“There is something evocatively appealing about experiencing two intrinsically different cultures with such ease”
Cyprus is so much more than a lazy beach destination.
While visiting the capital may not be on the top of the “To Do” list for many of the islands visitors, for those who do peel themselves off the sun lounge will be rewarded with a fascinating city in the midst of a renaissance.
Cyprus has a rich, multilayered history and culture. Nowhere is this more apparent than the capital Nicosia.
There is something evocatively appealing about experiencing two intrinsically different cultures with such ease. In Nicosia, Greek and Turkish societies share a walled city divided by the infamous Green Line. There have been many divided places throughout history but Nicosia remains the only divided capital in the world.
Established after the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974, the Green Line, a no man’s land, dividing north and south, cuts a line through the historic centre. An old city enclosed by walls erected by the Venetians in the 16th century.
On either side of the walled city, pretty medieval streets end abruptly with blockades of barbed wire, sandbags and gun emplacements. The buffer zone, a strip of no more than 30 meters, is inhabited only by the UN peacekeeping force and access into this intermediate territory is strictly prohibited.
Since 2003, as a peace measure to aid unification talks, some checkpoints have opened to allow for free movement of Greek and Turkish Cypriots as well as visitors to the island. To date, 5 checkpoints have been opened across the island. Two of these are in the city of Nicosia enabling a quick visit, via passport control to “the other side”.
Crossing the border of Cyprus, from south to north is a fascinating exercise, especially in Nicosia. While the landscape and architecture do not vary much, there is an instant awareness of being in a vastly different culture.
The Republic of Cyprus has a strong Greek influence. We have often referred to Cyprus as a diluted Greece. Cyprus has been invaded, conquered and changed rulers so many times throughout history, it is not surprising that dilutions of other cultures shine through. What better culture than Greek to have as your dominate flavour.
With a shift towards a peaceful unification on the horizon, the southern or “Greek” side of the old city is being revitalised. Regeneration projects including a world-class art gallery, a succession of new restaurants, cultural and arts venues, hip boutique shops and a cool cafe scene are transforming Nicosia into a very intriguing city.
The appeal of this side of the city lies mostly in exploring the narrow lanes lined with quaint tavernas and traditional Cypriot lace stalls or immersing yourself in the emerging arts scene. Take a walk along the Green Line and stop at various points for a drink, like at Berlin Wall No2 on Fanerwmenis Str. They not only do a great souvlaki, but the very casual and popular eating place abuts the demilitarised zone so you will see a steady stream of soldiers passing through. A great place to appreciate the contrast of the relaxed ambience of Mediterranean streets set against barb wire blockades.
New bars and cafes are starting to take up residence in many of the abandoned shops along the outer walls of the Green Line. This is obviously a city optimistic about an end to a divided Cyprus.
There are a number of very beautiful Orthodox churches worth visiting such as the Faneromenis Church in Faneromenis Square. Outside of church times, the square used to be a somewhat seedy hangout. It has now been transformed into the heart of the old city. A gentrified melting pot of people. A place where students, hipsters, well-heeled ladies and the elderly come to enjoy the open city space. This is the place to park up at a cafe and watch the world go by.
Crossing The Border
There are two crossing points in Nicosia. Ledra Palace just outside the walled city to the west. This checkpoint allows for pedestrian and vehicle traffic and, the pedestrian only crossing on Ledra Street in the centre of the city. There are immigration points to be cleared on both sides of the Green Line so you will require your passport or ID card for EU citizens. Your passport will not be stamped, normally you would be issued with a stamped piece of paper with your passport details and date of entry. However, we found at the Ledra Str. crossing, this practice seems to have been relaxed. If you are crossing from north to south, it would be wise to check any visa requirements for entering the EU. These are after all, two different countries on the same island.
All in all, depending on the length of the lines at the immigration points, it is an easy process that seems to be becoming more relaxed as unification talks progress.
