This is a statement I found about Northern Cyprus on Wikipedia:
“Northern Cyprus, officially the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, is a de facto state that comprises the northeastern portion of the island of Cyprus. Recognised only by Turkey, Northern Cyprus is considered by the international community to be part of the Republic of Cyprus.”
Here’s some of what the Lonely Planet – Cyprus has to say about Lefkoşa (North Nicosia):
“Strolling the back streets of the Old City in North Nicosia feels like dropping into an earlier era. It wiggling alleys are home to half-derelict town houses, washing lines strung between window shutters with peeling paint, and the occasional strutting rooster.
The scent of yesteryear is further evoked towards the centre, which is watched over by the Gothic pile of the Selimiye Mosque and the Ottoman bulk of the Büyük Han. The main thoroughfare to the sights, Arasta Sokak, is a brushed-up modern-day bazaar catering to day-trippers, with its glut of stalls selling tacky trinkets . Skate your way through the crowds, though, and you’ll find pockets of contemporary café-cool breaking out, slowly awakening the Old City from its slumber.
Sit down with a latte as the call to prayer echoes and soak up the merging of old and new that permeates this side of the walled city.
Until 1963 North Nicosia (Lefkoşa), not surprisingly shared much of the same history as its dismembered southern sector, Nicosia (Lefkosia). In this year however, the capital was effectively divided into Greek and Turkish sectors, when violence against Turkish Cypriots by insurgents from the Ethniki Organosi tou Kypriakou Agona (EOKA: National Organization for the Cypriot Struggle) forced them to retreat into safe enclaves or ghettos. The UN Buffer Zone, or Green Line as it has become known, was established when a British military commander divided up the city on a map with a green pen. The name has remained ever since.
The Turkish military invasion of 1974, which most Turkish Cypriots saw as a rescue operation, formalized the division between both halves of the city. A wary truce was brokered by the blue-bereted members of the UN peacekeeping forces, who had been guarding the Green Line since sectarian troubles broke out in 1963.
It is now easy for Turkish Cypriots and most visiting tourists to cross into the South, but despite this, the city remains both physically and symbolically divided, and many of the older generation (both Greek and Turkish Cypriots) continue to bear grudges and refuse to cross the divide.
The Venetian walls form a border around the Old City and are so unusual that, once seen on a map, you’ll never forget the odd snowflake-like shape. Dating from 1567, the circular defence wall was erected by the Venetian rulers to ward off Ottoman invaders. Unfortunately it failed. In July 1570 the Ottomans landed in Larnaka and three months later stormed the fortifications, killing some 50,000 inhabitants. The walls have remained in place ever since.
Five of the bastions, Tripoli, D’Avila, Constanza, Podocataro and Caraffa, are in the southern sector of Nicosia. The Flatro Bastion on the eastern side of the Old City is occupied by Turkish, Greek Cypriot and UN military forces. The remaining bastions, Loredano, Barbaro, Quirini, Mula and Roccas are in northern Nicosia (Lefkosia).
The Venetian walls and moat around Nicosia are in excellent condition. In North Nicosia (Lefkoşa) the walls are in poorer shape and have become overgrown and dilapidated in parts.
North Nicosia’s most prominent landmark, the Selimiye Mosque is a beautiful mongrel of a building. A cross between a French Gothic church and a mosque, its fascinating history stretches back to the 13th century. Although it’s a working place of worship, non-Muslims may visit, except during prayer time. For the most atmosphere, time your visit either just before or after one of the five daily prayer sessions.
The second-most important Gothic structure in North Nicosia after the Selimiye Mosque, this building began like as the 14th-century Church of St Catherine. Annoyingly, despite the mosque being open officially, in practice it rarely is. Even if it’s shut when you stroll by, take the time to admire its chunky façade, and also the ornate carving at the top of the entrance gates, which sprout dragon and rose motifs.
The Arabahmet Quarter rubbing up against the Green Line is home to well-preserved examples of Ottoman-era town-house architecture. The narrow alleyways are rimmed by tall whitewashed houses – some recently restored, others sinking into genteel dilapidation – with painted shutters and upper-story overhanging cumbas (bay windows).
Note the skinny balconies (not a common feature in Ottoman architecture) and carved crosses across front-door lintels on some houses: Arabahmet was the Armenian quarter of Nicosia (Lefkosia) until 1963 when the Green Line was drawn through the city.
The entire area is imbued with a heady sense of yesteryear and is one of North Nicosia’s most interesting neighbourhoods to stroll through.
