In search of Famagusta: Wandering in a beautiful Mediterranean island, Cyprus

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The mass of land appeared out of nowhere in the Mediterranean waters below as I woke up from a nap and raised the window shield.  It was time to land, though I was hoping to see some of Cyprus on my way to the capital city Nicosia, a good 50-odd km away from the Larnaka airport.

Though a large portion of it is under Turkish occupation, the tiny island nation of the Republic of Cyprus generates a lot of tourist interest: a 648-km coastline with 49 Blue Flag beaches, the hills with ski slopes, nature trails and wine routes; the mezze platters of local food served with local wine at tavernas — the country promises a lot.

The beaches make quite a view.

But, the fact that Cyprus still can’t call almost half the country its own pains its people. The Republic of Cyprus spans across 60 per cent of the southern part of Cyprus islands in the eastern Mediterranean, while Turkey occupies around 37 per cent in the north, calling it ‘The Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus’. Separating the two is the Green Line, controlled by the United Nations Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus (UNFICYP), since the early 1970s. The British administration has also retained some area in what was its erstwhile colony to operate a military base.

There’s an abundance of wall graffiti around town, and I saw some of them during the ride to the hotel too, mostly in Greek. However, my eyes were drawn to some English words — slogans calling for a unified Cyprus. “Fight for Famagusta” was one of them. F-a-m-a-g-u-s-t-a. The name had my attention. I knew that the place is forbidden to the public, and even the UN. It has remained unexplored by tourists or journalists since the Turkish invasion of 1974 — unlike the rest of the occupied territory, now inhabited mostly by Turkish Cypriots who emigrated from the northern side, besides settlers allegedly brought from Turkey.

The graffiti on the walls are intriguing.

Our first stop was the tourist hub of coastal Limassol (Lemesos), the island’s main port city. The place looks cosmopolitan with waterfront bars and stylish restaurants, but you can also catch a glimpse of its long history looking at the Byzantine and Frankish monuments. To its west is the archaeological site of Kourion, housing a Greco-Roman theatre built in the 2nd century BC. There’s also the ‘House of Eustolios’, a complex of baths and rooms with mosaic floors dating back to 5th century AD.

Writings on the wall

Our next destination was the picturesque Omodos village on the Troodos hillside, famous for its wines. Walking on its cobbled streets, savouring the local food and admiring the majestic Monastery of Starvos (Holy Cross) in the village square, I had just started to feel like a tourist when it was time to head back to Nicosia.

For tourists, there is Paphos too. The town, listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, has several archeological sites around it. Besides, there are numerous churches, chapels, monasteries, mosques and museums to visit and unending beaches to laze around across the island. The divided capital of Nicosia (Lefkosia) is an eclectic mix of modern and traditional. The city centre retains the old world charm, and its lively modern soul thrives outside them.

The quaint, cobbled streets of Omodos.

But I hadn’t seen Famagusta yet. Over the next couple of days, as we met ministers, officials and business representatives, or chatted with locals while walking along the Green Line passing through Nicosia, the conversation would invariably veer towards the “Cyprus problem” and reunification efforts.

Even as we interacted with UNFICYP spokesperson Aleem Siddique, inside the buffer zone (between Republic of Cyprus and ‘Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus’), a fresh round of UN-sponsored talks between the Greek and Turkish Cypriot leaderships was set to begin. The talks had reached a crucial stage, said Siddique, as did all officials we spoke to.

We were nearing the end of our four-day trip, and had been able to cover much of the country. To make up for what we could not, we were taken to the 11th floor observatory on Nicosia’s Ledra Street from where we could see the entire city, including the occupied parts. We saw Turkish flags fluttering atop buildings, heard prayers from mosques, and spotted some wall art and writings too. But no Famagusta. A glimpse of the Famagusta Gate, which would traditionally lead to the Famagusta district, in Nicosia’s old city, had been the only solace.

A glimpse of Famagusta.

My last day in Cyprus saw a minor change in the itinerary to include some beach hopping. After brief stopovers at the beaches of Aiya Napa and Protaras, our bus headed towards Deryneia village. The sun was about to set as we climbed the stairs to the top of the local cultural centre building, when I finally got lucky — the ‘ghost town’ of Famagusta’s Varosha finally came into sight. The rows of abandoned concrete — decaying apartment buildings, restaurants and hotels by the sea — told a haunting tale.

Aiya Napa has a majestic view.

As history goes, Famagusta was fast becoming the most popular tourist hub of Cyprus after the island gained independence from the British in 1960. Within a decade, a standoff ensued between Greek and Turkish Cypriots after first President Archbishop Makarios proposed certain amendments to the constitution. The UN intervened after the situation deteriorated. Turkish forces invaded in 1974 and occupied the northern part. On August 14 that year, they bombed Famagusta and seized the city, forcing its inhabitants, mostly Greek Cypriots, to flee. No one has been able to return ever since. Barbed fences and military signs keep everyone out. Before 1974, locals claim, Famagusta was a lively city. “Famagusta never slept; 45,000 people lived and prospered in their hometown,” says one of them, now a refugee, in a video shared with us.

As I bid goodbye to Famagusta, I felt drawn to the fence, to Varosha and beyond, to hear the other side of the story. At that moment, I, too, wanted to cross over, much like those on my side of the fence.

The Green Line cuts across the island like a scar, but the four decades of conflict have not dented the spirit of the Cypriots who are still driven by hope. “Do come back when we celebrate our reunification,” said our host before we started for the airport to fly back home.

Remember to tuck into some scrumptious seafood!

Cyprus Eats

Halloumi: White cheese with a high melting point. It’s a flagship of Cypriot cuisine and comes with a distinct layered texture and a salty flavour. This is the first thing you should try when in Cyprus.

Potatoes: Cyprus claims to grow the best potatoes, and you will agree after your first bite. Try the fare served at the “potato bars”.

Seafood: The catch is always fresh. Grill, fry, roast or bake, just take your pick.

Coffee: Cypriots drink a lot of local coffee. I preferred the metrios (medium sweet). Go for sketos if you like your coffee unsweetened or glykos if you have a sweet tooth. But don’t empty the cup. The sediment will leave a bitter taste.

Wines & spirits: Recent excavations confirm Cyprus has been producing wines for 5,000 years. You must try Commandaria, unique to Cyprus. It’s a dessert wine made in a designated region from grapes picked late and sun-dried to enhance the sugar content. Zivania is another traditional beverage here. Produced by distillation, it’s high in alcohol content. Had in shot glasses before or after a meal.

Mezze platters: The number of dishes in a platter may go up to 30, complete with fresh greens, fries, dips, fritters, pickles, breads, kebabs, cheeses, meat and fish composite dishes, wines and desserts.  So take your time and enjoy siga siga (slowly, slowly).