Cyprus was one of the many countries I didn’t know existed on this earth until someone suggested that we go there. It just so happened that the island nation is not in the Schengen zone, making it the perfect place to add to our itinerary. It’s nestled just below Turkey with Greece to the west and Syria and Lebanon to the east. We learned that the island is actually so close to the desert lands to the east that it suffers from the occasional sand storm that blows across the ocean. Its proximity to Greece and Turkey also explains the troubled recent history filled with invasions from both sides. Cyprus is officially its own nation, but since 1974, the north eastern part of the island has been occupied by Turkey, a fact that we didn’t learn until we’d already bought flights destined to land in said territory. This was a problem. We would be able to land in the country, but since it was a land unrecognized by the rest of the island, we would be entering illegally and could face deportation if we ventured beyond the disputed territory. As discussed earlier in this blog, I’m not down with deportation, so we had to change up our flight plans in order to land in Larnaca.
That close call avoided, we bused to the only remaining capital city in the world that is divided right down the middle between the Turkish-occupied north and the Greek-occupied south. Nicosia is 4,500 years old. That’s old. The city is built like a clock cog, getting it’s shape from thick Venetian walls that were built in the medieval times to defend against invaders. The line that divides the city is made up of a wall, fence, and barbed wire. Even the tourist maps are affected. You can’t get one map that shows the whole city; you have to get two maps and piece them together in order to see the whole picture.
Nate and I walked the border wall seeing the various Greek and Turkish flags marking the different sides of the city. On the Turkish side, they use a different currency – the Turkish Lira instead of the Euro – which made all purchases much, much cheaper. This also explains why tons of Greek Cypriots make their way across the border to fill up their gas tanks. Being without a car, we went across on foot through one of a few walk-through gates. We wanted to buy some cheap vegetables from the market for dinner and to see what it felt like to cross a UN border line. For the record, it was much less dangerous and Hollywood than I’d built up in my head; there was a surprising lack of flack jackets, sand bags, or automatic rifles. There were a few sleepy folks in uniform checking passports from behind the glass of their little white huts. We went across, bought veggies, and that was that. To our eyes, the line was arbitrary and silly, like some squabbling siblings drew an invisible line across their shared bedroom by dragging a foot down the middle and declaring their respective sides. We’d learn later just what a tremendous impact the separation has had on the nation.
From the hot city of Nicosia, we took a bus further west to the mountainous countryside to cool down for a bit. We booked a camping spot in a place called “Adventure Mountain Park.”
It turns out that we were the only ones staying at Adventure Mountain Park. After handing us a tent and some sleeping mats and bags, our host made us tea from his own herbs. In his quiet sanctuary, he invited us to pick grapes, apples, and whatever else we could find growing on his land. So we did. We communed with nature, picking our meals from the land, cooking them on fires that we (…oh alright, Nate) built, and going on long hikes to take in breathtaking views. We were able to see all the way to the ocean from our spot right in the middle of the island. Very cool.
From our mountain refuge, we headed south to Limmasol, the “hip” part of the island. With a sizable boardwalk, it was, in fact, pretty hip. My favorite part was when I got free ice cream through some solid, unintentional flirting. The second best part was the beach, which was tucked between the boardwalk and a sandbar rendering the water clear and calm. It was like stepping into a waist-deep bath with perfect, white sand at the bottom. I was starting to see what the island came so highly recommended. In Limmasol, we were put up by Couch Surfing host and fellow American, Amy. Amy had come to Cyprus as part of Christian organization that led her to opening a coffee shop for the youth of the city. Amy works hard to keep the next generation of Cypriots – from both sides of the border – talking with the hope that they will some day heal the nation. Amy and Cypriot friend, Christiana, took us to our first Meze – an amazing meal of small Greek plates that just keep coming. Now that I think of it, that might be my favorite part.
After we finished eating everything in sight, we actually got out and saw some things. We learned that the island apart from being really, really old, is known for its copper. This led to Nate and I going on a scavenger hunt through the city to see if we could afford a copper souvenir. We finally found success when we entered a cluttered antique store and dug out some dusty copper Turkish coffee cups. Score!
Amy introduced us to all of the friends she’d made along the way and even organized a trip up north across the border. Our destination was the abandoned city of Famagusta. This ghost town was once the tourist capital of the island and hosted the rich and famous like Elizabeth Taylor (according to Wikipedia). The city is right on the coast line, which is lined with multi-story hotels. During the Turkish invasion of 1974, the inhabitants fled the city literally over night fearing a massacre. They haven’t been allowed back to their homes or possessions since. Now the countless hotels and homes line the beach in various states of deterioration and creepiness. The buildings are fenced off with chicken wire, plastic tarps, and warped pieces of plywood decorated with signs forbidding anyone from taking photos of the eerie remains (which we totally followed). It was a super strange experience looking out toward the ocean and only seeing picturesque, crystal clear waters and then turning around and seeing the set of a zombie apocalypse movie.
Zombie ghost towns aside, we had a good time exploring what felt like a forbidden land. We ended our evening with some coffee and a road trip home to a 90s-jam soundtrack, the obvious choice for a car load of new friends navigating a land that doesn’t officially exist in the eyes of the world.
We didn’t know what to expect from Cyprus, and we certainly didn’t see everything (though we may have eaten everything). The few spots we saw were storied and beautiful despite the tension that lingers from the atrocities committed by both sides and families torn apart. I wish Amy and friends all the best of luck in steering the next generation toward peace and reunification. It will be no small task combating the hatred and resentment that has built up and been passed down, but conversations over coffee seems like a good start to a happy ending for the tale of two half cities.