24.09.2006 31 °C
After interminable delays, it had come to the point to finally hit the road. In the build up to my departure it seemed somewhat typical that circumstances were conspiring to detain me at all costs. In the planning some 2 years beforehand I had joked nonchalantly that it would be just my luck that the Middle East would start kicking off at the proposed time. And so it proved to be. With tensions already heightened over the British involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, so Hezbollah took an Israeli soldier captive and met with fierce retribution in the bombardment and partial invasion of Lebanon. Within days of each other there were bombings of tourists in Turkey by the PKK and a shooting in Jordan. It was almost laughable, there was hardly a "safe" country out there, and I joked that it would obviously be the turn of the Far East next. Incredibly there was a coup in Thailand within days. The real bugbear had always been Iran however. Already under threat of sanctions over her nuclear programme, her madcap president had vowed to remove Israel from the face of the planet and had been caught arming Hezbollah. Amongst much posturing and petty belligerence on both sides I finally secured the required permission to apply for an Iranian visa after 13 weeks of hand wringing. The number of hoops to jump through had been many, I still didn't actually have the visa and the delay had cost me my intended deadline for departure by some way. I had planned to start my journey somewhat symbollically in
Istanbul. One of the worlds great cities, it also stood at the crossroads where Europe gave way to Asia. There was also the small matter of the Turkish Grand Prix which I fancied and thought would make a fitting start to any adventure. It was not to be however, and with my Iranian permission finally coming through more than a month later I had no time to waste, the turn of the weather and Ramadan would be pressing concerns. Reasonably priced flights at short notice were thin on the ground too and so a modicum of flexibility was required. Fortunately its one thing I had plenty of, life for the next year or more lay before me like a blank canvas awaiting the first arbitrary brushstroke.
And so I ended up going to Cyprus. It had already been my intention to visit the island from Turkey, and so instead I resolved that it would actually save me the time and expense of a return trip if I simply started there and headed north to Anatolia. And therein lay part of the appeal. For the first time in over 30 years it had become possible to travel from the Greek speaking Republic of Cyprus in the south to the occupied and self declared independent Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus in the north. A state not recognised by any other than its Turkish conquerors, it had lain stagnant and neglected as an illegal backwater whilst the rest of the Mediterranean had got on with the business of reaping the tourist dollar and joining the E.U.
On Sunday 24th September 2006 I finally took the plunge and flew from Edinburgh to Larnaca with Eurocypria Airways, a somewhat sexy prospect to aviation anoraks, and with it the start of a new life. The rain was pouring down in Edinburgh, and Scotland finally, reluctantly gave up her grip after yet another delay of an hour or so. Unfortunately that meant that I would be scheduled to arrive in Larnaca just in time to miss the last airport bus and the last of the daylight to boot. For a moment it didn't seem to matter however, the plane appeared to be coming down into the sea. Staring back at the water's surface at no more than 20 feet, a strip of beach briefly flashed by and we landed with a bump on Cypriot soil. Just. Mercifully the taxi system at Larnaca was organised enough not to be the total shark feeding frenzy they tend to be the world over, and I drew up to the youth hostel in my big shiny black Mercedes, as you do. The flight had taken me diagonally across the entire expanse of Europe. After leaving the omnipresent black cloud over Kelty behind I soon had a fantastic view of what I took to be the Austrian Tyrol, complete with impressive glaciers, then right past Venice mirrored against a shiny Adriatic Sea and on to the wild, dark mountains of Albania. I saw Corfu on the horizon and then the familiar outline of Rhodes. As we flew over the north of Cyprus I had a panorama of the whole island and even managed to pick out the RAF radar station atop Mt. Troodos, the highest peak. I thought of the time I had climbed that mountain, and viewed images of the Middle East from those radar screens. I was 15 then and an Air Cadet on my very first venture abroad. I recalled how it had got so dark that night that in order to get back to camp we'd had to get down on our hands and knees and feel for the white lines in the middle of the road.
The hostel proved to be a beautifully preserved monastic building, all pink sandstone and arches and topped off with a dome. Unfortunately, modernity had encroached upon it from all sides and also had sadly penetrated into the interior. Suffice to say the beauty was only skin deep. The take away sandwich shop across the road was called Quick Stop Submarines. It was a dive all right and the stop wouldn't be quick enough.
It was prudent however to establish a stable base for the first few days and get used to all the new demands of the language, the money, the weather. And so over the next 3 days I rattled off a series of firsts. My first kebab, my first pint of Keo lager, my first insect bite, my first cockroach. And my first night in a strange dormitory bed kept awake by the stifling heat. I saw the forecast the next day, and it proclaimed that Cyprus and actually Larnaca specifically would be the hottest spot in the whole of the Med at 31 degrees. Except they were wrong, the next day it reached 34. Larnaca wasn't so bad though. It had managed to find a workable blend with a well maintained, palm lined promenade given over to tourism, yet latched onto a real honest working city. It had been done tastefully enough and was an easy place to relax. And on my first day thats all I managed, a beer at lunchtime on top of the heat and I finally conked out whether I liked it or not.
I made up for it the next day wıth a visit to the shared building on the seafront housing the Paeleontology Museum and Museum of Larnaca. There wasn't that much of note but I did learn that Cyprus had been inhabited until recent times by pygmy hippos and dwarf elephants, probably succumbing to extinction upon the arrival of man. The old photos of Larnaca showed how it had evolved from very meagre beginnings only since WWII.
Next day I did a day trip out east to Ayia Napa, really just a jaunt to say I had been there and seen what all the fuss was about. It was supposed to be Europe's clubbing mecca but I didn't see a single club amongst the swathe of bars, restaurants and hotels that made it just one more busy package resort. It did have a very nice if crowded beach however, and remarkably the average age was positively geriatric. It was all hype. I would have liked to have seen it at night and had originally planned to do so before learning that the youth hostel here had closed down. So no clubbing for me but I got the idea all the same. Ensconced in the middle of all the marketing mayhem sat the now very out of place Monastery of Ayia Napa, once the only building for miles around. The more interesting aspect was actually the getting there however. Signs along the way pointed towards the EAC Refugee Camp, a bit of a contrast, and there were also turn offs indicated to Pyla, the last village on the whole island where Greek and Turkish communities coexisted. Other signs promised Famagusta, but that was now in the north and had been beyond reach until recently. I wondered if the signs had been newly erected for the border opening, if they had always been there since before partition or had served just as a reminder to passers by that it was still there at all and had not been forgotten. And all of this on British territory. Ayia Napa and the eastern beach resorts were effectively cut off from the rest of the country by the Dhekelia Sovereign Base Area, one of two enclaves which had been retained by Britain as a condition of independence. We passed many barrack buildings behind barbed wire and a gate sign proclaiming the 2nd Battalion Royal Regiment of Fusiliers to be in residence. There was no roadblock as such but gates stood at the ready to isolate the base should the need arise. In that event the eastern resorts would be left cut off from the rest of the country, perverse.
I just had time enough to catch the Pierides Museum on my return to Larnaca, a villa which had long housed the Pierides family who had amassed a grand collection of artifacts from paleolithic times onwards. They had a particularly fine display of old maps embellished with such evocative names as Barbaria (North Africa), Pontus Euxinus (the Black Sea) and one curiously entitled in English "Paradise, or The Garden of Eden" (the Biblical Lands). Cyprus had always been known as Cypri Insula however.