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Travel: Friends up North; PAT WELLAND ENJOYS GOOD LIVING IN PEACEFUL TURKISH CYPRUS.

Byline: PAT WELLAND

FOR 10 minutes the genial porter toiled through the broiling heat, carrying two large suitcases to our villa. A generous tip was in order, so I popped him a cool 150,000 lira. It was worth 6p.

A flicker of despair crossed his face as he realised he had just met the tightest tourist on Turkish territory. But it was swiftly replaced by a weary smile.

Lesson one in northern Cyprus, where there are currently 2.3million Turkish lira (check, as it leaps by the day) to the pound and rising, is that apparently fantastic currency figures are worthless.

Lesson two is that the standard holiday cliche of "friendly locals" is in this case quite literally true. There is a warmth to these people quite unlike anywhere else in the Mediterranean.

Much of the reason for this is the unique status of Northern Cyprus which, to a large degree, has been forgotten by the world since Cyprus was divided after the Turkish invasion of 1974.

While the southern Greek half has prospered, the under-funded northern area has remained locked in a vanished age off the tourist trail. Even today it attracts only about 50,000 English-speaking visitors a year.

The result is that to journey here is to step back 30 years or more when the Med was not the over-developed playground so much of it has sadly become today.

Garish trappings of modern tourism are largely missing, historic ruins lie untouched, prices are ridiculously low and the people display a genuine willingness to please that has disappeared from more cynical destinations.

WHEREVER you stay, the odds are that you will visit at least once the main town of Kyrenia on the north coast.

With its horseshoe harbour guarded by an impressive castle visited by Richard the Lionheart on his way to the Crusades in 1191, Kyrenia is everyone's vision of the perfect Mediterranean fishing port.

Restaurant and bars crowd the waterside, sinuous back streets lead to intimate hotels. Yet there is little of that insistent hassling for custom that normally blights such beauty spots.

Taking a rest on a convenient stone by the town's main bus area, I found I was sitting in the remains of a once extensive Ottoman cemetery. Those stones bespeak an island steeped in a history.

The vestiges of neolithic settlements have been found on the north coast. Bronze Age man - who left behind the remains of a 2,300-year-old cargo boat which can still be seen in Kyrenia Castle - was followed by the Myceneans of classical antiquity, then the Romans, Byzantines, Lusignans, Venetians and Ottomans. All left their indelible marks on the land.

Some of these echoes of the past are among the most spectacular in the Mediterranean. Just outside Kyrenia lie the soaring walls and towers of impregnable 10th-century St Hillarion castle, rumoured to be Walt Disney's inspiration for the castle in Snow White.

Take stout shoes, a deep breath and allow yourself two hours to roam - at a dizzying height - kitchens, stables, garrison blocks and a glorious Byzantine chapel.

It is worth making one last push to the highest point some 730 almost vertical metres to where the Tower of St John seems to defy gravity. From here, it is said, Prince John of Antioch threw his Bulgarian bodyguards to their deaths. He could not have picked a better spot.

The rugged limestone crags that lie behind Kyrenia are known as the Five Fingers. Much of it was coated in forest until a disastrous blaze in 1995 wiped out about 180 square kilometres.

Today, the hills still present a barren yet eerily majestic sight as you cross into the interior and come down into the huge plain of Mesaraya that stretches to the horizon in field upon rolling field of wheat and barley.

This is the road to the walled town of Famagusta, in the 13th century the richest city in the world and claimed to be the setting for Shakespeare's Othello.

Famagusta's days of glory are long gone, but its giant walls - 50ft high, 20ft thick and built by the Venetians - remain as testimony to a proud grandeur.

Inside, cannon balls from ancient conflicts strew the ground. Outside, the 700-year-old Gothic cathedral of St Nicholas, now used as a mosque, still inspires with its delicate stone tracery.

The pearl of northern Cyprus lies just five miles down the road - the spectacular, mainly Roman, ruins of Salamis.

EVEN philistines cannot fail to be awed by its amphitheatre dating from the reign of Augustus, colonnades and startling mosaics.

Unlike Ephesus on the Turkish mainland or Minos in Crete, there is little restoration, which adds to the ruins' appeal. Check out the nearby magnificent beach.

Food and drink are absurdly cheap. Ever popular are lamb or chicken, skewered and grilled over an open flame, and sheftali (minced, spicy rissoles). Vegetarians and carnivores alike can dip into meze starters - normally up to a dozen trays of hellim (fried cheese) humus, olives, sigara boregi (filled filo pastry) and fish delicacies, often enough for a entire meal.

But expensive is a relative term here. At the Farm House restaurant in Alsancak outside Kyrenia I paid little more than pounds 20 for a full meal of meze, main course and fruit, plus wine, arak and brandy.

With its 200 miles of coastline, bargain prices (a day out on a fully rigged gulet boat need cost you only about pounds 25) and perfect year-long temperatures, northern Cyprus is that rarest of holiday destinations, an unspoiled oasis which harks back to a gentler age.

With political moves afoot to ease tensions with Greece, the Turkish-controlled territory is on course to become ever more popular.

THE BOTTOM LINE

Pat Welland travelled with Jewels of the World to Alsancak holiday village, where a week's accommodation per head costs from pounds 280 to pounds 360 and a fortnight from pounds 335 to pounds 457. Contact Jewels of the World, 020 8554 4545/www. jewelofmed.com

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VINTAGE PORT: Kyrenia harbour with its stunning backdrop of limestone hills
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Geographic Code:4EXCY
Date:Jun 21, 2003
Words:1008
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