Until 1974, the Cypriot resort of Varosha was the place to see and be seen. There, the rich and famous flitted between unspoiled beaches and luxury hotels as the sun sparkled on the Mediterranean Sea. But now, the streets are a shadow of their former selves – forlorn and decaying after decades of abandonment. Varosha is practically a ghost town, in fact, and a far cry from how it was in its glitzy heyday.
Varosha itself is located in the city of Famagusta, which is on the northeast coast of Cyprus and some 40 miles east of the capital of Nicosia. The island inhabits a gray area between Europe and the Middle East, and historically it has played host to both Turkish and Greek populations. Today, though, the landmass is split into two zones – with the former resort on the border between worlds.
And while Varosha’s clear waters and pristine sands may make it seem like the perfect holiday destination, it wasn’t until after World War II that the British colonizers of Cyprus decided to develop the region as a tourist attraction. Then, following that advancement, visitors duly began to flock to the appealing shores.
Varosha’s fame only grew, in fact, as more and more people arrived to take in the charms of the Mediterranean resort, with a glut of hotels and high rises built in the 1970s to accommodate the vacation-goers. On the seafront, the buildings were so dense that the beach was actually in the shade from 1:00 p.m. onwards – yet the tourists still kept coming.
Those who remember Varosha in its heyday say that the resort attracted a high caliber of tourists. American Greek-Cypriot Vasia Markides’ mother was raised there, and in 2014 she told the BBC that many described the location as Cyprus’ answer to the French Riviera. Celebrities such as Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton and Brigitte Bardot all visited over the years, too. And at the heart of it all was John F. Kennedy Avenue – a grand boulevard that ran parallel to the beach.
Several luxurious hotels also welcomed esteemed guests to Varosha when the resort was in its prime. Taylor’s apparent favorite was the Argo Hotel, which overlooked the picturesque Fig Tree Bay – still considered one of Europe’s best beaches by TripAdvisor. Elsewhere, guests checked into establishments such as the King George Hotel, the Florida Hotel and the Asterias Hotel.
But, sadly, the glitz and glamor of Varosha wouldn’t last. After all, this was a place steeped in conflict and division – like the rest of Famagusta and, indeed, Cyprus as a whole. And, ultimately, the political turmoil that plagued the island would reach this bustling resort.
Cyprus was first settled by the Greeks in the second millennium B.C., and its strategic location in the Mediterranean has seen it conquered several times over the years. The island would be occupied by a plethora of empires from the Egyptians to the Romans, in fact, before eventually falling under Ottoman rule in the 16th century.
Owing to its history, then, Cyprus has long been home to a diverse collection of communities with both Greek and Turkish roots. Yet members of the two groups did not always live happily side by side. And the change in administration when the British took over the island in 1878 did little to allay the tensions between these different factions.
Historically, many of the Greek Cypriots – who represented the majority on the island – supported the idea of “enosis,” or unification with mainland Greece. And by the 1950s, some had begun to actively campaign to bring about this change. A group called the National Organisation of Cypriot Fighters (EOKA) even went so far as to launch attacks on the occupying British forces.
Then, in April 1955, EOKA stepped things up a notch by planting bombs in government buildings on the island. The group followed this with targeted violence against members of law enforcement and anyone who spoke out against the enosis cause. And, eventually, the unrest spurred the British governor of Cyprus to declare a state of emergency.
EOKA continued to wreak havoc across Cyprus as a political solution was sought, and after years of this disruption the British ultimately agreed to relinquish control over the island nation. So, in August 1960, the Republic of Cyprus was formed. Unfortunately, though, this move marked the beginning of a conflict that continues to this day.
Many of the Greek-Cypriot majority on Cyprus desired to be united with Greece; the Turkish minority, on the other hand, wished for the island to be partitioned. Under this arrangement, members of the latter group reasoned, they could carve out their own state in the north of the island. Then, in 1974, the disagreement between the two factions came to a head.
