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When we went outside on the balcony of our apartment this morning, we realised we were so close to Northern Cyprus that we could see it. The flag painted on the mountainside looks a bit blurry in the picture below, but we can see it quite clearly in real life. That was fitting, because our plan for today was to cross into Northern Cyprus again, this time by car. The border crossing of Agios Dometios is only a couple of miles from where we are staying, so that was the first place we navigated to. Because its in the middle of Lefkosia, this is a busy border crossing and so we had to sit in a queue for a while. No one wanted to see our passports on the Greek Cypriot side, but we had to show them to the Turkish border police again. It's permitted to take a hire car from southern Cyprus into northern Cyprus, but car insurance purchased in southern Cyprus doesn't cover you to drive in northern Cyprus, so we knew that we would have to purchase Turkish car insurance at the border. My research indicated that there was going to be an insurance booth to do this at the border crossing, next to the passport control booth. What my research didn't indicate was which lane we needed to be queuing in to be able to do this. There were two lanes for passport control and, in the absence of any signs, we'd ended up in the left hand one when the insurance booth turned out to be in the right hand one. Oh dear! We showed our passports to the Turkish border guard and he asked to see our car insurance. Tim explained that he wanted to buy it, so the guard told him to park the car to one side and go to the insurance booth to make the purchase. Meanwhile he was going to hang onto my passport for security I may have been regretting this adventure slightly at this point, but luckily it all turned out to be fine. Tim successfully purchased the insurance, which turned out to only cost €20, and showed it to the border guard, who promptly returned my passport. In possession of an insurance certificate written entirely in Turkish, we drove across the border and onto the main road towards our ultimate destination of Girne. First impressions were that everything felt a bit more foreign on this side of the border. The signs were mainly just in Turkish (whereas on the other side, a lot of signs are bilingual in Greek and English) and the standard of driving seemed a little bit worse (though not as bad as Sicily!). There were lots of Turkish and Turkish Cypriot flags everywhere, and we drove past what looked like an enormous mosque being constructed on the outskirts of Lefkoşa. The reason for today's excursion was that some of the top sights in Cyprus are on the Turkish side of the border and there were two in particular that I really wanted to see. One was Saint Hilarion Castle, which our guidebook described as being the best castle in Cyprus, and the other was the town of Girne (or Kyrenia, in Greek), which was described as having the most picturesque harbour in Cyprus. Girne is located less than 20 miles from Lefkosia and Saint Hilarion Castle is on the way, so both are easily doable as a day-trip from the capital. It felt like we hadn't been travelling for long when we saw a sign indicating the turn-off for the castle. From the main road, you have to drive a few kilometres uphill on a small road which takes you through some stunning mountain scenery, with great views up towards the castle itself. Unfortunately, this road is owned by the military (there seems to be some sort of army base on the hill) and so there are big signs telling you that it's forbidden to stop and/or take any photos here. That didn't seem to stop a couple of other cars of tourists from doing just that, but we definitely weren't going to risk it! At the top of the hill there's a small car park, which was overflowing with French tourists who had just got off a coach. Tim managed to find a space and we walked up towards the castle entrance. It only cost €2 each to get in, which seemed like a bargain, and luckily they did accept Euros in cash. From here we were allowed to start taking photos of the views This was the road which we'd been driving up to get to the castle. We could see all the way down to the sea; the town on the coast is Girne, where we were heading later. It looked quite built up from here and I was starting to wonder whether it would really be as attractive as the guidebook had promised. Once we'd finished admiring the views, we turned our attention towards the castle. As with everywhere here, the castle had its two flags proudly flying. A series of steps took us uphill towards the lower part of the castle. A castle was first built here in Byzantine times, to help defend the coast from attacks by Arab pirates. The castle was later upgraded by the Lusignans, who ruled Cyprus until the end of the fifteenth century. The upgraded castle was used as a summer residence by the Lusignan kings. Once the Venetians took control of Cyprus, the castle began to fall into disrepair. It is still, however, the best preserved of a number of castles in this part of Cyprus. We'd climbed a fair way uphill by this point, overtaking most of the elderly French tour group, and we were now a long way above the entrance gate with its flags. There were still more steps to go, though! Eventually we got up to the middle part of the castle. Here there were various rooms that we could go into to explore. This one used to be the kitchen. There were some bits of the castle ruins that I didn't really feel like exploring; that ladder looks rather scary! We did, however, intend to climb a bit higher, to the top level of the castle. Although when I suggested it, I hadn't realised quite how much further there was left to climb It turned out there was a long way! Another series of stone steps took us upwards, but the stone had worn smooth and was extremely slippy. Not anticipating this, we were both wearing our trainers (despite having our walking boots in the back of the car down below), and so we found it a slightly challenging climb at times, despite the fact that several Russian women in high heeled sandals seemed to be managing it just fine The saving grace was that there was a series of strong metal railings all the way up to hold on to. At last, we made it to the highest tower Or, at least, the highest