Cyprus’ colourful past makes it a fascinating destination, writes Sharanjit Singh

THE little that I knew of Cyprus was that it was a favourite destination of the English as a sun-soaked paradise with numerous pubs and bars and a lively nightlife.

This third largest island in the Mediterranean Sea, after Sicily and Sardinia, is located at the crossroads between the east and the west, off the coasts of Syria and Turkey.

It is an island with a colourful past because of its strategic location. It had been conquered and ruled by many civilisations. Powers which had occupied it included the Assyrians, Egyptians, Persians, Romans, Byzantines and Arabs. Even the Knights Templars, Lusignans, Venetians, the Ottomans and, yes, the British (1878-1959) had ruled Cyprus.

Even now, the island is still very much in conflict as two sides, the Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots, desperately attempt to reconcile their differences following a bitter fallout which has put the people at odds for almost half a decade.

THE GREEN LINE

Right now, there is the southern part of the island country populated by Greek Cypriots and northern side inhabited by Turkish Cypriots.

Ironically, during the Ottoman Rule (1571-1878), the Turkish Cypriots and Greek Cypriots lived in peace and harmony, despite their differences in terms of ethnicity, religion, language, culture and communal traditions.

Problems started in 1963 and in 1974, there was a coup d’etat in an attempt to annex the island to Greece. This prompted an armed Turkish response and its army still maintains a large force there.

The incident resulted in the eviction of many of the north’s Greek Cypriots and the flight of Turkish Cypriots from the south as well as the partitioning of the island, leading to a unilateral declaration of independence by the north in 1983.

Since ties between the Greek and Turkish Cypriots have deteriorated to conflict level, the United Nations has established a peace keeping force on the island until today.

This force oversees the physical separation of the two Cypriot ethnic groups at a buffer zone known as the Green Line which cuts across the northern part of the island.

Fortunately, open hostilities have been absent for some time, as the two sides gradually inch towards a reunification of sorts.

Thankfully, despite over 100 failed intensive negotiations for this to happen, both sides have managed to keep diplomatic channels open as they try to find a solution to the impasse.

A university professor who gave a talk to visiting journalists, told us that this leaves the peace keeping force personnel with little to do but to enjoy a holiday in the sun.

One can witness the story of Cyprus’ tumultuous past through its many historic sites, Roman ruins, museums and dusty streets.

There are also Byzantine era castles and churches, Roman monasteries and mosques which were once churches.

Although the majority of the population are Muslims, religious attitudes are moderate and secular with open air beer gardens and casinos in almost every nook and corner of the island.

ST HILARION CASTLE

It is said that Disney’s iconic castle in Snow White was inspired by the St Hilarion Castle, one of three castles located in the Five Finger Mountains at a height of 732m above sea level. Originally a monastery, it was converted into a castle in the 8th century. A favourite haunt for trekkers, the steep climb up is rewarded with stunning views overlooking the city of Kyrenia as well as the Cyprus coast.

EMU BEACH CLUB

Sink your toes into the warm white sands of this Mediterranean beach at the Emu Beach Club. Located in Famagusta and owned by the Eastern Mediterranean University, the private beach club charges an entrance fee of five Turkish lira per person. It has a restaurant and swimming pool with activities available such as windsurfing, sailing, canoeing and beach volleyball.

LALA MUSTAFA PASHA MOSQUE (ST NICHOLAS CATHEDRAL)

Formerly St Nicholas Cathedral in 1298, the church was converted into a mosque after the fall of Gazimagusa in 1571. It remains a mosque to this day. Fronting the main entrance is a monumental East African Fig Tree which was planted when the cathedral was built. This 718-year-old tree currently stands at 15m and is the oldest tree on the island.

VENETIAN LION AT OTHELLO’S CASTLE

Othello’s Castle is a citadel that originates from Shakespeare’s Othello, a play which refers to a port in Cyprus. Fronting Othello’s Castle is a stone lion made from local limestone, and symbolises Venetian power and wealth as well as Venetian domination on the land. Till today, the phrase “You have a complaint? Go tell the lion!” can still be heard among the Cypriot community.

KYRENIA SHIPWRECK

The ancient shipwreck of Kyrenia is the oldest known ship which sailed the Mediterranean Sea during the time of Alexander The Great. A 2,500-year-old Greek merchant ship, its wreckage was discovered by the Cypriots in 1965. This conserved historical exhibit, along with other cargo recovered from the wreck, are on display at the Ancient Shipwreck Museum in Kyrenia Castle.

