“Good morning! Wake up call!”
“What time is it?” I groaned.
“7 a.m. sir.”
“But we didn’t ask for a wake up call.”
“No, but your tour guide did.”
Bloody Tunç. I hadn’t slept well and all I wanted was to do was stay in bed. Northern Cyprus and all its charms could wait.
We struggled into life and made our way to the restaurant for breakfast, joining a long line of similarly zombie-like, pissed off holiday-makers. The golden morning light revealed our surroundings and confirmed that our hotel was (as I had guessed the previous night) by the sea, but I was too tired to care.
Breakfast was a sombre affair. The restaurant was cold and cheerless and the food on offer copious but far from appetising. Sliced cucumber, feta cheese and thin bread were all that appealed to me, washed down with mystery juice reminiscent of cat’s urine. Our fellow holiday-makers munched their toast in silence and once again we had that feeling that we had made a bad choice in coming here. The only joy was the army of cute hotel cats purring underneath the tables, all plump and well-fed thanks to overly generous guests.
We found Tunç grumpily drinking coffee in reception. The previous evening he had been pushing meal packages on guests for the sum of £99 each, with the advice that there was nowhere within the vicinity of the hotel to get an evening meal. We had held off making a decision on this outlay, but having now seen our surroundings in the cold light of day this advice seemed annoyingly sensible and we reluctantly handed over the money to our stony-faced guide. That was a good third of our funds gone already and we had not been in Cyprus 24 hours. Suddenly I disliked Tunç a great deal and wished that some small misfortune might befall him during the course of the day.
Soon afterwards we were herded onto two buses. There were around 60 of us in total, divided into two tour groups, each with its own guide. The other group’s leader was a tall, handsome, well-dressed man in his 40s, with lustrous silver hair. He looked like he had stepped off an Armani fashion shoot and he radiated charm. The sight of him placated his previously rebellious group and they suddenly seemed a lot happier, while we were close to mutiny.
Tunç’s announcement that we would be starting our trip with a walking tour around Nicosia was greeted with little enthusiasm. As we drove through dusty, rocky landscape and past the enormous mountainside flag once more Lisa whispered in my ear:
“I don’t think anyone wants to talk to us.”
We were the odd ones out because we were a good 20 years younger than everyone else. No one had been hostile as such, but nor were they keen to talk. How on earth were we going to survive this trip?
Despite the apparent apathy in the group I actually began to look forward to exploring Nicosia. It is the only capital city in the world shared by two nations, with the border of Greek-Turkish Cyprus (known as “The Green Line”) running right through the middle of it. Approaching the city centre we passed trenches daubed with barbed wire and sandbagged machine gun nests. Turkish soldiers could be seen manning the border but there was a more of a sense of boredom than hostility; the violence of the past was gradually becoming just a memory.
We stopped close to the Kyrenia Gate and the city’s old Venetian walls. Greeks, Turks, British, Venetians – apparently everyone has wanted a piece of Cyprus during its long history. The Gate was a curious building, with a small, arched gateway and squat square tower. It had once been attached to the walls and was the city’s northern entrance, but now it stood alone and surrounded by traffic.
Everywhere we looked there were men and only men. Most were young, bored-looking and standing around as if waiting for something, anything, to happen. We had only been in Nicosia a matter of minutes and already it was clear that this place was far from being the beating heart of Cyprus I had expected.
“Turkish soldiers on their day off” Tunç explained of the young men. The soldiers watched us with curiosity. The largest group of them were in a lengthy queue for the ATM. Today (Sunday) was pay day and they were here in the capital to spend their wages, though there seemed little to buy. Most of them were doing their military service in Cyprus and homesickness was written on almost every face.
It may have been Sunday but Nicosia seemed to be a sleepy city. Indeed, it was difficult to believe that this was the capital. Tunç led us past British colonial buildings still bearing the royal coat of arms and pointed out a pillar from some ancient historical site, now re-erected in a square and a magnet for more bored soldiers and leathery-faced old men with nothing to do. Where were all the women?
We stepped into the old town, where the streets were windier and more uneven. Here we saw the Büyük Han, built by the Ottomans in the 1570s as an inn and centre of commerce. A raised walkway with numerous old rooms (prison cells during the British occupation) flanked the square courtyard, in the middle of which stood a tiny redundant mosque. This was a fine spot, with a cafe serving cold beer and with a small number of shops remarkably free of tourist tat. The cafe must have been owned by a cousin of Tunç, because he pretty much forbade us from spending our money anywhere else. Here, thankfully, he left us all to do our own thing for a couple of hours and we gleefully gained our independence once more.
We stumbled across the old St. Sophia Cathedral, built as a Christian place or worship in the 12th century by the Franks, but ever since the Ottoman invasion of 1571 a mosque. The outer, Gothic shell remains but with great spikes of minarets sticking up out of it.
“How dare they turn it into a mosque. Disgusting!” a woman from our group whispered with venom to herself, not realising that the excellent acoustics were broadcasting her disapproval to all English-speakers inside. I had secretly hoped there would be some mad people on this trip, purely for entertainment value, but not this kind of mad.
