Some days I find myself sitting and scouring the internet for flights to literally ANYWHERE. I love Istanbul for so many reasons, but definitely its location to endless possibilities of weekend trips has its draws. This is exactly how I came across tickets for Northern Cyprus… two tickets total for under $90—SOLD!
I have been wanting to check out Cyprus for a while but all I really knew beforehand was that it was a territory of Turkey and the island was divided into two parts. I’ll be honest, I didn’t do enough research before the flight and even afterwards I found myself desperately ‘googling‘ the history. The short version (please research on your own as it’s quite extensive and I will NOT do it justice for details) is that over hundreds of years Cyprus was inhabited by many civilizations including the Persians, Egyptians, Syrians, Venetians, The Ottoman Empire, and it was once even a British Colony. After many years of conflict between the Turkish and Greek Cypriots, in 1983 the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus came into being for the northern half of the island.
Northern Cyprus is famous for casinos and night life…but I wasn’t really looking for that kind of trip…I wanted something quiet, historical, preferably within reach of ancient ruins. A friend of a friend, who just happened to be a Cypriot herself, told us that what we were looking for could be found in Famagusta, or Gazimağusa in Turkish.
Always trust a local’s advice! Famagusta was exactly the kind of weekend trip destination that I had imagined…complete with ruins, golden sandy beaches, and Shakespeare. According to lore, the setting of Othello is Famagusta’s castle, which you can still see today. Othello’s actual plot and characters are supposedly based on real events from Famagusta when it was under Venetian rule.
Of course, no paradise is easily found. We arrived late from Istanbul and went directly to rent a car. There was the minor detail that in Cyprus, leftover from the days of being a British Colony, the cars drive on the left side of the road! So, after I looked at the guy who gave us our keys and asked “Is it difficult?” (to his complete horror) we were off… my roommate being the one to drive. In this situation the best advice I can give is this: remember always to go LEFT and don’t have your navigator set to ‘walking route’ (oh yeah, we realized that a bit late). The trip took about an hour and a half. We parked at the hotel- jittery and stressed- and went right to sleep.
Waking up the next morning, it was like we had been transported in time. I can’t describe how peaceful…only the sounds of the seagulls were audible. We had breakfast at the hotel… cucumbers, tomatoes, bread, jam…very similar to a Turkish breakfast we would get in Istanbul, only with the addition of HELLIM! Hellim, or Haloumi, is salty cheese that is grilled so it’s crispy and also melty/gooey….yessssss. Cyprus is known for their hellim and it was one of the main reasons I wanted to visit.
After eating, we walked down to the main square and saw the 2 churches which were converted into mosques, the old port, Othello’s castle, and climbed up on the city walls. Bougainvillea was blooming everywhere-you could smell the sea and honeysuckle. By Lale Mustapha Pasha Mosque (what used to be St. Nicholas Cathedral) we came upon a woman making fresh squeezed orange pomegranate juice. We each got a glass, sat down, took sips, and nearly cried! I am not exaggerating, that was the best juice of my life. It wasn’t tart or sour, not too sweet… full of flavor. I later learned Cyprus is known for its citrus fruits. We wandered around a bit and then got frappes at the famous pastry shop, Petek Pastanesi…our first of 2 memorable visits to this café.
After our walk, we decided to utilize the car, figuring it would be less nerve-wracking in the daylight. We drove up to Dipkarpaz Beach (known as Golden Beach). This beach is has crystal clear blue water and is very clean because it’s a national park reserve, therefore it’s protected. It’s famous for loggerhead sea turtles and wild donkeys… neither of which we saw…but the drive and the beach were worth it regardless. I’ve never been in water like that. You could see all the way down to your toes…and there were about 6 people on the whole beach including us. We had the whole place to ourselves.