KAPOORS ON THE ROAD
We were all really keen to visit the northern side of the divided island, if was just figuring out how best to do it that took a little thinking about. We really loved the time we spent in Turkey in 2009 and we knew that the McColls had enjoyed their own trip there a few years ago too. We had each seen different parts of the country, but had come away with an appreciation for the culture and especially the food.
For that reason, we had imagined that we would probably spend one week in southern Cyprus and part of our second week in the north. Our flights were in and out of Larnaca so it meant that we would have to cross back and forth across the Green Line. However, when we looked at renting a car we found out that the insurance would not be valid if we took it across the boarder.
We could have considered renting a car in the south, returning it, crossing the border and renting a car in the north, but because we had to fly out of Larnaca on the south coast, it began to look like too much of a hassle. Instead, we decided to focus on the Greek Cypriot side of the island and just make a day trip across the Green Line into Northern Nicosia (Lefkoşa) and try and get a sense of the place for future reference.
We learned that there were regular buses several times a day to Nicosia, and that it was just a short walk to the Green Line where it was possible to cross over into Lefkoşa. The bus left from near the main beach, took only 45 minutes to make the journey and the cost was so very affordable – just 7 euros for riding back and forth. When your figure in the fare for four people, we could have rented a car for the day for about the same amount, but then we would have the hassle of picking up the car, returning it, topping up the gas tank and looking for parking in Nicosia.
We got to the bus stand well ahead of time, and it was a good thing we did. It was a Saturday and clearly there were a lot of people with the same idea. Perhaps some of them were just going to seeing family and friends in the capital, or else they were going to shop. The crowd began to gather and I began to wonder if the bus would be big enough to accommodate everyone.
The bus pulled up right in front of us and we were the first ones on. Phew! We wanted to have as much time in Lefkoşa as possible, and didn’t want to be forced to take a later bus. It took sometime, but eventually everyone was able to board and we were on our way. It was great to get out of the city and see some of the scenery, though it was pretty barren inland, away from the coast.
Before we knew it, we were in Nicosia, full of modern buildings, shopping malls, and lots of traffic. The bus dropped us at the Central Bus Station and we had to walk less than a kilometre to get to the point where we would cross into Lefkoşa. We started off along some very narrow residential streets. It was difficult walking because there were so many cars taking shortcuts and there were no sidewalks, we were forced to hug our bodies up to the walls to let the cars by.
Eventually we found ourselves on a lovely pedestrian street, and when we saw a pleasant café, we decided to stop for a coffee, something light to eat, and a toilet break. It’s a good thing we did because there was a bit of a line up at the border while the guards checked passports. Eventually, we walked across the so-called ‘No-Man’s Land’ between the two checkpoints and stepped into another world indeed.
We’d read that most of Lefkoşa’s main sights are within the old Venetian walls, so we decided to follow the self-guided walking route outlined in our Lonely Planet copy of Cyprus. The main shopping street is called Arasta Sokak and we wandered along its pedestrianized length, headed towards the Selimiye Mosque, whose minarets we would see rising above the fray. Walking along Arasta Sokak was like plunging oneself into a bygone era except for the fact that most of the stuff being sold in the shops was probably mass-produced in China.
When we arrived at the mosque, we were able to enter the grounds but we could see a sign at the entrance stating that prayers were in progress so we weren’t allowed to enter for the time being. We knew we could double back later so we carried on, following the map I had saved on my phone. I took on the role of letting the others know where we were headed, and what we were going to be seeing. Donna and I were both busy taking photos of the various buildings and anything else that caught our attention.
As we strolled along the route I happened to notice a blue line painted on the roadway and here and there some big blue footprints; they looked like a giant had walked along the side streets after stepping in a tray of blue paint. I thought it rather odd, but didn’t give much thought as to why the stripe and the footprints were there. I was too busy trying to make sure we followed the walking route and that we didn’t miss any important site.
I’m glad that we spent the time walking through the old town, however I have to say I expected it to have more charm than it did. I fondly remember visiting backstreets of Tunis, Istanbul, Amman and Tangiers and loving every minute of it. I guess I should have better understood the effect that the division of the old walled city had on the northern side.
It’s clear that there is more and more effort being made to preserve and restore the Ottoman-era townhouses and here and there one sees pockets of charm. However, at times if felt like we were snooping through the dilapidated streets and I can’t help wondering what the local population thinks of foreigners eyeing their poverty.
