The more we explored Northern Cyprus the more it felt like we were in the middle of some elaborate Turkish propaganda exercise. Almost every day so far we had passed enormous, spaceship-like war memorials to the 1974 invasion, from which fluttered the flags of this captured territory and that of mothership Turkey, whose presence loomed protectively across the sea. There were statues and effigies of Atatürk in the towns and villages, by the main roads and invariably close to the numerous military facilities we passed daily. Our first sight of soldiers in Nicosia had been unsettling, but by now it had become so commonplace that they merely blended in to the background. Even though fighting between the Greek and Turkish Cypriots had ended years earlier, there was a sense that Turkey (whose army is the second largest in NATO) still had a finger on the trigger.
All of these thoughts were running through my head while staring down at mighty Geçitköy Dam early one morning. Tunç had brought us here first thing and we shared the sight of it with busloads of bored German tourists. The view certainly was spectacular, as was the feat of engineering that was pumping water from a reservoir in southern Turkey, under the Mediterranean Sea and up to this mountainous spot close to the town of Lapta; but why exactly had we been brought here? I doubt it was just to admire the view. It felt as though Turkey was flexing its muscles to us Western Europeans, showing that it too was capable of great works worthy of EU membership. The trouble is, while the Turks continue to occupy the territory of another EU member, any such political aspirations will prove fruitless.
We were in the middle of Güzelyurt (“The Beautiful Land”) on the westernmost end of Northern Cyprus. The name was an accurate description of everything we saw in that golden early morning: rolling green hills and miles upon miles of lemon and orange trees. This fertile ground is famous for the quality of its fruit; they even hold an annual orange festival in the region’s capital, also called Güzelyurt. In the recent re-unification talks this prosperous part of the island has been fiercely contested and the Greek Cypriots have made no secret of their desire to reclaim it. We didn’t need Tunç to tell us that there was fat chance of this happening, nor were the Turks ever going to hand over the Geçitköy Dam. With many such factors in play, the re-unification of Cyprus still looks a long way off.
We stopped in Güzelyurt town to visit the church of St. Mamas, patron saint of tax-dodgers. According to local legend, Mamas had been a poor, cave-dwelling hermit who had been unable to pay his taxes and had therefore been seized by soldiers and dragged towards the town. On the way they encountered a lion attacking a lamb. Mamas escaped the soldiers, saved the lamb and tamed the lion, on whose back he rode triumphantly into Güzelyurt. Impressed by this stunning set of events, the authorities released the brave Mamas and wavered their tax demands on him. I wish I’d tried this last time my tax return was due.
While Tunç was telling this heart-warming tale an unexpected (and very unwelcome) thing happened. Some absolute beast emitted a fart so loud that Phil gasped and started at one another in shock. If memory serves me correctly the sound was so severe that it startled some nearby dozing pigeons into sudden flight. Amazingly, nobody else seemed to have noticed. My first thought was that this must have been the work of the odious Captain Birdseye, but a quick inventory of the group revealed that he was stood nowhere near the eruption’s epicentre. Phil motioned with his head towards the guilty party: husband of the Rebel Leader. Such unabashed flatulence was quickly becoming a regular and very distasteful theme of this trip.
The church is now, like so many others in this country, an icon museum. The icons weren’t the most interesting artifacts, however. Far more diverting were the numerous wax models brought there by pilgrims and molded into the shape of various body parts (curiously alien-looking legs, ears, noses), all representing ailing appendages in need of divine attention. Most eye-catching of all were the creepy wax babies, presumably hung there by would-be parents. Lisa and I hope to have a baby of our own in the near future, but these unsettling effigies temporarily dampened our mood for the project. Fertility was indeed a strong theme here and there was even some holy olive oil (extracted from two off-putting holes in a wall), which if daubed on the forehead will boost the bearer’s fecundity to extraordinary levels. After performing this ritual my attention was drawn to one of the more elderly ladies in our group who, eyeing the oil now trickling seductively into my eyes, gave me a naughty wink.
