There are many unique aspects to Nicosia1, but to the casual visitor one of the most obvious differences between the capital of Cyprus and the settlements on the coast is just how little impact tourism has had here. Not many package tourists make their way into the centre of Cyprus to explore the island's landlocked capital, and a quick glance at the history of Cyprus tells you why: Nicosia is the last remaining divided city in the world, now that the likes of Berlin and Beirut have broken down their barriers, and whatever your reason for visiting, you simply can't avoid the fact that Nicosia is a city that has been split into two completely separate halves, with the two halves barely communicating. It makes the place utterly fascinating.
The fascination of Nicosia is not only the physical division of the city into South Nicosia (in Cyprus) and North Nicosia (in the Turkey-occupied northern part of the island), but the fact that locals can't cross the borders. Most foreign tourists are allowed to go from South Nicosia to North Nicosia, as long as they make sure they're back in Cyprus by 5pm, but nobody except for a handful of officials are allowed to cross from north to south; meanwhile, locals aren't allowed to cross in either direction, and neither are tourists with Greek or Armenian surnames, even if they're not Greek, as the Turks simply won't let them in. The result is a genuinely sealed border, creating a city that is totally split into two separate halves; the fact that, at points, you feel you could push your hand through the barricades and shake the hand of the people on the other side only adds to the surreal nature of Cyprus's capital.
Eating Out in South Nicosia
As our lodgings were about as comfortable as the inside of a fridge, we decided the only thing for it was to wrap up warm and start exploring the Friday night experience of downtown Nicosia; so, armed with a map and a hint in the guidebook that the best restaurants could be found in the northeastern section of South Nicosia, we struck out. We were staying right in the middle of the large pedestrianised section of the city, and heading towards the bright lights we stumbled towards the shopping street of Lidras, where we'd spotted various well-known brand names such as Marks and Spencer and the Body Shop, surely signs of some kind of activity. This was six o'clock on a Friday night, and there was the street, all lit up like it was Christmas, and from where we stood we could see... precisely nobody. It was completely deserted, and not for the first time in Nicosia, I was totally wrong-footed.
As we wandered down the road, things got weirder. Occasionally, out of the corner of my eye, I'd see what I thought was the blur of movement, but however fast I turned my head, I wouldn't actually see anyone. Streets ducked off to either side of Lidras, disappearing into darkness after a few metres, and as we headed north through the eerie silence, we approached the Green Line for the first time.
The Green Line is the barrier that divides Nicosia into two, and despite its flimsy-sounding name it's a genuine barrier, not unlike the Berlin Wall. It's made up of the Turkish and Greek lines, with a buffer zone between that's controlled by the UN, and sometimes the buffer zone is so thin that you realise that those buildings just through there, the ones sporting a red and white Turkish flag, are actually in northern Cyprus. As we innocently ambled north, looking for signs of life, suddenly out of the dark loomed a barrier blocking off the end of Nicosia's prime shopping street, and in the murky street lights we could make out an armed soldier standing guard under the blue and white flag of Cyprus, ready to stop us trying to scale the walls into Turkey-occupied Nicosia. Coming so soon after the familiar sights of Woolworths and Toni & Guy, it felt like turning a corner in London and bumping into a tank. It was utterly bizarre.
But this was just the start of it. Map in hand and woolly hats firmly jammed on, we started weaving east through the streets of Nicosia city centre, and still nobody appeared. The odd car screeched through the thin streets, and every now and then we'd wander past a building with an open door and a housewife sitting inside, flicking idly through a magazine, but it felt like a ghost town. Even the sudden realisation that the housewives were sitting under red lights and had their doors open despite the cold didn't explain why nobody was around; most of the red light districts I've pointed and stared at in other cities were positively bustling, but Nicosia was really quite eerie in its silence.
We wandered past buildings that looked as if they'd had bombs dropped on them – which they quite possibly had, of course – and as they gently crumbled back into the mud and bricks from which they'd been made, light flickered from welding torches in rows of workshops. At last there were signs of life, but even the sight of men crowded round lathes in their workshops didn't look terribly promising; it felt as if we'd stumbled on an industrial zone rather than the restaurant strip, even though we were near Famagusta Gate, supposedly the best place for restaurants in South Nicosia. By this stage I was seriously wondering whether Nicosia was the only place on earth where people didn't bother to eat, but then, as luck would have it, I spotted polished stainless steel shelves through a crumbling wooden door in an otherwise shabby-looking street. The style of the shelves rang bells, and those bells sounded like food.
'Do you think it's a restaurant?' I asked Peta.
