The Complete Guide To: Cyprus

Aphrodite was on to something: with its golden beaches, pine-clad mountains and fascinating history, this sun-kissed island in the eastern Med has it all, says Joe Bindloss


Sun, sea and...?

Turtles! These solitary sea creatures have been nesting on the beaches of Cyprus since at least the time of Herodotus – they know a beautiful place when they see one. These days, the nesting beaches are restricted to remote corners of the island; most of the easily accessible beaches have been developed for tourism, though this isn't necessarily a bad thing. There are still some charmingly low-key beach resorts that hark back to the way the Mediterranean used to be, and even the big resorts are lapped by balmy waters and warmed by, on average , 330 days of sunshine each year, making an autumn, winter or spring visit ideal.

In the northern part of Cyprus, beach resorts and villa developments are mushrooming along the coast north of Famagusta. Resident expatriates would rather you didn't discover the wild beaches further east on the Karpaz Peninsula. On warm summer nights between June and August, green and loggerhead turtles emerge from the sea to lay their eggs at isolated beaches across the peninsula. At the eastern end of the spur, Golden Beach is an empty cascade of dunes, with a handful of rustic beach bungalows and 7km of honey-coloured sand.

In the south, the most popular beaches are Coral Bay, near Paphos in the extreme west, and the busy resort beaches around Agia Napa in the east, where hordes of holidaymakers soak up the Mediterranean rays and cool down with banana-boat rides, parasailing and other boisterous watersports.

But to let you into a secret, Cyprus's best beaches are tucked away in rocky coves on the Akamas Peninsula, north of Paphos, and they are accessible only on foot, or by car over pitted dirt roads.

South or North?

The big question facing every visitor to the island. Cyprus has been divided into two separate states since 1974, when the northern half of the island was occupied by Turkish troops following a Greek nationalist coup. As part of the ceasefire, the UN split the island in two along the so-called Green Line, which still divides the (mainly) Greek-Cypriot Republic of Cyprus from the self-styled Turkish Republic of North Cyprus – a political entity recognised by no country other than Turkey.

Thirty-three years of separation have created two culturally different neighbours. The highly developed Republic has the best of the beaches and historical relics, and by far the best tourism infrastructure. The north is quiet, dusty and largely untouched by mass tourism, which is part of its charm. The atmosphere on the south side of the island is unmistakably Greek, while the northern portion takes its cultural cues from Turkey.

Until 2004, the only crossing point between the two parts of the island was the Ledra Palace Hotel pedestrian crossing, on the west side of the split capital, Nicosia – or Lefkosia, as it is now officially known. Today, drivers can cross at Agios Dometios (near Lefkosia), Vrysoulles (near Agia Napa) and Astrometiris (near Guzelyurt). Temporary car insurance is available at the border, but hire cars can only be taken from south to north, not the other way round.

Crossing the Green Line is relatively painless, but you cannot fly into North Cyprus and leave from the Republic, or vice versa. You need to show your passport at the border, but there are no entry or exit stamps on the Greek side, and Turkish stamps are made on a separate piece of paper. Overnight stays are currently permitted, but one or other government may remove this courtesy at any time; things can change rapidly, so check with local people, who are invariably up with the latest developments, before attempting to cross the line.

Some history?

Where to start? It's hard to go more than a few miles without stumbling across a Neolithic tomb, Greco-Roman ruin or Byzantine church. Begin the historical journey at Salamis in north Cyprus – although less thoroughly excavated than the ruins on the south side of the island, the toppled walls of this Greco-Roman city state spill out on to a sandy beach. Admission is 9 new Turkish lira (TRY9/£3.80), and the ruins are open 9am-5pm daily. Across the highway is the necropolis where the rulers of Salamis were buried with their horses and chariots; the site is open 8am-5pm daily and admission is TRY4.50 (£1.80).

The south's answer to Salamis is Kourion, a ruined Greco-Roman city with an impressively rugged setting, perched atop a rocky plateau overlooking a bay. Kourion was settled 18,000 years ago, but the city was reduced to u o rubble by five successive earthquakes in the 4th century. As well as Roman baths, brilliantly preserved mosaics and a huge forum, you can indulge your thespian side at a soaring stone amphitheatre, backed by the setting sun. The site is open 9am-1pm and 2-5pm daily (until 7pm from June to August). Admission is one Cyprus pound (CY£1), one of few currencies whose base unit is worth more than sterling: CY£1 = £1.20.

