Last year a travel buff friend of mine was considering visiting Cyprus. He was pretty excited about it until I asked him the party pooper question, “Which part of Cyprus, the South or the North?”. His interest dwindled down fast after that and this was due to the fact that Cyprus is the only divided country in Europe. The mid-sized island is sadly split in two and the Republic of Cyprus (i.e the south) rejects Northern Cyprus as a separate country. Northern Cyprus obviously considers the opposite and the rest of the world is caught up between the two. Things get confusing fast and those intending to visit Cyprus get tangled in twisted visa requirements. The confusion does not end there and way too many myths float regarding the stark differences between the north and the south. While the Republic of Cyprus (that is the South in reality) is considered an EU territory, the North is claimed by Turkey. They have even renamed Northern Cyprus the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus and this leads to a huge difference in their standards of living as well. Needless to say, Northern Cyprus fares badly in this comparison and there is a lot of curiosity surrounding it. This spring I had the opportunity to visit there and my eye-opening experience made me pen down this Northern Cyprus Travel Guide.
Table of Contents
Before our Northern Cyprus travel, let’s talk about the split first
The only divided nation in Europe, Cyprus faces a lot of challenges. These have shaped the island country ever since its inception and the trouble continues to brew. It all started in 1914 after the British wrestled Cyprus away from the Ottoman Empire and annexed it. The Ottomans who have ruled Cyprus for more than 300 years still had nominal sovereignty. This delicate balance went steady for many years, until 1955 when the National Organisation of Cypriot Combatants (EOKA) started guerilla warfare against the British. They demanded the unification of Cyprus with Greece and the pressure was so immense, that the British granted them independence in 1960. The only clause was that the power-sharing would be equally held by the Greeks and the Turkish, and this became a turning point in Cypriot history. In 1963, under the ruling president Makarios‘s instigation, inter-communal violence erupted and a military junta in Greece backed a coup against him. The Turkish side withdrew from the power-sharing agreement and hell broke loose in Cyprus. Though the rogue President managed to flee, he permanently divided the former peaceful Greek-Turkish neighbours with communal violence. News of “atrocities” against the Turkish community reached Turkey and within days, the Turkish armed forces landed in Cyprus. The coup ended with a disaster and Turkey has occupied one-third of the island ever since. This caused the Greeks and the Turkish Cypriots to flee in opposite directions, leaving their homes, belongings, and ancestral properties overnight. In 1983, the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus got formed and though it is recognized only by Turkey, today a demarcating line divides the island.
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The situation today and how does it affect a Northern Cyprus travel plan
Since 2003, movement across the dividing “green line” has been eased and people from both sides can cross over without much hassle. It took 30 years for this to happen and things became more confusing when Cyprus joined the EU as a divided nation in 2004. So while a valid Schengen visa is valid to visit Southern Cyprus, some nationalities may require a TRNC visa for their Northern Cyprus travel. The best option is to contact your nearest Cyprus, Turkish, or TRNC consulate for more information. Check out these links to get updated on TRNC visa regulations. Many of the island‘s registered cars also are not allowed to cross the “Green Line” without a special permit and they even have different license plates. It is extremely difficult to drive a rental car from one part to the other and in the north Turkish mobile phone carriers are used. The currencies also differ and while the south uses Euro, the Turkish Lira is acceptable in the north.
The positives of choosing Northen Cyprus travel over the South
To begin with, things are much cheaper in the north than in the south. Turkish Lira is widely accepted as the local currency in the north and your money goes longer there. In the South, Euro transactions can burn a hole in your cash stash and the expenses are as per European standards. This, however, does not guarantee a better time and easy visa regulations make tourists swamp Southern Cyprus in summer. The Northern Cyprus travel in comparison gets super easy once you cross the visa confusion hurdle and from what I understand, it seems more complicated than it really is. Filled with beautiful natural sites, obscure coastal villages, an endless stretch of golden beaches, pretty harbour towns, and mountains riddled with Crusader castles, Northern Cyprus travel can be a real winner. The last divided capital in the world, Nicosia is exceptionally beautiful and you can easily spend a few relaxing days there. Speaking from an outsider‘s perspective, Northern Cyprus travel is a time-warped experience and you can really enjoy slow travel there. The food is delicious and cheap if eating at a local restaurant (not a fancy West-inspired cafe) and the people are helpful and friendly. Shopping is pretty good too and the entire city is a photographer‘s delight.
