Any traveler planning his/her trip to Cyprus is bound to find out (unless s/he already knew it) that the island is split into two parts. Due to the 1974 conflict, Cyprus was divided in two, with the northern part going to the Turks and the southern part going to the Greek Cypriots.
The only country to recognize the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (the part of Cyprus occupied by Turkey) as a separate state is Turkey. There are three ways of reaching this part of the island: by plane or by ship from Turkey or through southern Cyprus. Meanwhile, local authorities advise tourists against traveling north. But as you know, the forbidden fruit is always so tempting.
After arriving in Cyprus and reaching Limassol, the first thing we did was rent a car for two days. There is no shortage of rental companies here. The competition is fierce and we kept bargaining with the owner until we got the price we wanted, which was 25 euros a day. That’s significantly cheaper than booking a car online. As we were getting registered, we asked about the best places to visit in the part of Cyprus occupied by Turkey. The owner gave as a menacing look and warned us against going there, arguing that car insurance does not cover trips to that part of the island. We made a promise to stay away from it. But in reality we were only even more intrigued. Though we were fully aware of our responsibility for breaking this unspoken ban, we set our sails for the part of Cyprus occupied by Turkey!
We only had two days at our disposal, so we had to plan well. The first day entailed leaving Limassol, crossing the border, visiting Kyrenia, Kyrenia Harbor and Castle, the Ancient Shipwreck Museum, Cape Apostolos Andreas (the north-easternmost point of the island) and spending the night in a hotel. The second day involved visiting Famagusta, Varosha, Lala Mustafa Pasha Mosque and then crossing back to southern Cyprus.
We began our trip shortly after sunrise. After taking A1 out of Limassol we quickly got to the Ayios Dhometios border crossing (it is featured on all of the maps, so it’s quite easy to find). The other border crossings are Ledra Palace (Old Town, Nicosia), Pyrgos/Karavostasi, Dherinia/Famagusta, Ayios Dhometios (eastern Nicosia), Astromeritis (western part of Cyprus, near Morphou), Pergamos (center of the island, 14 kilometers to the north-east of Larnaca) and Strovilla. You can choose the one that works best for you.
It is prohibited to take photographs of the border, so you won’t find any images of it. We had three cars ahead of us. They filled out their paperwork pretty quickly and left. When we pulled up to the customs window, we were told that we needed to buy car insurance. Since our car was a rental, we paid 35 euros for three days of insurance. Had it been our own car, we would have paid the same for a whole month of coverage. We pulled up to the second window and presented out passports. The customs control officials made a note of something in their database and returned our passports without stamping anything.
After driving for about 20 kilometers across Turkish territory we didn’t find any particular differences from its southern counterpart. The roads were good and the streets were clean. There were no highways, however. We came across a number of road cameras. The locals like to slow down when they see them, but we didn’t notice it right away. Breaking the speed limit a little bit, we got to Kyrenia, or Girne in Turkish, (all of the local towns and cities have a Turkish and a Greek name). We then stopped by the harbor and the castle. There is a parking lot right across the street from the castle, though you’ll have to pay for it. But if you keep going you’ll find free parking somewhat to the right of the other parking lot. This is where we left our car.
We walked down the steep stairs towards the castle. A hundred more meters down we came across a beautiful scene: the waterfront, the harbor and the sea looked incredible together. The harbor is shaped like a horseshoe — something it is known for not only in Cyprus but across the entire Mediterranean. There is a watchtower in the center of the harbor and a lighthouse at the very end of it. On the one side, the harbor faces the Kyrenia Castle — one of the most famous architectural monuments in the part of Cyprus occupied by Turkey. The other side faces the sea, with a thick wall separating the two (you can take a walk on top of the wall, if you want to). The sea was a bit stormy when we got there, with big waves crashing against the wall and splashing the people walking nearby. Despite the many cafes and restaurants, the harbor is a peaceful and tranquil place and it felt like every person sitting there was immersed in its serene atmosphere.
We stopped by one of the cozy cafes and enjoyed a cup of strong Turkish coffee, which actually tastes pretty much the same as the coffee on the southern side of the island. We found out later that it is the same exact coffee. Even the recipes are the same. This is because prior to 1974 the Greek Cypriots used to also call this coffee «Turkish», but when the island was divided, they started calling it «Cyprus coffee». Funny, isn’t it?
All of the restaurant employees in the harbor were men. We didn’t spot any women. The official currency is the Turkish lira. Don’t worry if you don’t have any local money, you will be offered a chance to pay either in euros or in dollars. However, the exchange rate is not very good there. We decided to pay with a banking card and ended up saving quite a bit.
After enjoying the scenic views, we set out for the castle, which was built in the 10th century by the Byzantines. The castle went through several sieges, changed many owners and had to be reconstructed on a few occasions. Its final owners were Turks, who first turned it into a military base and then into a museum.
Entrance into the museum costs 5 euros. Once we got to the very top of the castle we were able to see the outline of Turkey, which felt so close to us. For a few moments as I stood there I drifted away into a fantasy where I was a beautiful princess imprisoned in this castle and down in the harbor was my prince who had come to rescue me aboard his ship with white sails… The sound of a seagull brought me back to reality.
Inside the halls of the castle you will find mannequins of soldiers from different time periods reenacting medieval torture scenes. But the most popular tourist destination is the Ancient Shipwreck Museum, which is more than 2500 years olds. The ship was discovered near the coast of Kyrenia in 1968. Divers found hundreds of amphorae filled with wine and almonds. The ship, or rather its skeleton, was recreated using 6000 pieces of debris. Each piece had to be carefully cleaned and it was only in 1974 that the restoration work was completed. The ship is quite substantial in size, measuring 14 meters in length and 4,4 meters in width. It is stored inside a large aquarium that carefully preserves its air temperature and humidity.
After the castle, we headed towards Cape Apostolos Andreas. On our way there we saw a few wonderful beaches. As we got closer to the cape, the road seemed to get more and more narrow. We remembered the car rental guy, who told us that our car insurance wouldn’t cover our «adventures» in the part of Cyprus occupied by Turkey. But we kept going! Plus, the goats walking on one side of the road and the beautiful mountains on the other side of the road kept us distracted. We reached the cape at sunset. At the very top of the cape we came across two proud flags: Turkish and Cypriot-Turkish. The spot looked magnificent at this time of the day: two flags flapping in the wind, the huge disk of the sun drowning in the sea and the fresh, salty breeze, which felt like it was about to lift us and carry away towards the sun…
The sun went down, we decided to head to Famagusta in search of a place to spend the night. We hadn’t booked a hotel, because we thought that we would be able to find something along the way. We weren’t wrong about that: we came across quite a few places. However, we weren’t too happy with the prices, which started at 50 euros per night. We did the math and realized that we could use this money to fill up our gas tank, drive back to Limassol and come back to the part of Cyprus occupied by Turkey the following morning. And that’s how we wrapped up our first day on Turkish territory and headed back home.