'God knows,' she said. 'It doesn't look like one, but it's not like we've seen anything else. Let's have a look.'
As we walked into the empty courtyard through the door, a kindly woman waved hello, and we wandered over. 'Is this a restaurant?' asked Peta, and she beamed back with a 'Yes' and explained that it didn't open until eight o'clock. This was music to our ears, and she went on to explain that the menu was different every day and was based round what they'd bought from the market that day. I couldn't believe it; after wandering through the most desolate city streets I'd ever seen, we'd accidentally stumbled on a mouth-watering Cypriot restaurant where they not only spoke fantastic English, but they obviously knew how to cook. It looked like Nicosia was going to be more than deserted streets and dysfunctional hotels after all.
In the end, the meal turned out to be something really special. By nine o'clock the restaurant, the Aegean on Ektoros Street, was packed to the gills with trendy locals, and the meze that the friendly maitre d' created for us was superb. It was interesting to note the Turkish influence on the food, despite the extremely pro-Greek posters adorning the walls; among the dishes in our meze was iman bayaldi, a mixture of aubergine, tomato and onion, which, it is said, was once given to a Turkish prince who swooned with delight on eating it, and bulgar wheat, a kind of cracked wheat that's a staple in Turkey.
The Aegean was also a good place for watching the people of South Nicosia, as it quickly filled up with trendy young locals, sporting designer handbags and a talent for continuous cigarette smoking. On one table the group of ten diners purposely rearranged themselves to have the women down one end of the table and the men on the other, something you'd rarely see in London, and adding to the strange flavour of the night, it turned out that the woman who had first explained the menu to us had lived in Kentish Town for years, one of the waiters was originally from Canterbury, and another of the restaurant's extended family used to live a stone's throw from where I used to live in West London. It was all very strange, but that, it seemed, was Nicosia all over.
Crossing into North Nicosia
The strangest experience was yet to come. It's impossible to wander round Nicosia without bumping into the Green Line quite regularly, and even though crossing into northern Cyprus isn't something the Greek Cypriots really want you to do – it's not quite seen as endorsing the Turkish occupation, but they would rather you didn't cross, as that does imply a kind of acceptance of the status quo – it's almost impossible to resist. Tantalising glances of Turkish flags beyond the buffer zone naturally make you curious as to what it's like on the other side, and the unmissable minarets of the mosques in North Nicosia are far too tempting for the curious tourist to resist. Being weak, we just had to see if the grass was greener over the Green Line.
The Green Line has been in existence since Christmas Day in 1963, when fighting between the Turkish and Greek communities of newly independent Cyprus resulted in the self-imposed partition of the city into two halves. The UK brokered a cease-fire between the two sides, and the Green Line, named after the green line drawn on a map by a British officer to show the division between the Greeks and Turks, came into being. Since then the barrier has grown from the odd overturned bed and oil drum into a genuine barrier, with a UN-controlled buffer zone that ensures the two sides don't meet. There's only one way to cross the Green Line, through the checkpoint at Ledra Palace, and that's where we headed on the morning of Saturday, 22 February.
Previously we'd only witnessed the Green Line as home to a collection of blue and white sentry posts, with a few flags fluttering over crumbling buildings and empty streets, but as we approached Pafos Gate and turned left to head towards Ledra Palace, the reality of the Green Line hit home. Signs banning photography were tacked to the sandbagged remains of an old building, wracked by the decay of decades and still pockmarked with bullet holes and shell blasts. In the blink of an eye we'd wandered from a relatively normal city centre, where signs enticed us to enjoy Polynesian Cuisine or the delights of yet another tacky nightclub, to something that looked exactly like a war zone. All the colours had long since evaporated; this building, right there on the main road in from the west, had the hue of trenches and the texture of decay. The sign proclaiming 'UN Buffer Zone, No Parking' seemed rather redundant; you would think that nobody in their right mind would park a car in an apparent battlefield, right under the nose of a blue and white Cypriot sentry post, but I guess familiarity breeds a sense of ease that a visitor can't have. As if to emphasise the point, right there, in the middle of all the mouldering chaos, sits the still-functioning Holy Cross Catholic Church, forcing the Green Line to take a detour round its back buttresses; it's these constant contrasts – working church, desolate war zone – that make Nicosia so surreal.
