Mediterranean Islands: Lost in time

Travel around Northern Cyprus and you'll discover an Italianate landscape with an English past
Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
Two old men sat playing backgammon in the shade, rolling the dice with practised carelessness, as if feeding chickens. Without raising his head, one of them sang out: "Fresh orange juice, cold beer, lemonade, ice-cream."

It was almost irresistible. We had toiled up a hill for a couple of hours, through dry, bristly Northern Cypriot scrub that snatched at our ankles, on a brilliant, blazing morning: cold beer would have gone down well. But the backgammon-player knew that there was a bigger attraction, just behind him. The beer could wait.

When H Rider Haggard visited Cyprus in 1904, he wrote: "If I were asked to state what is the most lovely prospect of all the thousands I have studied in different parts of the world, I think I should answer - that from the little window of the refectory of the Abbey of Bella Pais." When it was built, in 1200, its name was Abbaye de la Paix. Mangled by a later, Venetian, Mrs Malaprop, the peaceful Norman French abbey grew closer to bella paese, beautiful Italian countryside. No matter. The cool, lofty peace of this high gothic ruin still presides over a gently basking landscape, falling away to the cobalt Mediterranean.

The Augustinian White Canons who settled here became gradually corrupted until, by 1570, the monks were apparently accepting only their own sons as novices. The abbey's imminent closure was pre-empted by the 1571 Ottoman Invasion, since when it has crumbled slowly - with just enough left to give modern visitors a glimpse of medieval life on this sunlit limestone promontory.

Lawrence Durrell once lived in the village. His house is there still, marked by a plaque recalling the name of his book, Bitter Lemons. In it, he muses over the "fantastic mixture of the gothic north and the gentle, alluring Levantine plain", and asks himself "could anyone do any work with such scenery to wonder at?" He spent many an afternoon in the cafe beneath the Tree of Idleness, a gnarled and spreading mulberry. We went back there for the beer, and a bowl of peanuts. A Yorkshire terrier came and stretched out under our table and, behind us, an old red English phone-box faded to sunburn-pink. We had another.

The phone-box, like the 1953 water-trough outside Durrell's house, is a reminder of the 82 years during which the British ruled this much-contested island. In our hotels, the menu features such incongruous delicacies as cod and chips, ploughman's lunch and blancmange; the car-park shelters ancient Morris Minors, still driven on the left over 3,000 miles of roads built by the British. The local paper, Cyprus Today, tells of fashion parades and dog-shows raising money for Kyrenia Animal Rescue; "Disgusted of Ozankoy" writes to complain of the inefficiency of rubbish collection and the world's quaintest restaurant critic regularly writes: "My husband enjoyed his prawn cocktail."

But we were there to discover traces of an earlier occupation. On his way to the Third Crusade, in 1191, Richard the Lion-Heart arrived to rescue his fiancee, Berengaria of Navarre, whose ship had been blown off course. At Limassol, they were married and Berengaria was crowned Queen of England. Richard took Nicosia, Kyrenia and the mountain castles before sailing off. Pressed for cash, he later sold the island to the Knights Templar - who couldn't really afford it. Ownership passed to the Lusignan dynasty (and later to Genoa, Venice and the Ottoman Empire).

The castles are magnificent. Kantara is stern and military; Buffavento unbelievably high, rugged and remote; St Hilarion graceful and lofty, covering two peaks and offering a view, from the "Queen's Window" to rival that of Bella Pais. Then, as now, people lived off the land, using goats and sheep for meat, wild asparagus and St Hilarion cabbage for vegetables. Scurvy-ridden crusaders soon recovered their health in their brief but significant sojourns in this mountain vastness.

It is wonderful, high, walking country. The knowledgeable and indomitably cheerful Cicely Taylor led us through the Kyrenia range, dominated by the fist of Besparmak, which means five fingers. Chunks of striped marble lie scattered on the track; swallow-tail butterflies flutter in the clear air; wild oats and snapdragons, honey-mustard, and rock-roses cover the hillsides.

Greeks and Turks have always fought for sovereignty here. The Turks currently control this part, with the result that Byzantine monasteries, such as Melandryna, act as sheep-folds and cannot stand for much longer. Two exceptions are the remote Antiphonitis and the monastery of St Barnabas.

Barnabas arrived with St Paul and was martyred in Salamis in 75 AD. The discovery of his tomb in 478 led to the church in Cyprus being granted autocephalic (independent) status: among other privileges, this means that, to this day, the Archbishop is allowed to sign documents in red ink.

Northern Cyprus is rugged, beautiful and unpolished, suffering, perhaps, from a surfeit of bellicose history. In Famagusta, where once there were 360 churches, weeds and beer-cans disfigure ancient ruins, while garish photographs of Big Ben and Princess Diana dominate the cafes. But, as our guide, Alec Sherket, told me, his people are grateful that, under the watchful eye of the UN, their last 25 years have, at least, been peaceful.

Sue Gaisford paid pounds 769 for the seven-night tour - `Kyrenia and Beyond: In the Steps of Richard the Lion-Heart' - with Noble Caledonia (0171-355 1424).

For independent travel, no flights are allowed to operate direct between the UK and Northern Cyprus, so they touchdown in Turkey. Cyprus Turkish Airlines at 11 Pall Mall, London SW1Y 5LU (0171-930 4853) has seats at around pounds 200 return from Stansted, rather more from Heathrow. Alternatively, you could find a cheap flight to Turkey's Mediterranean Coast and travel on by fast ferry to Kyrenia.

Be aware that Northern Cyprus is recognised only by Turkey. Britain has no diplomatic relations with Northern Cyprus. Points in Northern Cyprus are regarded as illegal ports of entry by the official Republic of Cyprus and evidence of a visit will result in refused admission to the Republic.

For further information contact the North Cyprus Tourism Office, 29 Bedford Square, London, WC1B 3EG (0171-631 1930). For information on the Republic of Cyprus - the legitimate government of the island - contact the Cyprus Tourist Office on 0171-569 8800

Comments