TRAVEL / Isle of conflicts - The place next door: Twenty years ago the Turkish invasion of Cyprus sliced the north from the south. Simon Calder visits the neglected Narnia of the Mediterranean

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The Independent Culture
IT FEELS unreal. The sun, which has finished its baking for the day, is now content to endow the earth with a rich golden sheen; a gently decaying cityscape occupies the foreground while a handsome chain of mountains fills the horizon; a calm, clear Mediterranean sea washes gently against ancient fortifications. It is all too good to be true.

Northern Cyprus is indeed a falsehood, at least as far as the international community is concerned. Cyprus is blessed with sunshine, scenery and history - but ripped in half by the brutal barbed wire of ethnic strife. The Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (to give it the name recognised only by Turkey) is the result of an invasion 20 years ago. Troops landed ostensibly to protect the Turkish minority at risk from a coup inspired by the Greek colonels. They have remained ever since. The United Nations wearily patrols the Green Line which divides the two communities. In a Europe where frontier controls are tumbling, the last divide is to be found at the continent's easternmost extreme.

To travel to a place that does not officially exist requires some application. Aircraft from Britain are not allowed to fly direct to northern Cyprus; all flights have to touch down in Turkey first. When you finally land in northern Cyprus, you are - in the eyes of the international community, and in particular southern Cyprus - breaking the law, by arriving at a prohibited port of entry. The only safe way is to start in the south, the Republic of Cyprus - with whom the world sides squarely. It feels prosperous and familiar. The whole island was once a British possession, and the relics of colonialism, from pillar boxes to Morris Minors, are scattered through Cyprus. It is tempting to remain right there. The climate, even if it does not live up to the '111.2 hours' of sunshine a day claimed in one misprinted publication, is blissful for most of the year. The food is less lukewarm and more agreeable than in Greece. Bathing in the Eastern Mediterranean is splendid. Your sense of the exotic is heightened when you remember that just across the waves lie Syria and Lebanon. And the folds of the sandstone slabs which corrugate the country conceal a rich miscellany of relics of the island's stormy past.

The sort of welcome you receive in southern Cyprus is characterised by the advice in the official literature about hitch-hiking. Unlike almost every other country in the world, Cyprus commends the practice as 'a great pleasure'. The guidebook goes on to note that 'hitch-hikers should always remember to keep to the left- hand side of the road.' The British legacy runs deep.

Yet just across the Green Line is a land which scores even more highly on the simple criteria of a day tripper: warmth of welcome, beauty of scenery, allure of food. Now that the strangely compelling horror - (or thrill) - of crossing the Berlin Wall at Checkpoint Charlie is no more, the Green Line is the next worst (or best) thing. Cyprus's ideological divide is not as lethally defended as the former border between East and West Germany, but the bitterness felt by the Greek majority about the unlawful occupation has not softened after 20 years.

To gauge the anger, just ask at the Cyprus Tourist Office in London about the possibility of visiting the north. 'Do you realise you will be an illegal visitor in an illegal country? There is no British embassy, and your travel insurance will be invalidated. You're on your own.' If the tourist office is that fierce, what will the border guards be like? To find out, head for the only crossing point in the middle of the island's capital.

Southern Nicosia is flashy, bustling, and inordinately ugly: since the partition, the Republic of Cyprus (the south) has achieved startlingly high growth. New buildings have been built where they are most economically efficient. But where you would expect the city centre to be, you find instead a stale, sterile wasteland of conflict. A broad furrow has been hacked through the middle of the city. The Greek community in Nicosia has turned its back on the north, trying its best to ignore the grievous wound. You get the impression that northern Cyprus is treated as a naggingly overgrown backyard. Few visitors get as far as the frontier.

Ledra Palace, like Checkpoint Charlie, is part of the lexicon of international tension. It was once Nicosia's fanciest hotel, but now serves as a UN post to supervise the border. Day-trippers are chided before they leave the Greek frontier. 'Enjoy your stay,' a sign scolds, 'in this illegally occupied territory.' But considering the attitude back in the tourist office, and the tension engendered by so much barbed wire and fortification around the crossing point, formalities are remarkably relaxed. You have to pay one Cypriot pound (about pounds 1.33) to cross the line, fill out lots of forms and promise to be back by sundown.

