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Where cultures collide

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Melissa Shales explores North Cyprus, where visitors have included crusaders, pilgrims, writers and now, a growing band of eco-conscious travellers


Halfway down the incredibly long, uneven stone steps from the top of Kantara Castle, knees buckling for the umpteenth time, I admitted defeat and sat down. I bumped most of the rest of the way back down to the car park on my bottom. It wasn't dignified but it wasn't all bad – it gave me plenty of time to admire the wildflowers and the superlative views which stretch for miles across the Karpaz Peninsula and the Mediterranean as far as Turkey and the Lebanon. But it also made me realise that the castles of North Cyprus are not for sissies.

 

Kantara began life in the 10th century as an observation tower and was massively expanded by the crusading Lusignan knights after Richard the Lionheart sold Cyprus to them in 1192. It's only one of several fabulously massive castles in the country. The three main towns – Gazimağusa (Famagusta), Lefkoşa (Nicosia) and Girne (Kyrenia) are all fortified, while dizzying St Hilarion is said to have been the model for Disney's Snow White's castle. I only got to second base there and didn't even attempt the 450 steps up to the wind-swept heights of Prince John's Tower, from where, in 1370, Eleanor of Aragon engineered the murder of the paranoid John of Antioch in a real revenger's tragedy.

 

The drama continues along the length of the Five Finger Mountains that run east to west across North Cyprus, jagged, saw-toothed pinnacles raised from the sea like the fist of a vengeful god. As well as incomparable views, the forests here offer wonderful walking, birding and, in season (February to mid-April), spectacular wildflowers, including 37 species of endemic orchid.

 

a writer's inspiration

 

It's no wonder that Augustinian monks chose to build their abbey in Bellapais, the village halfway down the mountains, overlooking Girne, where Lawrence Durrell also chose to settle and write in the 1950s. Others have followed their example. Almost everyone who comes here on holiday stays in or near Girne and takes day trips out from here. The country is small enough to do this easily and you'll find most of the good hotels and restaurants in Girne, Alsancak and Bellapais, although there are one or two good B&Bs in Karpaz and a couple of good places in Gazimağusa.

 

Durrell penned Bitter Lemons and much of the Alexandrian Quartet under the Tree of Idleness at the café opposite the abbey. If, like me, you are hoping that just a little of his inspiration might rub off, the coffee is good and the abbey and its gardens are beautiful, a little oasis of strangely English peace – like finding a corner of the Cotswolds tucked into the Mediterranean.

 

I soon came to realise that these curious cultural juxtapositions are the norm in this odd but immensely likeable little country. Cyprus was British territory for a while and there is still a huge affinity, with many Brits owning properties here and many Cypriots (Turkish and Greek) living in the UK. Of course, the whole Turkish/Greek saga is impossible to ignore. You will hear about it, see the soldiers and monuments to the fighting. Most of the everyday Turkish Cypriots I met just wanted it all to be over and done with and are delighted that they can now cross the border to the south to shop and go clubbing (nightlife in the north is nothing to write home about).

 

Meantime, the island remains divided by the notorious Green Line, so-called because Major-General Sir Peter Young used a green crayon to draw the demarcation line on the map in 1964. It cuts right through the middle of Lefkoşa (Nicosia) and next to Gazimağusa (Famagusta) is the ghost city of Varósha, once the playground of the Mediterranean. About the only place to see it (strictly no photos) is from the beach beside the Palm Beach Hotel. It's still one of the best beaches on the island but most of it is cut off and it's a seriously weird sight to see sunbathers and children playing happily on the sand in front of the eerily derelict tower blocks and rolls of barbed wire.

 

There are other strange cultural entanglements. The centre of Gazimağusa is dominated by a magnificent Gothic cathedral, modelled on the one in Reims, but inside, you slip off your shoes and walk around on carpet. The soaring arches have been whitewashed and where once you would have looked towards the high altar, a mihrab in the south wall now directs worshippers towards Mecca.

 

miraculous spring

 

Although most of the Greeks have gone, there are still plenty of signs of their presence, particularly in the pretty little Greek Orthodox churches. Many of these are now museums, but a couple are still serious places of pilgrimage. I was particularly taken with the hugely popular local saint, St Mamas, patron saint of tax avoiders, who once had no fewer than 14 churches. At the farthest tip of the Karpaz Peninsula is the Apostolos Andreas Monastery. South Cypriots flock here to drink the waters of the miraculous spring and pray for cures, leaving curious – and slightly sinister – votive offerings in wax and silver.

 

The scenery on the Karpaz Peninsula is entirely different from the rest of the north. You run out of mountains here and are into open rolling grasslands and olive groves, happily grazed by flocks of lop-eared goats and gangly, long-legged wild donkeys. Olives have been grown here for 6,000 years. Stop off at the Olive Oil Mill to see how it was produced then and is harvested now and have a meze lunch under the trees at Buyyukkonuk (www.ecotourismcyprus.org), a village that has transformed itself into an eco-community with local crafts, food demonstrations, cafés and guesthouses. Above all, take time to sit and watch the waves on Golden Beach, a glorious stretch of uncluttered sand, shared only by endangered Green and Loggerhead turtles in season (late June/early July for nesting or mid July/August for hatching). It's a perfect place to reflect on the complexity, simplicity and friendly beauty of the Copper Island.

WAY TO GO

Ramblers Holidays offers seven-night guided walking holidays, with daily walks in the mountains and countryside from a comfortable base near Kyrenia. Tel. 01707 331133 / www.ramblersholidays.co.uk

 

The University of Exeter organises a turtle monitoring project on Alagadi Beach near Kyrenia each summer. To volunteer, www.seaturtle.org/mtrg/projects/cyprus/volunteer/

 

The Discovery Collection offers walking and wildflower tours in March and April when the orchids are in flower. Tel. 01371 859 733 / www.discovery-collection.com

 

For more information and a list of tour operators, visit www.welcometonorthcyprus.co.uk

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