We spoke a little too soon when we said "we haven't really left Turkey." While technically Turkish since the occupation of 1974, Northern Cyprus has very much its own flavor. This was readily apparent in Girne (Turkish for Kyrenia). The harbor town, only a two hour ferry from Turkey, feels central Mediterranean and, dare I say, Greek. Looking up at this old white Church against the deep blue sky, thinking of Greece felt almost too obvious. But that Turkish-Greek mix is to be expected here in Cyprus. What surprised us in Girne was that it all came with a heaping side of British.
The sharply dressed touts outside the main square's cafes felt familiarly Turkish, but when we saw a big chalkboard sign that read: Pork Steak, Pork Chops, Pork Shish, Ham Salad, With Glass of Wine is Free! we knew we weren't in Kansas anymore. Turkish Cypriots have always been more secular, but this seemed a little... extreme? Efes beer in frosted pint glasses topped the mid-day tables. Suddenly, we realized we could understand every conversation around us. But this is the off-season? As it turns out, Girne is home to the largest British ex-pat community in Cyprus. Brits have been coming here since the end of World War II, when soldiers and civil servants decided it would be a wonderful place to retire.
Even more intriguing, Cyprus was under British rule from 1878 - 1960. During this period, road systems were developed (drive on the left, wheel on the right) and children were taught English in schools. So, essentially, in Girne we get to stroll in the Mediterranean sun until it sets behind a mountain range topped by an ancient Hellenic castle. Then, we move inside to Fisherman's Inn for some Turkish beer, wine and pistachios and have fluent sorrow-laced conversations with the old Cypriot bar keep. He tells us about the home town he left behind in the south and the Vietnamese love of his life; about the time he was mugged in London and how there are more Cypriots in that English city than there are on this entire island.
They say that once a foreigner lands in Girne, they never leave to see anywhere else in the North. This is the sort of phrase that usually turns us off from a place, translating in our minds to "tourist town." After one day, we found ourselves asking our hotel for a few extra nights, proving the theory true. Still, I think the reason for its accuracy is twofold. There is the sleepy seaside seduction laced with all the aforementioned technicolor. But there's also the lack of readily available options for exploring without a car.
The bumper-to-bumper traffic in town, half necessary and half a parade of souped up cars in for the weekend from the capital, didn't make us excited to rent a car. Neither did the prospect of driving on the opposite side of the road around particularly aggressive drivers. Add to that the legalities involved with getting into any sort of trouble in a territory unrecognized by the world aside from Turkey and you have a lot of bus rides. One of these truly retro buses, imported before 1974, took us out to Famagusta. Much to our chagrin, we then had to take a taxi the 7 kilometers to Ancient Salamis. St. Hilarion Castle, which we can see in the distance, was impossible for us to get to, let alone the relatively untouched coast of the Karpas Peninsula.
In lovely, curious Girne, this hardly made us feel trapped. We jumped head first into the local culture, other than wisely avoiding sun-soaked afternoon alcohol consumption. The most popular place to eat is definitely Niazi's, which has a large restaurant and an adjacent take-out joint. Like almost all of the Turkish-Cypriots in Girne, the restaurant is a transplant from Limassol in the south. Grilled meat is the specialty. So, while foreigners give in to their coastal cravings for (imported or farmed) seafood, locals dig in to some shish.
If the smell of grilling meat didn't take us back to our days in Turkey than the sight and sound of nard playing sure did. If there was a place to set up a table in the sun, there was a nard game going on. Younger locals played over drinks at the harborside cafes. All establishments have the game on hand, often in a pile next to the menus. One evening, as the sun went down and it became immediately cold, a foursome of men in suits sat down near us. They were immediately provided a nard board, blankets to drape over their shoulders and heat lamps, dragged out from inside. A British man next to us tried to engage the waiter in a chat about rugby.
British, Turkish, Cypriot, German tourist - the great equalizer is always soccer. Our last night in Girne, the entire town was tuned in to a match between two Turkish teams. At Six Brothers Restaurant, our waiter asked if we would like to sit next to each other so that we could both see the television. We declined, but wound up staring past each other at the scene around us anyway. Everyone was rapt. The restaurant (no one was actually eating) was divided into sides. At the very last minute, a game-winning shot was made and the crowd erupted in cheers. I wouldn't be surprised if the jubilation caused all the boats in the harbor to rock in the still, night water just a bit.