After the church we were motioned towards the archaeology and natural history museum, located in a small, single story building nearby. Here was displayed an array of finds from the ancient sites of Salamis and Soli, but of most interest was the bad taxidermy on the ground floor. The eye-legged lamb (quickly dubbed “Spider-Lamb”) drew much attention and revulsion from all.
We lunched at a market just off a busy main road. Here locals were selling a decent array of local produce, including juicy oranges, delicious flat breads and various sweet treats. I tried a Turkish coffee and was wired for the next two days. The stall holders were friendly but reluctant to accept anyone’s Turkish Lira; Euros were all they were interested in. The coffee seller begrudgingly accepted my Lira as if I had just handed him sheets of used toilet paper. Boy, these people really wanted to be in the EU, and I couldn’t really blame them. The Greek side of the island, where life seemed less of a struggle, was only a few miles to the south and was the best advert for the EU you will ever see.
Around a picnic table a fierce debate was in progress. Was Northern Cyprus its own country or merely a satellite of Turkey? The argument for the former was strong, that was until the Rebel Leader (who had taken a shine to Jill, much to her horror) piped up:
“Greek or Turkish, they are all Cypriots and they will tell you so!”
This might have been true, but before we could discuss it further she went down a totally different path altogether:
“But the real disgrace is the discrimination against the British ex-pats here.”
No one knew what to say about this and stayed silent. I have friend in the ex-pat community in Greek Cyprus and not once has she ever described feeling discriminated against. I thought of bringing this up, but realised I had no desire to converse with this bigoted woman and her farting husband.
In the afternoon we took to the mountains once more. Our destination was the lofty St. Hilarion Castle, which is reached a series of via pant-wettingly steep and winding roads. Quite how Murat (our quiet, friendly driver) managed it with our not insubstantial bus I will never know. There were moments when the road seemed to disappear and gravity’s greedy hands began dragging us all to down to our deaths, only for Murat to coolly and expertly propel us ever upwards. A welcome distraction came in the form of a colossal statue of a Turkish commando halfway up the mountain. It stood at the gates of a military base, from which more bored soldiers watched our progress. We soon passed a small lake crisscrossed with zip wires and rocky obstacles, no doubt some sort of training facility for the resident commandos. Military notices were everywhere, warning that stopping on the road and taking photos was strictly forbidden, unless you wanted to be swiftly bayoneted on the spot or used for target practice by snipers.
Just below the castle Murat truly earned his money – not to mention the respect of all on board – with some of the best driving I have ever seen. The final bend being too steep and tight for a large bus to turn straight on, he nonchalantly reversed up the hill and came to a stop by the castle gates. What a man.
Several members of the group (including Sue and Mike) had already paid Tunç an unreasonable sum of money for a guided tour of the castle. Lisa, Jill, Phil and I had not, but soon made the pleasant discovery that a normal ticket cost the equivalent of just £2. For this deeply arousing price we had complete run of the place and did not have to listen to Tunç drone on. We bounded up the steps like mountain goats (there were actually a few of these beasts knocking around up here), watched glumly by all those on the guided tour.
St. Hilarion is a magical place. It began life as a monastery, but increasing Arab pirate raids along the island’s northern coast prompted the Byzantines to construct a formidable castle here in the 8th century to serve as a stronghold and lookout. Four hundred years later the Lusignans transformed the upper ward into their summer palace, thus turning it into a centre of court intrigue and drama. Prince John’s Tower (now much ruined and actually losing bricks as we clambered around in it) had once seen the murder of several Bulgarian knights, who had been thrown to their deaths into the abyss below. Up in the old palace we found the beautiful Queen Eleanor’s Window, from which the views of Kyrenia and the northern coastline were enough for Lisa and I both to lose the power of speech for a couple of minutes.
