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Title: Cyprus: a true experience in north and south - (2012-04-01)
Description: If you can't decide between the island's north and south, why not do both? Several companies now arrange two-centre trips and, as Sasha Bates reports, they offer a true Cypriot experience.
Cyprus: a true experience in north and south
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The Kyrenia Mountains in north Cyprus

Even though I have nothing naughtier than the odd parking ticket to my name, still my heart beats that little bit faster whenever I have to interact with authority. So it was with some trepidation that I handed my passport to the official at the border between north and south Cyprus. I was, naturally, waved through, but before I could relax, the transaction took a rather exciting turn; our Greek Cypriot driver pulled up a few feet beyond the checkpoint, made a phone call, then removed our cases from the car and instructed us to similarly eject. As a Turkish Cypriot hatchback roared into view and screeched alongside, we watched as another British couple disembarked and were waved towards our recently vacated taxi, as we were to theirs. As we passed, I commented that it felt like a Cold War hostage exchange. Reluctant to indulge my little fantasy, their reply was simply: "Oh, are you just starting your holiday in north Cyprus – lucky you, ours is just finishing."

We were indeed lucky because not only were we starting our week's holiday in north Cyprus (the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus), we had also just finished another week's holiday – in south Cyprus. A thawing of hostilities between the two halves of the country means it is now perfectly possible to have a two-centre holiday in a way that would have been difficult a few years ago, and despite the island's small size, the two do feel distinctly different.

Whereas the south had seemed familiar, with only occasional signs bearing the Greek alphabet giving a clue that we were not in any other Mediterranean resort of indistinct origin, once across that border we felt very much as if we'd entered Turkey. The tourist-savvy streets of shopping malls and international restaurant chains of the south gave way to a more rustic and earthy north; the currency changed from the euro to Turkish lira; my phone beeped with a new provider text; and the place names all had a very different sound.

While I enjoyed both halves, which you prefer may ultimately come down to interests and activity levels. To make a very broad generalisation, my impression is that the south is all about churches and antiquities, while the north could be characterised as castles and mosques. And while the south might better suit those who fancy relaxation, the north is more likely to appeal to the hikers and bikers who prefer more of an elevated heart rate.

I was staying in Limassol, which has a wonderful old town, but whose hinterland has become rather sprawling. Its big advantage is that it isn't very far from anywhere, so it makes a good base for exploring.

Thus I turned my back on the delights of sea and sand and drove into the foothills of the spectacular Troodos Mountains. There among the traditional villages I found Byzantine churches packed full of golden icons and paintings, and, rather touchingly, still very much part of village life. My favourite was in Omodos, among whose tiny cobbled streets I found the Holy Cross monastery. Its ornate church displays fragments of the "holy rope", brought to the island by none other than the Apostle Paul himself, who supposedly came here with St Barnabas to spread Christianity. The island's proximity to the Middle East makes this plausible enough, though it is Cyprus' position at the centre of the Mediterranean that has given it its cosmopolitan mix of cultures but also made it susceptible to invasion.

However, with every con comes a pro. The early invaders of the Roman era built vast cities, which have been fantastically well preserved. At Paphos, a charming harbour town, I spent several hours in a huge archaeological park with the most impressive ruins I've ever seen, especially the grand home of a wealthy merchant whose immense floor displayed mosaics depicting stories of Greek gods and myths. But even that paled into insignificance when I reached Kourion. This too provides a vivid idea of life in Roman times, in particular the incredible amphitheatre, which is vast, well-preserved and still used as a venue for music and theatre.

Did you know?
Cyprus was once the world's richest country. But it was a while ago – in the Copper and Bronze Ages

But most incredibly, it has surely the most dramatic backdrop of any theatre in the world, perched, as it is, high above the beautiful southern coastline. This coastline is the main draw of the island, and both north and south offer miles of fantastic beaches. But, wanting variety, for my stay in northern Cyprus I chose not to stay at a beach resort, but instead to base myself in Kyrenia on the north coast. It hugs a lovely old harbour complete with fishing boats, and is overseen by its castle, upon whose walls I spent a very pleasurable morning enjoying views of the Kyrenia mountain range in one direction, the northern coastline in the other, and the differing architecture of the castle itself – a product of Byzantine, Lusignan, Ottoman, Venetian and even a bit of Victorian architectural styles – bearing witness once again to those different waves of invasion.

This was to be the first of the northern castles I visited – the others being the eighth-century St Hilarion, built into the cliff and said to have inspired Walt Disney's Snow White; romantic Kantara, from where, on a good day, you can see to both Turkey and Syria; and remote Buffavento, which requires a bit of a hike.

The north is certainly the place for hiking. The Kyrenia mountain range practically touches the sea, making it, for me, difficult to resist. My quest for health and nature was aided by a new guide to the network of hiking trails which cross the range. They are marked by easy-to-follow green dots and are of varying difficulties. If you're even more adventurous and fit, you can also try mountain biking and rock climbing. I just enjoyed the walk, the views, and the prospect of a large lunch to come.

Both halves of the island are distinctive and have their own character. Both also have a huge amount in common, not least their charm, beaches, mountains and history. And the joy of a two-centre stay was that I didn't have to choose between them

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