Tuesday 28 March 2017

Bitter Lemons of Cyprus

“Journeys, like artists, are born and not made. A thousand differing circumstances contribute to them, few of them willed or determined by the will - whatever we may think. They flower spontaneously out of the demands of our natures - and the best of them lead us not only outwards in space, but inwards as well. Travel can be one of the most rewarding forms of introspection...”
Lawrence Durrell, Bitter Lemons of Cyprus

Raki is so hard to get right but this one is neither too strong nor too weak. The secret, I realise, is eschewing ice. 

I am sitting outside Niazi's restaurant in Kyrenia, across the road from the elegant colonial Dome Hotel, blogging with my clumsy thumbs on my mobile. 

Kyrenia (Girne is its guttural and rather ugly name in Turkish) is a beautiful port on the north coast of Cyprus. It was a mostly Greek town which, since 1974, has been wholly occupied by Turkish Cypriots and incomers from mainland Turkey.

Cyprus was on my short list of countries I didn't want to visit, but this is my second long weekend in nine weeks. I am not sure why. Mostly because, for some reason, it seems so very easy. 

Easy from Bucharest, with budget airline Blue Air, which ferries Romanian workers to the island.  By the way, the Cypriot based subsidiary of Blue Air is the only Blue Air that provides food and wine for free, which tells you a lot about Cypriot hospitality.

And Cyprus is warm. One Christmas day, a while back, it was 25 degrees Celsius.

But these are not, I feel, very good reasons.

A better reason is that Cyprus has an exciting political story. It's a frozen conflict dating back to 1974, and before that to British colonial rule in the 1950s, that I started to fear might be solved before I got here. 

When does the dispute start? In 1570, when the Turks captured the island from Venice, despite Othello. 

In 1878 Disraeli undertook to protect the Ottoman Empire from Russia and in return the Sultan leased us Cyprus and promised to grant more rights to his Christian and Jewish subjects.

England wanted a possession in the Eastern Mediterranean to replace the Ionian islands, which Palmerston had chivalrously, or quixotically, given to Greece in 1862. You see the difference between Liberal and Conservative politicians. 

Disraeli's government considered requesting Crete, Rhodes or Haifa. Cyprus was chosen because Cypriots were politically passive and the existence of a Turkish minority enabled England to pursue her customary policy of dividing and ruling her subjects. 

In 1914, when the Sultan made the fatal mistake of declaring war on England, we annexed the island. Turkey was defeated and the Ottoman Empire dissolved, but the 'Great Dream' of capturing Constantinople, Thrace and part of Anatolia led Greece to disastrous defeat, at the hands of Kemal Attaturk, in 1923. 

Greece and Turkey, until then ethnic mosaics, were rigorously ethnically cleansed, but colonial rule saved the Turkish minority in Cyprus. Cyprus became the only place where Turks and Greeks continued to live side by side apart from Eastern Thrace and, until the 1950s, Constantinople. 

Had independent Cyprus united with Greece in the early 1970s, as Greeks in Nicosia and Athens wanted, the Turkish Cypriots feared ethnic cleansing. They remembered what had happened to the 'Turks' (Muslim Greeks, in fact) of Crete. Hence the Turkish forces invaded in 1974, making landfall, as it happens, at Kyrenia.

Ethnic cleansing instead took place within Cyprus. The Greeks of the Turkish occupied North and the Turks of the South fled or were expelled. Some were killed. 

The Turks had made up 18% of the population, dispersed over the whole island, but now occupy about a third of it. Many have emigrated, in particular to Britain, and 110,000 immigrants from Turkey have moved in, to occupy houses that belong to Greeks. This is slightly more than the total number of Turkish Cypriots recorded in the 1960 census.

This is very sad but, heartlessly, I love the fun of walking across the Green Line in Nicosia, the last divided capital city in Europe. That is, assuming that Cyprus is in Europe rather than an island off the coast of Asia. 

Contrast is what makes life and travel fun. How satisfyingly different the two halves of Nicosia are. The Northern half is the Near East and has all the monuments, including a fine Gothic cathedral and other Gothic churches that are now mosques. It has the little shops and craftsmen that you get in Turkish towns. 

Across the border is the EU and bland modernity. Ledra, the main street of the Greek side, has the shiny international chain stores and brand names. 

