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Kyrenia Castle, North Cyprus. photo by Aftab H. Kola. Click to enlarge this photo.
Kyrenia Castle, North Cyprus. photo by Aftab H. Kola

Stunning North Cyprus: Going Where Few Tourists Go

I always had a fascination to visit places that are normally considered off the beaten track. So, when an invitation to visit North Cyprus came I did not give it a second thought.

An island in the far eastern Mediterranean Sea, below Turkey and to the west of Syria, Cyprus is actually two countries — the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (recognized only by Turkey and covering just over a third of the island), and the southern Republic of Cyprus.

We, a group of 54 scribes from 24 countries, landed up in Ercan (pronounced Erjaan) airport in TRNC after a stop-over at Istanbul airport in Turkey.

After a 30-minute drive from the airport we checked in at Malpas Hotel, a splendid five-star property perched on a hillock overlooking the expansive bluish Mediterranean.

When you land in north Cyprus, your first point of visit is Nicosia (known as Lefkosa in TRNC), the world’s last divided capital. Since 1974, Cyprus has been divided by a UN-patrolled buffer zone, called the Green Line, which snakes east-west across the countryside and symbolically slices the walled capital in two. Our base to explore the walled city was Bayuk Han.

One of the most important architectural works of the Ottoman period, Buyuk Han (Great Inn) is located in the traditional market centre within the City Walls. The old rooms of the inn are now occupied by shops, all of which surround the small octagonal masjid that sits at the centre of the courtyard.

Water sports are popular along the North Cyprus coast.
Beach in North Cyprus.

You can look through handicrafts laid out under the shady porticos of the courtyard. The Han was built by the first Ottoman governor of Cyprus, Muzzafer Pasha, in 1572, to provide accommodation for travelers from Anatolia in Turkey and other parts of Cyprus.

With Bayuk Han as the reference point we explored the walled city on foot. Here I would recommend that those keen on history do the same.

From a distance, on the horizon, one can see two tall, slender minarets looming large, and within minutes we were in front of the stately Selimiye masjid built in 1326. The main masjid in north Cyprus, Selimiye masjid, is a product of the finest Gothic workmanship harmonious in its proportions, incorporating the elements of Ottoman architecture.

Narrow alleyways in the vicinity of the Selimiye masjid are replete with fine specimens of Ottoman civil architecture. Ambling through these urban channels one is sure to encounter the silent whispers of the bygone era.

Girne, North Cyprus
Harbor in North Cyprus.

Some of the other interesting sights in Lefkosa are the Kyrenia Gate, the Arabahmet masjid, the Ataturk Square, Great Hammam, National Struggle Museum and the Mevlevi Tekke Museum.

Stunning coastline

Bound to the north by the sea and to the south by the green Besparmak (five finger) mountain range, Girne (also called Kyrenia), about 30km from Lefkosa, offers the most magnificent scenery on the island. Girne’s charming and tiny harbor, full of yachts and fishing boats, is framed by the colossal hulk of its Crusader castle.

With the backdrop of the jagged mountains behind and the calm sparkling sea in front, the harbor has an intoxicatingly quiet atmosphere. After meandering through the narrow winding alleys one comes face to face with the Mediterranean Sea.

The best way to savor the coast is to take a cruise from the Girne yacht harbor. The harbor is a small bay that juts into the land. We were told that a merchant ship dating from circa 300 BC was recovered from this place in 1969 and is displayed in the castle.

 
Map of Cyprus location in the Mediterranean sea.

The Kyrenia castle jutting the bay is lit up beautifully at night, adding to the stunning focal point of the whole harbor area. It dates back to the late 12th century and is believed to have been built on a former Roman fort. Today the castle and the museum with its lofty heights are exciting tourist attractions. The castle also hosts music festivals and events, making it one of the most-visited attractions in North Cyprus.

We took the six-hour cruise which took us along the stunning Mediterranean coast where hotels, resorts and dive centres thrive.

The ship was anchored near a rocky coastline where the waters were crystal clear and ideal for snorkelling. Some of us splashed in the cool blue waters while others took to water sports, a facility abundantly available on this picturesque coast. Continental lunch was served on board with the cool sea breeze wafting in.

With a picturesque coastline stretching for more than a hundred miles Girne is hiker’s paradise as well.

West of Kyrenia lies ‘the Garden of North Cyprus’, with citrus orchards, verdant forests and fertile plains. Here, the Roman settlement of Soli is worth a visit, as is the Persian palace of Vouni, where there are awe-inspiring views across the island and the sea.

Cafe in North Cyprus
Cafe in North Cyprus.

Open air museum

One day we visited Gazimaguza (also called Famagusta), one of the most ancient ports in the Mediterranean with great historical significance. It was witness to many events of significance. It was indeed sad to see the sight of a mass grave which contain bodies of Turkish Cypriots massacred by the Greek Cypriots in 1964.

Our next stop was St. Barnabas Monastery — icon and archaeological museum. Here we were amazed by the rich icon collection dating to the eighteenth century. There are sights like Agha Cafe Pasha Hammam and fountain and Venetian Palace worth a visit.

Then there are places like the ancient city of Salamis, Guzelyurt and Lefka, where citrus orchards abound, and Isre and Karpas (known for wild donkeys). One will also get a chance to watch sea turtles coming ashore on the Island’s golden beaches for nesting.

 

 
Aftab H. Kola






 

Aftab H. Kola is an experienced travel/heritage writer based in Oman. He has produced hundreds of travel-food-heritage-people stories for international publications.




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