Once across the Green Line, for all intents and purposes, you are in Turkey. For a few streets close to the checkpoint you will find cafes, shops etc. trading in Euro but this quickly diminishes and Turkish Lira will be required for any transactions past this tourist strip.
An appropriate sign at a rest point at the southern checkpoint area.
As soon as you are clear of The Green Line you will notice the differences in the divided city. Churches have been replaced with mosques, the writing on signs is different and those who have visited Turkey will quickly recognise the Turkish influences on the streets, in the medina style stalls and kebab houses. Just as the Greek influence in the south is so apparent.
North of the line, there was not the same feeling of rejuvenation the southern side is experiencing nor does it have the same modern storefronts you pass on the southern side of the Ledra Str. checkpoint.
Perhaps this will come with improved freedom of movement, and with access to retail and trade from the south. A luxury previously not allowed under the trade embargos imposed on Northern Cyprus.
Although there are still fairly strict import duties imposed for those wishing to indulge in any retail therapy south of the line.
Whereas the Greek Cypriot side promises an appealing night time atmosphere, the north lends itself to daytime exploration. And while the southern side oozes atmosphere and charm, the north offers more attractions within their half of the walled city.
There are a number of beautiful mosques and churches in North Nicosia. The Selimiye Mosque is the cities most prominent landmark, from both sides. Part mosque, part French Gothic church, this building has a fascinating history. The mosque is still a place of worship but can be visited outside of the daily five prayer times.
The Bedesten, meaning “covered market” dates back to the 6th century. Originally a small Byzantine church, then a grandly embellished Catholic church and even a covered market during the Ottoman period. This fascinating building has recently undergone extensive renovation and has been recognised with the Europa Nostra Award for cultural heritage.
The historical houses of Samanbahçe are one of the first council housing projects undertaken by the Ottomans and the Turks in the 19th century to meet the demands of social housing within the walled city. The estate was built on agricultural land used for growing fruits and vegetables known as “The Gardens of Saban Pasha”. In the centre, there was a water fountain built from yellow stone to provide the residents with water. The Samanbahçe area is still home to some 72 residents.
There are three gates in the Venetian walls of the old city. The Famagusta gate to the east, The Paphos Gate to the west and The Kryenia Gate to the north. Also known as the “Del Providetore Gate” it was considered the most important entry-exit point to the city.
Restored by the Turks in 1821 with the addition of a domed room on top for the guards, the panel above the gate bears verses from the Koran praising Allah as the “Opener of Gates”. The gates would open and close with the morning and night call to prayer. The gate now serves as a tourist office.
In the 14th century what is now The Buyuk Hamam stood the church of St George the Latins. Like so many buildings in Europe, the Ottomans kind of repurposed the church into something more useful. In this case a Turkish Bath House. The entry, with the original church door, lies several feet below the street giving a lovely close up view of the ornate carvings. The bath house is still operational so treat yourself to a traditional Turkish experience for a fraction of the cost of a spa treatment. Just check opening hours. The bath is closed on Monday as are most of the museums. There are also designated bathing times for men, women and open tourist bathing.
Head to the Büyük Han (Great Inn) to experience a wonderful example of a 16th century Caravanserai, a place where travellers and traders during the Ottoman period could find accommodation and stable their horses. The central courtyard was used to socialise and trade goods with fellow travellers. Restored in the 90’s it is again the centre of the Old City, bustling with traditional craft studios, medina style stalls and cafes.
There are many more sights to see in this northern part of the small city. The Venetian column, the Kumarcilar Han (Gamblers’ Inn), the Mevlevi Shrine Museum, The undercover Bazaar, and the Dervish Pasha Museum to name a few. As mentioned, while the city south of the Green Line oozes, charm and atmosphere, the north is loaded with places to visit.
Nicosia offers a wonderful and rare opportunity to visit two countries within one walled city. Even if unification talks do return the country to a united Cyprus and the Green Line eventually comes down, Nicosia’s walled city will long be a contrast of cultures.