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The quirks of Northern Cyprus travel
Our biggest hassle in Northern Cyprus (Nicosia in particular) was slow internet. We left our eldest kids behind to travel to Northern Cyprus with just the baby and slow wifi made that daily “touchdown” Skype calls difficult. Our guesthouse in Nicosia (Gul Hanim House), though full of character was not very comfortable either and the Merit Hotel in the modern part of Nicosia was a casino lover‘s haunt. Another funny puzzling part of Northern Cyprus (perhaps Cyprus in general) is the double naming of the cities. Nicosia also goes by the name Lefkosa, Kyrenia is known as Girne, and Famagusta is called Gazimagusa too.
The charm of Nicosia
Nicosia Old City is drop-dead gorgeous and it is best suited for simply walking around. Photography is joy there and most parts of the Old Town are now wonderfully preserved. The dividing “Green Line” at Ledra Street still invokes an aura of political intrigue and the south seems just a few steps and a world away. What surprised me the most about Nicosia (Northern Cyprus in general) is the number of expats living there. The intrepid part of the island is filled with EU expat workers along with a huge student population from African countries. A lot of Bangladeshi and Pakistani workers are also found there and evenings are multi-culturally interesting in Nicosia. Numerous mosques, cathedrals, museums, and restored old houses dot the Old Town, and sometimes swirling dervish performances are held there. Despite the old world charm, the cities of Northern Cyprus also have a very young, trendy side and there are plenty of swish restaurants, pubs, cafes, and shops.
Most beautiful places to visit in Northern Cyprus
Though most make Nicosia their jumping-off base for their Northern Cyprus travel, there are plenty of other places of interest too. Kyrenia is a pretty harbour town that is ringed by rugged mountains and it has a resort-like vibe. Hotels, hostels, guest houses, and pensions line Kyrenia‘s lanes and the mountains are dotted with monasteries and wildflowers. Famagusta is another really beautiful city and it has a very young student population. Filled with gorgeous cathedrals, castles, mosques, and fortified walls overlooking the sea, it is most famous for its close proximity to the ghost town of Varosha. An erstwhile rich resort town, Varosha has been abandoned for more than a decade and it is here where the Turkish army landed on one fateful day. Everything changed overnight and residents of Varosha were forced to leave their houses, businesses, and ancestral properties with a couple of hours’ notice. Most did not even realize that they will never be coming back again and for many years a lot of properties of Varosha stayed as their owners left them. Cars stood in garages and showrooms, cutleries remained on tables and draperies moved eerily in a silent, abandoned environment. Though this situation has deteriorated over the period of time, today Varosha remains an off-limits ghost town guarded by the armed Turkish army 24/7. Other places of interest are the archaeological site of Salamis and the wild, unpopulated Karpas Peninsula.
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Fun things to include in your Northern Cyprus itinerary
A visit to the far-flung Karpas Peninsula is a must if you have time on your hands in Northern Cyprus. Home of much rare flora and fauna, Karpas has a national park the biggest highlight of which are wild donkeys. These nimble creatures have been one of the most loved residents of the island and the campaign to save their population is one of the things which bring the Turkish and Greek Cypriots together. Karpas also has miles of beautiful empty beaches, sand dunes, and small obscure coastal villages. You can also pay obeisance at Northern Cyprus‘s beautiful monasteries Bellapais and St Barnaby‘s. Bellapais is tucked away among the flower-filled pretty mountain village and the Monastery of St Barnaby‘s has an incredible amount of Byzantine art. Northern Cyprus also has some Crusader castles set in fairy tale settings and they are absolutely worth the steep walks. While the St Hiralion Castle is rumoured to be the inspiration for Disney‘s Sleeping Beauty Castle, Buffavento and Kantara castles are pretty awesome too. Northern Cyprus also has some of the Mediterranean‘s finest turtle egg-laying spots and the beaches near Kyrenia draw hundreds of female loggerheads and green turtles every year. Kyrenia also has a wonderfully preserved 2300 years old ship. At the time when Alexander the Great was conquering the world, a ship sank off the coast of Girne or Kyrenia. It was rediscovered in 1967 when the ship with entire contents was brought ashore for restoration and it is the Greek Classical period‘s only preserved ship.
Unwind at lovely stays at cheaper prices
Those looking for an idyllic place untouched by brash commercial tourism should definitely consider Northern Cyprus travel. The long-forgotten part of Cyprus is now slowly some tourist movement and the infrastructure is getting better by the day. Do consider the sun, sea, and sun at much value for money prices and when things get too hot, just chill out by your hotel pool with a drink. Northern Cyprus is coming up with some nice boutique properties and they offer everything that a weary traveler seeks..rest, relaxation, and warm comfortable hospitality.
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