Nicosia is different. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of any other island nation where the capital city is not on the coast and – more significantly – this is the last divided capital on the planet….
Cyprus might be a hugely popular sun destination, but most visitors shun Nicosia and stick to the coastal resorts.
That’s such a pity…..
Nicosia will NOT disappoint!
Background to a divided city:
Of course, when we talk about Nicosia as the last divided capital city, we’re only talking about the last half-century or so. Cyprus has been inhabited for thousands of years and has one of the richest and best preserved histories in the region. The Mycenaean Greeks arrived some 3,500 years ago, rooting their rich culture in the island. Since then, Cyprus has endured several occupations by major powers – most recently by the Ottomans in the 1500s and the British in 1878.
At first, British rule was welcomed but Greek Cypriots began pursuing a union with Greece while Turkish Cypriots began aiming towards a separate Turkish state in the northern part of the island.
Cyprus was granted independence in 1960 under a power-sharing constitution but that crumbled within a few years and tensions between Greek and Turkish Cypriots continued. By 1964, Nicosia had been divided into Greek and Turkish quarters and a UN peacekeeping force was in situ. In 1974 a Greek military coup, aimed at uniting the island with mainland Greece, led to a Turkish invasion and occupation of a third of the island.
With Greek and Turkish Cypriots fleeing in opposite directions, the UN Buffer Zone was extended and a 180km ceasefire line partitioned the island.
In 1983, the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus was declared but to this day is still recognised only by Turkey. In the south, the internationally recognised Republic of Cyprus is a member of the EU.
The demilitarized border zone still exists but, in 2003, Turkish Cypriot authorities eased border restrictions, allowing people to cross over for the first time in decades.
Trivia – the dividing line was named the Green Line because the UN officer used a green pen when drawing the line on the map!
Exploring the city
Nicosia has been the island’s capital since the Arab raids of the 7th and 8th centuries drove coastal populations inland. While it offers all the facilities of a modern European capital, it’s the Old City that holds most attraction for visitors. The wheel-shaped ramparts, fortified with 11 pointed bastions, were built by the Venetians in preparation for the Turkish invasion of 1570. The entire structure was protected by an 80m wide moat.
Nowadays, the moat serves many different purposes, – sports fields, public gardens, car parks …..
Charming as is the city centre with its labyrinth of streets and alleyways, the border zone makes for a sad and sorry sight. Extending across the capital, it’s only a few metres wide in places. Marked by abandoned buildings, barbed wire, sandbags, locks and surveillance, it surely serves as a physical reminder of the ongoing political and social complications on the island.
You really notice how deeply the divide still exists when you consult the tourist maps on either side – Each half of the city totally ignores the existence of the other….
North Nicosia (Lefkosa)
The Ledra Street crossing is easily negotiable on foot and takes only a few minutes. Passports are scanned at the Greek checkpoint and then you walk about 20m or so through the buffer zone to the Turkish checkpoint where the passport is scanned again (it is not stamped).
That’s it – you’re in Northern Cyprus…..
Exploring this part of the city is incredibly easy thanks to the BLUE LINE walking trail. An excellent map is freely available at the checkpoint and not only includes the route but also a short blurb about 25 points of interest along the trail.
Girne (Kyrenia) Gate
This is one of the original city gates. Built in 1562, the small domed watchtower was added in 1821. In 1931, during the British colonial period, the wall on either side was removed to allow for traffic movement.
The Mevlevi Tekke Museum
A Whirling Dervish was a member of a specific Muslim religious order. Having taken vows of austerity, they were noted for their wild rituals – the dancing and whirling being a means of getting closer to God. This lodge was once their meeting place but now serves as an ethnographic museum.
The Dr. Fazil Kucuk Museum
Dr. Fazil Kucuk was a Turkish Cypriot leader during the struggle for independence. His home has been transformed into the first private museum in North Cyprus
The Samanbahce Quarter
This was the first social housing project on the island – 70 terraced houses built between 1918-1925.
The door numbers are written in old Turkish language
This fountain served as the water supply for the houses.
British Colonial Law Courts
Ambling along the trail, there is no doubting but this must have been a very grand city indeed….
The Arabahmet Quarter
Most of the houses in this historic quarter were built in the late 19th / early 20th century.
They really love their cats!!!!!
Armenian Church and Monastery
The Buyuk (Great) Khan
This traditional inn once contained 68 rooms and 10 shops. Downstairs were the shops, storage rooms and stables, while the bedrooms with fireplaces were all located on the upper level. In the centre of the courtyard was the water tank, topped with a room for prayer. Today, this is home to a selection of craft shops, galleries and a great coffee stop!!
Ah – how weary is he! And it’s only 11.15am!!
Selimiye Mosque (St.Sophia Cathedral)
Once the most important church in Cyprus, the Ottomans added minarets and transformed the building into a mosque.
The Lapidary Museum
This is housed in a lovely 15th century Venetian building…
Haydarpasa Mosque (St. Catherine’s Church)
(Note – the city seems to be generally referred to as Nicosia and North Nicosia. I’m using SOUTH here just for clarity).
Back on South Nicosia’s busiest thoroughfare, the immediate cultural differences are a bit of a shock – the fast food franchises and the usual western world shopping chains are almost an unwelcome intrusion!
This gate is a mere 10m from the Turkish zone.
Right beside it is the Church of the Holy Cross – the church straddles the border and its rear door – in the north zone – is sealed.
