Hope springs

The frontier of Europe's last divided nation is finally opening up. Simon Calder takes a trip to Cyprus and finds two halves make a breathtaking whole

Thursday 20 October 2011 13:32

Bikini Alert State: Black". In the context of a beautiful Mediterranean island, this roadside sign could create all kinds of images. Yet it has nothing to do with swimwear; this is a coded military warning conveying the current degree of danger to British forces in Europe's last divided nation.

Bikini Alert State: Black". In the context of a beautiful Mediterranean island, this roadside sign could create all kinds of images. Yet it has nothing to do with swimwear; this is a coded military warning conveying the current degree of danger to British forces in Europe's last divided nation.

You find the sign in the midst of a small chunk of the Home Counties. Replete with neat lawns and gently rolling hills, this little England has drifted to the eastern end of the Mediterranean and made landfall on beautiful, benighted Cyprus. The Sovereign Base Areas that Britain retained after Cypriot independence are symptomatic of the island's fragmentation for the past three decades. Yet Cyprus's deep wounds are now healing - as you discover beyond the "Bikini Alert", heading north to the Green Line that divides the island.

Travelling around Cyprus in the spring of 2005 is joyful. Half-an-hour and six miles earlier, in the Sport Cafe in the village of Frenaros, the roof was getting hammered by belligerent rain, while the occupants were getting hammered on Keo beer. They were still perfectly capable of dispensing impeccable hospitality to a damp, squelching stranger. At the other end of the island, in the newly opened Aphrodite Hills resort (near both the legendary birthplace and temple of the goddess of love), guests are enjoying the widest range of thalassotherapy treatments this side of Dubai. I dare say some are wearing black bikinis. We're all soaking, and - in our different ways - having fun.

Even the tempestuous weather that has strafed the eastern Mediterranean this month has not dampened the allure of this island. Compressed into a territory half the size of (you guessed it) Wales, layer after layer of history has been daubed on a landscape of crumpled hills constrained within a corrugated coastline. Ancient churches and castles dissolve into the rock whence they came; the meadows are embroidered by flourishes of dandelions and poppies; and down on the beaches, a million people will enjoy carefree holidays this year on a careworn isle, Europe's land of make-believe.

"Heaven bless the isle of Cyprus", wrote Shakespeare. Four centuries on, so sensitive and complicated is the fragile political status that the airlines should show a bluffers' guide on the final approach to Larnaca or Paphos, the only two airports allowed to accept flights from Britain.

The essentials: after the island had passed through the hands of all the usual Mediterranean suspects - from the Myceneans via the Crusaders to the Venetians - Cyprus was picked up by Britain as imperial booty. By the time of independence, in 1960, the Greeks formed a substantial majority, with Turks, Maronites and Armenians as significant minorities. Before relinquishing its strategically important possession, the UK insisted on retaining a military toehold in the Eastern Mediterranean. So a couple of Guantanamo Bay-style bases were annexed from Cypriot soil.

Cyprus was a beacon of diversity, interspersed with terrorist activity. Then larger powers began to fight their proxy battles, whereupon Cyprus became a victim of Shakespearean intrigue. In the summer of 1974, the Army colonels who ruled Greece orchestrated a coup that overthrew President Makarios - and provided Turkey with a pretext to invade the island to protect Turkish Cypriots. After scenes of carnage and atrocity that owed more to the First World War than modern warfare, the Turks ended up controlling 35 per cent of the island. "The Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus", is what they call this territory. Yet no one other than Turkey believes in, or recognises, this strange piece of political flotsam.

As a make-believe nation, North Cyprus is a land of negatives. No direct flights from anywhere other than Turkey; no diplomatic representation, which could make life difficult for travellers if things go wrong; and no extradition treaty with Britain, which explains why there is a steady stream of criminals beating a path to this notional nation. And that is where I am heading, too, as soon as I have passed the neat, semi-detached houses, well-trimmed cricket pitch and Naafi supermarket. Everything seems remarkably calm considering the peril this base was considered to be in two years ago. You remember Saddam Hussein's fabled weapons of mass destruction? This is where they were alleged to be pointing, ready to obliterate this curious suburbia within 45 minutes.

Considering its well-publicised vulnerability, visiting this British military base is easy. You simply drive, cycle or walk along the main road from Nicosia, and obey the notices that, in three languages, ban photography.

