Last month's opening of a crossing point in capital city Nicosia was a hugely symbolic step for the long-divided country. Adrian Phillips went in search of the undiscovered beauty of the north...
THERE was no electricity in the air, no shallow breaths or quickened heartbeats. There was no suspicious glance from the official who stamped my form at a kiosk, only a gap-toothed “good afternoon” from a UN soldier patrolling the 30ft buffer zone.
Were it not for his gun and blue beret, he might have been a teacher on playground duty. Yet this short scoot through the world’s last divided capital was hugely significant.
Until recently – and for a period of 44 years – the casual shopper along Ledra Street at the heart of Nicosia was brought up short by a metal sheet across its middle. British peacekeepers laid barriers here in 1964 to quell fighting between the city’s Turkish and Greek Cypriot communities.
A decade later and the split had extended across the whole of Cyprus when a Greek-supported coup sparked invasion of the north by Turkish troops.
The fenced, UN-patrolled “Green Line” between the north and south became the physical symbol of an intractable dispute. And, unrecognised as an independent state by anyone but Turkey, North Cyprus has been starved of economic growth ever since.
The consequence of all this is an island of contrasting faces – and nowhere is this starker than along newly opened Ledra Street.
To the south, the streets of Greek Cypriot Nicosia feel Western and wealthy. They are lined with international boutiques and the skyline is thick with slick high-rise hotels – but to journey 20 metres northwards is to cross oceans and centuries.
The Turkish Cypriot portion of the city is a place free of sophistication and global labels. Stallholders at the Bandabulya Market sell nuts, spices and beaded slippers. Butchers skin sheep’s heads while men drink sweet Turkish coffee and play backgammon beneath flaking rafters.
The Büyük Han – originally a 16th-century caravanserai – has rows of little shops set into galleries overlooking a central courtyard and an octagonal mosque.
There’s no Versace here. It is clear that the poorer relation is in some ways all the richer for it.
With the moderate leaders at the helm of both sides declaring their commitment to reunification, now is the time to visit North Cyprus before its fortunes change.
To the north of Nicosia lies the Kyrenia Range, with the knuckles of Five Finger Mountain at its centre. As we follow a challenging trail through tall-trunked pine forest, my guide tells me the region’s snakes are shy creatures. Shortly afterwards, he leaps back from a blunt-nosed viper making its lazy way across the path. In three hours, we don’t encounter a soul.
Afterwards we head to Bellapais to explore the cloisters and vaulted refectory of the village’s 14th-century Gothic abbey. There’s a 2nd-century Roman sarcophagus in which the monks would wash before meals, and a chapterhouse adorned with gargoyles.
The villagers are notoriously laid- back and long living. It’s said they make beggars of grave diggers, and there’s even a Tree of Idleness under which Lawrence Durrell penned Bitter Lemons during the Fifties.
Between May and October, endangered sea turtles make ponderous nightly visits to Alagadi Beach to lay their eggs. The Society for the Protection of Turtles escorts small groups of tourists to watch the stately animals in the moonlight. It is a moving spectacle.
About 13 miles away, Kyrenia’s stocky castle contains a museum preserving the oldest shipwreck ever raised – a Greek trading vessel, which was carrying almonds and wine jugs when it sank 2,300 years ago. I sup an evening beer at an evocative spot overlooking Kyrenia’s pretty harbour before retiring to my room at the pleasant Altinkaya Hotel.
The way of life on the Karpas Peninsula is perhaps most precariously at risk of change. This is the island at its remotest. A walk along Golden Sands Beach – a curved sweep of coastline buffered by shrubby dunes – is a rare pleasure. Birdwatchers follow the flashing colours of rollers and bee-eaters, and at night the sky is crowded with stars. Ominous pockets of modern villas already abut the main road leading on to this north-eastern panhandle.
Some settlements are showing alternative approaches to development. The Arch House Hotel in Dipkarpaz comprises a set of lovingly restored traditional cottages. This is simple, characterful accommodation with checked tablecloths and shuttered windows.
Villagers in Büyükkonuk have used UN funding to open a workshop where visitors can bake bread or try traditional crafts. Each year the village will host a fair celebrating rustic life for tourists and locals alike. Perhaps herein lies the hope for North Cyprus’s future – that it will harness 21st-century change to stay a good bit the same.GETTING THERE: Monarch (08700 405040/www.flymonarch.com) offers return flights from Gatwick and Manchester to Larnaca in South Cyprus from £190. Walks Worldwide (01524 242000/ www.walksworldwide.com) offers a range of self-drive walking tours in North Cyprus. A seven-night package combining five nights at the Altinkaya Hotel in Kyrenia with two nights at the Arch House hotel in Dipkarpaz costs from £375pp, including transfers from Larnaca, car hire in Kyrenia, most meals, maps and walking notes. Walks Worldwide can arrange flights on request. North Cyprus Tourism Centre: 020 763 1930 /www.northcyprus.cc