The delights of Karmi village
are here to see!
By Tom Roche…….
Karmi’s cobbled pathways have romantic names like Fig Tree Walk, Geranium Walk and Almond Way. They snake up and down the hillside, along whitewashed walls, past carved wooden doorways shaded by tumbling towers of shocking pink bougainvillea.
It would appear to be a quintessential Mediterranean village – but all is not what it seems. Karmi is a North Cyprus curiosity, a social experiment turned tourist attraction. Although it is just ten minutes from Kyrenia, it’s another world.
For Karmi is the Cyprus village where, in theory, no Cypriots are allowed to live. As a result of marriage and/or dual nationalities, a few local people have made their homes there, but it remains an officially enforced British and German enclave.
Karmi was isolated and largely abandoned in the 1970s, an unloved tumble of stones and weeds clinging to the slopes beneath St. Hilarion. Following the UN-sponsored Exchange of Populations, few Turkish Cypriots were interested in taking accommodation there. Local resident Nadia Brunton, working with tourism official Mustafa Cemal, came up with the idea of leasing the ruins to foreigners, providing they shouldered the expense of renovation.
This led to an influx of British, Germans and other Europeans, who rebuilt their lives and their homes, creating a mountain idyll. Officially renamed ‘Karaman,’ locals and visitors alike have stuck stubbornly to the ‘old’ name, a reflection perhaps of the appeal of a place where most of the population is also on the older side.
European standards prevail. The residents organise and pay for their own street cleaning. If there was a North Cyprus “tidiest village” award, Karmi would win by a mile.
Like the fictional TV village of Akenfield, Karmi has a ‘Heartbeat’ … the pub, the restaurant and the village shop. But its ageing population is facing changes.
Many of those who took 49-year leases have died or returned to their home countries, putting their properties for sale. Anxious to ensure continuity, the government of North Cyprus has pledged to add a further 49 years at the end of the current terms, but this promise is as uncertain as the future of the island itself.
The presence of the shop is in doubt – and those responsible for the pub and the restaurant are warning they cannot continue indefinitely. It may be a case of catch Karmi while you can.
Karmi’s sloping “High Street” is a misnomer. There’s just one shop – and that’s the only shop in the village. It serves as the post office and off licence, offers DVD rentals, mobile top-ups, free wi-fi, postcards and a place to collect water bills.
Peter and Sylvi Austin have been running the shop for the past three years, but are looking to sell on.“It’s not hard work but you do have to put in the hours. We have thoroughly enjoyed it but I am 65 and I am ready to give up working,” Peter says.
“When we took it on we asked people to tell us what they wanted and we built it up from there. If we haven’t got it, we will get it for you, we said. Fresh veg was a bit of a flop, but wine is a big seller,” Peter laughs.
The shop is also the location for the unofficial ‘Five O’Clock Club,” old boys who bring their dogs and sit on a bench opposite to share a beer and chat. Currently the shop is open from 9am to one o’clock and from five till six in the afternoons and on Saturday mornings. It remains closed on Thursdays and Sundays
Sylvi adds: “In May and September we can be busy with walkers. Summer time is quiet as many residents go away. Winter time, the homeowners are here and it’s very nice. It’s like being a hairdresser. You get to hear people’s stories, to have a laugh with them even be their agony aunt.”
“Down the bottom” is Karmi-speak for the journey down the hill to the main coastal strip. It is only a five-minute drive but it has proved to be something of a psychological barrier over the years. Now it is also a physical test for some of the older residents for whom Peter and Sylvi organise deliveries of boxes of groceries and gas bottles.
“A good day for me is when I don’t have to go down the bottom,” chuckles Ken Nikolai, the
amiable landlord of Levant Bar and Restaurant. “We’re not part of North Cyprus, but we are close enough to visit.”
Ken and his wife Debbie are well-travelled Canadian teachers who chose North Cyprus as a base for their work in the Middle East. They never planned to become restaurateurs, until Levant became vacant seven years ago. Debbie says:“It wasn’t a very rational thing to do but we felt we were part of the village, there were very few places to go and the village needed its restaurant.
“I have always enjoyed cooking but there’s more to running a restaurant than being a good cook, in fact, as we discovered, that’s only a small part of it. The village needed a heart. We decided if we were going to do it, we would do it right.”
Ken takes up the story: “Debbie has always been a very good cook. She reads a recipe book like a novel, from cover to cover. She decided to quit teaching in Dubai …..” Debbie interjects: “Ken was due to retire and join me and run the bar, but he abdicated very early on.”
Ken continued his education work in Abu Dhabi but returns to Karmi as often as he can. He says he really will retire at the end of this year, when both of them will consider their future.
The Nikolais have not only invested in Levant but subsequently took on the management of the village pub, the Crow’s Nest. If that weren’t enough, they have now taken over another empty house opposite their restaurant and turned it into a new village coffee shop. Naturally they have a vested interest in attracting more visitors, but Ken claims they are hampered by a unique situation.