It is a bit like entering Narnia. Through the wardrobe of the UN checkpoint, you spill out to a wayward world where the clock started running slow 20 years ago. You leave the land where the Cypriot pound is sturdier than the British version, and cross to a fantasyland where you get goodness knows how many thousand Turkish lire to any sort of pound.

The only indication that anything is politically awry here is the preponderance of souvenir shops and bars set up to capitalise on the frontier. You can sip a coffee or swig a cold beer as you contemplate the banalities of geo-politics.

This half of Nicosia is known officially as Lefkosa, but if there ever were a sign to that effect then it fell down some time ago. Most of the money has moved out of the former capital to the coast, so what you are left with is a doddery old town which is one part dust and three parts debris - and all the more charming for that. On one side of the line you will experience the modern world of satellite dishes and traffic congestion; on the other, a world gone to seed.

Lefkosa is more of an urban shrubbery than a jungle. Very soon you find yourself on the the outskirts which straggle north into the country. Traverse the terrain in a rattly old minibus; these cramped and noisy conveyances maintain improbable speeds on a road network which has seen better tyres, twisting awkwardly through the mountains and juddering down to the coast.

Kyrenia is one of those Mediterranean resorts which you thought had vanished. Terraces rise unsteadily from a crescent-shaped harbour, guarded by a fortress which might once have looked fierce but now - like so much in northern Cyprus - resembles an outsize piece of stage scenery. By now you are into the rhythm of northern Cyprus, slower and gentler than the economic powerhouse down south.

I found myself at the foot of a long hot hill, with a good 15-minute hike upwards to lunch. The south encourages hitch-hiking, but in the north you need not even trouble to extend your thumb. An elderly Wolseley and its even more ancient driver - both of them wheezing alarmingly - insisted on taking me to the summit. Kyrenia draped breezily down to the shore. Lunch was huge, hot, spicy and satisfying, and had the advantage of costing only 10,000 lire - less than 50 of any sort of pence.

You could idle away the afternoon quite delightfully. But since hours are precious on this side of the frontier they should not be squandered, however indulgently. Kyrenia's fortress turns out to be a warren of tunnels and turrets, decked out by a full set of ramparts. The Mediterranean sun slides lazily towards the horizon, splashing new shades and shadows on the hillside.

Time jolts you out of your dreamworld. Cinderella-like, you have to be home by sunset. At dusk, the ghostly no-man's-land looks all the more inhuman for the sharp silhouettes of wire and sandbags and long- abandoned homes. A sense of guilt returns, muddled by a new affection for both sides of the Line.

Almost any island, even the lack- lustre Isle of Dogs, could be described as 'an island of contrasts'. Cyprus is the island of conflicts. Yet the more you explore northern Cyprus - the source of the strife - the more content you feel.


GETTING THERE: Several companies operate holidays and flights from the UK via Turkey to northern Cyprus. Try Regent Holidays (0983 864212) and Onur Holidays (071-388 4111).

ENTERING FROM THE SOUTH: Anyone who arrives on the island in the Turkish-occupied north is deemed to have entered Cyprus illegally. You will be refused entry to the Republic of Cyprus - and Greece - if your passport shows evidence of a visit to northern Cyprus. The only entry point recognised is the Ledra Palace checkpoint, and you can only cross from south to north in the morning, and back again by sunset. The cheapest way to reach Cyprus is by air to either Paphos or Larnaca, both in the south. British Airways (0345 222111) has a fare of pounds 216 return from Heathrow, while Air 2000 (061-745 4644) flies from Gatwick and Birmingham for about pounds 235.

FURTHER INFORMATION: Cyprus Tourist Office, 213 Regent St, London W1R 8DA (071-734 9822). North Cyprus Tourist Office, 28 Cockspur St, London SW1Y 5BN (071-930 5069).

(Photographs and map omitted)