Walking on to the checkpoint was, for me, an exercise in increasing paranoia. I found myself wishing there were at least some signs saying 'Keep Out!' but the road up to the Cypriot checkpoint was unnerving precisely because it was a totally normal road, just one with bales of barbed wire pulled aside to let pedestrians and cars through. Not that many vehicles were taking this route, though; the odd black and white UN Land Rover would burn through, heading for the UN headquarters in the buffer zone, but it really felt as if we were walking out of the safe haven of South Nicosia and into a dead zone where anything could happen. Nobody ran out to tell us to turn around and nobody pointed a gun our way, but the atmosphere was suddenly thick with the weight of nearby firepower – in an area like this, the tension might be under the surface, but it's still there, and it quite clearly isn't a place for civilians. Even before you reach the Green Line, you know it's not the kind of place you take lightly.
But we soldiered on, eventually spotting a café full of dark-clothed men drinking coffee, with a large building opposite on which hung posters, slogans and graffiti protesting about what the Greek Cypriots insist is the illegal occupation of northern Cyprus by Turkey. A group of about ten black-clad women sat in silent protest at the loss of their loved ones, not pestering us in any way but just sitting there, letting their presence make the point that, in crossing into North Nicosia, they felt we were effectively acknowledging the legitimacy of what they viewed as a military occupation of their island.
In the event, crossing the Green Line was simplicity itself. We handed over our passports to the man at the Greek-Cypriot immigration post, and he simply scribbled our names in his book, warned us to be back by 5pm, and waved us on into the no man's land of the UN buffer zone. There was no critical stare, no grilling, and not even a raised eyebrow; as border crossings go, it was a breeze.
The UN buffer zone, though, is harrowing. After walking through a concrete wall chicane – there to stop people joy-riding through the border as well as providing a useful surface for blown-up pictures of Greek Cypriots being battered to death by Turkish police – you enter a 100m-wide zone that can only be described as utterly bizarre. Before the Greek-Cypriot border post there are plenty of buildings with the scars of war still plainly visible, but once you're in the buffer zone you can really appreciate the seriousness of the unrest that kicked off in 1964. Almost all the buildings carry some kind of battle scar, whether it's a beautiful mansion with overgrown gardens hiding a shower of bullet holes in the sandstone, or the Ledra Palace Hotel, previously Nicosia's largest hotel and now the headquarters of the UN in Cyprus, which has an amazing array of bullet holes sprinkled between its balconies, as well as a graphic collection of mortar explosions, where you can clearly see the scars from flying debris etched into the side of the building, radiating from the explosions of yesteryear.
The buffer zone is unlike anything you've ever seen, but just as you start getting used to the destruction all around, the weirdest sight of all appears: there, on the right, just after the UN headquarters, is a shop selling T-shirts, and it's still open. T-shirts for sale hang up in its dusty but functional windows, and although nobody seemed to be around when we sauntered past, it looked for all the world as if it was business as usual. Meanwhile, across the road, a relatively new sign announced a car hire shop, and there, in the distance, a huge sign proclaimed, 'Welcome to the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus'. After the sensory overload of the lonely walk through the battlefield of 1964, the whole thing was utterly bizarre.
Getting into northern Cyprus was as easy as leaving the south; the policemen typed our details into a computer and sent us upstairs to get a visa, where a woman wrote out a visa form, smiled, and we were in. As long as we got back by 5pm, it looked like our visit to North Nicosia was going to be a breeze.
Exploring South Nicosia and continually bumping into the Green Line makes you appreciate the physical division of Nicosia, but only by crossing the buffer zone into North Nicosia can you appreciate the social division. Nicosia is a genuinely divided city, and while it's easy to see that the two halves are a part of the same city, they feel remarkably different from each other. Architecturally there are obvious similarities – of the eleven Venetian bastions in the circular city walls, five are in South Nicosia, five are in North Nicosia, and one lies in the buffer zone – but culturally the differences are obvious. If you imagine taking two twins and separated them at birth, with one growing up in Greece and the other in Turkey, then you won't be far off understanding why Nicosia is a tale of two cities.
Some differences are instantly visible. North Nicosia has absolutely no Greek lettering anywhere, instead using the Turkish alphabet, with its Roman letters littered with cedillas, circumflexes and umlauts; the currency is the Turkish lira, which, when we visited, had a rate of 2,550,000 lira per UK pound, a world apart from the C£0.85 per UK pound of South Nicosia; the people look Turkish, with darker skin and leaner features than the distinctly Greek look of the south; and instead of churches peppering the streets, mosques are everywhere, their minarets instantly making North Nicosia feel more like the Middle East than the Mediterranean.
