All quiet on the northern front

The division of Cyprus is tragic, says Adrian Mourby, but its border country is beautiful
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The Independent Travel

The south coast of Cyprus is just the kind of place that Brits really enjoy. Alas. From Paphos in the west to Ayia Napa in the east, Greek Cypriots have cannily exploited our national need to get wasted somewhere hot every year. Many tourists never stir beyond the beach unless it's down to the Aphrodite Disco. And yet, less than half an hour north of Paphos is a wholly different Cyprus, beautiful but tragic, which most visitors never see.

The south coast of Cyprus is just the kind of place that Brits really enjoy. Alas. From Paphos in the west to Ayia Napa in the east, Greek Cypriots have cannily exploited our national need to get wasted somewhere hot every year. Many tourists never stir beyond the beach unless it's down to the Aphrodite Disco. And yet, less than half an hour north of Paphos is a wholly different Cyprus, beautiful but tragic, which most visitors never see.

The coastal route that runs from Polis to Kato Pyrgos shows Cyprus at is best: tiny churches, huge mountains, tavernas with Greek families, fields where farm-workers harvest courgettes and back roads where little old ladies in black sell bags of grapes. Reality cuts in when this winding road stops abruptly, east of Kato Pyrgos, at a small concrete sentry box where a teenager in military fatigues sits reading a graphic novel. Beyond the barrier that he is notionally guarding, the coast road has fallen apart, sacrificed to the UN's Green Line, which keeps this island from tearing itself apart 30 years after Turks and Greeks fell to fighting over which country the island should be aligned with.

Kato Pyrgos is spoken of as a ghost town, blighted by an unresolved conflict that even casts doubts over Cyprus's suitability for EU membership. When the island does join in March, it will be the only member with a divided capital and enclaves of isolated territory which need the UN to guarantee their survival.

I set out from Polis one bright Sunday morning in search of borders, enclaves and ghost towns. I'd hardly left this prosperous little town when the car in front of me braked suddenly and disgorged a Greek Orthodox priest - robes, beard, trainers and hair in a bun. As he carried his chalice up to the modern basilica I resumed my journey east. I soon realised that for all that this coastline is underexploited by tourism it's certainly intensively worked for agriculture. The narrow strip of land between the Med and the mountains produces lemons, limes, pomegranates, bananas, grapes and hay. It also has its fair share of buildings in progress which look as if they may never be finished, something it shares with mainland Greece.

My first stop was at Pachyammos, which sits on a rise above the "broad sand" from which the village takes its name. A fine, small, roadside church sits here with a modern mosaic to St George on the outside and an old man and woman on the inside who, once they learnt I was English, kept assuring me the church was "very good". Pachyammos is home to the shrine of St Rafaelos and also to a roadside shop selling the worst kind of tourist tat I've ever encountered. More interesting is the track down to the beach which terminates in a modern Greek Orthodox cemetery built slap bang up against an abandoned concrete pill-box, vintage 1974, which flies two sun-bleached flags, one blue and white for Greece and the other a yellow outline of the island of Cyprus. A large concrete UN compound sits on the other side of the track, half camouflaged and with a basketball net prominent above the parapets. The troops inside are guarding the entrance to the Turkish Kokkina enclave.

At this point, my route diverted inland, climbing over 1,000 feet to look down into Kokkina, a small triangle of land where, in August 1974, General Grivas was halted in his move to eliminate the enclave by bombers sent over from Istanbul. The Turks carpet-bombed all around Kokkina and even up as far as Polis, and today the hillsides still have barren 20ft swathes cut in them. The enclave remains wholly inaccessible to anyone approaching from the Greek side. All I could do was put my car in second gear and climb into the mountains. At a modern picnic spot I got out my field glasses but there was little to see - a few white buildings along what used to be the coast road. Strips of territory that get fought over are rarely impressive enough to justify so much bloodshed.

Greek villages used to sit up here on the mountain road above Kokkina, but they have long since been abandoned, just in case the Turks come back. Alevka must have been beautiful once but now it is not so much a ghost town as a "goat town" with the gaping casements of derelict buildings acting as shelves on which skittish black goats display themselves. The odd camouflaged bus stop was the only sign that human life continues.

Descending towards the old Greek coastal town of Mansouma I spotted a UN observation post on a ridge looking down into the Turkish enclave. A large sign in whitewashed rocks marked out that this was UN 03 so I pulled over and asked if I might go up and take a look. Lest the two UN infantrymen suspect me of being a Greek spy, I stressed that I was English. Unfortunately, the squaddies turned out to be Argentinian. My request was roundly refused, the more senior trooper demonstrating graphically to me that if he let me through his throat would be cut.

Reaching Mansouma I found that most of it had disappeared behind the razor wire that marked out yet another UN post. What buildings I could see had fallen apart. All that the boys from Buenos Aires seemed to be guarding was an exercise machine.

On entering Kato Pyrgos I found it livelier than expected. A new marina wall and hotel had been built west of the old town and shops and holiday apartments were available to rent. The old town, though, had a sleepy feel to it. As my road narrowed and trees began to overhang, I saw old men sitting at cafés, playing cards and drinking tea. I parked by the Oak Tree Café and discovered that the huge live oak which dominated its earthen courtyard was obscuring the fact that this café camped out on the ground floor of a hotel, left unfinished since the 1970s. Through unglazed windows I could see a concrete staircase descend to the first floor and then stop in mid air. The patron took my order for coffee but I never got to pay for it as Marios, a porter from the hotel where I was staying, generously intercepted the bill.

Thanking Marios I asked him about life in Kato Pyrgos. "A backwater," he said, "since they built the border." Marios did, however, recommend that I look at the church dedicated to Emperor Constantine and Helen, his mother. A small, square stone building with a beguilingly amateurish iconostasis, the church had walls lined with monastic pews of the kind that support the elbows of worshippers who might find themselves standing for hours. A new basilica was being built just opposite, but this church felt like a genuine glimpse of the Byzantine religion that came to Cyprus in the time of Constantine.

Kato Pyrgos's beach resort turned out to be deserted. Grapes on the vines that covered its abandoned taverna had turned to raisins so I chose to visit the border itself, half a mile down the old coast road. Here it was that I came upon the uniformed youth with his comic book. He regarded me in a slow surly way and I looked back at him and we both decided that I wasn't going any further towards Turkish-occupied Cyprus. It was time to go back. There was no way forward after all.

It was late afternoon now and I was hungry. After passing back through Pachyammos I turned off towards the sea and found the Kanalli Taverna at Pomos Point. The view back to Pachyammos, across Khrysokhou Bay, showed a sweep of beautiful blue water and the new cemetery on its promontory, built so close to the Kokkina enclave and that fortified UN post. What I hadn't noticed before was the hillside above where, in red and white stones, members of the enclave had fashioned a large Turkish flag. As a view it summed up both the beauty and sadness of this coastline. Unspoilt yet savagely marred by recent history.

Give me the facts

How do I get there?

Adrian Mourby travelled to Cyprus courtesy of Cyprus Tourism Organisation (020-7569 8800; www.visitcyprus.org.cy) and stayed at the Anassa Hotel (00 357 26 888 000; www.thanoshotels.com) in Polis. Double rooms start from £111 per person per day, including breakfast.

British Airways (0870 400 0100; www.ba.com) offers return flights from Heathrow to Larnaca from £149 if booked online, £159 by telephone.

One week's car hire with Holiday Autos (0870 400 0010; www.holiday autos.co.uk) costs from £129.

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