Cyprus - travelling across the buffer zone to venture North

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Middle East » Cyprus » Nicosia
May 20th 2022
Published: May 24th 2022
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Sorry about the technical difficulties with the last blog. I panicked when I realised that I was seeing & doing so much that the blog would go on forever and I would never get to the end so I decided to split it and post one straight away. Hence the chaos! I intend to stay calm and try harder this time, let’s see if that happens.

The first 3 pictures are of Kakapetria in the Troodos region which should have been in the last blog.

I called the last blog Complex and Surprising Cyprus. Complex because of the history, ancient and modern which has resulted in a divided island and surprising because although small it has a mix of areas ranging from traditional villages, towns, tourist resorts, cities, forests, mountains, gorges, beaches, and ‘alpine’ type villages where you can enjoy snow sports in the winter. Truly something for everyone, including birders!

To understand complexity take a quick look at the following, sourced from the Lonely Planet guide to Cyprus:

The history of Cyprus starts with hunter gatherers 10,000 - 8,000 BC.

6,000 BC there is evidence of settled communities with organised crops and stone buildings.

The island flourishes in the early Bronze Age 2,500 -2,000 BC

Cyprus was invaded by:-

8th Century BC. Assyrians

560 BC Egyptians

500 BC Persians

350 BC Alexander the Great releases them from Persians

323 BC Ptolemy becomes ruler of Egypt & Cyprus

58 BC Romans take over

395 AD Byzantine rule

647 Arab raids start followed by joint rule, the Arab Caliphate & Justinian 11

965 Byzantines take over again

1191 Richard the Lionheart is shipwrecked at Limassol and conquers Cyprus only to sell it a year later to the Knights Templar

1192 Guy de Lusignan (French) takes Cyprus from the Knights Templar and the island prospers for nearly 300 years under the Lusignan dynasty

1489 Cyprus ceded to the Venetians by wife of last Lusignan king

1571 Ottomans crush the Venetians and take over Cyprus

1878 Britain leases Cyprus from Turkey

1914 Britain formally annex Cyprus

1914 Britain offers Cyprus to Greece as an incentive to support Britain in WW1 but Greece declines to remain neutral

1925 Cyprus becomes a Crown colony

1955 EOKA is founded, after guerrilla warfare Archbishop Makarios becomes the first President of an independent Cyprus

1963. First Green Line drawn in Nicosia to separate Greek & Turkish Cypriots because of unrest and violence

1974 Turkish army invades, takes the Northern third of island. Makarios continues as President of Greek Cyprus. Island remains divided to present although Northern Cyprus is not acknowledged by most countries.

2003 Cypriots from both sides are allowed to cross the border through check points for the first time since 1974

As I said, complicated! Very similar to Malta which was a crossroads in the Mediterranean but to me it seems that despite their troubled history Cyprus has retained a much stronger culture and identiTy which in some ways is still shared by the divided Greek and Turkish Cypriots.


But back to where I ended the last blog, in Paphos. The plan was to travel from there into North Cyprus to see Famagusta old town (now called Gazimagusa in Turkish) and the ruins of Ancient Salamis close by. I knew that Cyprus has been divided in two since Turkey invaded in 1974, that the UN monitor and police the buffer zone and that it was only in 2003 that people were allowed to cross the buffer zone, or Green line, from one country to the other. Understandably feelings are still strong on both sides but I had not appreciated what this meant ‘on the ground’.

When I started to plan a route I soon found that it was not going to be as easy as I thought. I met the reality of a divided island head on. I couldn’t find clear information about where to cross apart from the pedestrian only check-point at Ledra Street in Nicosia. There are more crossing points including some for cars but they are hard to track down as no-one seems to want to mention them. In fact, even working out exactly where the border is, is difficult. It all seems to be hidden in a fog of avoidance. Gathering information about transport in the North seems impossible in the Republic of Cyprus so I decided to go and work it out en route.

I took the bus from Paphos to Nicosia, crossed at the pedestrian border crossing at Ledra street and looked in my passport for the visa paper that I had been warned to hold on to otherwise I would not be allowed to leave North Cyprus. There was nothing there. So I asked the officer if a needed a paper, he consulted his more senior English speaking colleague who said ‘why do you want a paper.’ I explained I thought it was necessary but he shooed me away saying, ‘all electronic’. I hope he told the truth but I will know for sure when I try to leave!

