Lefkosia (Nicosia)

There was something so very peaceful about sitting there on a bench outside Büyük Han soaking up the sun without a care in the world and I shall take it with me as one of the best memories I have of Cyprus.

In Berlin the place where the old wall ran is shown through the streets and neighbourhoods of the city as a line of stones. It is simple and beautiful and speaks of the unnatural division of the city through 28 years.

I wonder how some hopeful day in the future the border between North and South Lefkosia will be memorised. The border runs as a wound through the entire inner city with all north-south bound roads being cut short on each side. At its most narrow there are only 3 meters between the Republic of Cyprus and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.

It stretches beyond Lefkosia and covers from east to west 3.5 % of the island. But nowhere – I imagine – is it as imposing and real as through the old city of Lefkosia, where sandbags and old tin barrels are stacked at the end of each north-south road. On the Southern side, the border areas are painted in bright blue and white colours to show off not the Cypriot – but the Greek flag. A strong reminder that the issue which forced this situation in the first place, the wish of the majority of the Cypriots to enter into a union with Greece, is still lingering.

On the North Cypriot side the border region of the old city centre is much more derelict and ghostly and no colours are shown but grey. Yet, the feeling of being caught in time and space prevails here and there is something haunting about the crumbling yet stunning houses.

Lefkosia is an ancient capital of a proud island and the many foreign influences are evident in the charming houses which dominate the old town and which have been predominantly built from the end of the 18th and 19th centuries. They are a mix of both the East and the West of the Greek, French, Venetian and Turkish roots of the city. All of it making Lefkosia both a melting pot of foreign styles and yet so very Cypriot.

The old city centre is encircled by an impressive Venetian fortification. It seems a much more natural demarcation of the city than the border which splits it in two. But while in ancient times it might have held meaning, today the reference is to the new border. Nothing beyond this new wall exists. You will not find a tourist map with street names laid out for the entire city. That which lies on the other side is merely a ghostly network of streets which no one refers to until the island and capital are once again unified.

In this way the border seems to be unnoticed by the people and the other part forgotten. As in a fairy tale where that which lies beyond the enchanted forest is unknown and irrelevant to anyone but the hero of the story.

Yet, at the same time throughout the last many years the border has been demilitarised and – unlike only a few years ago – Cypriots and visitors can move unhindered through the border control at Ledra Street by only showing their ID or passport. It seems there are many heroes in this story attempting to reach that which is beyond the enchanted forest, but for now it is simply there somewhere in the consciousness, in history.

I fell in love with Lefkosia the moment we arrived and it grew into a full on love affair by the time we’d visited the city a second time. Not only because it is fascinating to experience a capital divided, but also because with or without that border the city is absolutely beautiful. A perfect romantic spot with so much to discover within the Venetian walls.

I’d planned to make a blog which included both our visits to Lefkosia and our trip to Northern Cyprus, but I can see my written ramblings have taken up space, so perhaps it will turn into two.

Northern Lefkosia

Our first impression of Lefkosia was a run through the border and on to the bus area for the dolmuş. Though only briefly checking out Ledra Street it was clear that this was a city worth exploring.

We returned from Girne and the surrounding area the same afternoon and spent the following hours walking around the Northern part of Lefkosia. We began in the western part walking towards and through the picturesque neighbourhood Arab Ahmet. Passing the Armenian church we suddenly found ourselves shot off from going further. We’d reached the border which seemed obvious in the state of the houses here in comparison to only a small walk in the opposite direction.

Crossing into what seemed a very poor area lying close to the border with much more ramshacled houses than the well maintained Arab Ahmet we moved on towards the renovated Büyük Han. After a short visit inside this medieval caravanserai, which was built by the first Ottoman governor of the island in 1572, we sat down to enjoy the afternoon and a coffee at a café on a small square next door. Close by a group of artists were finishing up and celebrating a new piece of street art.

There was something so very peaceful about sitting there on a bench soaking up the sun without a care in the world and I shall take it with me as one of the best memories I have of Cyprus.

After feeling rested we walked further down to gaze at the Selimiye Mosque and Bedesten. Selimiye Mosque has as so many others been a cathedral before. However, here the evidence is obvious as it seems as if the mosque has risen from the ruins of the church with half destroyed vaults still visible.

Southern Lefkosia

After spending an entire day in Northern Cyprus and most of that afternoon in Northern Lefkosia, we decided to return to the capital on the following day to explore the southern parts of the city.

While the northern parts hold much of the attractions, the southern part of the city has a fantastic vibrancy of life.

We began our walk through the city with an early lunch at the Market Company. While the place according to online reviews is nearly always packed we found ourselves the only guests this morning. We ended up with a few dishes including grilled halloumi in honey, fried squid with sweet chili sauce and some of Cyprus famous potatoes.

It was probably not the best dishes for 11 am, and I find it hard to understand why Cypriot potatoes are better than average, but then again I am native to a country which prides itself on its own potatoes, so perhaps I am biased or simply used to a high potato quality.

But despite the food experience not living up to our expectations, it was marvellous to soak up the sun in this quiet side street with a massive wall mural on the opposite side of the small street.

After lunch we lazily walked through the city ending up following the wall east. It was surprising to see how well maintained even the houses closest to the wall are. Furthermore, we ran into several Cypriot soldiers guarding the border from the southern Cypriot side.

Most of them were young and simply sitting there looking out from balconies amongst sand bags and tin barrels. Everywhere it stated that photography was not allowed, but no one stopped us and the signs seemed from a forgotten time. At one point where a small guard house was bunked in between a café and the wall a large group of tourists on tour were blatantly taking pictures of the guard from only a meter away despite the signs.

Lefkosia

Should I ever return to Cyprus, it would be to enjoy the atmosphere of its capital. Both sides offer a southern charm and down to earth feeling that the modern man can not get enough of. I would love to spend my days drinking coffee and exploring the hidden treasures of this particular city.

And why do I use Lefkosia rather than Nicosia? Because it is the old name of the city and used locally in both Turkish and Greek. The city decided back in 1995 to adapt to using only Lefkosia, but in 2017 all maps still hold a parenthesis with Nicosia because in English the change has never been approved. But if there is something which both sides agree on, then who am I to call it something else.

Zofka