At the west end of the island, Paphos offers plenty of history for your Cypriot pound. Immediately behind the restaurant-lined harbour are the Unesco-listed mosaics of the Paphos Archaeological Site, many featuring the antics of Dionysus, the Greek god of wine. It opens 8am-5pm daily, until 7.30pm in June, July and August, admission CY£2 (£2.40). Quieter but more atmospheric, the rock-cut Tombs of the Kings (admission CY£1/£1.20; open 7.30am-8pm daily) were hollowed out for the rulers of Paphos in the 4th century BC.

For more recent history, head to the Troodos Mountains. In the tiny village of Pedoulas, the stone Church of Archangelos is covered, floor to ceiling, with 15th-century frescos of sword-wielding angels. You can visit at any reasonable hour: the key is held at a nearby house, signposted from the church. East of Pedoulas, Kykkos Monastery (www.kykkos-museum.cy. net) was founded in the 11th century. The monastery museum (open 10am-4pm daily; admission CY£1.50/£1.80) displays a fabulous collection of icons and other religious treasures, some dating back to the time of Luke the Apostle. The monks at Kykkos augment their spiritual function by distilling spirits, including herb-scented zivania, the local firewater.

Can I get romantic?

Absolutely. According to legend, Aphrodite – the Greek goddess of love – rose from the foam on the waves at Petra Tou Romiou, a cluster of marble stacks emerging from the sea near Lemesos. On the Akamas Peninsula are the Baths of Aphrodite, a secluded spring where she is said to have bathed to restore her virginity after encounters with her paramours.

Lovers should head to Girne (Kyrenia) in the north, a tangle of alleys and courtyards full of potted chrysanthemums, framed by a crescent harbour. Girne is the most popular resort in the Turkish Republic, but by Cypriot standards, it is still a sleepy backwater. The boat-filled harbour is lined with small hotels and romantic terrace-restaurants. Kyrenia Castle is a bulbous tower with spooky dungeons and a museum containing relics from Cyprus's oldest shipwreck – sunk around 3000 BC. Open 9am-4pm daily, admission TRY9 (£3.60).

The city formerly known as Nicosia?

Don't overlook the Cypriot capital. As well as museums, historic monuments and quaint stone houses, Lefkosia (Lefkosa in the north) has a lively arts scene, with small galleries, theatres and cultural centres dotted around the maze-like old town. There are two sides to the capital, literally: Lefkosia was split down the middle into Turkish and Greek enclaves when the Green Line was drawn in 1974.

Just outside the medieval city walls on the Greek side of the line, the Cyprus Museum at 1 Mouseiou (00 357 22 865 864; www.mcw.gov.cy/ da) draws on 20,000 years of Cypriot history. The collection includes Neolithic grave goods, ancient Greek ceramics, Roman bronzes and marbles, and the famous Aphrodite statue from Soli, near Morphou (Guzelyurt). It opens 9am-5pm Monday to Saturday, 10am-1pm Sunday, admission CY£2 (£2.40).

Inside the walls at the Archbishop's Palace, the Byzantine Museum (00 357 22 430 008) preserves a stunning collection of medieval icons and frescos, many recovered from churches in the north after partition. It's open 9am-1pm and 2-4.30pm Monday to Friday and 9am-1pm Saturday; admission CY£1 (£1.20).

Both sides of the capital still bear the scars of 1974. Streets end abruptly at barbed-wire fences and derelict buildings painted in the blue and white stripes of the United Nations. Ledras Street, the main shopping street on the Greek side of the capital, terminates at a fortified UN checkpoint surrounded by coffee shops, ice-cream parlours and department stores.

You can just walk across the Green Line via the Ledra Palace Hotel checkpoint to visit the sleepy northern capital. Outwardly, Lefkosa is a mirror image of Lefkosia, but little has changed here since 1974. The old town inside the Venetian walls is dominated by the towering hulk of the Selimiye Mosque (formerly St Sophia Cathedral), built by the Frankish rulers of Cyprus in 1209. Nearby is the dimly lit Buyuk Hammam, an atmospheric Turkish steam bath offering typically physical massages for TRY20 (£8.30); it's open daily from 7.30am-10.30pm.