On the drive back from the beach we pulled into the only real cafe we saw along the street. The sign said literally ‘Sea Front Beach Restaurant” with a smaller name below in Greek. Unfortunately I can’t tell you anymore information than this…but it was PERFECTION! We sat on the back terrace and asked if the fish was fresh (to which the look on the waiter’s face was answer enough for us to understand we were stupid to have asked) and we ordered fried calamari and a salad. Apparently the calamari came with french fries and assorted meze and our whole table was filled before our eyes. The calamari is UP THERE for one of the best I have ever eaten… it tasted exactly of the sea. Salty…fresh…crunchy…not greasy. The meze they brought out were pickled beets, hummus, tahini hummus (or so we thought), and olives. The fries were also incredible…hand cut, not greasy at all, and I suspect they were double fried. And… if there was ever a doubt that the seafood was fresh, while we were eating we watched a man spear a stingray right in front of us and bring it up to the restaurant…yup, that happened.
We drove back to Famagusta and walked around some more before dinner. Dinner was good. The food was delicious and actually there was so much food that we had to tell the waiter to please not continue bringing out food. But…the atmosphere wasn’t one I would repeat. There was a woman singing very loud karaoke music and halfway through dinner a belly dancer appeared and danced on every table. However, just on the food alone, it was a good example of the style of food in this part of Cyprus. The restaurants are ‘meze restaurants’ serving menus that change daily with different cold and hot mezes that come one after another in a never-ending food parade to your table. Our favorite thing was again the tahini hummus which we had at the seafood beach place for lunch. We asked about it and learned it wasn’t hummus. It was just TAHINI. It was literally tahini paste with lemon stirred in… so we ate 2 giant tubs of sesame paste… and it was absolutely amazing…fluffy, creamy, tart, a nuttiness and richness of flavor… and mildly shocking that such depth of flavor can come from 2 ingredients.
The next day we woke up, had breakfast, revisited our juice stand, and went for visit number 2 to Petek Pastanesi. We were on a mission: ice cream. We had been told that this place was famous for KESME MARAŞ DONDURMA. This kind of ice cream is traditional Turkish ice cream that has mastic added to it so that it is CHEWEY and NOT REALLY MELTABLE. Yes. The ice cream doesn’t melt. Also, the word ‘kesme’ means ‘cut’. This ice cream is made in a block, where the waiters cut off a slice of it, and then you eat it using a knife and fork. We ordered vanilla and pistachio. As much as I love pistachio, I had a bit of food envy over my roommate’s vanilla. Mine was delicious– saturated with pistachios, creamy and nutty– but my roommate’s was that kind of dreamy creamy ice cream texture. It’s a nice way to eat ice cream as it’s not often you can sit and spend time to savor it before it melts, making this extra special.
Afterwards we packed up our stuff and drove to the Salamis Ruins. Salamis dates back to the 11th Century and at one time was one of the most important ports of Cyprus. I’ve been fortunate enough to see lots of ruins and this one is seriously IMPRESSIVE. First of all, it’s enormous, with a massive amphitheatre that you can climb all over and get views of the sea from. Second…there’s no one there! At the most there were 10 people while we were there. It was really something to just be wandering around left alone with stones thousands of years old.
We left Salamis and headed back to the airport. We passed some roadside cafés overlooking the beach along the way. Unfortunately I forgot to write down the name of this place. It had a similar menu to the other cafés and also served various meze…but this time we went for the stuffed grilled squid. Wow. It wasn’t rubbery, it was soft and melted in your mouth like seafood butter…the only seasonings it had were lemon and parsley. It was stuffed with tomatoes and cheese…I wasn’t sure but I thought the cheese was hellim, just softly melted instead of grilled. It was served yet again with french fries…to which I can’t complain about. It was a perfect end to such a memorable trip.
Considering I really had no idea where I was going, Cyprus ended up being a place that I feel deserves much more exploration and is somewhere that I know I’ll make a habit of going back to. After all, it takes me less time to fly to Cyprus than to take a taxi from my house to the airport!