Untouched by the mass tourism of the south, northern Cyprus is equally beautiful but has been left out in the cold. But now more visitors are starting to discover its treasures
Exquisite but strangely headless statues stand silently watching over the remains of what was a capital city way back in 1100BC. Salamis, 6km north of Famagusta, has been called the Pompeii of Cyprus, its ruins spread over a square mile overlooking the coast. A severe earthquake destroyed the city in 76AD, and many buildings were buried or rebuilt. The modern visitor can see a theatre with 50 rows of seats and a seating capacity of 15,000, a colonnaded gymnasium and baths. And, of course, there are the stone people, decapitated by the Christians out to oust Roman paganism.
But despite its fascination and cultural importance, you won’t see many real people at the site. Not tourists, anyway. Why? First - sorry, it can’t be avoided - a little politics. Cyprus, third largest island in the Mediterranean, has been squabbled over for millennia. In recent times, Turkey and Greece have been the principal protagonists.
Cypriots are mostly of Turkish or Greek descent, and up until 1974, generally muddled along together. In that year, though, Turkey, fearful that Greece was about to annexe the island, sent in troops, an act it maintains it was entitled to do under earlier political treaties. Greek Cypriots moved south, Turkish Cypriots moved north, with suffering on both sides.
Now, North Cyprus, around 37 per cent of the island, is still officially recognised only by Turkey, certainly not by an understandably bitter Republic of Cyprus. Today, it is Europe’s last divided country.
Aided and abetted by the international community, the south went on to develop a healthy tourism industry (with Limassol and Paphos particularly popular with Brits), and a very nice holiday destination it is, too. Meanwhile, the north was largely frozen out. But since Turkey signed up to the UN-backed Peace Plan in 2004, a thaw has set in. The restoration of trade links is being talked about, and some EU aid and overseas investment is coming in.
For political reasons, no international flights route direct to northern Cyprus; they have to touch down in mainland Turkey first. (Brits can fly into Larnaca in the south and drive up, changing taxi or hire car at the 'border'.) However, it is widely thought that the restoration of direct flights to the north is on the cards. Tourism to northern Cyprus is on the increase, too, with new hotels being built, and roads and airports upgraded.
And the good news for tourists is that, paradoxically, so many years of diplomatic isolation has actually benefited northern Cyprus, in that it is very largely unspoiled and seriously undersubscribed. So you are likely to have those ruins at Salamis to yourself. You won’t see coachloads of tourists driving through the Venetian walled city of Famagusta, or nearby collected around the base of the extraordinary rock fortress of St Hilarion. The wonderful Karpas peninsula, home to turtles, birds galore, wild donkeys, and fabulous flowers in spring, is deserted. Even the most popular destinations, such as Kyrenia, will be relatively uncrowded.
It’s not all positive. Northern Cyprus is not yet totally 'tourist friendly' in that sites are ungroomed, with, for example, uneven paths to trip over and holes to put your foot in. You might suffer a power cut, so may want to take a torch, and one of those battery-operated mini-fans for when the AC cuts out. But these are small prices to pay for the gloriously pristine mountain and coastal vistas, and generally uncommercialised atmosphere.
Development is taking place, with many new top-class resort hotels on the splendid beaches – for example, the Mercure Cyprus and the Kaya Artemis Resort. A splendid 18-hole championship golf course, Korineum Golf & Country Club, with a spa and good restaurant, has opened at Esentrpe, not far from Kyrenia. But generally, the whole way of life seems gentle, non-loud, old-fashioned, some might say. Northern Cyprus isn’t a magnet for the young clubbers who relish the lively resorts of the south.
Take Kyrenia, Cyprus’s most attractive coastal town thanks to its fantastic castle. On a Saturday night, we walked around the equally picturesque harbour, and though the many restaurants were full, there was no thumping music pulsing in our ears, no packs of drunken lads and ladettes lurching around. I did a bit of souvenir shopping without the pressure and salesmen’s rants usual in other parts of the Med. You’re left alone to browse.
A couple of miles from Kyrenia is the village of Bellapais, made famous by English writer Lawrence Durrell in his book, Bitter Lemons of Cyprus, and reputedly the prettiest village on the island. Centrepiece of the hamlet’s beautiful landscape is the12th-century Abbey de la Paix, whose ruins perch dramatically on a natural hillside terrace.
Durrell, who lived here for three years in the Fifties, confessed he 'felt guilty of an act of temerity in trying to settle in so fantastic a place'. Half a century on, it’s still a fantastic place. And long may it remain so.