There are several good hotels just inside the Venetian walls on the Greek side. The Classic Hotel (00 357 2266 4006; www.classic.com.cy) has cavernous rooms full of eye-catching fabrics. Doubles start at ¿97 (£69), including buffet breakfast. Modern interiors and free Wi-Fi sweeten the deal at Centrum Hotel (00 357 2245 6444; www.centrumhotel.net). Double rooms start at CY£54 (£65), with breakfast.

Can I live like a king?

Sure: just choose your castle. The European invaders who dominated Cyprus in the medieval period secured their kingdoms with a series of impenetrable fortresses. In the northern part of the island, rising above the port of Girne (Kyrenia), St Hilarion is probably the definitive Cypriot castle. It was built by the Byzantines to protect the island from Arab pirates. Partly reclaimed by the forest, the ruined battlements offer a king's view across the island. The castle is open 9am-6pm daily; admission is TRY6/£2.40.

Further along the ridge, Kantara Castle is a lofty eyrie, wedged between rocky outcrops at the base of the Karpaz Peninsula. The setting is swooningly romantic: wild flowers poke up between the stones, and the forest sweeps down to the ocean on all sides. It opens 9am-4.30pm daily (6pm in summer), admission TRY5 (£2).

On the south side of the Green Line, Kolossi Castle is the most eye-catching castle in the Republic. This robust crusader keep was built by the Knights of St John as part of their abortive attempt to rule Cyprus by the sword in the 12th century. The castle is open 9am-6pm daily (8am-7.30pm in June, July and August), admission CY£1 (£1.20).

Where can I stretch my legs?

To work up the kind of appetite you need for a meze, head to the Troodos Mountains in the centre of the Republic. Formerly the summer capital of the British colonial administration, the tiny settlement of Plateia Troodos is surrounded by scree-covered hills and dense pine forests, rising to the 1,951m-high Mount Olympos. The Troodos National Forest Park protects 9,337 hectares of rugged mountain country, home to 168 species of birds and the last wild mouflon (mountain sheep) in Cyprus.

Downhill from Plateia Troodos, on the road to Platres, the Troodos Visitor Centre (00 357 25 420 144) has displays on forestry and maps of walking trails around the mountains, from short scrambles to all-day hikes. It opens 10am-3pm daily except Saturdays (daily in summer), admission 50p. Platres is the main accommodation centre. The Petit Palais (00 357 2542 2723; www.petitpalaishotel.com) is a small and friendly hotel with a handy location, just below the main square; simple, village-style double rooms start at CY£30 (£36), including breakfast.

Where's the party?

Agia Napa, of course! Tucked against the Green Line in the east of the Republic, this once-quiet village has been transformed into a hedonistic party town by the rise of package tourism. Agia Napa is now an established stop on the Mediterranean club circuit, complete with foam parties, alcopop promotions and compilation albums from top DJs. Leading our operators u o offer thousands of packages to Agia Napa during the summer, but these cease during the winter months. However, Barrhead Travel (0871 225 1000; www.barrheadtravel.co.uk) offers out- of-season packages: a week at the Nissi Beach Hotel in Agia Napa, including return flights from Heathrow, transfers and B&B accommodation, costs from £423 per person in November.

How do I escape the crowds?

Head to the north side of the Green Line, and the easternmost town. Once the island's main port, ancient Famagusta has hardly been touched since the war, preserving a taste of what Cyprus was like before partition. Within a bastion on the Venetian town walls is Othello's Tower, where Cristoforo Moro, Doge and Governor of Cyprus, killed his wife Desdemona in a fit of jealous rage, inspiring Shakespeare to write Othello.

Today, the ruined fortress provides access to the town walls, offering sweeping vistas of both town and harbour. It opens 9am-1pm and 2-5pm daily (10am-5pm in the summer), admission TRY6 (£2.40).

