Poor Tunç. As we shuffled onto the bus at 07:30 a.m. his name was dirt, and he knew it. I am a regular early riser and had no issue with getting up at dawn to pack our bags and continue exploring Northern Cyprus, but judging from the barely stifled boos that greeted our tour guide that morning, it appeared that I was alone in my enthusiasm for the day ahead.
“Too bloody early” one woman hissed, arms folded and face a picture of pure loathing as she watched him take his seat. Tunç must have heard this because he immediately grabbed the on-board microphone:
“The reason we leave so early is because we have a strict schedule. Also, there is a lot of beautiful things to see. You didn’t come to Cyprus to sleep, did you?”
Silence. It was a fair question and suddenly I began to feel very sorry for Tunç. Yes, he was a bit humourless, and he had lied about the dinner situation, but he was working hard and genuinely wanted us to enjoy his country. I had hoped to see him in the casino the previous night and get him a (free) beer, but so far he had kept himself to himself outside of his tour guiding hours. His can’t have been an easy job; we were the first of many groups that he would be chaperoning over the next few months and he seemed to be under pressure to paint Northern Cyprus in a positive light and (more importantly) to make us spend some money.
We were sad to leave the hotel. Despite the fact that it was practically falling down and was mostly surrounded by a stinking swamp, it still had a charm I knew we would miss. There were still signs of life in the casino as we drove past. Did people really spend all night in such places? Tunç broke the uneasy silence by explaining that it had indeed only just closed. Casinos are big business in Cyprus, he revealed, and it was not uncommon to find at least one within a hotel complex. This was good news to those who had suckled from this particular casino’s teat last night and our friends all gave us a nod of excitement. Hopefully there would be an even better one at our hotel in Kyrenia.
After a short drive we began passing what looked like old stone bus shelters. These were in fact ancient royal tombs that had been broken open and robbed centuries earlier. We were now in a Necropolis, a city of the Dead close to the Roman city of Salamis. This news seemed to unnerve some of the group but I was eager to learn more. A little further on we reached the site of an old monastery of St. Barnabas, a contemporary of Jesus himself and the man who brought the big man’s teachings to Cyprus. The centre of the complex was a fine Greek Orthodox Church, which had last been used in 1976 when the last three monks left, presumably due to the Turkish invasion. Today it is a icon museum and we spent a hurried quarter of an hour looking at the stern, comic-like images in the church and at various archaeological finds in another museum in the old monastery buildings. It was a beautiful, peaceful spot; stray cats and dogs had flocked here like pilgrims and lived fat, happy lives under the watchful eyes of kindly caretakers, who had left out bowls of food and water for their animal friends.
“They need love, too” Tunç explained in a rare moment of emotion.
There was another, smaller church nearby. In its crypt – accessed by a crumbling, winding staircase – was the tomb of Barnabas himself. I had been in Greek Orthodox shrines before and knew that they were notoriously rough and ready, but this place was positively cave-like. I knocked my head numerous times on the low ceiling, sending down alarming amounts of stone and dust each time, threatening to bury us all alive. Ducking down into a smaller recess we saw the famous tomb of the saint. It was covered in a dirty and dusty red velvet sheet and was surrounded by long since burned out tea lights and a filthy mop. It was hardly the treasured shrine it should have been and care for the revered bones was a little half-arsed to say the least.
Down in these chilly, hallowed depths we got talking to two ladies from our group. They, like us, were from York. They had been on the excursion to Karpaz the previous day and we asked them how it had gone.
“Yeah, it was good” one of them said “except I nearly died.”
“What?” Lisa asked, mouth agape.
The lady explained how they had visited a cliff-top donkey sanctuary, where they had spent a happy hour feeding and petting these friendly (or so it seemed) animals.
“I was feeding a baby donkey” she continued “and all of a sudden a bigger, adult donkey ran up and pushed the baby over the cliff, and I nearly went with it.”
She told this harrowing tale with a strange calmness, as if her brush with death was an everyday occurrence.
“Was the baby donkey killed?” I asked.
“Oh yes. Dead.”
Neither of us knew what to make of this story and we made our excuses and headed back to the bus, hoping we would not be followed.
Our next stop, Famagusta, was a short drive southwards down the coast. In many ways this once fine city has become a symbol of the division of Cyprus. Before the Turkish invasion of 1974, Famagusta had been the country’s most prosperous and vibrant settlement. The 45,000 strong, mostly Greek population living in the district of Varosha had enjoyed the luxuries of restaurants, bars, cinemas and the best beaches on the island. It was the playground of Cyprus, welcoming thousands of tourists and famous names such as Brigette Bardot, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, who all had holiday homes here. All of this was swept away in ’74, when the Greek Cypriots fled for their lives from the invading Turks, leaving a melancholy, decaying ghost town surrounded by barbed wire and choked with weeds.
