“Next year’s wine is the sweetest.”-Village Proverb
I couldn’t have read this village proverb from Lawrence Durrell’s Bitter Lemons of Cyprus during a time we’ve needed optimism more. Two years into a global pandemic and our lives, livelihoods, economy, and travel is still very uncertain.
In Durrell’s Cyprus, it was 1956, and he had to abandon his village home on the island, leaving in a hurry. Anti-English sentiment had grown and the calls for enosis were increasingly loud. Enosis, or union with Greece is what most Greek Cypriots favored. Independence is what the island eventually got.
These matters seldom have a one-size-fits-all solution and the minority Turkish Cypriots opposed a union with Greece without first partitioning of the island between Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots.
My journey to Cyprus would begin with a 12-hour ferry from Mersin, Turkey. It was 2007 and I would only be traveling in the Turkish part of a now divided Cyprus. This is the portion where Durrell’s story mostly takes place. He bought and restored an old house in Bellapais, a village known for its 13th-century abbey ruins overlooking the Mediterranean. In Durrell’s time, the island was still unified, known as British Cyprus, with a Crown Colony designation.
When independence came to Cyprus in 1960, it was neither enosis nor a partition. This situation eventually led to the 1974 Cypriot coup d’état. A Turkish invasion soon followed.
More than a third of the island’s territory was taken by the invading Turks, dividing Cyprus along what became known as the Green Line. It wasn’t until 1983 that the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) declared independence. Turkey is the only country that recognizes this distinction.
After a tiring ferry crossing, the ship docked in Famagusta and we made our way through passport control to enter the Turkish Republic of North Cyprus.
Although they share a common language with mainland Turks, Turkish Cypriots are quick to distinguish themselves. “We’re gentlemen.” one explains to me, implying that mainland Turks are not. That may be true, but what is more evident is that Turkish Cypriots are a bit wealthier, friendlier, and a lot more relaxed.
Over the years I have been drawn to peculiar and/or unrecognized countries like Transnistria, The Republic of Užupis, Palestine, Nagorno-Karabakh, Taiwan, and Kosovo, all of which I have visited. TRNC fit that bill. I had also read about the Karpas Peninsula.
Karpas is the long, finger-like peninsula that juts out to the northeast of the island. It is one of the most prominent geographical features of Cyprus. Although it was beautiful and has some excellent beaches, the “wildness” and “remoteness” were overstated in the travel literature I had read before arriving.
We spent two days camping on Golden Beach, easily one of the finest on Cyprus. The lack of development was a very refreshing change of pace on an island crowded with tourists. Golden Beach is a nesting ground for the endangered Green and Loggerhead sea turtles and the peninsula even has its own indigenous donkeys. So it did, after all, have an appealing wild and remote character.
Due to the lack of public transport, we were forced to hitch a ride the long way out to the end of the Karpas. Two long-haired Italian graduate students drove us in their little rental jeep. First, we drove to the end of the road for the views from Apostolos Andreas Monastery, where the peninsula come to a point. Then they dropped us at nearby Golden Sands Beach where we pitched our tent in the wild sand dunes at Hasan’s Turtle Beach. Hasan operates a restaurant and campground here despite the lack of electricity and looks out for the well-being of the sea turtles when they come ashore to nest.
The Italians refused gas money insisting instead that we “take a beer” with them. So we bought them a beer and enjoyed sitting among the sand dunes sipping an Effes. They drove back to civilization and we remained with our tent in the dunes in relative isolation at Golden Beach.
We hitched a ride out of the Karpas Peninsula, back to Famagusta where we could get bus service to Girne. Girne, also known as Kyrenia in Greek, is a pleasant seaside town with a nice harbor and 16th-century castle. It is a tourist town, with mostly Britains, but not tacky in the least. Its castle is home to the oldest shipwreck recovered anywhere in the world—a 2,300-year-old Greek trading vessel. Even the boat’s cargo is preserved and on display: wine amphorae, lead weights, and almonds!
We took a day trip to the divided capital of Lefkosia, or Nicosia, in Greek. We wandered the quiet winding streets outside the thick Venetian-built city walls to the Ledra Palace. Here you could walk through the no man’s land buffer zone to the southern, Greek side of the city, thus entering the Republic of Cyprus. This is the independent, recognized country. We sensed that crossing the border at the world’s only remaining divided capital had become a bit of a tourist attraction in itself.
We turned around and remained in Durrell’s Cyprus, returning to Turkey the next day via hydrofoil. I wouldn’t step foot in the Republic of Cyprus until years later.
I never visited Durrell’s still-standing house in Bellapais on that 2007 trip but reading Bitter Lemons of Cyprus transported me back to the island. Durrell’s poetic descriptions and detailed conversations brought 1950s Cyprus alive. You could tell he was there to get appreciation and insight into this country, people, and culture; not there for tax breaks and sunshine as many Britons were at the time.