A stroll around the dusty streets reveals half-a-dozen ruined Frankish churches, built by European conquerors during the Crusades. Most were converted into mosques under Ottoman rule in the 16th century, including the dramatic Lala Mustafa Pasa (formerly St Nicholas Cathedral), styled by its medieval architects after the grand cathedral at Reims. You can view the interior 10am-7pm daily, admission TRY2 (80p). Pavement restaurants and salonu (kebab houses) sprawl around the square in front of the mosque; the busiest place in town is Petek Pastanesi (00 90 392 366 7104), an Aladdin's cave of baklava, Turkish delight, and Turkish coffee, close to the sea wall.

How do I get there – and around?

The main gateway is Larnaca, on the south coast, with frequent flights from airports in the London area on British Airways (0870 850 9 850; www.ba.com); Cyprus Airways (020-8359 1333; www.cyprusairways.com); Eurocypria (00 357 22 365 750; www.eurocypria.com); Flyglobespan (08712 710415; www.flyglobespan.com); and Monarch Scheduled (08700 40 50 40; www.flymonarch.com). Cyprus Airways also flies from Birmingham and Manchester, and charter airlines fly from a wide range of UK airports. Some flights also serve Paphos, in the far west of the Republic. The typical flight time to Cyprus is four to five hours.

At present, all flights to North Cyprus must go via an airport in Turkey. Cyprus Turkish Airlines (020-7930 4851; www.kthy.net) flies to Ercan airport from London, Birmingham and Manchester, with a stop in Dalaman or Antalya. Although you can travel freely between the two sides of the island, you cannot enter one side of Cyprus and leave from the other.

Buses and minibuses run to towns and villages on both sides of the Green Line. Fares are low, but so are frequencies, except on the key routes from the capital to Limassol and Larnaca in the south, and to Girne and Famagusta in the north. Local car-rental firms can provide the best value – in the Republic, try Petsas (www.petsas.com.cy); and in North Cyprus, try Sun Rentacar (www.sunrentacar.com).

Where can I find out more?

For the republic, contact the Cyprus Tourism Organisation (020-7569 8800; www.visitcyprus. org.cy). For the north, consult North Cyprus Tourism (020-7631 1930; www.northcyprus.cc). For the island as a whole, read Lonely Planet's Cyprus (third edition, £11.99). For an insight into life on the island before it was divided, try Colin Thubron's Journey into Cyprus and Lawrence Durrell's Bitter Lemons of Cyprus.

What's in a name?

The Greeks, Turks and British squabbled over Cyprus for centuries, and each came up with their own names for the island's towns and landmarks. Unfortunately for travellers, this means that many places have three different names.

For example, the capital (pictured, right) is known as Lefkosia in the Republic and Lefkosa in North Cyprus, translated to Nicosia on English maps and road signs. Lemesos becomes Limasol and Limassol; Keryneia can also be Girne and Kyrenia; and Famagusta is also called Gazimagusa (often shortened to Magusa) and Ammachostos.

To get around this quirk of history, try to use maps produced in Europe or the Republic in the south, and maps produced in Turkey or North Cyprus in the north. The Cyprus Tourist Organisation produces excellent free maps of towns, roads and walking trails, available from tourist offices throughout the Republic.

A taste of the med

At the boundary of Europe and the Middle East, Cyprus has drawn in culinary influences from across the Mediterranean. The signature dishes of the Republic are souvlakia (pork kebabs) and seftalies (pork sausages), cooked over hot coals and served with wedges of lemon and a pitta stuffed with salad. Many rustic tavernas give diners just three choices: souvlakia, seftalies or "mixed".

North of the Green Line, the meat sizzling on skewers is lamb and chicken. Most of the population of North Cyprus originally came from Anatolia in Turkey, and brought with them a love of the Middle Eastern fundamentals: meat, salad and bread. All the towns in the north have salonu – kebab houses – serving shish and kofte kebabs and pitta filled with grilled halloumi, the hand-kneaded Cypriot cheese.

Other distinctive dishes include the local version of moussaka (with potatoes and courgettes) and kleftiko ofto, lamb shanks baked for hours with potatoes and herbs in a clay oven. More controversial are the ambelopoulia, or pickled warblers (pictured), which are sold as delicacies in the island's tavernas. Also look out for yemista (vegetables stuffed with rice and mince), afelia (pork stewed with coriander and wine) and stifado (slow-cooked beef with onions). In the Greek meze, dishes are served with houmous, tallatouri (yogurt, cucumber and mint) and taramasalata.

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