They say ‘it’s a small world’, but the truth is our planet is an enormous place — with enough natural wonders and gleaming cities to fill a billion libraries with books, a billion cinemas with intrepid documentaries, a billion planes with curious souls.
And yet, for all this, most travel-writing assignments follow a roughly identical pattern. Wherever you are, from the fens of Norfolk to the steppes of Mongolia, the basic aim is to find the most alluring parts of the destination and arrange them into a narrative that explains why and when to go.
The trip I took to Cyprus earlier this year rather bucked this trend by ignoring the more feted attractions on the third-largest island in the Mediterranean (take your pick from Lady’s Mile Beach, a long stretch of undeveloped seafront outside Limassol on the south coast; the similarly placed ancient Greco-Roman ruins of Kourion, with its classic amphitheatre; and the pulsing nightclubs of Ayia Napa, in the party-centric east) and heading instead for the heart of darkness. Or to be precise, the darkness at the heart of the country. The notorious Green Line, the UN-monitored exclusion zone that forms the unofficial (yet very real) border between the southern, Greek-Cypriot-dominated half of the isle and the upper portion that was annexed by Turkey as the Republic of Northern Cyprus in 1974 (this, of course, is still seen as occupied territory by the rest of the globe).
The results (published in the September issue) make, I hope, for attention-grabbing reading. But they also amount, I suspect, to a rather niche sort of journey. Barbed-wire lines in the soil are not generally considered to be glittering shards of holiday heaven. And even if the medieval city of Famagusta (or ‘Gazimagusa’, as Turkish-Cypriots know it) calls to you with its abandoned churches and splendid cathedral-turned-mosque (the former St Nicholas’s), then the closely guarded ‘ghost town’ of Varosha — whose fractured, decaying beach hotels have been held hostage by Turkish guns for 41 years, as bargaining chips in peace negotiations that have never properly materialised — may be a touch ‘war reporter’ for some. Travel, after all, is partly escapism.
But I found, to my surprise, that even this tourniquet-strangled island — and this less than straightforward way of examining it — conformed to the standard travel-writing principle that there are moments of beauty and points of interest almost everywhere you can look, even along a dingy laceration that’s scarred the Cypriot torso for over four decades.
I touched on several of them in the main feature — the sun-soaked farmland and rustic hamlets that spread out below Angastina in the south east of the North, the Green Line left to its own devices here as an unmanned fence of weeds, shrubs and flowers; the dilapidated yet striking Arabahmet district on the north side of the border in Nicosia; the intriguing Pentadaktylou Street, a short hop away on the Greek-Cypriot side of the capital, where EU money is starting to blossom as galleries and shops.
But the most picturesque fragment of division is the north west. The printed version does not cover this — not because it’s not beautiful, but because it is so beautiful that it can be difficult to remember it fringes what’s still effectively the frontline of a bitter dispute. Few tourists — even those who decide to take a holiday in the North — venture this way, west through the tattered suburbs of Nicosia, and along the pitted tarmac of the ‘motorway’ that connects the capital to the city of Morphou. They should.
I took this road, determined to glimpse the left-hand end of the Green Line, where it spits its anger into the Mediterraean, near to the remote Greek-Cypriot outpost of Kato Pyrgos.
I’m not sure what I was expecting, but I’d not envisaged the glory of the landscape. On the way into Morphou, the camber is framed by two distinct mountain groups — the Troodos to the south; the Kyrenia Mountains to the north. Beyond the city, where the highway narrows into a simple coastal road, matters improve further — flashes of sunlight on Morphou Bay; a cluster of seafront fish eateries in Karavostási. And after the latter, Cyprus starts pretending to be a pine-forested corner of Canada or the northerly USA; tarmac leaping and looping up, down and across unfriendly angles, negotiating a passage through gaps in the rock. More villages appear — Potamos tou Kampou, Loutros, Limnitis — the latter an agricultural oasis, citrus groves pregnant with oranges, vines wrapped tightly around houses.
And then the full stop — a checkpoint just before Kato Pyrgos, the idyll in question whitewashed and pretty in the distance, across the border. A conclusion to a journey that, in a parallel universe, would be a road-trip paradise, abuzz with dashing couples in convertibles, hair streaming in the wind (and other such clichés).
You’ll not see any mention of the original Greek-Cypriot place names on the top side of the Green Line, where four decades of occupation have wiped away what came before. Yet, in the north west, I spotted only a few indicators of conflict — signs for a United Nations station in Karavostasi; a few (seemingly empty) watchtowers and radio masts on the approach to Kato Pyrgos; evidence that the land here — flattened and grey in areas — has been used as a firing range. And when I peered down the slope at the sea below, 100 metres from the border, all I really saw was a picturesque remoteness.
Things, maybe, will change. The concept of a divided Cyprus was put to referendum in 2004 — and the status quo remained. The result, perhaps, will be different next time. Life on either side of artificial walls is rarely pleasant, nor the stand-off sustainable. But while it would be an exaggeration to describe Cyprus as a European Cuba — a ‘go now before it becomes something else’ scenario — it remains one of the most fascinating destinations on our home continent. Oh, and vastly beautiful too. Travel. It often deals in the unexpected.
Read Chris’s Cyprus feature in the September issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK), on sale 6 August 2015.