Greek forces attempted to seize control of Cyprus by staging a coup, although this ploy was ultimately unsuccessful. Turkey then responded by launching an invasion and establishing a military presence in the north of the island. This was despite the fact that, according to The New York Times, as much as 75 percent of the region’s property was owned by Greek Cypriots at that time. Consequently, then, thousands were forced to abandon their homes.
The residents of Varosha were mostly Greek Cypriots, and so they fled after the Turkish forces arrived. At first, these citizens expected that the turmoil would pass and that one day they would be able to return to the area. Instead, the invaders established a de facto state known as the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus in the north of the island – placing Varosha on the border of a divided nation.
Greek-Cypriot Harris Demetriou once owned a thriving ice cream business and a grand property in Varosha, and in 2012 he told The New York Times that the division of Cyprus had ruined his life. The entrepreneur lamented, “I lost everything after the Turks invaded: my home, my factory, my orange groves.”
Today, those who used to live in Varosha can recall the haste with which they were forced to leave their community behind. Many of these people abandoned their valuables and even meals in mid-preparation – never to see their homes again. In some parts of northern Cyprus, properties were also redistributed to Turkish Cypriot refugees fleeing the south. But the streets remained empty in Famagusta’s once-bustling resort town.
Yes, while the invading forces could have resettled Varosha with Turkish Cypriots, they subsequently fenced it off and left it to become a ghost town. Where the sound of laughter and sparkling conversation had once filled the air, now there were only echoes of the bullets and bombs of military exercises. And soon, the erstwhile inhabitants of Varosha realized that they would not be returning, leaving them to rebuild their lives elsewhere.
Then, in 1984, the United Nations passed a resolution designed to protect Varosha and its former residents. This aimed to prevent the resort from being settled by anyone other than the original inhabitants. Despite this support, however, the Turkish military continued to prevent the people from returning to their homes.
So, as no one was living in the resort, the once-arresting buildings eventually fell into decay, with nature slowly reclaiming the abandoned streets. And while in 2003 the border across the island was relaxed – thus allowing Cypriots to come back to the places that they had fled – Varosha remained off-limits.
Sadly, the former locals could only gaze over barbed wire at their abandoned homes. Vasia Markides – who is the daughter of an exiled resident – told the BBC in 2014, “The picture that I had in my mind was of a kind of paradise. But it felt like some sort of post-apocalyptic nightmare.”
And Varosha remained a no man’s land even as Cyprus attempted to take steps towards peace. In 2004 the United Nations proposed that the resort could be returned to the Greek-Cypriots as part of a larger reunification of the island; however, the community would go on to reject these plans.
Both the Turkish and Greek sides blame each other for the lack of a resolution, according to The New York Times. The Greeks have apparently claimed that the Turkish authorities have no desire to let go of Varosha, which could serve as a useful bargaining tool in future negotiations. The current custodians of the resort point to Greek-Cypriot stubbornness, by contrast, as the real cause of the stalemate.
So, Varosha’s uncertain future means that it remains locked in limbo – a city frozen in time. Those who peer across the barbed wire fences see deserted avenues and crumbling buildings where Hollywood stars once walked. And, sadly, the bullet-scarred streets remain out of bounds to everyone except members of the Turkish military.
Of course, that hasn’t stopped some intrepid explorers from sneaking in to explore Varosha. Even though photography there is strictly forbidden – and any trespassers are gambling with their lives – the internet is filled with snaps and stories that document the abandoned resort. One of those who has made it inside is author Paul Dobraszczyk, who has written a book about urban decay.
“I had expected to find [Varosha] upsetting, but it felt so untouched and so quiet that I experienced it as very peaceful and tranquil,” Dobraszczyk told Al Jazeera in 2016. “Everywhere, nature had begun to overtake the buildings and streets, and most of the buildings were inhabited by pigeons and other animals.”