Our walking route eventually brought us to a lovely square with a fountain and cafés surrounding it. We had prepared sandwiches for our day trip and we were getting hungry. I asked if we could eat our food at one of the cafés that didn’t seem to be offering anything more than coffee, tea and beer and was told there would be no problem. We ordered some Turkish Efes beer to wash down our meal, and enjoying watching life passing us by on the square.
Now fortified, we continued on our route, we were a little more than half way now and we were about to enter the Arabahmet Quarter. Here we began to see some of the restored townhouses, and there was clearly more to admire along the streets and alleyways. There were very few people about; I suspect they were all at home having their afternoon meal and perhaps a siesta of sorts.
We ran into a group tour or two, and once again I appreciated the fact that we were exploring the place on our own. We could go at our own pace, eat when we wanted to and take photos without having to feel we needed to keep up with the others. We made our way towards the outer wall and came upon one of the large bastions with a rusty UN tower looming over it. Now the reality of the divided city came home with a shock.
I’d learned that this spot was the only place that along the entire Green Line that Turkish And Greek Cypriots could see each other close up. That all changed as recently as 2004 and now it’s easy for Turkish Cypriots to cross over into the south, many do so to shop or even to work. Tourists can move freely across the border, as we had just experienced.
We walked along the old wall from one bastion to its neighbour, admiring the traditional houses that face the great divide. Many of them had lovely architectural features of old, some had been restored, others not. We turned into an alley and it was here that I noticed the blue line once again, probably because it had been painted more recently. It finally sunk in that this line was laid down to guide visitors through the old city, and that it probably mirrored the route we had taken. I realized that the big blue footprints had been painted to take tourists off the main line, and then back again, in order to see some interesting feature that didn’t lie along the main route.
On our way back towards the border crossing, I suggested we take a detour and check to see if we could visit the interior of the Selimiye Mosque. The prayer time was over and indeed; we were able to go inside. Anil and Duncan weren’t interested but Donna and I covered our heads, took off our shoes, and stepped inside the towering Gothic doorway. I’m happy that our guidebook pointed out that this 13th-century structure started out as a French Gothic church and was later converted into a mosque. We walked around admiring the high arches, the chandeliers and the calligraphy above the doors. I find the dark green colour very soothing to the eyes, and it contrasts so nicely with the stark white walls.
Our visit to North Nicosia (Lefkoşa) was coming to an end. We knew that there were only two possible buses that would take us back to Larnaca, and seeing that there was quite a line up for the early bus, we felt we shouldn’t risk taking the last bus back. We crossed back through the passport controls and the No Man’s Land once again and were faced with the very modern world of Cyprus’ capital once again.
There were already a few people waiting for the 4:30 bus when we arrived at the bus station, and more poured in behind us. We were able to get seats but this time some potential passengers were left behind. I could see the disappointment as they learned they would have to wait a full hour for the last bus to arrive. As we rode through the city, the driver made several stops where people were waiting to board the bus.
Each time he had to tell them that the bus was already full, and that they should cross the road and go into the Central Station if they had any hope of getting the last bus to Larnaca. We had the resources to hire a taxi to take us to Larnaca, but clearly some of those left behind didn’t. It seems to me they should have a better system for passengers to ensure they had a seat on the bus. Tickets on line; or some booths where they could reserve seats in advance.
It was already getting quite dark by the time we left the outskirts of Nicosia. For some reason, Cyprus does not follow the convention of changing their clocks with the seasons. For that reason, the sun sets at 4:30 and by 5:00 it’s completely dark. It always gave us the feeling that it was much later than it actually was. The upside is that the sun rises earlier as well, and that probably makes sense in the hot summer months when people can be out and about early before the sweltering heat sets in for the afternoon.
We decided to have an early meal that evening after we arrived back in Larnaca. We wanted to head back to the Valia Restaurant for their terrific souvlaki. If we wanted to eat later in the evening, it meant we would have to walk the 2km back to our apartment, and then come out again and walk halfway back into town to eat. We’d been on our feet most of the day, and we looked forward to having a meal and then relaxing at home while we caught up on our emails and worked on editing the photographs that day.
We wanted to get to bed early because we wanted to be up to watch the Larnaca Marathon runners passing by on the street below our apartment windows. Donna and Duncan were looking forward to spending some time on the beach and I wanted to work on my travel journal. We had pretty much decided to confine the balance of our time on Cyprus to touring around the southern part of the island. There was plenty to see and do, we could always consider a return visit where we could focus on the north.