But perhaps the most obvious difference is the attitude of the people towards tourists. Southern Cyprus has grown used to tourists, and as a result you can wander round the south without a second glance from the locals; people are lovely in the South, and are more than happy to stop for a chat or help you out with directions, but southern Cyprus is content to leave tourists to their own devices. North Nicosia is different, and it's instantly apparent in the way that kids run after you and wave 'hello', or the way that people in shops are obviously delighted that you've wandered in to their establishment. This is no doubt a reflection on the lack of tourism in the north, as opposed to differences in hospitality, but it makes a visit to the north particularly delightful. The people really are wonderful.
As far as tourism is concerned, the sights of North Nicosia are on a par with those in South Nicosia, and both sides have put a lot of effort into building up attractions for foreign visitors. The difference, of course, is that while South Nicosia gets a small but steady trickle of tourists, North Nicosia really struggles to pull anyone in, so when you wander into an old building that's been restored as a museum, the woman at the counter will be genuinely delighted to see someone coming in. This concurrent development of amenities is one consequence of the Nicosia Master Plan, which coordinates key development work across the two halves, but you can't help feeling impressed by the efforts on the Turkish side; they've done a great job, but with practically no tourists. It means visiting the tourist spots of northern Cyprus feels less like following the tour guide's red umbrella, and more like discovering a charming little side street all on your own. If the latter is your scene, then North Nicosia is a great spot.
Each half of Nicosia is perfectly sized for easy exploration on foot, and even after one of Club Med's spinning-round-a-pole drinking games, you'd be hard pressed to lose your sense of direction. Dominating the centre of North Nicosia, and conveniently close to the Green Line (assuming the muezzin's broadcasts are designed to irritate the Orthodox Greek Cypriots to the south), is the Djami Selimiye, an old cathedral dating from the 13th century that had two gargantuan 50m-high minarets added by the Ottomans. It's now a hugely symbolic sight, with the minarets looking very much as if they've been stuck onto a Christian cathedral, and wherever you are in the city – north or south – you can see it poking above the houses.
Minarets are definitely the fashion in North Nicosia, and throughout the Turkish half of the city they point towards the sky, some ancient, some defiantly modern. Within a few minutes' walk of the Belediye Pazari – the covered market that sells meat, vegetables, Turkish sweets and some half-hearted tourist trinkets – are perhaps ten beautiful minareted mosques, a number of them clearly visible from the other side of the Green Line, which backs right onto the southern wall of the market. In comparison there's just one functioning mosque in South Nicosia, and, not surprisingly, there are far more churches in the south than the north. It's as if neither of the two halves of Nicosia are in themselves complete, but they add up to make a whole.
All this was food for thought as we asked the incredibly friendly proprietor of a randomly chosen kebab house what he would recommend for lunch. Hugely overweight and with a larger-than-life personality to match, it was good to see someone who blatantly ate far too much of his produce, and after a delicious lunch of various types of kebab, he plied us with complimentary Turkish coffee as business boomed. The most popular order of the day was a complete roast chicken, vertically sliced open from tip to tail and stuffed with a mixture of rice and vermicelli; the number of people who turned up at the door and left with a wrapped-up rice-stuffed roast chicken was impressive, and I could only assume that this was a traditional Saturday night meal for those too busy to cook.
Just north of the kebab shop the streets snaked between buildings that looked as if they'd seen far better days. Some buildings, like the Büyük Han (a mediaeval travellers' inn), have been restored over the years as funds have allowed, and in the main square near the Djami Selimiye a bunch of smiling workmen in baggy Turkish trousers were chipping away at an old building, gradually restoring it to its former glory. If and when the tourist industry picks up in North Nicosia (which realistically will only happen if the two halves of Cyprus are united once again) then these restorations will no doubt bring in the visitors, but away from the main attractions North Nicosia is as war torn as its southern neighbour, and is arguably in an even more dilapidated state. These crumbling buildings, though, exude character, and where South Nicosia's architecture has flirted just a little too much with modern concrete as a panacea for its war wounds, North Nicosia feels older, more run down, and therefore a bit less spoilt.
Nicosia is a city that's had a tough time, and the constant reminders of conflict have a funny effect on the mind. Despite the utterly charming people and the tangible sense of history surrounding you, you can't help feeling that the city is precariously balanced. As we wandered through the northern part of North Nicosia, ambling randomly with the mosque's minarets as our guide, three little children burst out of a side street, each of them brandishing a plastic gun, and for a moment my heart leapt into my mouth. After a whole day of seeing armed soldiers policing the buffer zone, and a noticeable amount of camouflage clothing on both sides of the border, my instant reaction was one of panic, irrational though it seemed afterwards. I wouldn't think twice about kids with toy guns at home, but Nicosia, for all its wonders, had me on edge.