Immediately there is a sense of moving from Europe to the Middle East, the clothes, language, style of shops, houses, everything is different and I was left feeling that the differences that were not visible, were possibly even greater.

I was given a map by a man outside the Tourist Office, asked him where I could find the bus to Gazimagusa and set off walking in the direction indicated, straight ahead. In the south I have heard the ‘maps’ called Greek mythology because they don’t represent reality. Even worse, people don’t seem to be able to read maps at all. That I find mind blowing. Even people in Information offices and driving buses seem unable to make sense of a map. Within minutes I had found something that both North and South have in common, neither produce accurate maps or are able to read them! I should say that there must be exceptions, I just never found them.

Everyone gives directions ‘straight ahead’ but without fail, round the bend there is a fork in the road, if not a five way roundabout. On reaching Nicosia I had asked at the Information office for directions to the check point. The answer of course, ‘straight ahead’ so off I trotted towing my case. It was a straight road that time but he had failed to say take a 90 degree turn into Ledra Street 500 metres down the road! So much for straight ahead. I wasn’t sure if that was the traditional form of direction, a quick way to get me to move on, or if it was aimed at causing confusion. But paranoia lies in that direction so I shall just continue going straight ahead.

Looking for a bus to Famagusta eventually I came to a main road with lots of bus stops, without signs of course. I wandered around trying to work it out when a young couple, students who spoke good English, asked if they could help. Then they went and found a man who seemed to organise things but without uniform, office or even a seat, however by talking to him they soon sorted out which was the correct stop and the fare, 45 Turkish Lira, cash only with no other way of paying. Luckily Carolyn had had a few TLs which magically came to just over 45, so I was on my way. Without them life would have been much more complicated. Five minutes later the bus arrived, well actually a dolmus, a people carrier to seat about 14 people. As I climbed in and was directed to a seat by the driver who stacked my bag at the same time, he asked whether I was going to Magusa? Well was I? I hoped it was the local version of Gazimagusa and said yes.

Within a few stops the vehicle was jam packed and a very large lady was squeezed into a fold down jump seat next to me. She truthfully needed three seats of that width so she settled for using my lap instead. Oh the joys of travel, I suddenly felt at home, on familiar territory although I had never been here before.

Some time later, ( think I blanked it out), we arrived in Magusa and I set about finding the hotel. I hit the same problem, it was impossible to tell from the map where it was but I set off walking in what I thought was the right direction, back pack on, and pulling a carry-on sized wheelie case (courtesy of Carolyn). It was about 30 degrees and I had no more TLs to pay for a taxi (learnt later that taxis take Euros) so thought it easier to walk. To cut a long story short, a kilometre or two later I asked the way of a couple of lovely young women who were changing a window display in a shop. With very little English they used
Tomb of Venus (?) in grounds of Venetian PalaceTomb of Venus (?) in grounds of Venetian PalaceTomb of Venus (?) in grounds of Venetian Palace

There seems to be a constant blending of myth & facts
the phone to ask if I would like a lift. I was so grateful I could have hugged them, pre Covid of course! The senior one dropped me right at the hotel entrance. They were very kind.

The last few days have been my first experience travelling alone in completely new territory. In many parts of the world I can get by with Spanish or the odd word of French but in first a Greek and then a Turkish speaking country, life became more challenging. With Carolyn it is not a problem as she communicates really well in Greek but on my own it was back to basics, a few words of English or signs. I managed! Surprisingly it gives me a huge buzz to get to where I want to be even if I am not sure how I did it.

The hotel, the Grand Sapphire, proved to be very good, modern, a lovely room, a welcome fruit basket and bottle of wine, even an indoor pool. Unfortunately, almost on the dot of 7pm when the buffet dinner starts, three huge coaches arrived, the occupants poured out and raced into the restaurant, warned by their drivers not to stop to check in en route. ( One passenger confessed this to me). I took one look and headed to the bar. In the restaurant everyone was using the same serving utensils, jammed in together, and giving the impression that they had not eaten for a week. I settled for a cheese platter in the empty bar which was very good. I did have to join the melé for breakfast after waiting for it to quieten down but I still felt very unhappy and vulnerable because of the pre Covid behaviour. I was shocked as the majority were elderly, mostly German/Dutch but including Brits.

