(photo credit: Jay Abramoff)
Only a 40-minute flight away, north Cyprus may seem somewhat familiar to an Israeli traveler, but it is oh so different.
This isn't the Greek Cypriot-controlled Republic of Cyprus, which is a member of the European Union and enjoys international recognition. The southern part of Cyprus has been a popular vacation destination for Israelis for years, but only 330 Israelis entered north Cyprus in 2005, according to the de facto government's Ministry of Tourism.
North Cyprus - or the Turkish Republic of North Cyprus, which was declared in 1983 and is only recognized by Turkey - has been in political and economic isolation since 1974, when Turkish forces landed on the island. A cease-fire between the Turkish/Turkish Cypriot forces and the Greek/Greek Cypriot forces established the Green Line - a term that should also sound familiar to Israelis.
The Green Line was a closed border from 1974-2004. Anyone wishing to travel to north Cyprus had to fly or cruise via Turkey.
Since 2004, when the Republic of Cyprus was admitted to the EU and forced to open its border to the north, it has been possible to fly into Larnaca and then cross into north Cyprus via one of the border crossings, including two - one for cars and one for pedestrians and bicycles - in Nicosia itself.
Nicosia, a divided city, serves as capital of both the Republic of Cyprus and the TRNC. The Old City of Nicosia is also divided and the Arabahmet district is being restored with aid from the EU and the US. There are no regular shows at the Museum of Whirling Dervishes, but a group does visit and perform once a year.
The Selimiye Mosque is unique because the orientation of the mosque - which has to face Mecca - is not in line with the design of the building, which had been intended to be used as a church (Saint Sophia Cathedral).
Fresh food and gifts are available from the stalls of the Bedestan, a covered open-air market.
The restored Great Inn now houses artists and craftspeople and, as throughout its history, is a nice place to stop for a meal. The outdoor caf serves the local versions of burekas - including meat, halumi cheese and sweet cheese "boregi" - which are prepared from scratch.
The local cuisine also has similarities to Israel: meze includes humous, tehina and other salads; different types of kebab; stuffed leaves and vegetables; and Turkish coffee.
Fish dishes dominate restaurant and caf menus but there are few markets that sell fresh fish to the general public; the eateries seem to have cornered the market.
Cyprus has its own species of potato of which it is quite proud - and rightly so, at least based on the French fries. Citrus fruit is a major crop, and locally-made marmalades are a must-try. In general, the local food and fruit is of high quality. Efes Pilsner from Turkey is by far the most prominent brand of beer, and the quality of the Turkish wines is surprising.
Other sights to see in the Old City of Nicosia include the Arabahmet mosque, Kyrenia Gate and Lapidary Museum.
OFF THE HIGHWAY from Nicosia to Kyrenia, which passes through the Kyrenia - or Five Finger - Mountains, sits the Saint Hilarion Castle, one of three mountain castles in north Cyprus.
The castle in Kyrenia itself and the city's harbor are two of north Cyprus's biggest draws. The castle, which has two sets of walls, a Byzantine chapel, a shipwreck museum and a dungeon, dominates the harbor, which is now mostly restaurants and cafes and is the perfect setting for a romantic dinner.
Slightly off the beaten path, the interested traveler will also find bars and nightclubs that some locals may be trying to keep to themselves.
A short drive from Kyrenia is the village of Bellapais, the site of an impressive Gothic abbey and from where it is possible, and even recommended, to relax at one of the cafes and gaze out toward the Kyrenia plain and blue waters of the Mediterranean.
There is no choice in north Cyprus but to soak in the exquisite charm of an area that for the most part has been neglected by the outside world for three decades.
Heading west from Kyrenia past the considerable amount of construction of apartments and villas - a byproduct of north Cyprus's improved international political and economic situation over the last few years - there are charming restaurants right on the clear waters of the Mediterranean on the way toward Morphu and Lefke.
The St. Mamas Church in Morphu houses an archaeological and natural history museum and the Vuni Palace and Soli ruins lie further west near Lefke. At Vuni, which is located almost at the western tip of North Cyprus, a "lone ranger" keeps an eye out for forest fires. While the mosaics at Soli are disintegrating with no money to preserve them, the amphitheater at Soli is still in use and is just one of many spectacular settings in north Cyprus for concerts.
If you are looking for a place to get away from it all, the Karpaz Peninsula is where you want to go. This mostly undeveloped area is the easternmost section of the island of Cyprus, and stretches toward Turkey, Lebanon and Syria. But you don't have to be completely out of touch if you choose not to; cell phones with international roaming capabilities work here.
Karpaz is almost entirely rural and agricultural, and the accommodations here consist of boutique hotels and bungalows on the pristine beaches. The area is a nature lover's paradise, with impressive biological diversity, including 1,600 species of plants, 350 species of birds and 26 species of reptiles and amphibians. Cyprus, like Israel, is located along one of the main bird migration routes between Eastern Europe and Africa. The peninsula is home to two types of strictly-protected endangered turtle species and a wild donkey reservation has been established here as well.
In addition to the natural beauty, places of interest include the ruins at Sipahi, the Apostoles Andreas Monastery at the eastern tip of the peninsula and the fishing village of Bogaz.
ALONG THE eastern coast of north Cyprus, on the road from Karpaz toward Famagusta, is Salamis, north Cyprus's most impressive archaeological site. It would be quite easy to spend a whole day here.
As is common throughout north Cyprus, Salamis has only been partially excavated, as hardly any archaeological work has been performed since 1974.
However, what has been unearthed includes the gymnasium, a theater that used to be able to hold 15,000 in 50 rows of seats, the market (Agora), three Byzantine basilicas and the ancient Roman port. The Romans were obsessed with baths, so there are also plenty of these, along the walls and roofs of which are colorful mosaics.
One interesting note about Salamis is that the area's Jews were expelled around 120 CE after they committed a massacre against the Roman inhabitants.
Close to Salamis is the Saint Barnabas Monastery, which also houses an archaeological museum. From 1974-2003, Greek Cypriots were not allowed to cross the Green Line and could not visit this and other Greek Orthodox sites in north Cyprus. The Apostoles Andreas Monastery and the Saint Barnabas Monastery are examples of Greek Orthodox places of worship that are now objects of pilgrimage.
Famagusta, which is located near the border with the south on the eastern shore of the island, is where British mandatory authorities established camps for Jews fleeing the Holocaust and post-World War II Europe who were attempting to reach Palestine.
The Citadel, or Othello's Tower, guards the harbor and the town. According to local legend, Famagusta has never surrendered to attacking forces.
Within the Venetian walls, the Saint Nicholas Cathedral - now known as Lala Mustafa Pasha Mosque - is the largest medieval building in Famagusta. The fig tree in front was supposedly planted in 1299 CE, making it the oldest living thing in Cyprus.
Saint Nicholas Cathedral is one of 17 churches within the town walls. After the Crusaders were driven out of Jerusalem and Palestine, many Christian sects sought refuge in Cyprus.
Outside the Old City walls, modern Famagusta includes a very real symbol of the most recent military activity on the island. The district of Varosha is now a ghost town, lying on the Green Line. An entire section of the city is closed off, and stands as a stark reminder of the past and current political situation. Bombed-out beachfront hotels and apartments can be seen from the re-opened Palm Beach Hotel.
As north Cyprus slowly emerges from 30 years of isolation, it may become more commercialized, even though a government official seemed sincere in his commitment to "sustainable tourism" and "eco-tourism." This may be the best time to visit the northern part of the so-called "Island of Love."
The writer was a guest of the KOBI Center, which is supported by the EDGE project, implemented by BearingPoint and funded by USAID.
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