Lisa and I wandered back into the winding streets in search of somewhere to eat. Nowhere looked particularly appealing, with waiting staff lounging on chairs staring dumbly at their smartphones and ignoring all potential trade. The shops were all open but no one was buying, not even the bored soldiers with crisp new notes in their pockets.
A blue line on the road led (oddly) to the Green Line. Perhaps if we crossed the border into the Greek side of the city we would have better luck. We had been advised to bring our passports if we wanted to cross and these we showed to surly border control officers. A brief walk past empty, abandoned buildings led to another, Greek checkpoint. From here we stepped into a different world. Where on the Turkish side there had been disordered streets and widespread disinterest, here was a thriving, prosperous city. A busy main thoroughfare was throbbing with happy people, many of them sipping lattes in outside cafes and others with bulging shopping bags from H&M, Tiger and Marks & Spencer swinging from their arms. The contrast with what we had just seen in the Turkish side left us staggering around in disbelief; it was the best advert for the EU I have ever seen.
At that moment I would happily have stayed on the Greek side for the rest of the trip and the thought of returning north was galling. Our lunch plans were thwarted by the fact we only had Turkish Lira on us and no Euros. Any attempt to use Lira here would, no doubt, lead to a swift kick in the groin, so we reluctantly re-crossed the border.
Back on the Turkish side we found a fairly decent place to eat and enjoyed a simple lunch of grilled halloumi and bread. On the table next to us were sat two of our group, a couple from Harrogate called Jill and Phil. After us they were the youngest people and thank God we found them. We all had a good laugh about our crap hotel and the humourless Tunç. They too had been wooed by the £149 price tag in the Yorkshire Post and made the good point that, for such a cheap holiday, we should be prepared to put up with some of the ropier elements of the itinerary.
A classic example of this observation was our next calling point. Not far out of Nicosia the bus dumped us next to an old Greek Orthodox church, which had the unusual and unexpected addition of a “miniature wonderland” in its grounds. It was delightfully crap. The “wonderland” consisted of several miniature models of the great buildings of Northern Cyprus, including some of those we had seen in the capital. Tunç was almost in tears describing its brilliance, but in reality all it needed was a few holes in the ground and it would have been a Crazy Golf course. We were lucky that we had the pleasure and time to take the piss out of it; a recently arrived German group was actually being given a guided tour of the place and all looked to be on the verge of suicide. One woman was crying on the shoulder of her husband, wondering where she had gone wrong with her life.
The church had some historical merit but had been filled with the largest assortment of shite I have ever seen, including some spellbindingly bad taxidermy. One such stuffed beast (some sort of partridge) suffered the added ignominy of having a severely broken neck. The only other diversion was the tiny cafe, which looked swish and brand new but was totally unprepared for the arrival of 100+ tourists.
The last thing we expected to encounter here was gunfire. The sound of it echoed off the nearby hills and made everyone freeze; even Tunç looked uneasy. Another volley caused a wave of shrieks and almost started a stampede towards the buses. Scanning the horizon I could see the form of two armed men running towards us. Uh oh. One lifted his rifle and for a pant-soiling moment I thought he was about the open fire on us all. He aimed his rifle, however, into some bushes and ran in another direction.
“Hunters” someone nearby exclaimed with relief.
“Thank God for that” said Phil. “The last place you’d want to be found shot dead is somewhere like this.”
We were glad to return to the hotel and felt pleased that we had made some friends. Jill and Phil weren’t at dinner as they had (wisely) turned down the meal package in favour of finding a local taverna. The fare was filling but unspectacular. For the price we paid I was determined to stuff my face as much as possible and made myself feel quite uncomfortable in the attempt.
After such a massive feed we needed a drink, but to our horror we learned the hotel bar was closed at this time of year. It was only 8pm and the prospect of retiring early to bed was too depressing for words. Thank God then that we stumbled across the casino. Next to the hotel pool (which was a temperature little short of sub zero) was the one beacon a life in this faded place and we eagerly made our way inside. Not only did it have a bar but all drinks were free! The barman explained that alcohol was “gratis” for all those spending money in the various machines and games tables, which made sense. The only trouble was that we were tight fuckers and only had a quick go on the slot machines, much preferring to observe the misery of the seasoned gamblers around us. None of them looked happy as they mindlessly fed notes into the greedy machines. There was also tables for roulette and poker, where some of the scariest looking people I’ve ever seen sat in clouds of cigarette smoke. Tensions were high at the poker table and one bloke in particular kept reaching under the table, as if about to spray the room with bullets from a concealed firearm if the cards didn’t go his way.
It was jolly fascinating stuff, made even better by all the free booze and the arrival of Jill and Phil. There was even free food at one point, a fact that made us all wish Tunç a lifetime of ill fortune for the lies he had told us. We were soon joined by another couple from our group, Sue and Mike. They too were from North Yorkshire and together we made a merry, very pissed band. The glum Cypriot gamblers shot us looks of distaste as we watched them lose their money long into the night.