Even though I have nothing naughtier than the odd parking ticket to my name, still my heart beats that little bit faster whenever I have to interact with authority. So it was with some trepidation that I handed my passport to the official at the border between north and south Cyprus. I was, naturally, waved through, but before I could relax, the transaction took a rather exciting turn; our Greek Cypriot driver pulled up a few feet beyond the checkpoint, made a phone call, then removed our cases from the car and instructed us to similarly eject. As a Turkish Cypriot hatchback roared into view and screeched alongside, we watched as another British couple disembarked and were waved towards our recently vacated taxi, as we were to theirs. As we passed, I commented that it felt like a Cold War hostage exchange. Reluctant to indulge my little fantasy, their reply was simply: “Oh, are you just starting your holiday in north Cyprus – lucky you, ours is just finishing.”
We were indeed lucky because not only were we starting our week’s holiday in north Cyprus (the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus), we had also just finished another week’s holiday – in south Cyprus. A thawing of hostilities between the two halves of the country means it is now perfectly possible to have a two-centre holiday in a way that would have been difficult a few years ago, and despite the island’s small size, the two do feel distinctly different.
Whereas the south had seemed familiar, with only occasional signs bearing the Greek alphabet giving a clue that we were not in any other Mediterranean resort of indistinct origin, once across that border we felt very much as if we’d entered Turkey. The tourist-savvy streets of shopping malls and international restaurant chains of the south gave way to a more rustic and earthy north; the currency changed from the euro to Turkish lira; my phone beeped with a new provider text; and the place names all had a very different sound.
While I enjoyed both halves, which you prefer may ultimately come down to interests and activity levels. To make a very broad generalisation, my impression is that the south is all about churches and antiquities, while the north could be characterised as castles and mosques. And while the south might better suit those who fancy relaxation, the north is more likely to appeal to the hikers and bikers who prefer more of an elevated heart rate.
Why? Well, much of the south felt geared to the package tourist market. Vast hotels with gyms, swimming pools and a variety of in-house restaurants line the coast, which means that if you don’t feel like stirring from your sun lounger, then you don’t need to. It’s not classy, but it is relaxing, and for the first few days that was all I felt ready for.
I was staying in Limassol, which has a wonderful old town, but whose hinterland has become rather sprawling. Its big advantage is that it isn’t very far from anywhere, so it makes a good base for exploring.
Thus I turned my back on the delights of sea and sand and drove into the foothills of the spectacular Troodos Mountains. There among the traditional villages I found Byzantine churches packed full of golden icons and paintings, and, rather touchingly, still very much part of village life. My favourite was in Omodos, among whose tiny cobbled streets I found the Holy Cross monastery. Its ornate church displays fragments of the “holy rope”, brought to the island by none other than the Apostle Paul himself, who supposedly came here with St Barnabas to spread Christianity. The island’s proximity to the Middle East makes this plausible enough, though it is Cyprus’ position at the centre of the Mediterranean that has given it its cosmopolitan mix of cultures but also made it susceptible to invasion.
However, with every con comes a pro. The early invaders of the Roman era built vast cities, which have been fantastically well preserved. At Paphos, a charming harbour town, I spent several hours in a huge archaeological park with the most impressive ruins I’ve ever seen, especially the grand home of a wealthy merchant whose immense floor displayed mosaics depicting stories of Greek gods and myths. But even that paled into insignificance when I reached Kourion. This too provides a vivid idea of life in Roman times, in particular the incredible amphitheatre, which is vast, well-preserved and still used as a venue for music and theatre.
Cyprus was once the world’s richest country. But it was a while ago – in the Copper and Bronze Ages
But most incredibly, it has surely the most dramatic backdrop of any theatre in the world, perched, as it is, high above the beautiful southern coastline. This coastline is the main draw of the island, and both north and south offer miles of fantastic beaches. But, wanting variety, for my stay in northern Cyprus I chose not to stay at a beach resort, but instead to base myself in Kyrenia on the north coast. It hugs a lovely old harbour complete with fishing boats, and is overseen by its castle, upon whose walls I spent a very pleasurable morning enjoying views of the Kyrenia mountain range in one direction, the northern coastline in the other, and the differing architecture of the castle itself – a product of Byzantine, Lusignan, Ottoman, Venetian and even a bit of Victorian architectural styles – bearing witness once again to those different waves of invasion.
