Hidden gem

Wonderland

Hidden gem

Stately: The Selimiye ‘Masjid’ was built in 1326.  Photo by  author

Cyprus has always been a dream destination for many like me. And when an invitation came from the authorities of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) to visit the island, my excitement knew no bounds. An island located in the far-eastern Mediterranean sea, below Turkey and to the west of Syria, Cyprus is actually two countries — the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (recognised only by Turkey and covering just over a third of the island) and the Southern Republic of Cyprus.

We landed up in Ercan (pronounced Erjaan) airport in TRNC after a stop-over at Istanbul airport in Turkey. After a 30-minute drive from the airport, we checked in at Malpas Hotel — a splendid five-star property perched on a hillock overlooking the blue-hued Mediterranean. Our first outing was obviously to Nicosia (known as Lefkosa in TRNC), the world’s last divided capital. Cyprus is divided by a UN-patrolled buffer zone called the Green Line, which snakes east-west across the countryside and symbolically slices the walled capital in two.

Explore walled city on foot

Our base to explore the walled city was Buyuk Han. One of the most important architectural works of the Ottoman period, Buyuk Han (Great Inn) is located in the traditional market centre within the city’s walls. The old rooms of the inn are now occupied by shops, all of which surround the small octagonal masjid that sits at the centre of the courtyard. You can look through handicrafts laid out under the shady porticos of the courtyard.

The Han was built by the first Ottoman governor of Cyprus, Muzzafer Pasha in 1572 to provide accommodation for travellers from Anatolia in Turkey and other parts of Cyprus. With Bayuk Han as the reference point, we explored the walled city on foot. I would recommend that those keen on history, do the same. From a distance, on the horizon, one can see two tall, slender minarets looming large and within minutes we were in front of the stately Selimiye Masjid built in 1326. The main masjid in north Cyprus, Selimiye Masjid is a product of the finest gothic workmanship, harmonious in its proportions, incorporating the elements of Ottoman architecture.

Narrow alleyways in the vicinity of the Selimiye Masjid are replete with fine specimens of Ottoman civil architecture. Ambling through these urban channels, one is sure to encounter the silent whispers of the bygone era. Some of the other interesting sights in Lefkosa are the Kyrenia Gate, the Arabahmet Masjid, the Ataturk Square, Great Hammam, National Struggle Museum and the Mevlevi Tekke Museum.

Bound to the north by the sea and to the south by the green Besparmak (five finger) mountain range, Girne (also called Kyrenia), about 30 kms from Lefkosa, offers the most magnificent scenery on the island. Girne’s charming and tiny harbour, full of yachts and fishing boats is framed by the colossal hulk of its Crusader castle. With the backdrop of the jagged mountains behind and the calm sparkling sea in front, the harbour has an intoxicatingly quiet atmosphere.

After meandering through the narrow winding alleys, one comes face to face with the Mediterranean sea. The best way to savour the coast is to take a cruise from the Girne Yacht harbour. The harbour is a small bay that juts into the land. We were told that a merchant ship dating from circa 300 BC was recovered from this place in 1969 and is displayed in the castle.

The Kyrenia Castle jutting the bay is lit up beautifully at night, adding to the stunning focal point of the whole harbour area. It dates back to the late 12th century and is believed to have been built on a former Roman fort. Today, the castle and the museum with its lofty heights are exciting tourist attractions. The castle also hosts music festivals and events, making it one of the most-visited attractions in North Cyprus.

We took the six-hour cruise, which took us along the stunning Mediterranean coast where hotels, resorts and dive centres thrive. The ship was anchored near a rocky coastline where the waters were crystal clear and ideal for snorkelling. Some of us splashed in the cool blue waters while others took to water sports — a facility abundantly available on this picturesque coast. Continental lunch was served on board with the cool sea breeze wafting in.

History lessons

With a picturesque coastline stretching for more than a hundred miles, Girne is a hiker’s paradise as well. West of Kyrenia lies the Garden of North Cyprus with citrus orchards, verdant forests and fertile plains. Here, the Roman settlement of Soli is worth a visit, as is the Persian palace of Vouni  where there are awe-inspiring views across the island and the sea. One day we also visited Gazimaguza (also called Famagusta), one of the most ancient ports in the Mediterranean with a great historical significance. It was indeed sad to see the sight of a mass grave, which contain bodies of Turkish Cypriots massacred by the Greek Cypriots in 1964. Our next stop was St Barnabas Monastery, an icon and archaeological museum.

Here, we were amazed by the rich icon collection dating back to the 18th century. There are other sights like Agha Cafe Pasha Hammam and fountain as well as the  Venetian Palace, which are worth a visit. Then there are places like the ancient city of Salamis, Guzelyurt and Lefka where citrus orchards abound, and Isre and Karpas (known for wild donkeys). One will also get a chance to watch sea turtles coming ashore on the island’s golden beaches for nesting. Come here and explore this hidden gem of a destination.

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