As you approach Nicosia from the south, you catch sight of a gigantic Turkish flag in the hillside ahead. It is a reminder that Cyprus is an island of two halves, the so-called Green Line dividing it into the “Greek” south and the “Turkish” north. Nicosia, the capital city, is also divided, but a crossing point allows visitors to explore both halves of the old town in a single day.
A Divided City
Nicosia is in the middle of the island, and was historically the main commercial and civic centre. However, the border between north and south Cyprus, which divides Nicosia in two, was closed to all traffic between 1974 and 2003. Many Greek Cypriots had fled to the south, and Turkish Cypriots to the north, losing their homes (and often farms and other businesses) in the process. While the border was closed they had no contact with the family and friends they had left behind.
Although the border reopened in 2003, crossings are only possible at certain points. Border formalities remain, and there is a buffer zone administered by the United Nations. You can walk into north Nicosia from the south at the foot crossing point at the end of Lidras Street, but you will need to show your passport. Interestingly, it is also a customs border, and as soon as you enter the Turkish side you encounter lots of shops selling low-duty goods.
Exploring South Nicosia
At the heart of south Nicosia is Lidras Street, which leads right up to the border checkpoint. This is the main commercial street, lined with shops and cafés. But, if you wander down the back streets, you will find old houses and varied architecture, giving you an idea of what Nicosia must have looked like in the past.
There is far more in the old town of Nicosia than you could see in a day. I could have spent more time in the south, exploring the numerous churches, mosques and museums. In particular, the Cyprus Musuem looks interesting for anyone who wants to find out more about the island’s long and varied history.
Exploring North Nicosia
But I wanted to explore the north. As soon as I crossed the border I was struck by the contrast between the two halves of the city. You are greeted by the sound of a muezzin, and the streets are full of shops and market stalls selling a dazzling array of goods, ranging from gold to spices and brightly coloured clothes. I suspected this part of the city of being aimed at tourists, as it is full of restaurants and cafés selling kebabs, pastries and other Turkish specialities.
Walk a little way and you will come to the Selimiye Mosque, housed in a building which was once a gothic cathedral. Close by is a small Turkish-style bazaar, restored and reopened in 2012. Beyond that is a maze of tiny streets full of traditional houses. As you walk, look out for the street art that is dotted around the city.
I ran out of time for further exploring, but there was much more I could have seen, including the Büyük Han, a 16th century Ottoman caravanserai, and the old Turkish baths.
The Walls of Nicosia
The old town of Nicosia is surrounded by a wall, built by the Venetians in the 16th century. Unusually for me, I didn’t try to walk around the whole of the wall: there was lots to explore, and it was a very hot day! But I did follow it for a while on both sides of the city, and I stopped at the Famagusta Gate, where you can see the original wooden gate. Here you can walk through a tunnel beneath the bastion, and get a sense of the scale of the defences.
In fact, although the wall is mostly intact, you can’t walk around it all in one go. You reach a point where you have to come into the centre of the city to pass across the checkpoint before you can continue your walk. It seems like a metaphor for Nicosia itself: one wall, in two halves.
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