In the middle of gloomy news and predictions for 2016 two of the media organisations I follow carried very similar stories of a small ray of sunshine in Europe. 2016 might be the end of a 42 year old conflict within our continent. Both the BBC news and the Guardian 2016 predictions (part of a longer and much more gloomy article predicting events of 2016) have written that 2016 is the best chance in decades for an end to the separation of the Turkish Republic of North Cyprus from Cyprus, a status that has existed since coups and invasion in 1974.
That optimism gives me the perfect opportunity to publish some blog posts that have sat on my computer part drafted since I visited North Cyprus in May of last year. I didn’t get round to blogging at the time because I was there officially as a guest of our cycling friends from the North Cyprus Bicycle Lovers Association with the assistance of their ministry of tourism and they asked me to write a report about what I saw, so I had to save my photos and comments until the report was done, and of course by then I was blogging about other things.
But as I look out the window at the pouring Belgian rain I can read about the optimism for change in Cyprus and I know it is time to take a break from house maintenance and catch up on those sunny times from last year.
I had four intensive days in North Cyprus meeting the Tourism Minister, the Mayor of Lefkosa (Nicosia), politicians, civil servants and cyclists. I was also taken by car to see some of the key areas for developing cycle tourism, but fortunately I was given the time and space to have a couple of really good bike rides on a borrowed mountain bike, a fantastic experience in glorious scenery and warm sunshine.
If my hosts wanted to sell the place they couldn’t have chosen a better spot to tempt a cycle tourist or mountain biker. Staying in a hotel near Kyrenia (Girne in Turkish) I was on the north coast of the island but from my hotel room could see the mountain range rising up as much as 1000 metres just a few kilometres inland.
And so it proved, the backdrop of mountain over coast provided stunning seascapes and glorious vistas throughout the trip.
I have to be honest, cycling in North Cyprus is undeveloped at the moment and it is not easy for the inexperienced, quiet roads and tracks are there but the traffic can be intimidating on the busier roads. There is a cycling guide from the tourist board which identifies 15 routes of varying difficulty, one of my recommendations was to turn some of them into circular routes like the superb walking trails that have been identified in the hills above Kyrenia and to make some of them connect to the city because then they would be more accessible to most of the hotels which are on the coast.
I can say that just because it needs a bit of investment in map reading and planning doesn’t mean that North Cyprus wasn’t an amazing place to ride. The coast is stunningly beautiful and in many places the old roads have been bypassed leaving a quiet strip perfect for cycling.
And there are sections that are developed as walking trails that can easily be ridden.
I told my hosts that if all these disjointed sections were connected this could be one of the best cycling routes in the Mediterranean, it stretches about 200 kilometres which would make a great short tour. In fact next time I go, I think that’s the trip I should plan.
By contrast the mountains and foothill are hard riding territory. As well as a number of tarmacked roads to tempt mountain loving roadies the whole region is covered in dirt tracks and forest roads that provide fantastic off road riding. I would not want to be there in the full summer heat, but in May it was lovely.
Brief details of my two rides give a bit more flavour of the terrain.
On my first morning I just rode straight out from the hotel and aimed for the foothills. On my tourist map and listed as one of the “must see” locations near Kyrenia was the partly ruined abbey of Bellapais, a 13th century monastery. It took me a short time to cut across the busier roads that run around Kyrenia and then I was able to find minor roads breaking out into hillsides where the villas were stacked up, each seeking a sea view.
A gradual but not too demanding climb soon told me I was in Bellapais because older buildings crowded the road into a narrow street and then I popped out beside the ruins to take in the views along the coast.
That had all gone rather smoothly so I was determined to take advantage of an early start and I tried to pick my way into the hills on the steep gravel tracks that abounded to the east of the abbey.
It was a curious mix of scrub and tracks and then clusters of new holiday homes missed in with part built projects that no doubt were victims of the ongoing economic and political challenges of North Cyprus.
Offroad was much harder riding and I certainly won’t claim that I rode everything, some walking and pushing was needed. However I was surrounded by wild herbs and I had great views, so I certainly wasn’t complaining.
Whizzing back down to Kyrenia from Bellapais on the main road was exhilarating, and a great finish.
For my second ride I had guides, in particular Tuğberk Emirzade from North Cyprus Hiking Trails who is a professional tour guide and has had a hand in preparing the brochure for bike rides and marking out some of the riding trails in the mountains.
He drove us up to the Kyrenia Mountain Road so I could ride part of this amazing ridge road that runs along the top of the Five Finger Mountains, offering views to the sea in the north and over the arid inland plain to the south.
Off each side of the road are walking trails and forest tracks which are increasingly popular as walks for tourists as connections to North Cyprus have opened up in recent years. Some of them are unrideable for all but a really hard core mountain biker, but Tuğberk used his local knowledge to let me try out some great singletrack sections that he had picked out.
I didn’t have a helmet with me so I was pretty cautious, my skills are a bit rusty and I was never one for rocky tracks so I wasn’t willing to throw the bike around to its full capability, but in my minds’ eye I could imagine many hours spent up there.
If you want to try cycling somewhere at the beginning of opening up to new visitors, highly affordable and with a great climate – you could do worse than come here.
As you can probably tell, I had a lot of fun in North Cyprus. And that wasn’t just a product of exploring somewhere completely new, it was more than anything about the warm and welcome reception from the cycling community, whether it be formal meetings with officials or discussions with the local cyclists.
Above all it was about Şerife and Hüseyin Akcan, the couple at the heart of the North Cyprus Bike Lovers Association. As well as owning a chain of bike shops they have both raced to a high standard in the past but have now switched to cycle campaigning to try and bring more cycling to their home country.
I first met them in 2013 when they came to the ECF AGM in Vienna to ask if their association could join the European Cyclists’ Federation. That was not easy because North Cyprus status as a country is controversial and not recognised internationally. However we concluded that our statutes did not recognise whether cycling bodies were acting as national representatives, only that they should recognisably speak for a group of cyclists who shared our mission. It was not without debate but Şerife and Hüseyin had already convinced everyone of their passion for sharing cycling and the association was elected to the organisation.
Since then we have stayed in regular touch and they have been trying to convince me to go over and share some European thinking with their community and to see the country for myself. Now I have got there I think it is fair to say as a guest that nobody could have been more hospitable, despite the pressures of running a busy family business nothing was too much trouble, from meals to meetings to bike rides. And we talked. And talked. And laughed. A lot.
In the “About” page of this blog I say that one of the justifications for this blog is because “Whenever I cycle with people we bond and we build relationships – the camaderie of the wheel.” It is meeting people like the Akcans that makes me so pleased and proud to be part of the global cycling community.
I hope for them, their family and their friends that 2016 is indeed a year of hope for Cyprus.
I do not despair.
Link to North Cyprus Tourist Board