A happy blend of the familiar and the exotic

Chalk-white cliffs, calm monasteries, ancient mosaics

It's a shock when the credit card bill arrives. Everything about Republic of Cyprus seems comfortably familiar: driving on the left and the lack of serious traffic make hiring a car easy, and the widespread use of English, along with prices in pounds, takes away much of the cultural difficulty. Beware that currency, though, since at the usual exchange rate of one Cyprus pound to pounds 1.50 sterling, you can find yourself lulled into paying a lot more than you think.

For the British tourist, southern Cyprus is a happy blend of the familiar and the exotic. The Mediterranean climate gives a long season, and lots of sun, and there are plenty of monasteries and ruins to visit. You can pick oranges and bananas off the trees, and see lizards scurrying in the undergrowth or sunning themselves on rocks. But people who imagine the Republic to be fringed by fine beaches - since Crete and Rhodes are not far away - are in for a disappointment. You come to southern Cyprus for many things, but fine beaches do not figure large in the island's attractions.

At the hotel where we stayed, about five miles out of Paphos in the west, there was a pool and even a beach of sorts: a little man-made inlet in the rocky coast, with steps down and a sandy floor. It didn't appeal much and after a few days, despite having been on coach trips, we felt a little bored and marooned (especially as local buses don't run late). So we swallowed hard and arranged car hire, which immediately lifted the holiday as it gave us the freedom to explore on our own.

This must be the best way to discover Cyprus. Make your way inland along little winding mountain roads, passing through vineyards with pale, sandy- looking soil, stopping to sample the product at source; exploring calm monasteries with their ornate decorations, striking out into the wild of the Akrotiri peninsula, and then driving through seemingly endless orange groves.

If you don't want to hire a car, you should at least take a coach trip into the Troodos mountains, which seem amazingly Alpine, especially when contrasted with the scrubby coast you've left down below. Trips like this are not cheap, but can cover a good selection of places of interest: our Troodos day out included a visit to the famous Kykkos monastery and the tomb of Archbishop Makarios. From the tops of the mountain roads we enjoyed breathtaking views, including the distant misty sweep of a huge bay over the border in Northern Cyprus.

When you've tired of mountains, dip into the wealth of the island's past. The ancients bathed at Kourion, the city destroyed in the earthquakes of the 4th century. In this one small area you can sample all sorts of historical treasures: the 2nd-century 3,500-seater amphitheatre, a semi- circle of stone tiers improbably high up, perched over the coastal plain and the sea; the excavated remains of the House of Eustolios, with its baths and mosaics; the nearby early Christian Basilica and the House of the Gladiators, with its own famous mosaic. There's even an early U-shaped stadium (the word derives from a Greek measure of length normally equivalent to 630 ft), where races, discus-throwing and ball games took place.

Another sporting connection: the Palaestra at the sanctuary of Apollo Hylates is less than half a mile away. Tucked in one corner of the site, it's a large sand-floored courtyard surrounded by colonnades. It was used for games and wrestling. There's even a stone pithos in the corner, which contained water for the athletes' refreshment. But the main delight here is the size of this rich site. You can hardly walk a yard without treading on shards of (presumably ancient) pottery, and there are so many mosaics that they haven't even bothered to uncover them all fully. Many of the best discoveries from the area are on view at Episkopi in the little museum, which itself is pretty hard to find, hidden away in the back streets.

Back along the road towards Paphos, prepare to be impressed at Petra tou Romiou - a stunning piece of coast which really evokes the Mediterranean of myth and legend (and Fellini's Satyricon). You'd hardly blink if an ancient galley came rowing into sight. Chalk-white cliffs and blue sea shimmer in the sun. They say Aphrodite was born here, rising out of the foam, and that if you swim around the big rock three times at midnight you'll take 30 years off your life - or is it add 30 years on?

Either way, it won't do much for your appreciation of the coastline elsewhere. Occasional beaches such as at Coral Bay are made up of brownish sand. To add to the visual misfortunes, in several places, notably one on the road down to the harbour in Paphos, certain trees have been thought to have healing powers and are duly decorated with personal tokens. Usually the trimmings are handkerchiefs tied to the branches, but other bits of clothing, old rags, cloth, tissues, or even polythene complete the grisly scene. It looks as though someone's rubbish bag has exploded under the tree.

Far better to forget them and explore the intricately carved interior of the tiny five-domed 11th-century church at Yeroskipos, the town where all the Tur..., er, Cyprus Delight is made.

There's so much evidence of great human endeavour in the past, but today, despite the gleaming hotels on every promontory, there is a definite air of taking things a little more easy. There's lots of unfinished business, with many smaller buildings abandoned half-built, their concrete skeletons sprouting rusting reinforcing rods. That rather goes with the territory, though, the lack of hurry: it's a the culture where people have time to stop and talk. Certainly a restful place to take a holiday - even if a financial shock awaits you when you get home.

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