from several viewpoints around Famagusta and dominates the skyline. It owes its gothic architecture to the French Lusignan rulers of Cyprus and was built as St. Nicholas Cathedral 1298-1312. After being crowned as kings of Cyprus in Nicosia, the Lusignan monarchs came here to be crowned as kings of Jerusalem.

The Venetians took over Cyprus from the widow of the last Lusignan king in 1489. The cathedral's towers were damaged by earthquakes and also the bombardment of the Ottomans, who conquered Cyprus in 1571. The cathedral became the St. Sophia Mosque of Magusa. All references to Christianity were removed and a minaret was added to the northern tower.

In 1954 the cathedral was given its current name after Lala Mustafa Pasha, the Ottoman commander in 1570.

Entry is free to visitors, with the proviso that you remove your shoes at the entrance.

The Venetian Governor's Palace (B)

As you come out of Lala Mustafa Pasha Mosque and look across to the west of Namik Kemal Square you will be struck by the sight of the three-arched entrance to what remains of the Venetian Governor's Palace (Palazzo del Proveditore). The site was formerly occupied by a 13th Century Gothic Lusignan palace and lived in by the kings of Cyprus until its destruction by earthquakes in 1369.

The Venetian palace was built in 1550 and used by the Venetian military governor. The three-arched entrance was modeled on the Roman triumphal archways and used Roman columns taken from Salamis. Most of the palace was destroyed by the Ottomans.

A car park is now by the back wall of the palace. In the courtyard, there are neat piles of cannonballs near cannons and a cafe serving freshly squeezed juices, coffee, and other drinks.

To the side, in a building dating from the Ottoman times, is the dungeon of Namik Kemal, a poet exiled by the Ottomans to Cyprus in 1873, after they took a dislike to his drama about the Siege of Silistria. He also lends his name to the square in front of the palace.

The Church of St. George of the Greeks (C)

Located southeast of St. Nicholas Cathedral and nearer to the sea, the Church of St. George of the Greeks dates from a similar time, around 1300. It was built by the Greek Orthodox community who lived in this part of the city and it served as their cathedral. Damage sustained by the cannon bombardment during the Ottoman siege of the city can still be seen. In its day it must have been an impressive structure and has left an atmospheric ruin. Look carefully to see the cannonballs.

The City Walls of Famagusta

The old part of Famagusta is surrounded by a well-preserved ring of defensive walls, interspersed with other fortifications. They were built by the Venetians in the 15th-16th Centuries. It was due to these walls that the occupants were able to withstand an 11-month siege in 1571, before being overrun by the Ottoman Empire. The walls are up to 15 meters high in places and 7.6 meters thick to withstand enemy cannonballs. There are great views back over Famagusta from many points on the City Walls.

Tips For Accessing the Walls

  • If you are short of time, the Sea Gate (D) is the nearest point of access to the walls. Climb the steps here for a view back over Famagusta, along the walls, and over the port area.
  • If you have time, pick up a map from Tourist Information by the Land Gate (E), in the southwest corner of the walls.
  • We were recommended to walk along the ramparts to the north for the best views of Famagusta.
  • Best views of the walls themselves are from the moat, which runs along the landward sides.
  • Choose a time when it is cooler and the sun is lower for a lengthy wall walk, as temperatures can be high and the sun strong even in the Fall.

Othello Castle (F)

A 2-minute walk north, following the sea wall from the Sea Gate, takes you to Othello's Castle. The Lusignans built this citadel in the 14th Century to guard the harbor entrance. It was remodeled by the Venetians towards the end of the 15th Century. The upper floor was removed to match the height of the new city wall they were building, walls were widened and the corner towers were replaced with curved ones.

The Castle was renamed during the British Administration of Cyprus. Shakespeare's play, "Othello" refers to "a port in Cyprus" and it was thought that Othello was based on the Venetian Governor of Cyprus between 1505 and 1508, Lieutenant Cristoforo Moro. Whatever the truth, the name has stuck and the citadel is a tourist attraction.

For a small entrance fee, you can cross the moat area, enter the citadel and wander around the rectangular structure. Notice the winged lion of St. Mark over the main entrance. Walking through a tower, you will find yourself in a central courtyard area. You can access some rooms around here, which are in varying states of repair. There is an interesting exhibition in a vaulted room, describing the restoration of the castle, Take the steps up to the roof level, where you have views over the castle complex, port area, and back towards Famagusta.

Tips

Take care when walking around the upper level of the castle. Walls are very low in places and there are few safety barriers.

Obey the signs not to take photographs towards the port area, as this is a military area.

The Church of St. George of the Latins (G)

It is thought that this church was built towards the end of the 13th Century - early 14th Century, using material taken from the Salamis ruins. Parts of the northern and eastern wall remain, hinting at what the original must have looked like. Like many other tall buildings in Famagusta, the church was damaged during the Ottoman siege in 1570. Wealthy Genoese merchants are thought to have been the owners of this church. Often offset against a deep blue Cyprus sky, these ruins are interesting to view and very photogenic.