The Venetian Walls and dry moat separate the old city from newer districts. This previously inaccessible area of the moat has been transformed with plazas, gardens, cafes and walkways, all the time ensuring unobstructed vies of the old walls.
This beautiful neoclassical building, situated right at the moat, once served as the Town Hall…
…..this, alas is the replacement!!!!
Still in the moat, on Wednesdays and Saturdays, you’ll find locals buying their fresh produce from local farmers…
The city is not all about chain stores and supermarkets! This traditional neighbourhood is pedestrianised and filled with residential houses, shops and eateries.
A religious and political monument, the 18th century Old Archbishop’s Palace houses the Folk Art Museum and the National Struggle Museum. Next to it is the New Archbishop’s Palace, built by Archbishop Makarios in the 1950’s. It suffered considerable damage during the military conflict of 1974, and was completely restored in the 1980’s. The two-storey Neo-Byzantine building, with its high arches, large windows and elegant mouldings, houses the offices of the archdiocese and the residence of the archbishop as well as the Byzantine Museum and the Library of the Archbishopric.
Makarios was elected archbishop of Cyprus in 1950. Leading the Greek Cypriots in their drive for union with Greece, he was exiled by the British in 1956 on charges of inciting terrorism.
In 1958 he began the campaign for Cypriot independence rather than union with Greece. When independence was granted, he was elected president. In his three terms, he was to survive four assassination attempts and a 1974 coup.
When Makarios died of a heart attack in August 1977, his funeral was interrupted by a rainstorm – unheard of in Cyprus in August. The Greek Cypriot media referred to the extraordinary event as proof of the old Greek proverb – When a good man is buried, even the heavens shed tears. Of course the Turkish Cypriot media had a different interpretation, claiming that the weather proved the old Turkish proverb – When an evil man is buried, the heavens open to wash away his misdeeds.
This was the most significant of the gates, opening onto the road that led to the most important harbour town of the island. The 3 gates -Kyrenia, Famagusta and Paphos, were named after the coastal cities to which they led. This is also the best preserved – it consists of a large vaulted passage with oblong rooms on either side which were for those guarding the gate.
The Liberty Memorial
This memorial was erected in 1973 to commemorate the release from prison in 1959 of the anti-British EOKA fighters.
A statue – representing liberty – watches over two heroic EOKA fighters as they pull chains which open a prison gate, allowing Greek Cypriot prisoners, peasants, and clergy to escape British rule. (There are no Turkish Cypriot prisoners being released – they were considered allies of the British during colonial times).
Built in the 18th century, this was part of the old water supply system of Nicosia which brought water from the mountains north of the city. It ran from Kyrenia Gate to Famagusta Gate and supplied water to several fountains in the inner quarters of the city. This 11- arch segment was discovered during the demolition of a private building.
Up close to the Green Line, we came across signs of rejuvenation – In an area obviously neglected due to its proximity to the buffer zone, we found new homes, businesses and public spaces….
This large excavation site in the heart of the city is revealing undisturbed strata of Nicosia’s history from the 11th century Byzantine period right up to British colonial times. Findings to date include two churches and the remains of public buildings, workshops, roads, wells etc.
As with any exploration, it is the unscripted that brings most pleasure. Here you can wander into austere looking churches and find the richest of interiors and beautiful frescos. You’re never far from a square in which to sit and embrace the city’s rich cafe culture – or something a bit stronger. And you’re never far from a blocked road that once connected families and neighbourhoods….
How long in Nicosia?
I’m rather ashamed to admit we only allowed one day for our visit. We’d enough time to whizz around both sides of the divide but we couldn’t visit museums, the hamam, etc. I was wrecked from all the walking but came away with a good general overview…
Ideally, I’d allow 2 days minimum.
What we missed:
1.I’m not big into museums but there are a few here that are highly rated:
The Cyprus Museum is home to an impressive archaeological collection dating back to the 7th century BC.
A.G. Levantis Gallery has 3 collections – European, Greek and a more recent Cypriot collection of works by local artists.
House of Hadjigeorgakis Kornesios has been carefully renovated with 18th-century furniture and decor.
2. The top of the Shacolas Tower Museum and Observatory is where to go for a 360 degree view of the city.
3. There is a Hamam (Turkish bath) on both sides of the city in which you can relax (if you have the time!!!) and enjoy various treatments.
Crossing over to Northern Nicosia:
You will need a passport.
The currency is Turkish Lira but most businesses – especially those close to the border crossing – accept Euro. There is no need to change money if you are just visiting for a few hours.
Your Greek language lessons won’t be appreciated here! Turkish is the spoken language – learn a phrase or two before you cross. People always appreciate even a ‘please‘ and ‘thank you‘ in their own language.
Cover up if you intend going into mosques.
Northern Cyprus follows Turkey so it is in a different time zone!
The Blue Line Trail will take 1-2 hours to complete.
Getting around the city:
Getting around the old city is very easy. Everything is within walking distance or a cheap taxi ride away.
Paphos – 150km
Ayia Napa – 87km
Larnaca – 56 km
Limassol – 85km
Where we stayed:
We wanted a place for one night, close to city centre and with available parking.
The Royiatiko Hotel was fine for one night. We paid €106 which included an ok breakfast (croissants, cheese, eggs, bacon, etc.) and free parking in a nearby carpark. The location is great – just off Ledra Street and close to the border crossing. Unfortunately we hadn’t time to relax at the pool!
Before you go:
Have a look at