The Concrete Corpses of Cyprus — Page 2
Story and photos by Darrin DuFord

Cyprus Cathedral“SPICES AND HERP CENTRE” read an awning on the other side of the cathedral. At an open-air café across from the stores, a freckled waitress, originally from England, served us tangy yogurt and a lentil soup made by the café’s Turkish Cypriot owner. We asked her if she receives any customers arriving from the South. She said a handful of patrons from the South, some regulars, stop at her café during visits to their houses now occupied by Turkish Cypriot families. Have any of the Greek Cypriots tried to move back? “I’m not sure what their rights are in the North,” she answered. In her twelve years living on the island, she has flown 2,000 miles to travel home to England several times, but she has never traveled south to Greek Cypriot-controlled Cyprus, less than four miles from the café.

A Bargaining Chip Gone Rotten

The abandoned neighborhood of Varosha stood even closer, just a ten-minute walk from Famagusta’s southern wall. With its golden beach and dreamlike opal water, Varosha was one of the most popular tourist destinations in the Mediterranean, its sand having felt the bare feet of celebrities such as Elizabeth Taylor and Brigitte Bardot. When Turkish forces penetrated Famagusta, the Greek Cypriots ran south.

Instead of doling out Varosha’s properties to Turkish Cypriots, the army fenced it off. Turkey and the Turkish Cypriots, through decades of negotiations, have offered to hand back Varosha as bargaining leverage. Since no agreement has ever been reached, Varosha has been free of human custodianship for almost two generations. The quarter on Google Maps’ satellite view shows a dark and rotten strip of blocks—punctuated with several collapsed roofs—while across the street, rows of white and red roofs indicate lived-in homes.

Several familiar posters of fast-food soldiers warned us to keep moving. As we walked along the waterfront, husks of twelve-story hotels, their glass windows long since shattered, their colors drained, came into view. A fisherman with his line in the water smiled and nodded as we passed him. He faced away from the hotels as he worked his line.

We found the fence of the forbidden zone, complete with a warning sign, just in front of an abandoned hotel tower. After getting bombed in 1974, the building had partially collapsed, its elevator cables dangling behind Volkswagen-sized holes on the section still standing. Balcony railings remained twisted in mid-collapse on this disemboweled giant inconveniently frozen in an undignified rigor mortis.

For a Romantic Time, Don’t Turn Around

It was then that I saw the lookout. As with all Turkish military installations, photography is prohibited. In 2005, journalist Michael J. Totten was photographing the Varosha hotels from the beach and was spotted by Turkish soldiers who were patrolling the streets inside the forbidden zone. A soldier gave chase, but Totten fled the beach without getting caught. Which is why I had stowed away my DSLR camera in a shopping bag and discreetly clicked a few shots with my point and shoot. Then I stowed that away too.

Behind the fence, and in the same eyeful as the half hotel, stood a sign declaring THE BEACH BAR in cheerful lettering, an artifact the Turks had left intact. Its white background had yellowed, but the sign nonetheless locked in the sweetness of happy vibes from 1974, now cruelly anachronistic. Perhaps the Turks had been hopeful that the good times at the Beach Bar could begin to roll again. In its present context, however, it seemed to serve as just another taunt.

The taunts grew worse. While the hotels themselves fall within the forbidden zone, the beach in front of a half dozen of them is open. Stacks of umbrellas, folded up because we had arrived in February, awaited action for the fast-approaching season. My wife and I walked along the once famous beach as I wondered if some sunbathers avoid glancing back to face the ghostly hotel carcasses, just feet from the beach, lest a peek might squash the romance of the moment. Death staring down life. Thus continued the city’s casual approach to its ruins.

Abandoned rooms in Cyprus

A Ghoulish Fascination

While Varosha stands as a symbol of monomaniacal political power, the surreal scene of a city quarter wasting away, its paint chipping off in an organic arrangement known only to Mother Nature, harbored another dimension. The ruins offered a rare chance to witness what happens to a city after humanity’s influence has been erased, the city’s hues dulling into that of the environment. Its once durable posts and beams, fashioned from elements of the earth, were slowly reuniting with the earth and becoming substrate for plants.

St. George ruins in Cyprus

As limestone ruins dominate the skyline of Famagusta’s walled old city, Varosha’s towering hotels have introduced a gruesome rivalry, furnishing an unsettling continuation to poet and novelist Lawrence Durrell’s mid-1950s observation that Famagusta is “the most haunting town in Cyprus, saturated with the memory of its past.” The hotels, unlike the churches, had been built for investment over posterity, and many were unremarkable concrete structures to begin with. But I still found myself staring, momentarily trapped in a sort of ghoulish fascination.

My thoughts took me thousands of miles away to Detroit, where the act of viewing and photographing the city’s abandoned buildings has often been labeled as indulging in "ruins porn." Even though Detroit’s derelict buildings were abandoned due to economic rather than military reasons, I can see how that term may also apply to observing Varosha. Either way, standing near the forbidden zone grabbed me by the collar and forced me to consider the depths of the island’s divide.

Venitian Palace Ruins

On the walk back, I glanced at the lookout long enough to discern that it was not occupied. A slight relaxing of tensions, or a seasonal drop in military coverage? In any case, nature will gleefully help itself to the ruins while the island's human communities leave their differences unresolved.

Darrin DuFord is the author of Breakfast for Alligators: Quests, Showdowns, and Revelations in the Americas , gold medal winner in the 2017 Independent Publisher Book Awards. A past contributor to Perceptive Travel, he has also written for BBC Travel, the San Francisco Chronicle, Vice, Roads & Kingdoms, and Transitions Abroad. His work appears in several anthologies, including The Best Travel Writing Volume 11, Stories of Music (volumes 1 and 2), and Vignettes and Postcards from Morocco.

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