Vasia Markides also spoke about the sense of a city gone wild in her interview with the BBC. She explained, “You’re seeing nature take over. Prickly pear bushes have overrun the entire six kilometers. There are trees that have sprouted through living rooms. It’s a ghost town.” But the wild flora isn’t the only thing to give modern Varosha an eerie air.
Behind the barbed wire, the resort looks as though time stopped the day that the Turkish military invaded. According to the BBC, rows of 1974 vehicles can still be seen in one dealership, while another window display showcases fashions that are long out of date. Elsewhere, there are grand pianos that have not been played for decades – quietly gathering dust.
Sand dunes have also begun to creep closer to the town on the seafront where celebrities once strolled alongside the Mediterranean. And instead of holidaymakers, sea turtles can be found relaxing on the slopes. But mere feet away from these scenes, life goes on as normal – creating a stark contrast with the abandoned resort.
Indeed, visitors to this part of Cyprus can hardly ignore the crumbling buildings that loom in the background as they drink cocktails and swim in the sea. And for a number of the locals, Varosha is an uncomfortable symbol of the area’s divided past. Turkish Cypriot teacher Selma Caner explained to The New York Times, “It makes me feel ashamed and angry.”
“It’s a bit creepy coming here,” Caner continued. “But after a while, abnormality becomes normal.” Another Turkish Cypriot called Ceren Bogac told the BBC what it was like to grow up within sight of Varosha. She said, “It was just like living next door to ghosts. The houses had flower pots [and] curtains, but no one was living there.”
Even today, there is a strong military presence at Varosha, with soldiers still patrolling the perimeter. Former residents who are unable to visit their family homes have therefore taken to pinning love letters on the barbed wire fence – a symbol of their connection to the resort. And, unfortunately, many of the people who once lived here hold out little hope of returning.
For their part, the Turkish Cypriots nearby have mixed feelings about the abandoned resort. Some believe, for instance, that it should be given back to the Greek Cypriots so that it can become a thriving tourist destination once more. Famagusta dweller Okan Dagli said to The New York Times, “I want Varosha to be a live city – not a ghost city. We have no chance if we remain divided forever.”
But for other current residents – particularly settlers from mainland Turkey – the threat of reunification could mean losing their homes. Satilmis Sisli, an immigrant who moved into an abandoned property in Famagusta, opined to The New York Times, “Greek Cypriots won’t come back as long as Turks rule here, and if they come back, we will lose everything.”
Still, there is some light at the end of the tunnel for Varosha, and that’s thanks in part to Ceren Bogac. Bogac has dedicated her life to understanding displacement after realizing that the house she grew up in had once been abandoned by Greek Cypriots who had been forced to flee the north. And in 2008 she reached out to Vasia Markides, who had previously made a documentary about the abandoned resort.
Together, the pair came up with the idea for Famagusta Ecocity – a project that would give Varosha a new life as part of a sustainable future for the island. In particular, the duo saw an opportunity for the resort to become a community powered by green technology, making it a model for a different way of living. Markides told the BBC, “It’s about using the energy of the sun – that we have so much of in Cyprus – rather than relying on fossil fuels.”
Markides continued, “It’s a wonderful opportunity. Since we have to rebuild a city from scratch, why not do it the right way this time?” And in 2014 the Famagusta Ecocity project launched with the initial goal of raising awareness of and generating ideas to help rehabilitate the controversial resort. Markides and Bogac were also joined by others keen to secure a future for Varosha.
Furthermore, Nektarios Christodoulou, an urban planner of Greek-Cypriot descent, has claimed that an eco-friendly solution could be just what the country needs. He told The World Weekly in 2016, “We have seen that environmental issues [and] cultural protection issues can bring people together across the border – discussing them without ethnicity constantly being the separating factor.”
But the team face some big hurdles if they are to ever make the Famagusta Ecocity a reality. You see, work can only begin at the location once the two factions agree on a solution, and that means addressing the Cypriot divide as a whole. The properties that are currently abandoned could also be reclaimed if the resort is ever reopened.