The Ministry of Tourism controls Karmi through a “Special Village Committee.” The Committee meets once a month to approve maintenance issues and applications for the transfer of leases. It is chaired by tourism official Mine Fedai. The other members are a representative from the District Office in Kyrenia and five permanent residents appointed by the Ministry. The Committee enforces strict rules about paint colours and building materials to ensure the stone houses retain their authenticity.
Aided by their five long-serving and loyal Phillipino staff, Debbie and Ken have made a modest success of the restaurant business. “There’s no money in it, it’s hard work but it is strangely rewarding,” he says. “The biggest challenge is not running the restaurant, it’s the Cypriot bureaucracy. There’s no support from the government. They don’t promote Karmi at all.
“This is supposed to be a touristic village but people don’t know we exist. No Minister of Tourism has ever brought a guest here. We succeed only by word of mouth and a lot of repeat business from people who come every year. Everything used to be closed from three to six in the afternoon. You couldn’t even get a glass of water, but now the coffee shop will help. We want people to come here, have a lovely meal and walk away happy.
“We need recognition, suppport. The village should be catering for tourists. The residents want a shop, a bar and a restaurant so how are we to support these things unless we have customers? At the very least we need a minibus that would bring people up and down, even twice a day, but the Committee has banned buses from coming here.”
Mine Fedai denies any bus ban. She said: “To my knowledge, no buses for public transportation come up to the village and this has nothing to do with the Ministry or the Committee. In any case, village roads are not suitable for buses.”
Ken says: “The original intention was for this to be an artisan village, where artists and crafts people would be encouraged to take the houses and we would have a shop selling quality souvenirs. I don’t know what happened to that.
“Now the different governments we have all the time, they just want to forget that Karmi exists. It’s political dynamite: ‘We stole this lovely Greek village’. The Cyprus situation is going to be fixed externally. It doesn’t matter what people here think. We are just part of a much bigger problem.”
He is referring to the Greek Cypriots who flooded up to Karmi after the border was opened in 2003, many claiming the beautifully-restored houses belonged to them.
The truth is shrouded in the mountain mist but one unlikely story remains: How Hollywood came to Karmi in 1970. Raquel Welch, played an adulterous wife in a movie released under various titles; ‘The Beloved’ and ‘Restless’, but known mainly as ‘Sin’. It bombed at the box office but you can catch young Raquel on DVD, prancing around Karmi and posing for publicity pictures beside the village phone box.
Ken adds: “There are some fascinating people living here. We have all the things you expect of village life. People know each other, there are some little cliques and internal feuding, but apart from those horrible things, when somebody needs help everybody pulls together. It’s like any family, there might be some in-laws you don’t speak to, but when we need to, we come together.
“It’s such a lovely island I am still very happy here and overjoyed every time I come back.”
The Crow’s Nest lies at the other end of the High Street and has been run by Andrew Clarkson, a softly-spoken native of Leeds, for the past six years. Andrew trained as a chef and has spent most of his life working in bars and restaurants. He also had a spell in a nursing agency, which he describes as useful in a gentle swipe at his customers.
“Tucked away up here, we don’t get the dross from down the bottom. Here we have a mix of our own,” he says. “We are a local, English-style bar or pub. I say English, that’s the majority in the village. We also have a number of German, French and Swedish or Scandinavian customers. The Germans are starting to drift away. They bought in the first wave when properties were cheap but now they are getting on and their families don’t want old houses.
“We do pub food and nice looking desserts but there’s no pressure to eat. People can just stand near the bar and have a drink. You’re just as likely to find special offers on bottles of Prosecco as pints of lager.” That said, Friday evening fish and chips is always a sell-out and must be booked in advance.
Andrew adds: “Sometimes it’s difficult when it’s hot and you’re busy but I like contact with people and there’s continuity here. The locals and people who come every year, they’re pleased to see you. They like the village ‘cos it’s quiet and peaceful and this is their local.”
Hannah Porter and her Turkish-Cypriot husband Hüs live next door to the Crow’s Nest, which her parents owned until 1992. Unusually Hannah was born in Kyrenia and brought up in Karmi. Now in her 30s she is no longer the youngest resident. That honour goes to her son Shawn, just three.
She said: “When I was growing up here there was a younger element. There were parents with children, more Germans, Swiss, French and Belgian people too. They would fall out with each other then all go for a drink together. In those days they were pioneers; people who came out here for adventure and to start businesses.
“Now it has established itself as a beautiful village to retire to and do your garden. It’s a very houseproud place. We get some visitors at weekends and even at night time. My husband hates it because they look into your open windows to see what the house looks like.
“But it’s very amiable living here. When you go for a walk everybody stops to say hello. They’ll even leave gifts on the doorstep for Shawn. It’s very supportive and quiet. The only problem for us is, Shawn has got no one of his own age and we have to go down the hill to find a friend.”
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