I read that the Greek half was charming forty years ago, but it feels a little bit like everywhere else now. It is cheerful and has lots of jolly restaurants for mostly young tourists, but the only things really worth seeing in Southern Nicosia are in the Cyprus Museum.

Still, a comfortable place to while away three days.

On the Greek side of the island, Larnaca is a pleasant, pretty seaside resort with a castle, an old mosque and the wonderful Church of St. Lazarus. The church was erected in the 9th century by the Emperor Leo over the tomb of the man whom Jesus raised from the dead and who, so the history relates, became the Bishop of Kition (Larnaca). I think much of what you see, though, is 17th century.

The church possesses both the saint's tombs. The story of how he brought his first tomb with him to Larnaca made me wonder why it wasn't used when he died for the second time. 

When I was there at Mass many of the congregation were Russian, their faces profoundly serious. I wonder if they wondered why two tombs were needed.

Lovely though the church is, the most beautiful thing in Larnaca or in Cyprus is the Mosque of Umm Haram, a short distance from the airport, girdled by palm trees and sitting on a flamingo-studded salt lake.

I liked Limassol less - a castle, but no old church and far too posh. It is popular with rich Russians, abounds in luxury shops, is completely sterile.

I hoped, in Turkish occupied North Cyprus, where I am now, I'd find somewhere that was undiscovered. Like every good bourgeois, I want to escape my kind. But I may be too late.

Famagusta seemed, if not undiscovered, then at least half forgotten, in late January. 

Famagusta is a place which ages people. Only people who were old enough to have a mental topography of Mediterranean resorts by the time the Turks invaded Famagusta in 1974 think it's famous. Once it was the most famous place in Cyprus and one of the most famous in the Med or even the world. 

When my dolmuş (minibus, in Romanian a maxi-taxi) dropped me off beside the mediaeval walled city, against which leant two untidy wooden shops, it felt an adventure. Inside the walls the town was down at heel. The one street of tacky tourist shops seemed sad. The town was empty and the shops were not really trying. I didn't have the place to myself and there was a coachful of middle-aged Germans, but it felt like terra incognita

And haunted by ghosts. Not the ghosts of the holiday-makers who thronged there before 1974 but much older ghosts. Lawrence Durrell called it the most haunted town in Cyprus. 

To see it after dark in winter must be moving.
'Were Famagusta altogether without inhabitants it would be less impressive in its desolation than it now is as seen in the twilight – nothing stirring but the owl and the bat, and perhaps here and there, haunting like ghosts the narrow lanes, a few pale fever-stricken women in their Turkish veils and long white mantles, who might well be taken for the last survivors of a city where war, famine and plague had done their worst.’ 

This is British engineer Samuel Brown in 1879, quoted by Durrell.

Durrell adds that 'the fever and the veils are gone, of course'. He would be surprised that I saw plenty of veiled women in Cyprus this year. All were tourists on the Greek side.

But by late March everything is kicking off in Turkish Cyprus.

Bellapais has a beautiful ruined Gothic monastery, but the little place was a big disappointment. A tourist trap, filled with cafes, restaurants and several coachloads of Turkish and German sixty somethings. How Lawrence Durrell would hate it now. He came to live in Cyprus, bought and renovated a house in Bellapais and wrote about it in his memoir The Bitter Lemons of Cyprus, which I am reading and enjoying. 

He spells the name Bellapaix to contrast the beauty and peace he found there with the terrorist campaign which takes up the second half of his book and led him to leave the island.

Turkish Cyprus is much more rewarding than the Greek South, which the English female vicar of Kyrenia told me is "completely boring, just generic Mediterranean seaside. You could be in Spain." 

But the North is also discovered. St Hilarion, a lofty castle, is impressive but the sixty somethings are there too, clambering up the steps like elderly mountain goats. 

Kyrenia is a fun place and more so than most seaside places. Its castle is impressive and very well preserved. 

The offputtingly named tourist port is full of restaurants with check table cloths. These and a history of religious bigotry are ubiquitous in tourist places in Europe. Still, it's much more beautiful and less spoilt than Larnaca or Limassol. When people say Kyrenia is like the Med used to be they mean the Med of the early 1970s, not the Med before mass tourism. Kyrenia was a tourist resort even in Durrell's time, in the mid-1950s.

Fifteen years ago, I am told, the place was a 1970s time warp, but now it has been much developed. Partly by casinos and hot money. Many prosperous and respectable retired criminals live here, out of the reach of extradition laws. I am told that Mr Erdogan's family own a lot of stuff here. 