In any case, locals may begin returning to Varosha after an announcement by the Turkish authorities in June 2019 – although exactly who will be eligible to settle there remains unclear. Officials predict, too, that work in the area will resume soon, despite global events in 2020 delaying the scheme. And, hopefully, Varosha may well return to its glory days once more if a solution to the dilemma can finally be reached.
But, of course, Varosha isn’t the only abandoned location out there. Nearly 10,000 miles away in the wilds of Antarctica, there’s a curious attraction that few people visited even during its heyday. And when the spot was rediscovered, it proved to be a captivating reminder of life as it was on the continent several decades ago.
The research outpost known as Base W sits on the edge of Antarctica, a manmade structure within an unforgiving environment. Nobody has been inside for decades, but that’s about to change. A crew is on their way to the facility, a place known to have once contained a post office. Aside from that, though, the team don’t know for sure what they’ll discover. But when they finally walk inside, they find that it’s all been frozen in time.
Nowadays, the British have a new post office at Port Lockroy, which sits on the continent’s northern tip. The four-person staff, apparently, has two main responsibilities. For one, they deliver what little mail comes and goes from Antarctica. And second, they also watch over the local colony of gentoo penguins – all 2,000 of them.
But there’s a major difference between the current Antarctic post office at Port Lockroy and the older Base W. That is, the former was renovated as recently as in 1996. Coincidentally, that was the same year that the BAS members returned to the continent’s original post office and found it was now an untouched relic of the past.
The post has long been a service provided to Antarctica – and not just by the British. In the 1920s an American pilot and naval officer named Richard E. Byrd began a life of polar exploration after his service in World War I came to a close. His first journey had him flying over the west of Greenland.
That one jaunt gave Byrd the inspiration for a newer, bolder journey. He decided he wanted to be the first to fly over the North Pole. So, on May 9, 1926, he served as in-flight navigator, with pilot Floyd Bennett helmed the vessel. Their 15-and-a-half-hour trip from Norway over the North Pole and back again brought them national acclaim.
Flying over these frigid landmarks clearly appealed to Byrd. By the late 1920s he had yet another expedition planned. He declared his dream to explore then-uncharted corners of Antarctica from his plane. John D. Rockefeller, Jr., Edsel Ford and other wealthy Americans opened their pockets to fund his bold journey.
Byrd took off on that very mission in 1928 – but he didn’t depart for Antarctica by plane. Instead, he set sail for the icy continent, where an outpost called Little America awaited. The command center – which sat on the Ross Ice Shelf – had plenty of supplies and a flat enough surface for the pilot to use as his runway.
On that trip, Byrd marked a major milestone – he helmed the first-ever flying journey above the South Pole. He charted his course from Little America to the landmark and back in around 19 hours. With so much activity going on, it’s no surprise that he and the rest of the Little America team failed to set up the Antarctic post office on this particular jaunt.
The earliest post office in Antarctica came to be in 1933, thanks to then-president Franklin D. Roosevelt and his love of commemorative stamps. In a conversation with Byrd, the commander-in-chief mentioned how special it’d be for the continent to have a bespoke piece of postage. FDR even suggested a design that highlighted the famed pilot’s many trips around the globe.
Soon, the Byrd Antarctic Expedition II stamp went into production, intended to bedeck mail sent from the U.S. to Antarctica. At first, the ship Byrd chartered to the continent would carry the mail from the states. And Americans who wanted to send letters that way would have to pay a 50-cent surcharge – around $13 adjusted for 2020 inflation rates – for this international transportation.
Still, the fun of sending mail to Antarctica convinced thousands of people to pay for the pricey stamps. Eventually, nearly a quarter of a million letters went through the Little America Post Office, with the first batch traveling with Byrd’s expedition on its October 1933 journey to the base camp. After that, a New Zealand-based vessel would carry notes over to the team on the icy islands.