The Church of St. Francis of Assisi (H)

Visible from the courtyard of the Venetian Governor's Palace, this church was built by the Franciscan Order around the end of the 13th Century - the beginning of the 14th Century. The monastery which was built with it no longer exists. In 1601 building materials were taken from the church to build an adjoining hammam (Turkish bath) on the site of the monastery.

Church of St. Peter and St. Paul, Sinan Pasha Mosque (I)

Located south of the Venetian Palace and built in 1359, it is thought that this church was originally connected to the palace. It was similar in design to St. George of the Greeks from the same era. Flying buttresses support the walls because of their height. It appears that a further set of buttresses were later added in the 16th-century on the south side to support the walls further due to earthquakes.

Over the years the structure has had many uses, but it remains one of the best-preserved buildings in Famagusta. After the Ottoman conquest in 1571, it was made into Sinan Pasha Mosque, but the minaret that was added broke off centuries ago. It now goes to the roof level. The building has been used as a potato and grain store, a store for redundant council equipment, a petrol store, Famagusta's Town Hall and library and a cafe, bar and dance hall. It is now used as a meeting place and education center, rather than a working mosque.

Varosha, the Ghost Town

Cyprus has had a troubled history. As a trade-off for supporting Turkey against Russia, Britain took over control from the Ottomans in 1878 and formally annexed Cyprus in 1914. After a violent struggle, Cyprus gained its independence in 1960. For a while, Greek and Turkish Cypriots ruled the island in a joint administration, but in 1974 tensions between the two communities overspilled into violence. Versions of events that followed vary, depending on which side you listen to. The outcome was that the island became divided, with Turkish Cypriots living in the north and Greek Cypriots in the south. A Green Line, patrolled by United Nations troops, runs across Cyprus.

In 1974 Varosha, an area to the southeast of Famagusta, was a thriving resort, with many hotels along its sandy coastline and boasting A-list celebrities amongst its clientele. But, when the troubles came, the Greek Cypriots fled. Many expected to return, but the area has been left derelict and off-limits to the public. Varosha lies behind barriers topped with barbed wire and guarded by Turkish soldiers. Large signs clearly forbid photography.

It has now become a tourist attraction in its own right, as day trips from the south try to take coaches as near to the Ghost Town as they can for a brief glimpse of a place frozen in time. Such was our first brief glimpse.

More recently, staying a few miles north of Famagusta, we were able to explore a little more on our own. For the best views of the deserted beaches of Varosha, head for Palm Beach hotel (J). There are sunbeds on a top-quality sandy beach here, with clear sheltered waters for bathing, as long as you don't mind the deserted tower blocks of Varosha behind you. It certainly makes for an eery experience.

We also found that the combined hotel shuttle bus/ local bus to Iskele from Famagusta skirted a lot of the Ghost Town on its route after leaving Famagusta bus station. Glimpsing derelict buildings out of the window, you suddenly notice the barbed wire barriers and the familiar signs forbidding photography.

Refreshment stops

Even in November, daytime temperatures in Famagusta can reach 27C. So stops for a drink are highly recommended.

Here are a few of our favorites in Famagusta.

Ginkgo

For anyone on a short visit to Famagusta, the first stop is usually St. Nicholas Cathedral, Lala Mustafa Pasa Mosque. Ginkgo is conveniently located next to the mosque on Namik Kemal Square. There's an atmospheric dining area inside the old stone building, but most choose the shaded outside area on the square. We found it hard to resist the polite invitations of the Cameroon staff here. So much so, that we returned here for their friendly service 18 months after our first visit, to be served by the same waiter. If you're looking for friendly service and reasonable prices in a prime location, you can't go far wrong with Ginkgo.

Gazimagusa Beach Buffet

After walking from the walled city to the coast by Palm Beach Hotel we were grateful to find this beach bar serving cold drinks, meals, and snacks. As we were there, a tour group picked up their lunch to eat on the beach while looking at the Ghost Town nearby. The prices were very reasonable, especially given its great beachside location.

Petek

If you are looking for an atmospheric and traditional patisserie and brasserie, then Petek, conveniently located opposite the Sea Gate in Famagusta is the place to go. Unmissable with its rooftop red logo, Petek is in two sections. The cafe area, on two levels, has a shop adjacent to it. The ground floor dining area is arranged around an ornamental central fountain. A curved staircase, decorated with old photos, leads up to the upper level around a central fireplace. Weather permitting, doors are pulled open so that diners can sit out on the balconies, with plenty of shade available. This is the place to try a Turkish coffee and sample a cake. We also found that they do good tea.

Next door, the patisserie stocks an amazing array of cakes and sweet delicacies, including a wide range of Turkish delight. If you are really taken with Petek, be sure to pick up one of their leaflets, which gives details of their other locations in Northern Cyprus.

Famagusta

2. St. Barnabas Monastery

Barnabas, a Cypriot Jew, traveled with Paul on missionary journeys, as detailed in the Bible. Christian tradition holds that Barnabas was martyred at Salamis, Cyprus in 61AD by Jews who resented his success in preaching the Christian gospel. His body was privately buried. He is regarded as the founder of the Cypriot Orthodox Church and the patron saint of Cyprus.

