My first visit to an unrecognized country: The Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.

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Looking north from the top of Old Nicosia’s tallest building, one cannot fail to notice the enormous Turkish-looking flag carved into the mountain side. Even without this North-Korea like stunt, it would still be very obvious when you enter the Turkish occupied zone, crossing into Northern Nicosia.

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This is the first visa I ever got for a country which does not exist. I should rather say, is not internationally recognized, as only Turkey recognizes the self-proclaimed Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. Crossing the border certainly feels like going from Greece to Turkey (I know Cyprus is not Greece! It’s just that crossing from Greece to Turkey is actually geographically possible). All signs go Turkish.

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The food goes Turkish.

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The religion goes Turkish.

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Although the religion doesn’t go very hardcore. Few women are covered up and if they were more conservative, I don’t think they would allow this kind of display in the museum (which I censored in case some of you are reading this at work! If you’re dying to know, you can Google “penis”).

However, they strictly adhere to the Koran’s ban on stopping your car at pedestrian crossings. While I was safe in Cyprus, I was nearly run over in the occupied zone. It is a fact that I have been to 19 Muslim countries on 3 continents and one of the most systematic thing is that they all paint pedestrian crossings on the street but no car will EVER stop for a pedestrian. It is most remarkable in Indonesia, where drivers are quite courteous in Hindu Bali, but as soon as you cross to Muslim Java, they drive like maniacs. I don’t know much about religion, but I think it is safe to assume that stopping for pedestrians is a mortal sin in Islam.

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There is nothing particularly strange about crossing into “Turkish Cyprus” AKA “the Occupied Zone”, depending on who you ask. However, walking along the division line makes you fully realize you are in Europe’s last divided capital. When trying to cross, you can’t just go south or go north and get there. You must be on the right street or all you will ever run into are dead ends like this one, between which lies the no man’s land. Photography of these areas is prohibited and I read stories of cameras being confiscated, so I only took this one boring picture in a little alley (in my defence, there were no signs at this particular location).

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Since Cyprus joined the EU in 2004, a lot of redevelopment of historical sites has been done on both sides of the border, in the hopes of creating conditions more favourable to the resolution of the old conflict. While the initiative is very positive, I found this sign a little silly. Whether it is legitimate or not, I doubt the citizens of northern Cyprus will give up their de facto autonomy in exchange for a few chairs!

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But I am not being fair at all, they have also contributed to large scale, expensive projects, such as the 2 million Euro restoration of this 6th century church, the Bedesten (it looks more recent because it was vastly expanded in the 14th century). I went because I wanted to see one of the daily “performances” of the Whirling Dervish. As you may notice, the room is empty. This was about 1 minute before the guy started doing his thing for 30 minutes, in front of just me. There are advantages to traveling in low season, but this was a bit awkward.

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Whirling on…

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In case you wanted to see what he looks like. For most branches of Islam, this practice of the Mevlevi Order is totally wrong on all levels. Considering they have been doing it since the 13th century, I find it surprising they didn’t kill them all at some point in history.

And the 35 sec video. Remember, I got 30 minutes!

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Many things go in and out of fashion over the years, but some remain popular over the long haul. In the Mediterranean, one such pastime that has proven very popular over the centuries is invading Cyprus. As a political leader, you’re kind of a looser if you’ve never invaded Cyprus. A least once. Men looking like all these guys once worked for a guy who invaded Cyprus. The oldest on this display is the guy on the right, a Lusignan soldier from the 14th century. Of cause back then, Cyprus had already been invaded a million times.

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These guys also invaded Cyprus and if this display was not in the occupied zone, they could add a Turkish soldier next to the Brit!

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One of the nicest buildings on this side of Nicosia, the 16th century Ottoman-built Büyük Han. All the little doors led to small rooms, and the building served as an inn for travellers, with their animals being accommodated in the courtyard. Today the place serves as an arts and crafts market, with a cafe in the centre.

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A indoors market around closing time.

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I thought of going to the Büyük Hamam, but then I remembered the scrub down I got from a burly Syrian attendant in Damascus. I got out feeling not relaxed, but rather as if I had been in a bar fight and lost. This one is tourist-oriented so I probably would have been safe.

I was pleasantly surprised by my excursion outside Nicosia. In part because my expectations were very low. From what I had read, organized day tours to sites of interest to tourists don’t exist in the North. Roads go from good to terrible, taxis cease to be metered, water ceases to be potable, your car insurance is no longer valid, credit cards are lo longer accepted everywhere, Ottoman sites tend to be less maintained and more dilapidated, etc. This is probably all true in part or in whole, but I found Kyrenia quite lovely nonetheless.

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It was a week-end and the streets were busy with locals and tourists.

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The nice waterfront promenade.

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And the very nice marina, seen from the top of the castle.

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Inside the castle, the Church of St-George. The 12th century Byzantine church was built outside the castle, but it was absorbed during an expansion of the original structure.

Overall, I enjoyed my first ever visit into an unrecognized State. It bodes well for my planned visit next month to Transnistria.

#Cyprus

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