Cyprus's divided capital has made steps towards reunification, offering travellers the chance to sample the distinct Turkish and Greek flavours of the city. By Lee Jamieson
Saturday 27 September 2008
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In... Nicosia map
Why go now?
The ancient walled city of Nicosia (also known as Lefkosia) is the world's last divided capital: Turkey invaded the island in 1974 and still occupies 37 per cent of the territory in the north. Cyprus is divided by a UN-patrolled buffer zone, called the Green Line, which snakes east-west across the countryside and symbolically slices the walled capital in two. For many years it was difficult for visitors to cross from one side to the other. This year, however, Dimitris Christofias was elected president of the official Republic of Cyprus on a reunification pledge. Already the barricades on Ledra Street – the main thoroughfare and Nicosia's most-poignant symbol of division – have been removed, making this an ideal time to explore both sides of the barricades.
Nicosia's airport is closed, so visitors arrive at Larnaca, 45 minutes away on the south coast. You can fly from Heathrow with British Airways (0844 493 0787; www.ba.com) or with Cyprus Airways (00 357 2236 5700; www.cyprusairways.com) from Heathrow, Stansted, Manchester and Birmingham. Monarch (08700 40 50 40; www.monarch.co.uk) offers flights from Gatwick, Luton and Manchester.
Kapnos Airport Shuttle (00 357 2464 3017; www.kapnosairportshuttle.com) runs regular buses from Larnaca airport to Nicosia from 5.30am until 1am. A one-way trip costs only €5 (£4). A taxi should cost from €45-€55 (£37.50-£45).
Get your bearings
The old walled city of Nicosia is shaped like an 11-pronged star, surrounded by an odd mix of car parks and municipal gardens. The most prominent feature is the Green Line that runs right across it. In the south, Ledra Street starts at Laiki Geitonia (a maze of narrow alleys crammed with shops and eateries) and stretches north until it reaches the Green Line, where the new crossing has recently opened. In the north, most places of interest are in the centre of the city, just east of the Ledra Street crossing (1). Wherever you are in the city, it is easy to orient yourself by finding the walls and moving around bastion-by-bastion.
The Centrum Hotel (2) is modern and well-placed at 15 Pasikratous Street, Eleftherias Square (00 357 2245 6444; www.centrumhotel.net). The rooms overlook the Laiki Geitonia area, which is attractive, but can be a bit noisy in the early evening. Doubles start at €92 (£77), including breakfast.
The Classic Hotel (3) is on the western side of the old city at 94 Rigainis Street (00 357 2266 4006; www.classic.com.cy), but still within the city walls, facilitating easy access to the town centre. Its minimalist design is pleasant enough. Doubles start at €97 (£81), including breakfast.
Budget options are few and far between, but the Sky Hotel (4) at 7 Solonos Street (00 357 2266 6880; www.skyhotel.ws) offers basic, functional doubles at €60 (£50), including breakfast. The rooms' glossy blue paintwork may encourage you to spend more time exploring the city, but the location, in the heart of Laiki Geitonia, is excellent.
Take a view
For a panoramic view of the city, head straight for the Shacolas Tower (5), just off Ledra Street. On the 11th floor you'll find the Ledra Museum-Observatory (00 357 22 679369); it opens 10am-8pm daily, admission €0.85 (£0.70). From here you can trace the Green Line dividing the city. Although difficult to make out at first, the derelict rooftops and profusion of Greek and Turkish flags soon give away its location. On the western edge of the UN buffer zone is the impressive Ledra Palace Hotel, which is now occupied by the UN. As a reminder of the city's political tension, look north – a giant Turkish flag has been painted on a mountainside.
Take a hike
From the Shacolas Tower (5), head north on Ledra Street until you reach the crossing (1), which until this year was barricaded and guarded by armed soldiers. As you wander slowly across the UN checkpoint, take a moment to glimpse the derelict buildings trapped in no man's land.
In less than 100m, Nicosia takes on a distinct Turkish identity, particularly evident as you head west on Arasta Street. The skyline of this shopping quarter is dominated by the minarets of the Selimiye Mosque (6). As you move along the street, this incongruous building slowly reveals itself; the minarets were added to a French gothic church, perhaps architectural evidence of Nicosia's troubled past. So long as you are conservatively dressed, you may enter the mosque, but you must time your visit around Muslim prayer times.