Up and still further up we went, traversing ever scarier and crumbling steps. Alarmingly, a friendly Midlander from our group (who had difficulty walking and needed a stick) was found making a brave attempt to reach the castle’s summit unaided. Watching him was sickening but he persevered and joined us in triumph at the very top. Here there was a small, wooden platform and a cutout of a medieval knight with some sort of congratulatory message daubed on his coat of mail. The platform was falling apart and would have failed all sorts of health and safety assessments in the UK, and we clung onto the rail while the cold wind whipped around us. From up here the whole of the city of Kyrenia could be seen far down below. I spied the round towers of Kyrenia Castle, on whose walls we had clambered two days earlier. Beyond was the silver-blue sea and the Turkish coastline to the north.
On the way back down we encountered Karin, a friendly Dutch lady from our group. She was only just on her way to the top and the bus was due to leave in 15 minutes. Tunç had a very strict policy on latecomers, namely that he detested them and would happily (even joyfully) leave stragglers behind on an island populated by cannibals if he could.The previous morning two people had been left at the hotel for being 8 minutes late. We warned Karin about all this but her bright, sweet attitude to life convinced us that she would make it on time.
10 minutes after our planned departure time Karin’s seat was still empty. Captain Birdseye was getting great mileage out of this and shared his views with his long suffering wife, both of whom were sat behind us:
“She’s a bloody pain, that woman, always talking to us and never shutting up. I hope she gets stuck up there.”
“I’m going to pretend I didn’t hear that” muttered the wife, who perhaps had hoped he would suffer the same fate as the Bulgarian knights while clambering around ape-like on the castle walls.
“You’ve got more patience with people like that. I can’t stand her.”
Hearing this, Lisa uttered a few words in Irish:
“Be curamach, shéanbhféar”
I had no idea what this meant but could tell it was not good. Birdseye must have realised this too and did not say another word. Lisa wrote a translation of her curse in my notebook:
‘Be careful, old man.’
I approached Tunç and offered to go and find Karin. He looked at me as if I were mad; to him she was already dead. Thankfully at that moment Karin appeared and was greeted with cheers by all. She was a well-liked member of the group, unlike Birdseye, who was shuffling in his seat and dying to condemn her in some way, but feared another Celtic curse from the lips of my wife.
On the journey back to the hotel we filled out feedback forms about the trip. This was the penultimate day and the time had come for Tunç to get both barrels from the group. Our only real complaints were about the dinner package; otherwise there was little to moan about because we had got a lot for just £149 each. It was obvious, however, that most people had a long list of grievances that they would take to their graves.
At dinner that evening we learned that some people were waiting to submit their feedback forms after the planned excursion that evening, which promised to be explosive: the Cypriot Cultural Night. Jill, Phil, Lisa and I all agreed that this event was bound to be pretty terrible and decided to give it a miss in favour of a cosy night in the hotel bar. Sue and Mike had signed up for the excursion and reluctantly climbed aboard the bus with Tunç and a host of others. This was their punishment for dodging the horrific Leather Show the previous day.
The four of us passed a very happy evening drinking wine, sharing stories and making plans to meet up when were back in Yorkshire. Conversation eventually turned to our mad travel companions and their exploits. The lady in the bad blonde wig who had compared Kyrenia to Torquay was particularly fascinating. We had presumed that she must be unwell and that her wig was possibly evidence of cancer, but she had amazed us all the day before by appearing on the bus wigless and sporting a fine head of hair. Why had she bothered to cover this up? She may have been follicly thriving but, Jill related, she might instead be starving to death. Jill had overheard her complaining of the lack a kettle in her room, which meant that she was unable to feast on the suitcase of Pot Noodles she had brought for her evening meals.
What made this woman stranger was her travel companion. He was a short, teddy-bear like man who appeared to wear the same, dirty clothes every day. They were an odd-looking pair and the rumour was that they were, or had once been, lovers. This thought was enough to put us off our wine. Jill and Phil had first encountered them at Leeds Station and their hearts had sunk when they realised that these two were going on the same holiday as them. What made it worse was that they also lived in Harrogate and had already expressed an interest in meeting up upon their return.
Thank God we had met Jill and Phil (not to mention Sue and Mike), with whom we could take stock of this bizarre honeymoon trip, which would soon be coming to at an end.