Kyrenia has a certain elegant charm around the two British era hotels, the Dome and the Colony, but far, far too many British tourists of a certain age to make you feel like Gertrude Bell or Wilfred Thesiger. This is a place your mother would like if she doesn't mind Muslim countries, as some mothers do.

If you are slightly adventurous, I recommend you visit Algeria, Albania, Georgia or Armenia instead, really. Or even, despite being in the EU, Romania.


  1. I drove up there, back in the day. I stayed a night in Aya Napa, which was an “Ibiza of the East” sort of thing, with a beautiful beach – in the way that fake tits are beautiful; it’s a matter of taste. YOU, Paul, would learn from somebody that the sand is imported – which is pretty obvious; the country is wrapped by grey beaches, except for the pristine, silver-blond sands of Aya Napa – and decide that you don’t like it, on principle. I’m not that way. I like it.

    From one of the cafes that I visited in that town, there is a high veranda bar with a telescope to look into “the ghost town,” a set of tall concrete blocks that is unoccupied for whatever reason. It was a real novelty back then.

    One year, insurance companies started issuing coverage for rental cars that drive from south to north. Before that, you had no choice but to take the entire risk yourself, and this was too much for most tourists.

    When I drove over the border, they searched the entire car, and noted down everything. (I had been warned about this, and purposely took nothing. I only went up there for the day.) At the Greek side of the border, they told me that if I brought back anything at all – “not even a t-shirt” – then it would be confiscated, because there is a 100% embargo on all goods with the Turkish occupied zone.

    I had lunch at that port town that you describe. Nice, desolate feeling to the whole place. But this must’ve been over ten years ago. I didn’t see any tour buses or packs of old foreigners.


    Tom Saquet

    1. Back in 2005 at a dinner party in Istanbul British people who lived in Istanbul and loved it said they didn’t like Turkish Cyprus – it was a dreary 70s time warp. I’d have liked that even though the 70s was an awful era. But Kyrenia is a good place if you like seaside resorts and lots of late night bars. Not a devout Muslim place at all.

  2. https://mobile.nytimes.com/1998/04/15/world/bellapais-journal-bitter-memories-of-a-love-affair-with-cyprus.html

  3. Richard Wernick2 April 2017 at 17:07

    Paphos (Old Paphos up the hill from the seaside resort) would be to your taste, Paul

    1. So people tell me. I am also told the pan handle is empty of tourism.

    2. I do like Kyrenia. It's not ruined, it's beautiful, but of course it's a Greek town whose people have been expelled and this is sad.

  4. Population of Cyprus according to 1800 census
    Greeks 37,000 (44%)
    Turks 47,000 (56%)

    Population of Cyprus according to 1881 census
    Greeks 137,631 (73.9%)
    Turks 45,458 (24.4%)

  5. As ever, an entertaining piece, Paul. Thank you. Small correction: I think Disraeli wanted a British base in the Eastern (not Western) Mediterranean. I was a bit surprised that you glossed over the Enosis terrorist campaign with barely a mention - not even a passing reference to Archbishop Makarios? Perhaps you're too young to remember him ... Of course the British couldn't accept Enosis, having regard to the large Turkish minority on the island. I am curious: did you hear any talk at all during your visits to Cyprus of a desire for unification with Greece? My sense is that most Cypriots now feel that they are better off on their own, rather than having to share Greece's financial difficulties.

    1. Thank you for pointing out mistake. I am much too young to remember Enosis. Even O Level history course started after Cyprus war. No I don't think anyone wants to join Greece but I didn't ask. Enosis of course takes up the second half of the book. Go to the Turkish part - don't waste time on the soulless Greek side.

  6. In 1914 the Turks allowed "Turkish" ships (actually manned by Germans) to sail into the Black Sea and shell Russian towns - this is what led to war with Britain and Russia. I do not think that Britain followed "divide and rule" policies in Cyprus (or really anywhere else). The blunder that was made was Disraeli keeping Turkish levels of taxation in Cyprus (which, by the standards of 1878, were very high). As always one must calculate tax as a proportion of income (not in Pounds, shillings and pence). When Edmund Burke was told, in the late 18th century, that the Irish paid much lower taxes that the English he replied (quite correctly) that in relation to the Irish economy taxation was actually much HIGHER in Ireland - because the people were so poor.