Sitting in a restaurant just east of Kyrenia on our first afternoon I overhear a conversation between two ladies who happen to be on adjacent tables. One asks the other if she is here on holiday. After receiving confirmation she informs her dining neighbour that she and her husband moved here a few years ago.
The ex-pat continues, “The really great thing about Northern Cyprus is that it is one of the few unspoilt places left on earth.”
“Really,” replies the holiday maker, “I come from Samoa.”
The Samoan’s delivery was deadpan and delicious, however our surroundings would have as easily undermined the exuberant ex-pat’s hyperbole. Here we were, sheltered by the sun beneath giant Carlsberg umbrellas looking out at a vista which included a very mundane and very British looking “No Through Road” sign (just in case you were tempted to believe the sea did not mark the end of the road) and the rudimentary preparations for a strip of concrete, roughly the dimensions of a cricket pitch, which were intended to add a further seating area to the restaurant.
Those that come to Northern Cyprus expecting it to be some enclave of times gone by, some antidote to tourism, are going to be disappointed. In Kyrenia and its surroundings there are plenty of neon lights and bars, plenty to lure in the holidaymaker. Less so than the Southern hotspot of Ayia Napa but not exactly an undiscovered village in the depths of the rainforest.
A stop at a kebab takeaway one evening revealed a man in vest and shorts telling the proprietor “that’s the best donner I’ve ever had” in a passable vocal interpretation of Phil Mitchell before he fell over the step and lurched homeward (this being a further example of a previously hidden British trait for overstatement as I know a thing or two about kebabs and this one only just made my top five).
However there is much that is unsophisticated to enjoy. The restaurant where the Samoan deflated her new friend’s claims of utopia was by the sea in Karakum. The restaurant was owned and staffed by the eponymous Deniz. He would cook and chat. One waitress greeted you as you arrived, formally shook you by the hand but then treated you as an old friend. The menu would be distributed but then immediately usurped by the waitress or Deniz telling you what you should have. One day the suggestion brought us mezze for lunch with dish after delicious dish of mainly vegetarian simplicity. A few evenings later it was sea bream and our menus were handed back unopened. Deniz knows what is good to come out of his kitchen. And he gets it right each time.
One would not like to leave you with the impression that my travels abroad centre around food but any visitor to Northern Cyprus should visit Bellapais. Not just for the splendid views or the wounded beauty of the ruins of a 13th Century Abbey, although both are magnificent. I would certainly say that if your only reason to visit Bellapais is to visit the Tree of Idleness made famous by Durrell’s book Bitter Lemons then there is little point. It’s a tree. Outside a cafe. And there is two of them, cafes and trees. So the highlight of Bellapais is a culinary one, the Bellapais Gardens.
You get to take in the aforesaid views whilst enjoying some excellent Turkish Cypriot cuisine. Admittedly Kleftiko is just lamb shank (not a form of rhyming slang) but my poor menu choice just highlighted the quality of the rest of the food.
An area that Northern Cyprus truly excels is relaxation. Everywhere you visit, every restaurant you dine in has a friendly and laid back welcome. No doubt assisted by the weather (it was glorious sunshine all 11 days we were there) you do feel at ease the moment you crack open an Efes and put a sucuk and hellim kebab on the barbecue.
Just to prove its not all about food lets talk turtle. Cyprus has 80 beaches that are nesting sites for a variety of turtles to bury their eggs. At Alagadi Beach a conservation project has been established to monitor, study and protect the turtles and their hatchlings. By arrangement you are able to join the project’s resident volunteers as they release hatchlings in to the sea by red torch light. In fact you get to release them. I held a turtle that was less than 24 hours old between my finger and thumb before I let it go in the night sea. It’s not often you get to say that.
Sadly a visit to Kyrenia (aka Girne) brings back the reality of Northern Cyprus. The harbour is a glimpse of the town’s historic origins but if Northern Cyprus is unspoilt in as much as globalisation has not hit it yet that is only evident by the absence of Starbucks and Tescos. But consumerism has its sticky fingers all over the shop displays as Gucci, Burberry and Prada crowd the window displays. Admittedly it is all fake but the fashion houses of London, New York and Paris are more evident than the influence of the Phoenicians, the Greeks and the Islamic Turk.
I wonder if the shopfronts of Samoa are crammed with counterfeit handbags? Only one way to find out…but that’s another trip, another time.