This was to be the first of the northern castles I visited – the others being the eighth-century St Hilarion, built into the cliff and said to have inspired Walt Disney’s Snow White; romantic Kantara, from where, on a good day, you can see to both Turkey and Syria; and remote Buffavento, which requires a bit of a hike.
The north is certainly the place for hiking. The Kyrenia mountain range practically touches the sea, making it, for me, difficult to resist. My quest for health and nature was aided by a new guide to the network of hiking trails which cross the range. They are marked by easy-to-follow green dots and are of varying difficulties. If you’re even more adventurous and fit, you can also try mountain biking and rock climbing. I just enjoyed the walk, the views, and the prospect of a large lunch to come.
Both halves of the island are distinctive and have their own character. Both also have a huge amount in common, not least their charm, beaches, mountains and history. And the joy of a two-centre stay was that I didn’t have to choose between them.
EasyJet offers return flights from Gatwick to Larnaca from £176, or to Paphos from £92. Aegean Air offers returns from Heathrow to Larnaca from £217.
Direct Traveller is offering a 14-night package from £1,128 for any departure in April. The price includes seven nights in a four-star hotel in both the north and south, flights, transfers and the services of a travel rep.
Hire cars are available on both sides of the border but you cannot take a car hired in the north into the south. It is easier to have a tour operator organise a two-centre stay, and hire a car in each half of the island only on the days you need it. Direct Traveller can arrange very good guided tours to all the major sites .
Year round, but spring is best for wild flowers and walking, summer for the beaches and to see the turtles laying and hatching, and autumn to escape the crowds.
Choose your hotel very carefully. A large proportion tend to cater to the mass market and rely simply on their proximity to beaches for their appeal. In practice this means monolithic buildings with a pack ’em in, pile ’em high mentality; design does not tend to be a priority; facilities can be old-fashioned, and the star ratings often feel somewhat over-generous.
If you’re hiking, get the North Cyprus Trails brochure from the tourist board for an overview, but obtain more detailed maps for us on the ground at kyreniamountaintrail.com or cyprus-travel-secrets.com.
Read Lawrence Durrell’s Bitter Lemons of Cyprus while you are there for an atmospheric view of life on the island under British rule in the Fifties. You can walk past the writer’s former house in Bellapais and drink at what was his local, the Tree of Idleness café, still going strong.
Most places in north Cyprus will accept euros but the exchange rate is unlikely to be favourable and they don’t like coins; better to take Turkish lira.
Commanderia claims to be the world’s oldest named wine still in production, and is a sweet dessert wine made from sun-dried grapes in the foothills of the Trodos Mountains.
The exquisite lace of the village of Lefkara is world-renowned. The designs and techniques have been handed down from generation to generation and the quality shows. Buy from the village itself, also in the foothills of the Trodos, but bargain hard as it can be expensive.
Lokum, more commonly known as Turkish delight, is a Cypriot speciality and can be found throughout the island, as can the wonderful chewy halloumi cheese.
£ A rare example of a small hotel among the more usual Limassol giants. Not stylish, but spacious and extremely good value; it even has two pools, a sauna and a gym .
££ A great out-of-town choice, five minutes’ drive from Kyrenia, with fine views down to the coast and up to the abbey above it. The hotel has charm, and a selection of studio rooms set around a garden. It makes a great base for hillside walks, and offers its own walking guide .
£££ An upmarket five-star with a wonderful central location overlooking the sea; superb breakfasts, two excellent restaurants and the best “see and be seen” poolside bar in town .
£ To eat where the locals do in Kyrenia, head down a grubby side street behind the Colony hotel. The plastic chairs and Formica tables don’t detract from the wonderful classic kebab and mezze options. Not one for vegetarians, but meat-eaters will find delicious and filling meals at very low prices (Cengizhan sokak; 392 815 2573).
££ Limassol’s burgeoning contemporary culinary scene was kick-started by this funky and fantastic café, which offers, among other things, enormous, inventive salads, pastas with a Cypriot twist and excellent desserts (Irinis str. 62-66; 2576 2030).
£££ Both the bar and restaurant of this upmarket boutique hotel in Limassol are heaving on weekend nights. This is where the beautiful set meets, often travelling all the way from Nicosia in order to do so. And it’s easy to see why – both the place and the food are stylish, cool and contemporary .
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