tower that you can climb to; this one was higher. It was a long way down to the car park from here on one side... ...and a long way down to Girne on the other side. It had been a tiring climb to get up here, but now that we'd made it the views were incredible. Now there was just the small matter of getting down again! It was a little nerve-wracking in places but we managed it and soon we were able to look back up towards where we'd been. Phew Now it was time to get back in the car and continue onwards to Girne. The guidebook had recommended a parking place not too far from the harbour, which we found without any problems. As we parked and started walking into the town centre, we were somewhat surprised to find that the first thing which confronted us was an English pub. Not quite what I expected when I thought we were having an exotic adventure Although it was lunchtime by this point, we definitely weren't going to get lunch from an English pub. We continued on through the town, passing a ruined tower... ...and a pretty white church. Then we found the sea The mountains made a really beautiful backdrop for it; it reminded me a bit of Montenegro. This part of the seafront didn't look quite like the pictures I'd seen in the guidebook though, so we needed to explore further. It turned out we'd walked along the sea front in the wrong direction. If we'd come out of the town and turned right instead, we would have started walking towards Girne castle. There's a long promenade here which enables you to walk around the harbour. These were the views that I'd seen pictures of We could see the castle, and the minaret of the town's oldest mosque. The water was beautifully clear and we could see lots of little fish swimming in it. We walked around as far as we could, admiring the views. The town is definitely a lot prettier from here than it looks when you are on top of the castle. The huge castle here was built by the Venetians in the sixteenth century. It later surrendered to the Ottomans, who continued to use it as a castle. During the British administration of Cyprus, it was used variously as a prison and a police barracks. Today it is a tourist attraction, but we decided that climbing up one castle was enough effort for today so we didn't pay to go inside Instead, we walked back around the harbour, towards the centre of town. There were lots of restaurants around the waterfront, so we soon found somewhere to get a belated lunch. Tim ordered a chicken kiev, which looked enormous when it came. I order something which was described as "chicken meatballs". They turned out to be pieces of grilled chicken with herbs mixed through them; delicious but definitely not meatball-shaped For pudding, Tim had ice-cream and I tried a Turkish desert called kadayifi ekmek. It tasted a bit like tiramisu, without the chocolate and alcohol. I also had a coffee, which came with this rather peculiar carton of water, the size and shape of a yoghurt pot. I'm guessing that the tap water isn't drinkable here, so they have sealed cartons to serve with coffee rather than glasses of tap water. By the time we'd finished eating we were absolutely stuffed. The entire meal came to 193 Turkish Lira, which is less than €30, so it felt like good value It was only a short walk back from the restaurant towards where we'd left the car. On the way we passed the mosque whose minaret we'd seen from the harbour. The car parking cost €2 and they let us pay in Euros, which was good. Then all that remained was a drive back along the motorway towards Lefkosia, where we had to go pass back through the border control. Our passports were checked on both sides of the border this time, although only briefly, and there were no complications with insurance in this direction It's been a really exciting day and we've seen some beautiful places. Tomorrow afternoon we will be flying back to the UK from Larnaca airport. We should have time to see some of Larnaca in the morning, though not sure how much there is to see there! I don't think it will beat today for scenery, but we've had such a great holiday that we can't really complain
Today it was time to leave Platres behind and travel to our final destination for this holiday: Lefkosia. Or maybe Nicosia. I have spent the holiday in a state of some confusion about what the capital of Cyprus is actually called, because personally I have always been fairly sure it was called Nicosia (and, indeed, this is what my Cyprus guidebook and the English Wikipedia call it), but all the road and other signs here refer to it as Lefkosia. As far as I can tell, the city is called Λευκωσία in Greek, which transliterates as Lefkosia. Historically the city was called Nicosia in English, although it was still called Lefkosia in Greek, and in 1995 an official decision was taken that Lefkosia would be the official name in English too. It doesn't seem to be a decision that has caught on internationally, but given that everything here is labelled as Lefkosia, we're going to use that name for today's blog Lefkosia is about 90 minutes away from Platres by car and it was a fairly straightforward journey, which only required use of the satnav for the final 10 minutes or so as we made our way into the city centre on the hunt for parking. The old town of Lefkosia is surrounded by thick defensive walls which were built by the Venetians in the sixteenth century. The guidebook had recommended a car park just outside the walls and Google maps surpassed my expectations, taking us there on the first attempt The carpark seemed to be in a sort of moat outside the walls. Once we'd parked, we climbed up a steep staircase to the level of the rest of the town. Almost immediately, we found ourselves in a very touristy quarter called Laiki Geitonia, whose narrow streets were full of people trying to entice us into their cafes and restaurants. We didn't take any pictures, because we were too busy trying to evade them and track down the tourist information office, which was signposted somewhere in this warren of streets. We eventually found it and acquired a map of the southern part of the city. The man in the tourist information office even circled the main sights for us, which was helpful, because our first impression as we started walking around Lefkosia was that sights were few and far between The first photogenic building which we