And yet, the Little America Post Office didn’t last for long. Thousands of letters poured into the facility, but it only existed for two years. By May 31, 1935, the U.S. had discontinued service from its faraway outpost. Byrd would go on to helm three additional treks to Antarctica, although none of the others would come with a mail service.
In fact, the next notable postal operation on Antarctica would happen more than 20 years after the American outlet shuttered its doors. This time, a British team had come to explore the continent, and they set up their base on Detaille Island. They called the post Base W, and it would serve U.K. explorers in a myriad of ways.
Base W would give British researchers a place to gather for their survey and studies of Antarctic geology and meteorology. It sat on the continent’s Loubet Coast, named for one-time president of France Émile Loubet. It was under Loubet’s tenure that Jean-Baptist Charcot led an expedition to the continent in 1905.
But the Loubet Coast makes up only the western edge of a larger area known as Graham Land. You see, a line divides the Antarctic Peninsula, and each section has its own name – Graham Land to the north, and Palmer Land to the south. The former got its name from Sir James R. G. Graham, the U.K.’s First Lord of the Admiralty during the 1832 exploration.
Still, it would take more than 100 years for the British to set up a permanent outpost on Graham Land. It finally happened in 1956, when the British Antarctic Survey set up Base W. To this day, the BAS performs environmental research, as well as studies into both local and worldwide issues.
Nowadays, the BAS has five research bases across Antarctica, as well as multiple ships and aircrafts. In 1956, though, they inhabited the then-new Base W. The humble facility featured a main building alongside two other structures which were similar to dog pens. Nevertheless, those stationed at Base W conducted varied, important research into the landmass.
Specifically, the Base W team mapped out the Loubet Coast area. They also studied weather patterns in the area and collected geological information, too. And they were meant to travel around the area in an extremely polar fashion. That is, the idea was that they’d journey on dogsled back to the Antarctic mainland over the frozen seas.
However, this dog-sledding vision never came to fruition for the team at Base W. They quickly realized that traveling over the sea from the peninsula to the mainland was much more hazardous than anticipated. And, as it turned out, this was just the start of the Loubet Coast center’s troubles.
Within just a couple of years, the Base W team had to make a tough decision to leave their research center behind. The ruling came after the Antarctic winter freeze meant that the surrounding seas became so icy that the BSA’s supply vessel couldn’t make it to port. Two U.S. icebreaker ships attempted to slice through and help, but even they couldn’t break through.
So, the Base W team realized that they’d have to leave their Antarctic digs behind in favor of their safety. It wouldn’t be an easy journey off of the peninsula, though. Instead, the crew gathered their most essential items, sealed up the facility and made their way over 25 miles of ice just to board a ship which awaited them.
By 1959 the BAS decided to officially close Base W. As such, the Brits hadn’t just shut down a research center on the Loubet Coast – the peninsula’s post office was gone, too. And it would be many decades before anyone would see the facility’s one-time mail hub ever again.
In 2011 the wheels were in motion to reopen Base W and resume at least one of its former activities – the postal service. BAS members had already returned to the site in 1996, and then again in 2011. This was when a slew of repair work restored the buildings to their former functional glory.
That meant that BAS researcher Anna Malaos – nicknamed the polar postmistress – could go to Base W. Here, she would head up the facility’s mail service. The then-30-year-old agreed to the job in spite of the fact that the building was lacking in a telephone line, electricity, running water and internet connection.
In 2013 – the same year that the BAS reinstated Base W – Malaos expressed her excitement for the role to the Daily Mail. She said, “It’s an honor to be Polar Postmistress… It’s a privilege to be able to re-open [Base W] after all this time and reconnect the building with the world.”
For the BAS, though, a reopened Base W served more than one purpose. Sure, it meant that they could once again deliver and distribute mail to the Antarctic Peninsula. But it also served as an eye-opening reminder to modern researchers – these bare-bones conditions were the norm when the first teams arrived a half-century prior.
