They say the north is inaccessible due to the Turkish occupation. That's not quite true

If you knew nothing of the painful political wound ripping through the heart of Cyprus, it would not take long to realise that something is awry: just try reaching the self-styled Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. Greek Cypriot maps are exaggerating when they warn that the north of the island is "inaccessible due to the Turkish Occupation", but sometimes it feels as if it is.

There are plenty of reasons for a traveller, naive or world-weary, to want to visit the last unspoilt shred of a Mediterranean island. Numbers first: 30 times more British visitors holiday in the official Republic in the south than in the north. So the traveller to North Cyprus can be awed by a spectacular crumple of mountain scenery, Roman remains and Crusader relics in splendid solitude - so long as he or she can get there. If you prefer the traditional sun, sea and sand, there are cliche-perfect beaches with barely a soul on them. When the Turks fought for the beaches in 1974, they took all the best ones. As Martin Scudamore reports (opposite), the Republic of Cyprus has done a remarkable job in creating seaside resorts where they really shouldn't be. One real impediment to any political solution for the island is that overnight the hotels in the south would empty as everyone shifted their towels to the far superior beaches of the north. But at the moment, you face a battle to get there.

Check the schedules, and you see no flights link Britain with the former RAF base at Ercan, which serves as the north's airport. (It turns out that there are daily flights, but to mask the real destination they all touch down en route in Turkey, where the passengers stay on board while the flight number changes.) The ferry schedule says there are boats from the ports of Tasucu and Mersin, on Turkey's Mediterranean coast. So you find a cheap charter to Antalya (mine cost pounds 139, including a week's accommodation) and snake your way around the wild coast to Mersin.

Geo-politics become even more perverse here. In the eyes of the international community, North Cyprus does not exist. By definition, it is impossible to send mail to such a place. So the whole Turkish sector of Cyprus is merely a postal district in a dusty and dreary port. "Mersin 10" is the 38 per cent of the island occupied by Turkish forces following the 1974 invasion. Letters sent there take almost as long as me to reach their destination.

When you try to buy a ticket for the ferry, you discover that an invasion of sorts is continuing. "All services have been taken over by the military for troop movements," I was told. Faced with the choice of signing up or waiting a week, I checked into the nearest gloomy hotel and, next day, tried Tasucu along the coast. Three days after leaving London, I finally arrived in north Cyprus.

It takes a good 10 minutes before you cheer up - the bus from the port into Kyrenia takes this long. Imagine a harbour that defines the word "picturesque", a graceful arc fringed by suntanned stonework and protected by a giant sandstone fortress. The blue (oh, all right, oily black) water is filled with a graceful jostle of masts belonging to pastel-painted boats. Add a cast of suitably grizzled old sailors, canoodling couples and the odd tourist, and you have a picture of the Mediterranean that seemed lost to the traveller.

Mass tourism has not left its mark on north Cyprus, but everyone else has. One of the greatest Roman sites resides by the beach south of Famagusta. Salamis should be crawling with tourists, but on a bright and breezy day in May I shared it only with a party of Austrians. So the stern white pillars of the gymnasium, the labyrynthine plumbing of the bath house and the geometric simplicity of the arena were as empty as the builders never intended. This is the one place in the world where you can get from miraculously preserved Roman remains to pristine beach in 10 seconds. Famagusta itself was a largely Greek port until the ethnic exchanges that followed the 1974 invasion, and the conversion to Turkish town has left it feeling like a place in slow decline; only the plump cats appear prosperous, as they prowl and purr beneath the Levantine sun.

The same sense of having stumbled upon a community enjoying a general municipal siesta pervades the capital, Nicosia. The Green Line tears through the heart of the city, so every side-street seems to end in an ugly tangle of barbed wire. Across the frontier, Nicosia 1996 is thriving noisily and untidily, taking root in the barren hillsides around the city. This side, Nicosia 1974, reveals the inevitable decay of a city shunned by the rest of the world. Practically speaking, this means that costs are locked into mid-Seventies mode, too. I paid less than pounds 3 a night for a perfectly respectable room, and found it a struggle to spend more than that eating out. Travel around the portions of the island to which you are allowed access is similarly cheap. A ride to Famagusta aboard a battered old minibus imported straight from its duties in the suburbs of Tokyo (hieroglyphic livery intact) cost only 80 pence. Everything seems second- hand, from the trucks - this is where Addyman's Pies and Savouries of Leeds offloads old vehicles - to places of worship. The handsome old cathedral of St Sophia has become the Selimiye mosque, a Moslem altar installed within the Gothic nave and tweaked a bit towards Mecca.

One place where Christianity has been allowed to remain intact is Bellapais. An old abbey, 1,000ft above the glinting coastline, rests in perfect decay at the foot of the small village that Lawrence Durrell made his home in 1953. A serene, solitary proscenium survives somewhere in the heavens, while the cloisters slowly dissolve into the pale earth. Swallows sweep madly around the ruins, pigeons hen-peck each other and lizards laze. Inside the church, dusty old Bibles lie where they fell closed in 1974, when the "Turkish Peace Operation" drove the congregation to the south of the island. When Durrell wrote of the village "lumbering quietly among the foothills, with its ancient bemused courtesies and unworldly kindnesses", this was an overwhelmingly Greek community; now it is Turkish, but the Tree of Idleness (a stumpy old mulberry) still presides over magnificent amounts of nothing.

It's a steep climb to Durrell's former home. Bitter Lemons, a whitewashed, angular house clinging to an uncertain lane, shines out from derelict surroundings. Durrell had long abandoned the island by the time partition came, but his poem Bitter Lemons foretells of "beauty, darkness, vehemence". The face of an old man, twisted by time to match the tortured contours of the terrain, smiles thinly in welcome - and tired resignation. A cure for Cyprus's wounds no doubt rests with a generation yet to be born; we, for the present, can merely wonder at the past.

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