That's probably why the old man who wandered up to us and tried one of the oldest cons in the book didn't get anything other than polite smiles and knowing nods from us. Starting with some flattery about how much he loved the English, he then told us he was supposed to be flying to Manchester, but that last night someone had stolen his money and his tickets from under his pillow. Perhaps we could lend him some money, and give him our address, and when he got to England he could reimburse us? Perhaps not, we replied nicely, but with his threadbare suit and his false teeth that didn't quite fit, I admired him for trying; there can't be many tourists wandering North Nicosia who are ripe for the picking. Besides, this was the only con man we encountered on our entire visit to Cyprus, and a few minutes earlier in north Nicosia I'd seen a man run after a fellow Nicosian to hand him a wad of money he'd dropped on the pavement. Cyprus really does seem to be free of the kind of tourist hassle you encounter with irritating frequency in other parts of the world, and that's a blessing.
Perhaps it was because of this false sense of security that I decided to buy a can of Coca-Cola in North Nicosia. You are expressly forbidden to bring items bought in North Nicosia back into the southern half – the customs men at the Greek Cypriot border confiscate anything you buy from the Turkish side – but I felt the Coke situation summed up the insanity of the Cypriot split, and I wanted a souvenir to take home. The main Coke factory for southern Cyprus is in Nicosia, and Cypriot Coke cans list their ingredients, not surprisingly, in Greek. However, if you buy a can of Coke in North Nicosia, literally a stone's throw from the southern half, you find it lists its ingredients in Turkish, and has been imported all the way from Istanbul. This, to me, sums up the division of Nicosia rather well.
Happily, the border guards on the way back didn't even look at us, and simply smiled as we handed over our passports, got ticked off the lists, and walked through the dead zone and back into South Nicosia. It was only after I unpacked my bag that I realised what I'd achieved; I'd just illegally managed to smuggle 330g of Coke from Turkey to Cyprus – not to mention the other 330g that I'd ingested at lunchtime – and I didn't even break into a sweat. Midnight Express, eat your heart out.
And as if to rub in the strangeness of the Nicosian divide, as we walked away from the Greek Cypriot immigration post, we spotted a group of Turkish Cypriots standing on the top of the Venetian battlements, waving down to us through a wire fence. We hadn't realised this before, but Roccas Bastion, the section of battlements just east of the main road to the Ledra Palace Hotel, is part of North Nicosia and not the buffer zone, and here the two sides can wave and talk with only about 10m of height and a wire fence separating them. We waved back cheerily, and one of the men yelled at the top of his voice, 'Peace!' to which we replied, 'Yeah, peace!' while flicking him the peace V-sign. Everyone joined in, and everyone smiled; and this, more than anything, supported the view I'd read and heard many times, that the division of Cyprus may have started out as a self-imposed apartheid, but the split continues to exist because it suits the politicians. Judging by the pro-unity demonstrations on both sides of the line, perhaps it's just a matter of time before the last divided city becomes one.
After North Nicosia, with its distinct lack of tourism, South Nicosia felt unavoidably less adventurous. The tourist quarter of Laïki Geitonia, recently rejuvenated by extensive pedestrianising and the opening of myriad tourist-friendly restaurants, lacked the soul of either North Nicosia or the Famagusta Gate area of South Nicosia, but after a long day exploring both sides of the Green Line, it was a perfect place in which to relax with a pint of Keo, Cyprus's own beer.
As far as the casual tourist is concerned, South Nicosia has one further advantage over the north. On the eleventh floor of the tower block above Woolworths is an observation deck from which you can see the whole, undivided Nicosia, and from there the Green Line is only visible if you know where to look (at which point the defiant flags of Cyprus and Turkey and the mouldering buildings trapped in the buffer zone suddenly become painfully obvious). The sights of Nicosia are labelled and an audio-visual display explains the history of Nicosia, surprisingly refusing to dwell on the separation of the city in anything other than cursory detail. As with all observation decks, it's a fantastic way to see the city.
But unlike most other observation decks, the binoculars are attached to just one side, the north-facing side, for this is one of the few places where the citizens of Cyprus can peer into the other half of the island (Deryneia being the chief alternative). And as if to emphasise the gulf that separates these two neighbouring cities, the Turks have painted a huge Turkish flag on the mountains to the north of Nicosia that's totally unmissable from the observation deck. The people of North Nicosia might make the V-sign of peace to their southern neighbours, but their politicians evidently prefer a totally different kind of two-fingered gesture.
1 Since the introduction of the new transliteration scheme, Nicosia has been known as Lefkosia. However the internationally accepted name for the capital is still Nicosia, with Lefkosia reserved for road signs in Cyprus, so for this article I'm using the old name.