Cypriot Cultural Night the previous evening must have been good, because Sue was hungover. She didn’t appear for breakfast and her husband Mike regaled us with tales of belly-dancing, smashing plates and raucous singing (by the dancers, not Sue). Looking around the hotel dining room it was obvious who had attended the festivities. Our co-travellers were moving noticeably slower than usual and their deathly pallor suggested that another big night out would finish them off for good.
I suddenly regretted not going. Yes, it probably would have been awful but, following the comedy of the Leather Fashion Show, the idea of yet more awkwardly engrossing experiences had become strangely appealing.
“Even Tunç was singing and dancing” Mike revealed. This was both a disturbing and fascinating mental image. Jill expanded on our tour guide’s nocturnal exploits: it appeared that he had pulled, the sexy beast! Tunç’s room was next to Jill’s and Phil’s and, judging from the rhythmic thump coming through the walls, he and a friend had had a very enjoyable time. Good for him, I thought; he had worked hard all week and was probably celebrating the fact that he would soon be rid of us.
We were to leave Northern Cyprus in the early hours of the following morning and on this, our last full day, had been given the choice of free time or a trip south of the border to Larnaca. Even if we had wanted to go south our funds were virtually exhausted and further trips were sadly out of the question. Still, a restful day in Kyrenia was in no way a hardship, so we resolved to stay put. Our intention had been to sit on the sheltered, crescent-shaped beach down the slope from the hotel, but the weather had taken a turn and the normally white sand was now gray, cement-like and unappealing. During the course of the week a storm had gradually been moving eastwards, bringing misery – and even snow- to large parts of the Mediterranean. We had made the right choice in coming here.
The hotel was in the western suburbs of Kyrenia and, having liked the place a great deal on our first visit, we caught the dolmuş into town. I have been on several of these shared taxi-cum-minibuses in Turkey and have always found them to be hugely fun. They are usually packed with passengers, drivers, the drivers’ mates, livestock and luggage, all crammed into every available space and forcing you to be intimate with complete strangers. Payment is a baffling but enjoyable experience: you hand your money to a fellow passenger, who passes it to their neighbour and down the dolmuş to the driver, who issues your change while simultaneously driving, smoking, honking the horn, shouting at other drivers, talking to his mates, tuning the radio and eating food from his lap. This Northern Cypriot dolmuş was less hectic and far comfier than those in Turkey, but the driving was similarly terrifying and exhilarating.
Kyrenia looked very different in the rain. The normally handsome harbour with its castle and boats looked more like Bridlington on this foul day and the city’s streets were grim and unwelcoming. The dolmuş dropped us by – of all things – an English pub. Here tourists sat watching Premier League highlights and drinking John Smiths; there was little else to do in this foul weather. It was tempting to join them and enjoy the comforts of home for a little while, but instead we walked the wet streets in search of other, more Cypriot diversions.
Kyrenia is the Greek name for the city; the Turkish name is Girne. Every settlement in Cyprus has two names, which can be highly confusing for tourists. Nicosia is called Lefkoşa by the Turks; Famagusta is Mağusa; Cyprus is Kıbrıs. Before 1974 Greeks and Turks had lived side-by-side happily enough, but the Turkish invasion of that year caused huge displacement and misery. Kyrenian refugees can be found all over the World and many dream of one day returning home; it is the same with Famagusta and many other towns and cities in the North. But if re-unification happens what sort of home will they return to? The places they knew and loved, where they were born, went to school and got married have been irrevocably changed forever. It is an incredibly sad thought. But it wasn’t just the Greeks who suffered; Turks living in the south were forced to leave their homes and re-settle in the North. During these troubled times around 2000 people (Greeks and Turks – many of them young men) simply disappeared and were never heard from again.
We met Jill and Phil in the harbour and went for some lunch. I had another Turkish coffee and for a few hours felt utterly invincible. Seriously, that stuff could rouse the dead. The drink itself can be consumed in a single, long sip but its after effects can last for days at a time. After lunch, walking beneath the walls of Kyrenia Castle, I had a sudden urge to start scaling one of the noble old towers but somehow restrained myself. Turkish coffee is truly marvellous stuff, but should be approached with care.
