'Urban explorers' drawn to Cyprus and its haunted past
August 9, 2023 08:24 PM
Chained swings eerily creak in the breeze at the deserted Tivoli amusement park in Cyprus, a divided island that has caught the eye of the global "urban explorer" community.
To enter the shuttered park, overgrown by nature, in the capital Nicosia, "urbex" enthusiast Christos Zoumides hoists himself up a wall, climbs through rusted bars and walks across broken glass.
"I have so many memories here," marvels the 40-year-old Cypriot scientist as he reaches an abandoned go-kart track where his family used to take him as a child.
For the past eight years, he has embraced urbex, the underground pastime of exploring abandoned places -- usually illegally and at the risk of accidents in badly dilapidated locations.
Considered part of "dark tourism", it has drawn explorers to "lost places" everywhere, from abandoned Cold War bunkers to forgotten cinemas, factories and concert halls that appear frozen in time.
The most popular sites tend to evoke historic disasters, tragedies and wars, said tourism specialist Katerina Antoniou, who added that this had made Cyprus a "unique" setting for many.
The island in the eastern Mediterranean has been divided since Turkish troops invaded its northern third in 1974 in response to a coup by Greek-Cypriot nationalists.
The UN-patrolled Green Line buffer zone, with a heavy military presence on both sides, separates the Republic of Cyprus from the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) recognised only by Ankara.
- 'Not a playground, a military zone' -
As reminders of its tragic history, century-old sandstone homes, with caved-in roofs and shattered windows, remain in many areas, including Nicosia where their "No Entry" signs draw urbex fans.
Zoumides argued that roaming through them is a "different way to document Nicosia ... You feel a lot of things when you explore a forgotten place. You connect with the people who lived there."
He said Cyprus has attracted ever more urbex fans who are curious about its sandbags and barbed wire, its "abandoned military bases, UN posts... places untouched for half a century".
Drawn by online videos, "they want to discover the hidden face of Nicosia, the secret side of Cyprus," said Zoumides, who sometimes guides foreign urbex enthusiasts.
Authorities are alarmed by the trend, and UN peacekeeping force spokesman Aleem Siddique labelled any excursions that come even close to military areas as "completely irresponsible".
"This is not a playground... this is a military zone," he stressed of the Green Line. "There are thousands of opposing forces, armed soldiers on both sides of the line.
"It would be very easy for a civilian to be mistaken for one of the opposing members and for civilian casualties to result," not to mention the 47 remaining minefields, he warned.
Siddique added with a sigh that "one of the most frustrating aspects of this urbex trend is that some people know nothing about the context of the conflict.
"Peacekeepers, Turkish Cypriots, Greek Cypriots have died on this land... This is not a location for you to make videos."
Antoniou argued that urbex in Cyprus also poses an "ethical issue", with foreign explorers "offending locals by sneaking in" to buildings that their owners have been unable to enter for decades.
- 'Off the beaten paths' -
Such warnings have not stopped urbex stars such as Bob Thissen.
The Dutchman, who has shared video from three Cyprus trips with his more than 500,000 YouTube followers, boasts that he will risk his "life, freedom and health" for his passion.
One foray into the UN buffer zone took him to Nicosia's old airport where an abandoned plane still sits on the runway and a thick layer of dust covers the interior of the abandoned terminal.
"I had never seen a place like this in Europe," Thissen told AFP, adding that his "exceptional" visit ended with "a bit of adrenaline when we saw the UN soldiers searching for us.
"We stayed hidden until nightfall, then we ran."
His other favourite spot lies in the north, the once popular seaside resort of Varosha whose inhabitants were forced to flee and which is now a vast ghost town on the beach.
The TRNC has controversially opened parts of it to tourists, who can walk or cycle along several streets and take pictures of the roped-off sights beyond.
"It's so unique, an entire city frozen in time... like a time capsule since 1974," said Thissen, who couldn't resist venturing past the Turkish guards.
"Of course, I wasn't going to obediently go where the soldiers wanted me to go," he said. "It was easy to escape their vigilance and explore off the beaten paths."
Inspired by Thissen's videos, a South Korean urbex fan who asked to be named only as Kim, came in March to visit both Varosha and the abandoned airport.
The 28-year-old Seoul architect said she had dreamed of entering the Cyprus buffer zone "because there is one between South Korea and North Korea" that is strictly off-limits, the DMZ.
"What I felt when I crossed the barbed wire was very intense," said Kim. "I thought I would die because my mind forgot whether I was in Cyprus or in Korea."
Thissen brushed off all the safety warnings, asserting that hardcore urbex fans will just keep coming. "If they put up new fences," he said, "people will climb over them."