A couple of miles on, a Republic of Cyprus checkpoint: the predominantly Greek and entirely legitimate nation that is part of the European Union. The same government that produces lots of excellent tourist information, including a good map of Cyprus. The upper third of the island is marked "Inaccessible due to Turkish Occupation". Yet a polite and helpful official Greek Cypriot official is explaining just how accessible the north of the country now is. I am welcome to cross the frontier here and return whenever I like, either through this checkpoint or the one in Nicosia - the divided capital of this disjointed island. And no, a visit to the north does not place me at risk of being barred from Greece.

How the world has changed from the Cinderella days that prevailed for almost three decades after the Turkish invasion. Crossing from south to north could be achieved only at the UN checkpoint beside the former five-star Ledra Palace hotel - now the no-star barracks for whichever foreign troops get the gig of guarding the Green Line. The Ledra Palace crossing was Europe's last Checkpoint Charlie experience. You could submit to the laborious bureaucracy and reproachful glances from frontier officials only between 8am and 1pm, and you had to be back from the pariah state in time for tea: 5pm.

Anyone who took the alternative route to northern Cyprus, by boat or plane from Turkey, was regarded as having entered the island illegally. Evidence such as a passport stamp was, in theory, enough to make you non grata in Corfu, Cephallonia and all Greek islands to Crete. So immigration officials issued a separate piece of * * paper. A year ago, the people of the Republic rejected the Annan Plan, brokered by the UN Secretary-General himself, for a settlement with the unlawful regime in the north. A week later the Republic joined the EU - and the Green Line started to melt. Brussels has no great love of frontiers, particularly within member nations, and has provided cash to prise open the border. Clearing the mine fields is taking time - as is soothing the feelings of aggrieved Greek Cypriots. But islanders from both sides of the divide are growing accustomed to crossing the line with ease and civility.

So far I have passed the Bikini Alert without incident, and entered a kind of no-man's-land within a no-man's land. I have left - or not left, from the Greek perspective - the official Republic. Now to enter a country which, in the eyes of the world, does not exist. The next bureaucratic hurdle is hard to take seriously. Mustafa is sitting inside a white-and-red plastic hut that looks as though it has been requisitioned from a local ice-cream vendor, right down to the frilly red-and-white awning.

"Welcome, friend."

Old habits die hard. Mustafa did not stamp my passport; instead, I was given a slip of paper that bore a close approximation to my name and announced itself to be a visa.

This process has taken a couple of minutes, but in that time I have gone from a tidy British military enclave to a vision of blight: barns and cottages laid waste in the fighting that split the nation and caught in no-man's-land. But a mile later, I am passing a garage that announces itself to be a "United Nations Filling Station" on the scruffy outskirts of a busy town: Famagusta.

Around 1300, this port's position astride the main trade routes made it one of the richest places on earth; and around 1974, prosperity was once again returning with the peaceful invasion of tourists. The British holidaymakers who happened to be there that summer were bundled out by the Navy with a thrilling tale to tell; but the Greek Cypriot property owners tell a tale of treachery.

The heart of Famagusta is an exquisite warren of lanes guarded by absurdly muscular walls, with the handsome cathedral of St Nicholas - now the main city mosque - at the heart. I fell in for coffee and chats with a fine bunch of men: warm and welcoming chaps of the kind I had not met, well, for a good couple of hours since the Sport Cafe on the other side of the border. They really should get together sometime soon.

South of Famagusta lie the abandoned hotels in the resort area of Varosha, marooned in no-go territory; to the north, the ancient city of Salamis; and to the east, the curve of the bay tapers to a peninsula that points directly at a fully-fledged member of the axis of evil, Syria. But I am heading west, towards one of the great ports of the Mediterranean: Kyrenia. Or at least I will be once I overcome my financial embarrassment.

My awkward moment has arisen because this part of the island is in a different currency zone. I have brought a few Cypriot pounds across the frontier, but most of my funds are in the form of Turkish lire: tens of millions of them. On my last trip to Turkey, I became a multimillionaire by changing £50. I had some left over, so I have brought them with me. I expected them to have declined in value in the intervening years, but they appear to have lost all of it. The new, improved Turkish lire has shaved six noughts to join the federation of sensible currencies. It is no longer a fiscal laughing stock; I am, and my carefully conserved collection of cash is shrapnel.

