Across the great divide

It's a land of hospitality embroiled in an inhospitable situation, writes Kendall Hill.

The Museum of Village Life in Steni, a small town in southwest Cyprus, offers a quaint insight into the island's pastoral history. Stone Age implements lie alongside modern agricultural kit like clay beehives, shepherd's crooks fitted with metal spikes for killing snakes and spanner-like tools almost two-metres long.

"For the castrating," explains local mayor Elias Lambides.

It's all very charming until after the tour, when we're lazing on a sunny terrace breaking bread and figs, and conversation turns from ancient to modern history.

Specifically, what does Lambides think of the UN Special Envoy charged with solving the seemingly intractable issue of reuniting this Mediterranean island?

"Alexander Downer is an idiot!" he explodes. "He wears the stockings!"

Well, yes, he did on at least one occasion we know of. But lingerie aside, how does he think Mr Downer's doing on the peace-maker front?

"Many times he takes sides. He says stupid things ... I wish he would go."

It's a similar refrain across the Republic of Cyprus, though usually with less emphasis on Downer.

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If regional politics can be likened to a game of chess, for almost 40 years this island has existed in a state of perpetual check. After a failed coup d'etat by Greek forces in 1974, Turkey invaded the island's north and has squatted there ever since. A green line, patrolled by the UN, cleaves the island in two.

That line runs right through the middle of the capital, Nicosia. Since the first checkpoints between Turkish-occupied north and the government-controlled areas were opened up a decade ago, as part of the UN-sponsored rapprochement, it's become a bit of a tourist attraction.

Travellers queue on the Greek side of Ledra Street, the main shopping strip, to venture into the occupied territory. (The border crossing here was reopened in 2008, after the land mines had been cleared.) Above them a plaque proudly proclaims Lefkosia, the traditional name of Nicosia, as the world's last divided capital. The schism has even created business opportunities for the likes of Berlin Wall Kebabs and the No Border Underwear Boutique.

By the time Downer was appointed in 2008, peace talks between Greece and Turkey had been deadlocked for four years. After running hot and cold, negotiations ceased altogether midway through 2012 when Cyprus assumed the rotating EU presidency and Turkey announced a boycott. A change of government earlier this year and the Cypriot economic crisis have further delayed resumption of reunification talks. The parties are expected to reconvene in the northern autumn.

The Greek-Cypriots I meet are universally empathetic with the Turkish Cypriots they once regarded as neighbours. They're more scathing of the estimated 150,000 Turkish settlers who have arrived in the north since 1974. They claim many are from the conservative Anatolia region and that the character of their island is changing as a result. Or, as the Cyprus Tourism handbook explains it: "The occupation force has been systematically trying to alter the demography and cultural identity of the area under their occupation." Turkey denies such claims.

Cypriots work hard to reap the rewards of their sun-drenched island but are never too busy for a drink and a chat or to force some food on you. They are innately hospitable people, caught in a very inhospitable situation.

Discussion of the "Cyprus problem", as it's euphemistically called, begins on the bus from Larnaca airport. It's unavoidable really, because coming into Nicosia there's a whopping great Turkish flag painted on the side of a mountain. Imagine the Hollywood sign, only more prominent. If you are viewing it from the non-occupied territory, it's difficult to see the banner as anything other than provocation.

Our guide, Zenonas Zenonos, assures us there is "no tension between the Turkish Cypriots and the Greek Cypriots". The tension is between Cypriots, generally, and the recent Turkish colonisers, he says. "They are occupying the houses of Greek Cypriots.

Neither the Greek Cypriots nor the Turkish Cypriots are happy about that."

In Nicosia's old town, by the green line, we pass empty shopfronts and tired boutiques that look as if they haven't seen any new fashions - or new customers - since the 20th century.

"There's no life in the old town any more," says Zenonos. "They used to have all their little workshops on the road. But life has changed. They can't sell what they used to sell."

Australian-Cypriot siblings Helen and Steve Demetriou remember this area, Trikoupi Street, from their childhood. "It was exactly like a bazaar," says Helen, "with people selling everything from clothes to food, antiques, shoes."

The street terminates at a lopsided dead-end sign and some dumpster bins shoved against a wall; another sign warns: "Restricted area. Keep Away. No photography allowed."

Most visitors to Cyprus will not be overly troubled by the politics. The beach resorts of Limassol, Paphos and Ayia Napa specialise in carefree escapism, for tourists and locals alike. Conversation is just as likely to turn to the wonders of the Cypriot potato or haloumi. As well, it must be difficult to maintain the rage when the sun and sea beckon as sensually as they do here.

Even so, it's not entirely possible to escape the reality. On Cyprus Airlines flight 412 to Milan, the captain details the continuing injustice of the situation as he sees it. "It's not Cyprus Airways policy but some pilots do make this announcement," a flight attendant explains. "It's a personal thing."

There is no set script, apparently. Just a statement from the heart.

The writer travelled courtesy of travel.com.au.

Emirates has a fare to Larnaca for about $1930 low-season return from Sydney and Melbourne including taxes. Fly to Dubai (about 14hr) and then to Larnaca (4hr 5min); see emirates.com.

See travel.com.au for details or phone the Travel Experts on 1300 130 485. For more information, see Visitcyprus.com and travel.com.au/we-love-cyprus.

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