The next day I changed some money, ordered a taxi and went off to explore the Old Town, a fascinating place, full of historic buildings of all periods, mainly in ruins, and surrounded by Venetian city walls. Although the Lonely Planet suggests you can walk around much of the wall, I saw little evidence of that. You can climb up in various places to get good views over the town but the walls themselves seemed fenced off. When
Fresh water fountainFresh water fountainFresh water fountain

Brought by Ottoman Governor in 1597
I started the centre was very quiet with hardly anyone about but a couple of hours later it was busy with coach parties. That seems the main way of visiting the area as the infrastructure to travel alone is poor. Some people drive but there is a complication with car insurance when you cross from the Republic of Cyprus into the Turkish north so it is recommended that you only hire a car once there.

I rambled around the old centre, criss-crossing it a number of times as there was so much to see, from the Venetian walls with their gates, the old Venetian palace, the former Cathedral of Agios Nickolaos, which is an example of Lusignan gothic (reminiscent of French cathedrals) & is now a mosque, to the plethora of churches from different periods in varying states of decay scattered throughout the town and around the outskirts. So many that after five hours I had had enough of church ruins for a while. Thank goodness for the walls, gates & pretty houses which contrasted with the churches. Having said that Magusa old town is a lovely place to wander around.

I had arranged with the taxi driver the previous day to collect me and the following day he arrived on the dot and took me to Ancient Salamis, which consists of ruins but over a large area with the site being approximately 7k across and right next to the sea. The main sites are close to the entrance with numerous other ruins to be found all over the area, many being just a pile of rocks covered by vegetation.

Salamis was founded around 1180BC, by the son of Telamon, king of Salamina on the Greek mainland. Salamis prospered despite being taken first by the Assyrians, then the Persians 450BC. Under the Persians it issued its own money ( The first coins were minted in the 6th Century BC.), developed literature & philosophy which attracted great thinkers of the time. Later, it also developed further when it became a Roman colony and most of the ruins are from this period. The ruins reflect a lavish lifestyle that at least some of its citizens enjoyed if not all.

The Gymnasium was the first stop. It is huge, not much smaller than a football pitch. A large rectangular courtyard, originally surrounded by tall columned arcades, was used for exercise. Around this open area the ruins show how the citizens relaxed and pampered themselves. The remains of hot water baths, sweating rooms, cold rooms, swimming pools and latrines can be clearly identified. The floors were covered by mosaics and the walls painted with stories from Greek mythology. I was fascinated by the latrines, two buildings for this purpose on opposite sides of the courtyard, each one designed for 44 people.

Not far away can be found the theatre, fifty rows of steep stone seats built in a semi circle and capable of accommodating 15,000 spectators. A very impressive sight! Then there are remains of a Roman villa and a basilica. After that there are numerous other remains scattered across the wild open scrubland, bordered by empty beaches and the sea. However, most of these fell into the category of ‘rock piles - various sizes’, for me. There were more recognisable sites to the south but they were 5-7k away so I didn’t reach those. Excavations are still taking place so there is a feeling that you might fall over important finds. I enjoyed wandering around in this wilderness looking at the views, birds, butterflies and of course, lizards, for a couple of hours before I needed to return to the entrance to wait for lift.

My taxi arrived to collect me and the driver asked if I had seen the Church of Apostolos Varnavas (Barnabas) which is a few kilometres away. I had thought about trying to get there but decided it was too complicated. The driver said he was happy to stop by so off we went.

The Church has an interesting history. Originally built in 477 AD, by the site of Varnavas’s tomb but rebuilt in the 18th Century, incorporating much of the original church. Three monks who were brothers, took care of the church from 1917, and they tried to remain after 1974. However, the Turkish authorities made life difficult for them so they ended their lives in another monastery in the Republic. Now it houses an icon museum which I really wanted to see. But on going inside I found the display of icons impressive in their colour and quantity but unbelievably depressing! After that it was back to the Grand Sapphire.

That night I avoided the 7pm dinner ‘scrum’ by having a meal brought to my room, a beef tenderloin risotto, sounds strange but was delicious. In the morning I set off back to Nicosia, now experienced both with the dolmus and the Ledra Street crossing so all went smoothly. Oh, and no-one asked for a ‘paper’ at the check point so all was well.

I will post this blog now and write about Nicosia in the next, hope you join me there.

Additional photos below
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1st June 2022

Power and Control
It is amazing all the regime changes that occur in some of these countries. Everyone seems to want power and control.
1st June 2022

Hi, good to hear you enjoyed reading the blogs from Cyprus. I only touched the surface, much more to see! Well worth a visit, Sue

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