Lunch on the Run
Next to the mosque you will find the lively Belediye Pazari, or Municipal Market (7). Street food and local produce is plentiful from here and the surrounding shops.
On the way back south, stop off at the Büyük Han (8) – a triumph of Ottoman architecture. Recently renovated, this 16th-century hostel for travellers has a distinct bohemian feel and is a perfect place to escape the bustle of central Nicosia. The old rooms of the inn are now occupied by shops, all of which surround the octagonal miniature mosque that sits at the centre of the open air courtyard. You can browse handicrafts under the shady porticos of the courtyard.
The influence of the east pervades Cyprus, which has been a contrasting mix of cultures for generations. Seek out the Fanous Restaurant (9) at 7c Solonos Street (00 357 2266 6663; www.fanous.eu) for an early-evening drink and, if you wish, to smoke fruit tobacco from a nargileh or hookah pipe for €6 (£5).
Dining with the locals
Settle in for the evening at Xefoto (10) at 6 Aischylou Lane (00 357 2266 6567), a quaint tavern serving local food. For €13.70 (£11.40), you can order the meze and have the full range of Greek-Cypriot cuisine served to your table throughout the evening. The fish meze costs an extra €3.50 (£2.90). On Friday and Saturday nights, your meal will be accompanied by live music. The owner will happily show you photographs of Nicosia's dignitaries dining at his restaurant, including the current president. Xefoto opens daily from 11am until late.
Sunday morning: go to church
Nicosia's most charming church is St John's Cathedral (11), the seat of the Greek Orthodox Archbishop of Cyprus. The internal 18th-century wall paintings of this small, single-aisled cathedral are perfectly preserved. They depict biblical scenes such as the discovery of the tomb of Saint Barnabas at Salamis. Mass begins at 7am on Sunday mornings. On other days, the cathedral is open to the public from 9am-noon, and then from 2-4pm, except for Saturday afternoons.
A walk in the park
A few minutes' walk from the cathedral is the Liberty Monument (12), perched on one of the 11 bastions of the old Venetian fortifications. On weekend mornings, this quarter of the city is unusually quiet, making it ideal for a stroll along the city walls. Head north towards the municipal garden, passing the Famagusta Gate en route, and escape the afternoon heat in a shady corner of the park. At the end of the road you'll find the ever-present Green Line and an abandoned UN checkpoint. If you are feeling adventurous, try to follow the buffer zone back into the city through the maze of ghostly-quiet streets – you'll probably get lost, but if you keep heading west you'll soon regain your bearings.
Out to brunch
Once back to the city centre, unwind with a local favourite, the frappe (€3.25/£2.70), in Heraclis (13) at 110 Ledra Street (00 357 2266 4198). If you've worked up a more substantial appetite, this bar doubles as a café, offering a range of snacks for all tastes. A popular choice is lountza (pork fillet), halloumi and tomato in pita bread (€4.95/£4.10). Before leaving, grab an ice-cream (from €1.60/£1.30) or a crushed fruit yogurt (from €2.30/£1.90) for the road. Heraclis is open 9am-1am daily.
The Leventis Municipal Museum (14) at 17 Hippocrates Street (00 357 2266 1475) nests within the Laiki Geitonia quarter of the city and was the former residence of Mayor Lellos Demetriades. Although the museum is compact, it is well-stocked with artefacts from the Copper Age to the present day. Of particular interest is the British Gallery on the second floor, which highlights our colonial past and explains the strong British influence on the island. It's open from 10am-4.30pm daily, except Monday; admission is free.
Icing on the cake
No trip to Nicosia would be complete without a Turkish bath. The Hamam Omerye (15) at 8 Tillirias Square (00 357 2275 0550; www.hamambaths.com) is on the Greek-Cypriot side and is a den of pure tranquillity. Weary travellers can revitalise themselves for €20 (£17), which grants you access to the steam room for two hours (including all apparel, drinks and fresh fruit).
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