The bus crawled past the high fences and intimidating “Forbidden Zone” signs, giving us a chance to peer into this abandoned, apocalyptic world where nature is slowly reclaiming the streets and buildings. Turkish soldiers watched us from sentry posts with bored eyes, holding their rifles limply. Maybe they were wondering why they were there at all. But why were we being shown all this? It had become obvious that this trip had been designed by the Turkish and Northern Cypriot governments to sell the country to those who refused to recognise it, so why show us the scene of perhaps its greatest crime? It was difficult to fathom.We had hoped to stop and actually explore the ghost town but it soon became clear that this would probably involve being machine-gunned, which was not on the itinerary.
Just as we were filled with questions and newly found interest in Cyprus’s complex recent history we were dropped at, of all things, a carpet wholesalers. Our response was as if Tunç had invited us to watch him take a dump. The bus left us outside a vast warehouse in the shadows of the old, Venetian city walls and we were ceremoniously marched inside. Here Tunç introduced us to Ali (presumably the boss) and then, smelling rebellion in our ranks, promptly fucked off.
I liked Ali immediately. Yes, his job was to empty our bank accounts by selling us carpets, but he was charming, funny and he offered us free Raki. Sat around the edge of a large, rectangular sales room Lisa, Jill, Phil, Sue (Mike, like Tunç, had disappeared) downed the free booze in an effort to get through this bizarre situation. Perhaps persuaded by the strong drink (or politeness), I was the only one of our group to accept Ali’s invitation to walk barefoot on the carpets, which were being hurriedly laid out before us by a team of agile warehouse workers. It was a pleasant experience, but so is having a fuller bank account.
With the main sales pitch over, Ali announced that we still had one hour (!) until the bus collected us, so we had plenty of time “to make any purchases, dear guests”. Poor man. The look on his face as we all filed past him into the cafe will haunt me forever. While drinking beers in the shady warehouse garden it was clear that Tunç was going to get beaten up, either by one of us or by Ali’s men. At every table sat pissed off tourists, both British and German, all stubbornly refusing to part with their money, which our various tour guides had, no doubt, convinced Ali we would willingly do.
Luckily for Tunç, following the carpet disaster he dropped us off in the much more agreeable setting of Famagusta’s old town. Here we were given a couple of hours to explore independently and get some lunch. This new-found freedom (not to mention the fine, warm weather) quelled talk of rebellion for the time being. We were entranced by the gorgeous Lala Mustafa Pasha Mosque, built originally as a Roman Catholic cathedral in the 13th century and looking resplendent in the midday sunshine. Nearby there was a similarly aged and intriguing Greek Orthodox church, but this was locked and we had to settle with peering through a crack in the door.
We found Jill and Phil enjoying beers in a sunny spot close to the mosque. We joined them after sneaking out of a much more expensive (they would only accept Euros), shadier and emptier restaurant next door. Efes Beer, lamb skewers and sunshine made for one of the most content moments of the whole trip, made even better by the spellbinding sound of the call to prayer, emanating from the ex-cathedral’s solitary minaret. Such moments were why we had come to Cyprus.
The bus picked us up close to the old city walls and drove the short distance to the ancient city of Salamis. By this point of the day, with a good dinner and several beers inside me, I quite honestly couldn’t be arsed with Salamis. I was not the only one and a grumpy busload followed Tunç into the ruins. It is actually a very interesting place and still fairly intact, with its colonnaded gynasium and enormous amphitheatre particularly eye-pleasing. What wasn’t so eye-pleasing was the very graphic description of the Roman toilet facilities provided by Tunç, so graphic in fact that for one horrible moment it looked like he might actually give us a live demonstration. If this was his intention it was swiftly halted by a shriek. A Salamis cat (they were everywhere) had jumped onto the back of a woman in our group and seemed very reluctant to get off. Only a great deal of writhing and more shrieking persuaded the cat to try its luck elsewhere.
Sat up in the heights of the amphitheatre’s back row I could appreciate the impressive acoustics, though the sounds that reached me were disturbing and unexpected.
“Shut up, you old bastard!” hissed a woman’s voice.
Following the direction of this outburst I could see another lady from our group storming off. In very slow pursuit was her husband, a man resembling the lovechild of Bernard Cribbins and Captain Birdseye. He was trying his best to hurriedly descend the blocked seating of the theatre, but did so with all the grace of a punch-drunk ape.
We soon found Jill, who had been privy to more of this domestic. She had heard the woman wishing for some terrible accident to befall her husband while he was making is descent, saying that it would give her “what I have been waiting for all these years”. This was all a bit dark but very intriguing. Back on the bus the two of them hissed venom at each other while the rest of us pretended not to notice.
The tense atmosphere was broken with another sudden outburst, but not from the warring couple. As we crossed the mountains into the northern part of the island, being treated to heart-melting views of a gorgeous coastline lit with the dying glow of the sunset, a lady sat opposite us in an ill-fitting blonde wig blurted out perhaps the most inappropriate description of the beautiful scene before us:
“It looks just like Torquay!”
And thus we arrived in Kyrenia.