Legend has it that, in 478, Barnabas appeared in a dream to the Archbishop of Constantia (Salamis, Cyprus), Anthemios, revealing that he was buried under a carob tree. The archbishop found the remains of Barnabas buried with a copy of St. Matthew's Gospel on his chest. Anthemios founded a church near the burial site and placed the remains here.

There has been a monastery on this site since the 5th Century. But the building that survives today dates from 1756. Until the division of Cyprus in 1974, Famagustans used to get their babies baptized here. Tourists visit to admire the icons and the frieze depicting the discovery of Barnabas's remains by Archbishop Anthemios, but it is now a museum, rather than a place used by Christians.

The cloisters house an archaeological museum with many artifacts discovered in the surrounding area. There is also a cafe in the pleasant courtyard area and a gift shop near the entrance.

There's a small charge for entering the monastery area. In addition, there is a further nominal charge for the toilets.

After visiting the monastery and museum, we were still none the wiser as to where the remains of Barnabas were located, until we noticed a path beyond the car park area, leading to a small chapel a short distance away. The original church has long since crumbled, but a mausoleum, dating from the 19th Century, has been built over the supposed tomb of Barnabas. It is free to enter. The interior is very plain with a few icons. Go down the steps into a cave-like level to find a shrouded coffin and more icons. It's a slightly eery experience, but one not to miss, when visiting the monastery.

We took a taxi there from our resort 9 kilometers away. A visit here combines well with one to the nearby ruins of Salamis.

3. Salamis

A major historical site on the east coast of Cyprus, archaeological finds from Salamis date back to the Bronze Age. It is thought that the silting up of the harbor at Enkomi, led to the relocation of its inhabitants to Salamis, where a major trading post was developed. This former capital of Cyprus was occupied by Assyrians, Egyptians and Persians. But much of what visitors now see dates from the Roman period, when Salamis was developed as a cultural center. Beset by earthquakes, the city was repaired, remodeled and renamed Constantia after the emperor Constantius.

The silting up of the harbor prompted its inhabitants to move south to Famagusta. The city was plundered and it is not unusual to come across stones and columns from Salamis in other parts of Cyprus; an early form of recycling. Earthquake, tidal wave and Arab raids in the 7th Century took their toll and this once thriving metropolis was buried under the sand for hundreds of years.

Excavations on the site started in the late 19th Century for a period and were carried out again 1952-1974. Since the division of Cyprus, little has been done here. It is a major tourist attraction, with coach loads of visitors being deposited in the car park for brief guided tours around the most accessible parts, as a stop on a day trip. It is said that a full exploration of the extensive site would take 2 days. A snapshot visit can be achieved in 1-2 hours.

We arrived by taxi and after paying a small entrance charge, we made our way through the swimming pool to the columned courtyard of the gymnasium. From here we had our first sight of the Corinthian columns in a picture postcard setting. We moved on towards the amphitheater, which demanded a lot of imagination, as the remains have been overtaken largely by the undergrowth.

Some parts of Salamis have been well-preserved, such as the street and the theater, which, although not back up to its original height, has enough rows of seats to give visitors a feel for what the original was like. The signage is mixed.

Tips for a visit to Salamis

  1. Take care when visiting the site and wear sensible footwear. There is a lot of rough ground and little in the way of safety precautions or barriers.
  2. Take precautions in the sun. Apply a high factor sunscreen, wear a hat and carry bottled water. There is little shade at Salamis.
  3. Limit your visit if you are not part of a guided tour. It is impossible to see all the sites in one go. Be prepared to return.
  4. Stop for a drink on a terrace overlooking the beach at Bedi's, just outside the entrance to the north.

4. Karpaz Peninsula

The Karpaz Peninsula, the narrow strip of land which juts out towards the northwest, is also referred to as the 'panhandle' of Cyprus. The area is well worth a visit for its undeveloped, rural beauty and rugged coastline. Some tourists prefer to hire a car and explore the area at their own pace. Others, like us, opt for a day trip.

Bogaz (A)

The first stop and rendezvous point on our trip was the fishing village of Bogaz, on the west coast. The local fishermen paid for and built the harbor, which they alone use. With several restaurants clustered near a fountain by the harbor, it makes for a pleasant stop and is described by some as the gateway to the Karpaz Peninsula.

Beware the Tourist Market

The disadvantage of being on an organized tour is that you have no control over where you stop. After an interesting drive onto the peninsula, accompanied by informative commentary, our coach pulled in alongside other tourist coaches at a market overlooking the north coast. Described as a coffee shop, with an opportunity to sample local products, such as olive oil, we found ourselves in a purpose-built tourist market. To be fair, there was an interesting variety of products from clothes, scarves, Turkish delight, olive oil, dried fruit and nuts to alcohol, as well as a cafe and freshly squeezed juice stall.

Alarm bells rang when we noticed the prices in Euros, a sure sign that this was not for locals. After seeing a familiar bottle of wine at nearly double what we would expect to pay in the UK, we viewed the prices of other products with suspicion and avoided making any purchases.