The U.K. Antarctic Heritage Trust helmed the upkeep of many of the peninsula’s historic buildings, such as Base W. The charity’s director Rachel Morgan has spoken with Mail Online about the outpost. In her words, “The base at Detaille Island, which was once a functioning science research station with its own Post Office, has a fascinating and important story to tell.”
And no one would know that better than the BAS team who rediscovered Base W in the late 1990s. Unlike Malaos, they arrived on the scene long before repairs to the facility took place. So, they opened the door to find the building just as it was left in a hurry in the 1950s.
All but the 1959 team’s must-have gear was left in Base W. As such, it painted a perfect picture of what life at the facility was once like. A Hoover-brand washing machine still stood on the premises, as did the rest of the supplies deemed non-essential in the quick escape from the ice-locked landscape.
That meant, for one thing, that Base W still had some of its food rations in place. Stacks of cans filled with oats remained on-site, although there’s a good chance the dried grain was no longer edible 40 years after the fact. And then, there were all of the office supplies.
On one desk remained a stack of maps and papers – some stuffed into an envelope that read, “On Her Majesty’s Service.” There were tools that the 1958 team had likely used in their research, too. A protractor sat atop the maps, as did a packet full of hygrometer wicks, which would refill a device used to gauge airborne humidity.
The pencil scratchings, time logs and other notes taken by a Base W staffer spread across another tabletop. Whoever sat and worked there may have reached for the set of binoculars resting on top of all their notes. Such a resource could be helpful for the team’s meteorological, geological and topographic studies.
A pair of headphones still dangled from the wall – yet another one of the everyday items that didn’t make it out in the mad rush to safety in 1958. But it and the rest of Base W’s relics remained preserved. And the 1996 crew who unlocked the untouched command center intended to keep it all just as they had found it.
So, the BAS members who returned to reopen Base W in 1996 cleaned up the space and winterized it against the icy Antarctic weather. Then, they sealed it up and went home. And it would be more than a decade before activity buzzed once again at the one-time research center.
In 2009 Base W became a registered historic landmark that remains the BAS’s responsibility. Visitors were and continue to be allowed on-site to explore the preserved confines, although the keepers ask that guests leave it as they found it. No one should touch or otherwise disturb the one-time research center and post office.
Guests at Base W don’t have to worry about interfering with post office business, either. After Malaos’s tenure in 2013, the mail center closed its doors at the start of the Antarctic dark season, when the continent gets zero hours of sunlight. And eventually, all of the area’s postal services moved to a new location called Port Lockroy.
Every year, Port Lockroy’s staff processes approximately 70,000 cards, shipping them off to more than 100 countries around the world. The Antarctica-based postal service isn’t as fast as other continental mail providers, either. Instead, it typically takes between six and eight weeks for envelopes to arrive in their destinations. As you might expect, express service is not an option.
As of March 2020 a staff of four ran the Port Lockroy station, which featured a research center and a post office, too. The quartet of brave Brits not only kept the Antarctic mail system afloat, but also ran the gift shop. Moreover, they watched over the area’s colony of approximately 2,000 gentoo penguins.
Former staffer Laura MacNeil, for one, once worked in a library in Edinburgh, Scotland. But her fascination with Antarctica brought her to Port Lockroy, where she led a very bare-bones lifestyle. Speaking to The Sun, she explained that she and her colleagues went without electricity and running water, sometimes failing to shower for five to six days at a time.
But those inconveniences came with great reward, according to another Port Lockroy staffer named Lauren Elliot. She wrote in a 2020 piece for iNews, “It’s great to see the island changing, the penguins establishing their nests, laying eggs, hatching and rearing their chicks. We have visiting wildlife; whales seals, other species of penguin as well other birds, skua, arctic terns and blue-eyed shags. It’s a very special place and a real privilege to be able to spend time here.”