Travel Tales

A beach on the northeastern (Turkish) tip of Cyprus.

Travel Tale: Cyprus

July 22, 2008
by Liz Colville
Rich with thousands of years of history, but divided by two cultures, Cyprus is really two islands in one, both breathtaking in distinct ways.

We moved to Cyprus in 1994 along with my dad; he wasn’t a diplomat, as are many Americans there, but a Reuters editor freshly assigned to the Middle East and Africa desk. I envisioned a tropical island, and while tropical was a bit far off the mark, the capital city, Nicosia, was dotted with palm, eucalyptus and citrus trees, and featured the commercial trappings of a British protectorate—a Hilton hotel, a Marks & Spencer department store—and a mix of citizens that included Canadians, Sri Lankans, Iranians and Serbians. Ours was a three-year post; in 1997 Reuters closed its Nicosia office and sent my dad and his colleagues back to London, where they would continue the same work.

The island was, and still is, a haven for people escaping war-torn regions or otherwise unsafe situations (for some foreigners, it’s also a tax haven). My school, the American International School of Cyprus, had previously been a hospital, then a hotel, which meant we had a lovely pool for gym class. It is probably one of the tiniest and most diverse schools in the world: my sixth-grade class had 19 people in it, and no two people were from the same country. It was also hard to find a student with two parents from the same place. In short, the only thing “American” about the school was its curriculum. Similarly, the only things British about Nicosia were its stores and its Anglican church. World66 offers a great written tour of Nicosia.
In the mid-1990s, it was a bit ironic to call Cyprus a “haven,” because the island itself is divided; 37 percent of it has been illegally occupied by Turkey since 1974, and Turkey is the only country that recognizes the region. Greek Cyprus, for its part, was happily inducted into the European Union in 2004. But the violent flare-ups we witnessed in the 1990s were innocuous compared to the events that resident Serbians, Croatians or Kuwaitis had endured just a few years before. Since we left, progress has been slow to come. But in 2003, a checkpoint in Nicosia was opened, allowing Greek- and Turkish-Cypriots to visit each other’s worlds. Before that, Cypriots risked death if they attempted to traverse the green line. Foreigners could make the crossing to Turkish Cyprus with a passport. More recent history on the island is available in its BBC Country Profile.

In April of this year, another historic barrier in Cyprus was torn down, a gate dividing the Greek and Turkish sides of the cobblestoned pedestrian thoroughfare, Ledra Street. FindingDulcinea covered the event in a news article.
Ledra Street is a focal point of Nicosia, lined with shops that have been in existence for decades and European brand names that just moved into town. There is a department store, a supermarket, an ultramodern Chinese restaurant and about a dozen cafes, including a Starbucks. On the Turkish side, the shops are established, unique and local. Allowing these two sides to merge and mingle each other’s commercial offerings was the latest step in trying to unite the island’s two cultures, which are predominantly Greek Orthodox and Muslim. The New York Times created a slideshow contrasting the two sides in honor of the Ledra Street opening.
During the summer, I spent nearly ten hours a day at the Hilton Hotel, which had an outdoor pool that was the perfect place to see and be seen—even if you were only eleven. I learned to swim at this pool, and made two great friends, an Armenian and an Iranian. When the temperature climbed to 110 degrees in July, our family retreated, as many Greek-Cypriots do, to the Troodos Mountains in the west of the island, which are home to a dormant volcano, peaceful towns and ski resorts. Yes, it actually snows on this arid island. In fact, during one week in winter of 2003, it was so hot on the coast that people were swimming, and so cold in the mountains that people were skiing. Watch a video tour of the Troodos forests below.

(It’s worth noting that purchasing Christmas trees in Cyprus is illegal—unless they’re fake. If only other countries would follow suit.)

My parents moved back to Cyprus in 2003 to retire, returning to the same four-story apartment building that we lived in when I was growing up. Back then, we lived in the penthouse and had a roof terrace overlooking the Turkish Republic’s Kyrenia Mountains. Since moving back, we’ve explored what’s over those mountains much more than we did in the ’90s, when we stuck mostly to the resort town on the west coast, Paphos. On the Turkish side, we’ve visited the Salamis ruins, which date to the Bronze Age; the Bellapais Cathedral, constructed from 1198 to 1205; and the northeastern arm of the island, home to beautiful, practically untouched beaches. Photos and descriptions of the North’s main attractions, including several beaches, can be found on the site In North Cyprus.

The Salamis ruins, an archaeological site in Turkish Cyprus that dates as far back as 1100 BC.

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