We did some shopping but found little else to divert us in Kyrenia. The streets behind the harbour were narrow, one way and choked with vile traffic, making life as a pedestrian extremely hazardous. Relief from this mayhem was found in the shape of gift shops selling an array of eye-opening wares, from erotic figurines of classical gods to enormous hookah pipes. All I wanted was a small Northern Cyprus flag or an image of Atatürk, but all these shops (unlike the rest of the country) were strangely unpatriotic. Back up by the English pub a dolmuş man somehow knew what were looking for and where we needed to go and shepherded us into the welcome cosiness of his vehicle. I should add what excellent value this mode of transport is. For a half hour journey back the hotel we paid £2.50, and for that price we didn’t even mind that the driver made a lengthy stop at a petrol station to pick up some cigarettes and talk to his mates.
This was the day of Donald Trump’s inauguration and coverage was on almost every channel back at the hotel. It made for horrendous viewing and led me to think that we were witnessing the dawning of a new, darker age. This feeling was compounded by a deeply unsettling documentary about Vladimir Putin, putting us both into a somewhat sombre mood. Thankfully there was also an Arabic film channel and we both felt a great deal better after watching A Knight’s Tale, though curiously they had edited it so that an hint of a sexy moment was either cut short or ruthlessly omitted altogether. What was going on with the World?
The thought of yet another hotel dinner was highly depressing and we took up Jill and Phil’s offer to dine with them at a Chinese restaurant/pub next to the hotel. At first glance this joint looked pretty ropy, and the name The Red Lion only added to our uneasiness, but it turned out to be an excellent find. The hostess was friendly, the food was superb and the whole place so warm and welcoming that I would happily have eaten there every night. This was putting money into the local economy, Tunç. And so we enjoyed another relaxing evening with our new friends, sharing a bottle of wine thoughts on the holiday and laughing about the mad people we had shared it all with. Jill and Phil had encountered Captain Birdseye and wife on their return from Larnaca:
“Waste of bloody time! You didn’t miss nothing” he had grumbled to them in the hotel lift. Loathsome man.
They had also met Wig Woman in the hotel spa, where they had shared a jacuzzi for an uncomfortable half hour. Wiggy (who was sporting her natural, perfectly healthy head of hair) had expressed a desire to meet up with them when they all got back to Harrogate. Were I Jill and Phil such a prospect would have me packing up house and home and moving abroad for the foreseeable future.
Boarding the airport bus at 4 a.m. I felt strangely sad; I was going to miss all of this madness. Even the sight of Tunç waving us off (or was he giving us the finger?) brought a brief pang of melancholy. He now had two days off before the next load of the £149 Club arrived and I felt jealous of them all. There had been wonderful moments (Bellapais, Famagusta, Kyrenia, St. Hilarion) and terrible moments (the leather fashion show, the jewelry emporium, all the farting, Captain Birseye) but it had made me want to stay longer and explore more. We had only seen one third of the island and it was frustrating to now be leaving. I have a friend on the Greek side and wanted to visit her terribly. She had traveled all the way to York for our wedding but, now that we were on the same landmass once more, our mutual plans had conspired against us.
The 4-hour flight back to the UK (via Turkey, of course) gave me plenty of time to reflect. Despite all the madness, the crumbling hotel, the mini-war with Tunç and some of the weirdest people I have ever met (not to mention all the farting), this had been a hugely enjoyable trip. In the end, the fact that Lisa and I were by far the youngest people in our group mattered little. Pretty early on we were dubbed “The Honeymoon Couple”, which was rather sweet (and true). People are still people whatever their age and most of our fellow travellers were good folk to be around; we had made friends out of this trip, which can only be a good sign. I also felt lucky to have visited a country that, if the re-unification talks progress, might not exist in a few years’ time. The entry and exit stamps in my passport will be great ones to show the kids. Overall, £149 for a week’s holiday is remarkable value, but that price should act as a warning to the more wary traveller. Luxury and convenience were never going to be involved for such a small sum, which was the price you paid for the price you paid. Give me a strange holiday over a relaxing one any time; they make for the best stories.