Not because Northern Cyprus — or the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) to give it its full title — is a tax haven, but because the little town of Güzelyurt, 15 miles west along the coast from the city of Girne/Kyrenia, is home to the Monastery of St Mamas, aka the patron saint of tax evaders.
The legend of St Mamas dates back to Roman times, when the saint successfully claimed exemption from paying tax on the basis that he lived in a cave. The fact that he was astride a lion at the time very probably swayed the argument in his favour.
Cyprus is a familiar destination to many Irish tourists, but Northern Cyprus remains something of a less-travelled mystery. That’s partly because it’s not easy to get to — Turkish Airlines flew us from Dublin to Istanbul, where we had a six-hour stopover before flying on to Ercan airport — but also because the TRNC has something of a bad reputation.
In July 1974, in the wake of a Greek Cypriot coup five days earlier designed to effect unification with Greece, Turkey invaded northern Cyprus in order to safeguard Turkish Cypriots. The bitter civil war that ensued was concluded in August 1975 with a population exchange that saw 196,000 Greek Cypriots move from north to south Cyprus, and 42,000 Turkish Cypriots move in the opposite direction.
Divisions remain deep between the TRNC and the Republic of Cyprus. While the border between north and south has recently opened, and protracted talks on reunification are ongoing, the Republic of Cyprus is a member of the EU, while the membership of the TRNC is suspended. Turkey is currently the only country in the world to recognise Northern Cyprus as a self-declared independent state.
All of which might suggest that the TRNC is a backward and insular country, but nothing could be further from the truth. Drenched in sunshine from April to October, the secular Muslim country is populated by a wonderfully friendly indigenous population.
We stayed in a large, airy self-catering apartment in the Turtle Bay Village complex about 10 miles east of Girne, where we were rubbing shoulders with long established expat English, Scots and Welsh (a consequence of the British occupation of Cyprus until 1960, as is the fact that Cypriots drive on the left and use three-pin plugs), and a more recent influx of Russians. Unsurprisingly, given its recent history, English is the lingua franca.
History in Cyprus, however, disappears into the mists of time. The city of Girne boasts a fabulous waterfront lined with restaurants and cafés, and claims a heritage that suggests it was founded by warriors returning from the Trojan war. Girne Castle, overlooking the harbour, is an impressive structure dating from 7 AD — although be warned, if you’re travelling with young children, that parts of the interior are rather ramshackle.
It’s also worth noting that the gregarious Cypriots, and particularly those of the older generation, are very affectionate and tactile when it comes to children. Our six-year-old eventually grew accustomed to, if not entirely comfortable with, older women and men bending down unannounced to gently pinch her cheek.
The unusual custom serves as a reminder that Cyprus is and always was a cultural melting-pot. Situated at the crossroads of the ancient world, it traded with Egypt and Crete, and was held at various intervals by Greek, Roman, Venetian, Ottoman and British empires.
The compression of cultures is most keenly felt at St Hilarion Castle, which overlooks Girne from the heights of Bespamark mountains. Essentially composed of a number of jagged peaks connected by walls and battlements, the castle involves a stiff climb to the top, but you’ll be rewarded with a view that stretches 30 miles in all directions. The six-year-old, incidentally, was intrigued to learn that Walt Disney employed St Hilarion as his model for the castle in Snow White.
Situated between St Hilarion and Girne is the picturesque village of Bellapais, where you will find, perched on a natural terrace, a jaw-dropping abbey that is considered the most beautiful, and the most architecturally important, Gothic structure in the Eastern Mediterranean. Lawrence Durrell wrote the book Bitter Lemons whilst living in Bellapais, and we spent a very enjoyable afternoon at the Gardens of Irini being regaled with stories of ‘Larry’ Durrell by hostess Deirdre Guthrie, who knew him when she was a child.
It’s not all history, art and culture, though. Much of the northern coast is dotted with beautiful beaches, but swathes of it is also obscured by new-build constructions and brashly visible wealth. The Acapulco Beach Club and Resort near Catalkoy is a sprawling, monolithic hotel that boasts a conference centre, a casino, a number of swimming pools, a 1km beach and numerous bars and restaurants, but — if you’re looking for an easy day poolside — it also has a kids’ club and a huge water-park complete with vertigo-inducing waterslides.
For a quieter beach experience, drive further east along the coast to Alagadi Beach, the longest stretch of sandy strands in Northern Cyprus. It’s known locally as ‘Turtle Beach’, as it’s one of the few remaining nesting sites of the endangered loggerhead and green turtles. The turtles come ashore to nest between May and late July/early August, and it’s possible, by prior arrangement, to take part in a night patrol to watch the female turtles nest.
Away from the main population centres of Girne in the north, Famagusta (home to Othello’s Tower) in the east and Lefkosa (Nicosia) in the south, the pace of life in Northern Cyprus is deliciously soporific. The cost of living is low too: an evening sitting in most restaurants for two adults and a child, for example, including starters, mains and drinks, will set you back about 90 Turkish Lire (roughly €30).
The rustic Buffavento Restaurant near Bespamark Peak, high on the mountainous road from Kyrenia to Famagusta, was the stand-out for us — the food was terrific, but the view was truly superb.
Indeed, that evening proved to be our Northern Cyprus experience in a nutshell: a less-travelled destination not easy to get to, but a revelation once we were there. We’ll be back, and soon.
Acapulco Holiday Resort
The Colony Hotel
Turtle Bay Village
No visa required
€1 = 2.9 Turkish Lira
* ATMs are widely available in the larger towns and cities. Most shops and restaurants accept sterling; some accept euros.