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Visiting Kyrenia – the Other side of Cyprus
Hidden behind a rugged mountain range, is a small harbour town with narrow, meandering streets, honey-coloured houses slouched under the weight of time, and bobbing masts of traditional Turkish boats. Kyrenia – a town that politically does not exist.
Across the Border
Since 1974, Girne (otherwise known Kyrenia) is subject to the Turkish rule, together with the rest of the occupied territory of North Cyprus, unrecognized by the Cypriot government, or the United Nations. For some Cypriots, the North side is taboo. For others, it is a weekend getaway destination, just a few hours’ drive away.
We arrive at the Ayios Dhometios border crossing at around 7pm on a Friday, to find a huge queue of cars, and spend the next 40 minutes edging our way across it. I watch in amazement – rental cars, cars with Cypriot license plates, young couples, families with children, foreigners, locals, workers, and delivery vans. For a state that doesn’t exist, it certainly attracts a lot of visitors.
Past the Green Line, we are in a different country. The landscape has changed; it is much more disperse. Turkish flags are flapping in the twilight. The straight, and surprisingly smooth, road is sprinkled with bill-boards that have long been banned in the EU. After navigating our way to Kyrenia old town through Friday night traffic, we park up and walk the rest of the way to find our hotel.
In Karmi, North Cyprus
Sofia Boutique Hotel
Nestled in the maze of cobbled streets, Sofia Boutique Hotel maintains a yesteryear charm, with a touch of modernity and extravagance. There is a well-stocked, round-the clock lobby bar with swish leather stools. A saltwater pool in the inside courtyard, that sends twinkling turquoise reflections onto the surrounding walls. The hotel is boutique par excellence. With just nine rooms, it can host up to 20 people. Each room has its own character and is equipped with a mini-bar, air-conditioning and double-glazed windows.
“The hotel is boutique par excellence.”
Out in Kyrenia
After settling in, we head out to Set Fish for dinner. It is an ambient seafood restaurant perched on the side of the harbor with direct views of the Kyrenia castle and the bustling walkway below. We enjoy some garlic-marinated grilled prawns, a few traditional dips, a huge salad, and a perfectly cooked grouper. We pair it with a bottle of crisp white wine. To our disbelief, this feast comes up to a little over fifty euros. A comparable meal in Limassol would cost well over a hundred.
The next morning begins with breakfast at the poolside – a choice between continental, English and Russian breakfast made to order. We sip strong coffee and fresh juice, sheltered by the courtyard from the intensifying sun. Then a lazy swim in the pool. The space is so comfortable, that it takes resolve to leave it and explore beyond.
Lunch in Karmi
With hunger being an undisputable motivator, we drive up for lunch at Levant. It is a charming restaurant with an outdoor patio, located in Karmi, a mountain village, some twenty minutes’ drive from Kyrenia. To our dismay, the lunch menu is a very limited. Seeing our disappointment at the prospect of having a sandwich, the waitress offers us their marinated sea-bream (off the menu and probably in preparation for dinner). We gladly accept and enjoy our lunch amidst the greenery, looking out onto Kyrenia beneath and the glistening blue beyond.
Back in town, we spend the afternoon exploring the shops on Ziya Rizki road that offer everything from chique summer dresses to gold and high-end knock-offs. The shopkeepers offer us coffee, we browse and haggle, and eventually, defeated by the heat, head back to the hotel.
As I lay on the sunbed in the undisturbed peace of the afternoon, I thought about the line of cars we saw at the border. Politics aside, Kyrenia is a great place for a holiday. Its affordable hotels and restaurants, obliging service, shopping, casinos and stunning beaches will set ticks on many a traveler’s list. While there is obviously progress, the pace is slow. And perhaps this is what many seek when they come up here – an old Cyprus – the quiet, languid island, steeped in Mediterranean sun.