came to was the Faneromeni church, which is the largest church within the city walls. It was interesting to see that it had a Greek flag flying on the back of it. The church is in a square, opposite the Faneromeni school, which was the first school for girls built in Cyprus in 1857. A bit further on, we found the Ömeriye mosque, which is the most important functioning mosque in the Greek Cypriot part of the city. Unfortunately, everything in Lefkosia seems to be so built up that it was difficult to get a good photo of it from up close. We walked down a pretty little street... ...and found we had a better view of the mosque from a distance There were some interesting streets in this part of town. Some of the buildings had enclosed balconies, which reminded me of those we'd seen in Malta last year. Not far from here we found St John's Cathedral, which looked quite small for a cathedral in a capital city. The cathedral is close to the Archbishop's Palace. This is the official home of the Archbishop of Cyprus. By this point we had walked horizontally across the city and were almost at the edge of the Venetian walls. Here we found the Liberty Monument. This was built in 1973 to honour the fighters who fought for Cyprus's independence from Britain. We walked along the edge of the walls for a while, which was quite pleasant They look like really solid walls! By walking along the walls, we came to the Famagusta gate. This was the main gate into the city in Venetian times. From here we walked inwards back into the city. On the way we passed this tiny mosque with a very short minaret. We were walking towards Lefkosia's main street, Ledra Street. Ledra Street is home to one of several checkpoints where you can cross from the official Republic of Cyprus, where we have spent our week, to the so-called Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) which covers the northeastern part of the island. The TRNC came into being in 1974 when Turkey, concerned that Greek Cypriots were planning to officially unite the island with Greece, invaded the parts of Cyprus which were inhabited by Turkish Cypriots. The conflict has never been resolved, despite the fact that Cyprus is now a member of the EU. Turkey is the only country which recognises Northern Cyprus as a country, and so to the rest of the world the territory, which includes half of the capital city, is viewed as being under illegal occupation. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, Lefkosia has been the last divided capital in the world. Tensions are, however, lower than they used to be and the Ledra Street crossing was opened in 2008 to enable pedestrians to pass from one side of the city to the other. Crossing the border is a slightly strange experience. First of all you have to queue to show passports to the Greek Cypriot police, who admittedly didn't seem terribly interested in them. They were much more interested in opening the bags of people who were crossing back in from Northern Cyprus, to make sure they weren't importing illegal amounts of cigarettes. Then you walk through a no-man's-land kind of area, before joining a queue to show passports to the Turkish Cypriot police. They seemed more interested in them and put them through a scanner, although they didn't seem to stamp them at all. The queue for the Turkish passport control was quite long, but they have built a covered wooden walkway for people to queue in, which at least meant we were in the shade while we waited. Once we'd had our passports checked, we were officially in Lefkoşa (a third name isn't at all confusing ), the capital of the TRNC. Somewhat unexpectedly, the first thing we saw was an off licence. In general, many of the streets were lined with shops selling knock-off designer clothes. There had been a sign at the border warning people that bringing counterfeit clothing back across was an offence. There were some more attractive buildings too though... ...including some attractive porticoes... ...and pretty much everywhere we looked we could see minarets on the horizon. The highlight of this part of the city is the Büyük Han, a historical inn built by the Ottomans in 1572. During the time of the British administration of Cyprus, it was used as the city prison. Today it has all been beautifully restored and is used as an arts and cultural centre. It's also a popular tourist attraction and there were several shops and restaurants in the courtyard. We decided to stop at one of the restaurants and get lunch. The prices on the menu were all in Turkish lira, which is the official currency in northern Cyprus. We had to do a bit of careful googling to check the exchange rate (careful, because I'd had a text from EE warning me that if I accidentally connected to a Turkish mobile network while in Cyprus, I would be charged some pretty expensive rates!). The prices seemed pretty reasonable though, so we found a table and sat down The menu consisted of variations on the theme of grilled meat (although pork was notably absent). Tim experimented with a mixed grill, while I played it safe with chicken. Both meals came with pitta bread, chips and beautiful sticky rice. I had a glass of Turkish wine, Tim had a Turkish beer, and all in all the meal came to 133 lira, which was €20.50. We didn't actually have any Turkish lira, so Tim paid on his card. Interestingly, they would have accepted cash payment in Euros, but the Euro amount quoted on the bill was €24, so it wasn't a terribly favourable exchange rate! Service over lunch had been a bit slow, so we only had a little bit more time to explore before we needed to get to our apartment to check in. I wanted to track down a big mosque, whose minarets with Turkish and Turkish Cypriot flags flying we'd been able to see even from the Greek side of the city. This is the Selimiye Mosque, formerly a Gothic cathedral, which was converted into a mosque during the Ottoman period. It's very clear that parts of it used to be a church. With that our time was up and we had to head back across the border. There was less of a queue this time and so we made it to our apartment in good time. It turns out to be another spacious one. We've got a comfy living area... ...a good kitchen... ...and a nice bedroom. There's even an office if Tim wants to catch up on some work All in all we've had another very interesting day in Cyprus