The legendary birthplace of Aphrodite, Cyprus is every inch the Mediterranean – sandy beaches, ancient monasteries, classical ruins, thyme-scented mountains, terracotta pottery and, of course, the obligatory party resorts full of sun-seeking twenty-somethings.
Cyprus has always been at a crossroads between Europe and Asia. In ancient times, a succession of empires squabbled over its seaports and mountain fortresses, which guaranteed supremacy over the eastern Mediterranean. These empire-builders left behind an incredible legacy of historical relics: ancient Greek and Roman ruins, Crusader castles, mighty Venetian city walls and towering mosques and minarets left behind by Ottoman invaders.
Until the 1970s, Cyprus was a sleepy backwater, but a devastating civil war saw the island split into Greek Cypriot and Turkish states. In the south, the Greek Republic of Cyprus grew into a modern European state, while the Turkish north half of the island remains isolated, recognised only by Turkey and well off the mainstream tourist radar.
After Partition, tourist development went into overdrive in the Greek half of the island, with the emergence of Ayia Napa, Protaras, Limassol, Paphos and a string of other package holiday resorts along the southern coast. This is one face of Cyprus – whitewashed villas, sunbathers, banana-boat rides, boisterous nightclubs and hordes of young people enjoying the blistering summer sunshine.
Inland, the old Cyprus endures, with beautiful villages full of UNESCO-listed churches, peaceful mountain trails and vineyards that have been producing wines since ancient times. A similar old-world atmosphere pervades the divided capital, Lefkosia (Nicosia), where quiet lanes lined with Turkish mosques and Byzantine churches come to a sudden halt at the Green Line, the de facto border between the two enclaves.
The north is something else again, more Turkish than Greek, even down to the menus on restaurant tables, but studded with ancient ruins and dramatic Crusader castles. While rampant development is taking place along the coast around Famagusta (Gazimagusa) and Kyrenia (Girne), the remote Karpas Peninsula offers a journey back in time, where ancient ruins spill out onto golden beaches that see more sea turtles than human visitors.