We arrived in South Nicosia in the middle of the most miserable rainstorm we'd seen since landing in Cyprus. The clouds that had smothered Mt Olympos in snow had decided to lurk around for a few more days, and whereas the storm was beautiful and entertaining above the snow line, it was downright depressing in the central plains. I was determined not to let this get to me, though; my research had painted such a bleak picture of the political state of Nicosia that it would have been easy to let the rain dampen my spirits, and although Nicosia would turn out to be one of my personal highlights of Cyprus, our first hurdle turned out to be rather high. I'm referring to our home from home in Nicosia, Tony's Bed and Breakfast.
Nicosia's lack of tourist industry is on one hand a blessing, and on the other hand a pain. The lack of tourists creates an atmosphere in which it is easier to appreciate the seriousness of the political situation in Cyprus, but by the same token it makes finding good quality but affordable accommodation surprisingly hard; we ended up picking Tony's place because the other options in the book all sounded like the kind of hotels that only expense-account businessmen would enjoy. Indeed, the old man in the glass-fronted booth at the entrance to Tony's was all smiles when we staggered into the shelter of his hotel, and even though he asked us to pay up front for both nights before we'd had a chance to go upstairs, I didn't smell a rat. After all, C£26 per night sounded OK for a bed right in the centre of the capital city.
The first thing that went wrong was the electricity key fob. Almost all Cypriot hotel rooms have a small slot just inside the door into which you push your room's metal key fob; this turns on the electricity, and ensures that when you leave you room, you can't accidentally leave the lights on. It's a good idea with ecologically sound roots, but like most technical gizmos, it's a nightmare when things don't work properly. I shoved the key fob into Room 20's slot, and nothing happened. I tried again: zilch. It was pitch black and bloody freezing, and for the next five minutes the only thing we could see was our breath frosting in the sliver of light coming in from the hall, while I wiggled the fob and prayed for light. I began to wonder whether they'd forgotten to turn on the supply, and popped down to the old man to ask him what the problem was.
'Ah, I wondered if you'd know what to do,' he said. 'Come, I'll show you.' And hobbling up the stairs he smiled at me with a grin that would haunt me for the next two days. It was the grin of a man being polite while quite obviously thinking I was a complete prat.
'I've already tried putting in the fob,' I ventured.
'Heh, yes,' he said, and flashed me a knowing look that meant, 'I have just totally ignored what you have said, or perhaps I have simply not understood you, but whatever the case, I am right and you are wrong and guess who wears the trousers in this establishment? Exactly. Now wait while I show you what to do, you ignoramus.'
It therefore gave me no end of pleasure to see him brandish the key fob and plunge it into the slot, only to have absolutely nothing happen. 'I tried that,' I said, 'and I had the same problem. It doesn't work.'
This earned me another look that felt older than history itself, and pretending that I hadn't spoken, he started wiggling the fob. I thought about telling him that I'd also tried doing that, but I figured that we'd already paid for two nights in advance, and the last thing I needed was an enemy living downstairs. And then, after a few minutes of wobbling and twisting, the lights suddenly flashed on, and the old man looked at me as if to say, 'See? It works! You fool! All you had to do was push it in the slot! Bloody idiot...' And with that he shuffled down the stairs, back to his glass booth, leaving us to look around at our home for the next two days.
The first thing we spotted was a stand-alone gas heater, the kind that has a gas cylinder in he back and four ceramic heating panels on the front. Seeing that Peta was starting to turn blue round the edges, I pushed down the gas knob, twisted it to spark the ignition flame on the front, and sat back to enjoy the sight of precisely nothing happening. It turned out that there wasn't a gas cylinder in the back, just a hose that disappeared into the wall, so I turned the tap on the hose and tried again; nope, there was definitely no gas coming into the heater, and this was the only visible means of heating the room. I looked at Peta and she looked at me; there was nothing else for it except to ask the old man how we heated the room. Already scarred by his withering looks, I decided it was Peta's turn to fetch him up, and retreated into the bathroom.
This time the old man thought he'd spice up his utter disdain with a bit of good old-fashioned sexism, and as he demonstrated exactly how to light the fire, he told Peta, 'You push this down like this and you twist this. Your man will know how to do it. You should ask him.'
'He already tried,' said Peta, obviously made of sterner stuff than me. 'It doesn't work. You do it. It's cold.'
Of course the old man couldn't get it working either, so instead he fished out the remote control for the ageing air conditioning unit on the wall, and pressed a few buttons. 'This will heat the room,' he said in a tone that didn't encourage a response, and stomped back down the stairs. In a sense he was right; it did heat the room, so long as you could levitate and sleep right in front of the air vent as it dribbled tepid air like an asthmatic smoker trying to blow out the candles on his last ever birthday cake. The rest of the room remained absolutely bloody freezing until our eventual escape from Tony's two days later; thankfully they supplied blankets.
Luckily we would warm to Nicosia in a way that Tony's place never did, and in retrospect the room's worrying smell of gas and the pathetic hot water supply helped put us in the right mood for contemplating the city's turbulent past. Nicosia may not be a war zone any more, but Tony's Bed and Breakfast sure felt like one, and as a place to sleep after a day exploring the shell-shocked metropolis outside, it was, in its own way, utterly Nicosian1.
1 Thanks to George the Cypriot and Samatha, who both posted to my Guestbook with explanations for the quality of Tony's B&B. 'Excuse me for being rude,' George writes, 'but I could not help myself in letting you know that Tony's bed and breakfast is a famous "prostitute hotel", that is a place where men bring prostitutes for some discreet moments. ;-) No wonder the old man was surprised to see you!' Thanks George; that sound you can hear is the penny dropping. On a more positive note, Samantha writes, 'I read your review about Tony B&B and I had to send you this message, because it's unfair to talk about Tony when you're not aware of the whole story. So let me tell you about Tony and please make sure to have this message seen to everyone on the web. Tony B&B was created by Mr Tony, a really special man, who worked very hard through the year to make the Tony B&B one of the best hotels in Nicosia and it was the best, best service, clean shine everything, friendly faces, impossible in world to say, what a lovely place this was. After 2000 Mr Tony went really ill and couldn't work any more, it was then when he had to rent his hotel to others, and it was then when all became as you describe it. As I honestly know, this bad situation will not be for long. By 2012, Tony B&B will beacame for once more and for ever the perfect hotel in town. So it's unfair to make it all black when we dont know the story. Tony B&B is going to be the best, by the real owners!!! It will be a place you will adore.' Let's hope so, because Nicosia deserves a decent, local-run hotel.