The bus fare to Kyrenia is now three mighty lire, but the rate of exchange for a Cyprus pound is a tantalising CY£1 = 2.90 lire. Simple, says the man in a bureau de change that appears not to have seen a customer all day; let me nudge up the rate a little for you so you need not change more than a pound. That doesn't happen at the bureau de change at Heathrow.

On board the bus that is racing across a land of Anglian flatness, the view has been nudged up by an order of magnitude as the sky of fractured cloud conspires with the landscape to create a Biblical vision. Shards of sunlight slice where they can through the steely shield, illuminating the terrain like searchlights. To the north, the horizon is serrated by a menacing line of mountains; from the south, a sequence of storms is marching towards us, for another aerial bombardment of heavy rain.

We make it through the mountains, followed by a splendid descent to Kyrenia - or Girne, as the official process of Turkification dictates. The Anglicisation has been more effective: the Dome Hotel looks like a remnant of Eastbourne, though with an impressive seawater pool hewn from the rock. The restaurants around the hemispherical harbour are aimed squarely at Brits; some have bought second homes here, though many properties are still legally owned by Greek Cypriots. An ancient arm of rock curls around the port, which is dominated by a Byzantine fortress.

Now for Berlin, or what is claimed to be the world's last divided capital. If ever a city deserved to be kept intact, Nicosia is it. The hub of the city is contained within a circular curtain of stone, from which 11 bastions protrude in the shape of spades from a pack of cards - each named for the family that originally funded that particular fortification. Like the old city of Jerusalem, a confusion of religions - Orthodox, Catholic and Armenian Christian, plus Judaism and Islam - have put down roots within this hot-house. But unlike Jerusalem, a jagged divide runs right through the middle.

Ledra Street, the main retail drag in the south of this city, demonstrates this dramatically. After a latte at Starbucks, turn left out of the door and walk north for couple of minutes. You will collide with a wall, complete with spectators' gallery provided by the Republic, and allegations of atrocities committed by the Turks. Within weeks this could be dismantled, and the barrier replaced by a pedestrian thoroughfare that will re-unite the city. Last weekend's presidential elections in the north saw the veteran hard-liner Rauf Denktash, "Mr No", replaced with a moderate, Mehmet Ali Talat. And further along the Green Line at another Cold War cul-de-sac, a Greek Cypriot soldier was painting new road markings that hint at the imminence of another crossing point and a more porous frontier. Not quite tearing down the walls of anguish - but, for a stranger in a strange land, a sign of hope.



Simon Calder paid £264.50 for a flight on British Airways, Heathrow-Larnaca and Paphos-Gatwick, with www.travelocity.co.uk. BA (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) starts flying Manchester-Paphos on 16 May. Cyprus Airways (020-8359 1333; www.cyprusairways.co.uk) flies from Gatwick, Manchester, Birmingham, Heathrow and Stansted; First Choice (0870 243 9902; www.firstchoice.co.uk) flies from Manchester, Stansted and Gatwick; and Helios (0870 750 2750; www.flyhelios.com) flies from Gatwick, Heathrow, Luton, Manchester and Birmingham.

Packages: All the leading UK tour operators offer holidays in the Republic of Cyprus; specialists include Sunvil (020-8568 4499; www.sunvil.co.uk), Libra (0871 226 0446; www.Libraholidays.net) and Olympic Holidays (0870 443 2602; www.olympicholidays.com); they will be joined next year by Bath Travel (01202 200700; www.bathtravel.com).

Package holidays to the self-styled Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus are available from a range of tour operators, including Green Island Holidays (020-7637 7338; www.greenislandholidays.com) and The Discovery Collection (0845 456 4500; www.thediscoverycollection.com).


Aphrodite Hills is near Paphos (00 357 26 829000; www.aphroditehills.com). Doubles start at CY£156 (£183), including breakfast.


Public transport is excellent, with buses augmented by "service taxis" - minibuses on fixed routes. Renting a car is cheap, and driving is on the left. But if you rent a car in the south, for example through Holiday Autos (0870 400 4468; www.holidayautos.co.uk), you are not allowed to drive it to the north.


A valid EU passport is sufficient. Visas for the Turkish-controlled area are issued on arrival.


Cyprus Tourist Office: 020-7569 8800; www.visitcyprus.org.cy.

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