GOTHIC INTERIOR OF BELLAPAIS ABBEY

Bellapais Abbey, known as one of the greatest Gothic architectural treasures of Europe, is located within the Five Finger Mountain range in Kyrenia. Built in the 13th Century, this monastery at 220m above sea level, has a commanding view of Kyrenia and the Mediterranean Sea. Outside the abbey, local artists frequently gather to sketch the exterior of the abbey. In the Bellapais Gardens is Kybele Restaurant, a favourite place for taking in the views at sunset.

DINING WITH A VIEW

Dining in Cyprus doesn’t just mean tasty Mediterranean food but also great views. There is no shortage of waterfront restaurants and dining at a restaurant with a view is a quintessential part of the North Cyprus experience. With a main dish costing an average 20 Turkish lira, the portions at Ezic Peanuts are not only reasonably priced but also large enough for two to share.

KYRENIA HARBOUR

It is easy to be caught up in the laidback charm of the quaint Kyrenia Harbour. A favourite haunt of both tourists and locals, the cobbled streets of the harbour town is peppered with shops, restaurants, cafes and markets. In the day, activities include scuba diving, paragliding, mountain trekking and boat tours.

In the evenings, the upbeat sounds of music filling the air sees party dwellers flocking to the harbour town for its nightlife.

GASTRONOMIC DINING

Turkish-Cypriot cuisine is indeed a feast for the senses and owes its heritage to a mixture of Mediterranean, Southern European and Middle Eastern influences. Local specialties include mezzes comprising olives, cheeses, and yoghurt, with typical mains being seafood, seftali kebabs and musakka (baked mince, potato and aubergine topped with cheese).

Sweets are abundantly found in Turkish-Cypriot cuisine. Top off your meal with Turkish delights and a decadent baklava.

PANORAMIC VIEWS

The rooftop Sky Bar of the Lord’s Palace & Hotel offers panoramic, breath-taking views of Kyrenia. Flanked by views of the mountains on one end and the Mediterranean Sea on the other, the bar has piped music playing in the background as holiday makers indulge in a leisurely swim or a decadent meal. Live DJ performances thrice a week has also earned this venue a “must-visit” on the entertainment list.

SUNSET AT ACAPULCO BEACH

With its private kilometre-long sandy beach, the Acapulco Beach Club is fondly referred to as the Golden Beach of North Cyprus. Apart from the newly-completed Aqua Park, there are beach bars, water sports, spas, restaurants and a casino. Stunning views of sunset can be seen from the aptly named Sunset Restaurant in the resort.

SHOPPING

Although the Turkish lira is the official currency in North Cyprus, euros and US dollars are widely accepted. Souvenir shops are widespread and can be found in every corner, offering a variety of Turkish lamps, Turkish delights and Lefkara lace. With 1 Turkish lira equivalent to RM1.35, there are plenty of bargains to be found and will satiate our inner shopaholic.

ISLAND PARADISE

At the Turkish Airlines counter in Kuala Lumpur International Airport, I wait for my boarding passes to the island paradise which is named after the Goddess of Love.

The airline employee flashes me a smile and hands me two boarding passes. One is for the flight to Istanbul and the second, a connecting one to Ercan.

Wait a minute... Ercan? I immediately look back at the woman.

“There must be some mistake,” I tell her, stressing that my final destination is Cyprus, not Ercan. My fears are put to rest when I double check the flight reservations and find out that Ercan is actually the name of the airport in north Cyprus.

After a long 11-hour flight to Istanbul, a five-hour layover at Ataturk International Airport and another hour-long flight to Ercan, I am finally in Cyprus, on the side known as the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC).

Interestingly, you will not find TRNC on any world map as it is actually a self-declared state with a population of about 270,000 living on the north-eastern part of the island.

It is recognised only by Turkey and depends very much on the Turks not only for protection but also for its economic well-being.

HOLIDAY IN THE SUN

Cyprus is one of the most magical places in the world and North Cyprus is part of this landscape, filled with mystery and Mediterranean fragrance. A visit to this island paradise will reward you with glimpses of sites which have witnessed 10,000 years of history and glorious beaches with Mediterranean climate.

Tourism is undoubtedly the dominant sector of Northern Cyprus’ economy and attracts an average of one million visitors annually. Casino tourism has also grown to become a significant contribution to the economy. These were opened in the 1990s and have become popular with visitors, leading to huge investments in the casino sector.

Truly, Northern Cyprus has a little bit of everything, from vibrant nightlife, excellent food and majestic beaches to ancient ruins and historical sites. The island leaves you with an overwhelming impression of being stuck in the Middle Ages with all the trappings of the modern world and visitors are spoilt for choice.

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