“When we who live here speak of Karmi, it’s always about the time before or after the fire.”
It is the Canadian couple Debbie and Ken Nikolai who tells the story. They are the owners of Levant Restaurant, a beautiful gem in the heart of the picturesque village of Karmi, located in the mountains seven kilometres west of Kyrenia. The fire they talk about is the great forest fires that ravaged along the Beşparmak mountains in 1995. A fire that stretched for several miles along the mountainside and swallowed up all that came in its path. “It burned all the way from Lapta to St. Hilarion,” Debbie remembers. “Afterwards, one could see that the wooden floor to the medieval St. Hilarion Castle had burned. Fortunately, the fire did not spread above the road below the village, perhaps it could not grow due the well-watered fruit trees in the gardens, or it was just a coincidence that the flames did not reach to here. Whatever the reason was, we were very lucky.”
Three years before the fire took place, Debbie and Ken bought a piece of land right next to the village where they later built their house. For many years they had been working internationally. Both are educators by profession and Ken worked to set up a training centre for the oil and gas industry, with commissioners including UN, private companies and official authorities. Debbie worked as an international consultant in the countries in which they lived. Their work made them spend a lot of time in the Middle East, so settling in the region felt natural.
“Over the years, we have often received the question: Why North Cyprus? Then I’ve always answered: Why not?” Ken says, and makes a gesture with his arms. “This place is easy to fall in love with. First we explored the south side, but it did not suit us. North Cyprus felt more rustic and untouched, which appealed to us. This is a unique place for the Mediterranean.
It has just been a few months since Ken retired. He has previously visited Cyprus a few weeks at a time, but now it’s a new period in life that begins. Especially quiet, however, it does not seem to be, since the restaurant they operate takes up almost all their time. “The restaurant purchase was an impulse one, as we are both academics. But there was a need for a restaurant in the village, and instead of whining over the fact that there wasn’t one, we took the matter into our own hands,” says Debbie, who has lived here full time since 2008. Ken chimes in: ”And Debbie is a very good cook, and the people in the village knew it.”
To Levant comes a mix of tourists and locals. Its secluded location, with a beautiful view of Kyrenia and the coast, makes it a unique restaurant experience in Cyprus. Here you are surrounded by nature and fresh air. The menu consists of a selection of European dishes, with fish, vegetarian options and meat. Many guests come here regularly, not least for the tempting pork chops.
It has been almost 28 years since Debbie and Ken came to Karmi, and in those years a lot has happened in the village. Ken tells: “Karmi, or Karaman as it is called in Turkish, is a unique village in North Cyprus. Once upon a time it was an idyllic Greek Cypriot community, which cultivated crops and produced olive oil. Donkeys transported the goods on their backs, on poor soil roads, down to the town.
Even before the war in 1974, the village had fallen into decay. The village was not easily accessible and most residents had left to find jobs down below and houses were facing into ruin. In order for the village not to decay completely, some locals came to the conclusion that they would rent out plots of land to foreign families long term. The idea was to make Karmi a “tourist village” meanwhile it was upgraded.
This was in the early 80s, and most of those who came here were Germans and Englishmen. They entered into a lease with the government while they were responsible for the renovation costs of their home. Over the next few years, more than 150 houses were refurbished, a project where great importance was given to maintaining the original character of the village while meeting the needs of modern accommodation. Meanwhile, the government upgraded the infrastructure to the village and new roads and pavements were built. Today, Karmi abides directly by the Ministry of Tourism, that sets clear rules for the appearance of houses. For example, all buildings must be painted white and have wooden windows. Also, solar panels are not allowed on the roof.
Nowadays Karmi is a thriving village with charming streets and walls of houses flooded by bougainvillea. The genuine village feeling can not be mistaken. Here lives a generous mix of nationalities, mainly from Europe but also from North America. In the middle of the small square is a beautiful white church with blue doors and red brick roof. It serves as a museum and is open to various kinds of events. A handful of restaurants and bars are also available, but they are not many in number. A few years ago Debbie and Ken opened a café across the street from their restaurant. The idea was that tourists could easily stop for a cup of coffee and a piece of cake on their walk through the village. At the café you can browse a book that shows pictures of Karmi before and after the renovations, as well as read stories by people who have been involved in the construction of the village.
From the restaurant’s terrace, we look out over the mountains and see that nature has recovered after the fire, and now shines greener than ever. “The earth in these areas is incredibly fertile, you could, in principle, break a branch and put it in the soil and it would grow,” Ken chuckles with a glint in his eyes. Debbie agrees, “Karmi is also somewhat cooler than other places in Cyprus, partly because of its high location, but also because the sun sets earlier as it disappears behind the mountain ridge. We have travelled a lot around the world, but Karmi is truly a unique place.”