In July 2012, I spent a week in Cyprus, hiring a car and exploring the island. Here, I look back on my brief visit to the country’s bustling, divided and sweltering capital, Nicosia, the highlight of my trip.
Once you get out of the congested towns and cities, Cyprus is a great place to drive. The well-maintained motorways flow quickly and freely, suggesting that most Cypriots don’t feel much need to move between the island’s population centres. It’s a Wednesday morning in late July 2012, and I’m cruising the hour and a half’s drive from the coastal city of Larnaca to Nicosia, the capital, in the centre of the island. The skies over Larnaca are their usual brilliant blue as temperatures quickly climb. The drive northwest to Nicosia will take me along the B2 through Larnaca’s suburbs, before joining the A2 and subsequently A1 motorways, climbing through the hills of the interior before dropping into the valley containing the sprawling metropolis of the capital. While Larnaca may have been bathed in hot morning sunshine, the hills on the road to Nicosia are cloaked in murk, and at one point I have to employ my car’s wipers to remove drizzle from the windscreen. Cyprus receives almost no rain during the summer months, but I managed to find some.
Arriving in Nicosia at about 11 o’clock, I’m funnelled onto a major arterial highway – a serpentine three-lane race track winding its way towards the city centre. Suddenly, I’m surrounded on all sides by aggressive, weaving traffic. Keeping my wits about me, I vow to remain in my lane for as long as possible, driving defensively as the walled heart of Nicosia edges nearer. I eventually find a small car park just off the main road and a short walk from the city centre. Stepping out of my Ford Focus, the city air feels like a furnace. This is the hottest part of Cyprus, and the temperature is in the high thirties already. The car park attendant takes my €3 for a day’s parking and engages me in friendly conversation. We talk football, and his eyes light up when I correctly guess that he supports local side APOEL rather than their bitter rivals Omonia. He also wants to talk about Manchester, referring to Manchester United by the first part of their name only, in that way Europeans tend to do.
A little bit of background before we go any further. I’ve come to Nicosia because it offers me the opportunity to do something unique – something that has always appealed to my interest in history and geopolitics. It might surprise one or two holidaymakers – especially those who stick religiously to the beach and the hotel pool – that Cyprus is technically in a state of war, and Nicosia is known as the last divided capital in Europe. The Republic of Cyprus was formed upon independence from the United Kingdom in 1960 (except for the British sovereign base areas, but let’s not over-complicate matters), with the intention of power being shared between the majority ethnic Greek community and the minority ethnic Turkish community. A lofty ideal in theory, this arrangement soon broke down, leading to governmental paralysis and inter-communal violence.
Things got even worse when, in 1974, the military government in Greece fomented a coup in Cyprus designed to achieve enosis – the union of Cyprus with Greece. In response, the Turkish military invaded the island. The conflict that followed saw the legally recognised Republic of Cyprus lose nearly 40% of its territory to Turkish occupation. A ceasefire was agreed, and the UN formed a buffer zone which crosses the island, running through the middle of Nicosia. A population exchange occurred, whereby thousands of Greek Cypriots had to leave their homes in the north, and Turkish Cypriots headed to the Turkish-controlled zone. Around 2,000 people remain missing to this day in the wake of these events. Nicosia’s airport lies abandoned in the no-man’s land of the Green Line, visitors to Cyprus now arriving into the country at Larnaca or Paphos.
In 1983, the Turkish-occupied north of the island declared itself to be an independent state, the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. Meanwhile, the Republic of Cyprus – now essentially a Greek-only state – controlled the south and centre. The international community refuses to recognise the northern state, viewing the Republic of Cyprus as the legitimate authority over the whole of the island, and the presence of Turkish troops in the north as an illegal occupation. Turkey is the only country in the world to recognise the northern state. This led to decades of isolation for Cyprus’s north, cut off from the rest of the island by the buffer zone – known as the Green Line – its tourism potential untapped and its people unable to trade with the rest of the world other than Turkey. Meanwhile, the south became a tourist mecca, joined the European Union in 2004 and experienced a period of rapid economic growth and rising living standards that brought prosperity to that part of the island until the economic disaster beginning in 2008, and the country’s banking collapse of 2012, when exposure to the Greek economy, among other things, brought it all to a crushing halt.
The last decade has seen tentative moves towards a brighter future on Cyprus. A referendum on re-unification in 2004, just prior to Cyprus joining the EU, saw Greek Cypriots reject the plan. However, the north has begun to open up to the world. A number of crossing points now allow free movement between the two entities at the Green Line. Tourists are beginning to discover North Cyprus, whether on a day trip from their resorts in the south, or during a longer stay. While the south is heavily developed, the north offers deserted beaches and rural wilderness that should only increase interest in this part of the world. Overseas visitors are beginning to buy property in North Cyprus, and experiencing some headaches in the process. The northern economy has ridden the global downturn fairly well. At this very moment, talks over re-unification are under way again.
It is in this context that I find myself pounding the streets of south Nicosia, dripping with sweat in the baking heat as I make my way to the walled city and the popular pedestrian crossing point on Ledra Street where one leaves Greek Cyprus behind and steps into a very different culture. I decide to explore the southern part of the city first and plan to cross into the north in time for a late lunch. I wander the tight streets of the old city, taking in the sights along the historic walls and stopping to admire the fortified gates that once guarded the entrances to the city. At certain points the flags of Greece, the Republic of Cyprus, Turkey and North Cyprus confront each other over the dividing line. The minarets of the Selimiye Mosque dominate the skyline, serving as a reminder of the very different society that lies just a short walk away. The sound of the Muslim call to prayer echoes out across the whole city. Nicosia feels surreal.
Nicosia is the hottest place I’ve ever been by 2012. Although the sun occasionally slips behind the odd lumpy cloud, the temperature has reached 40c. I’ve never felt 40c before, so I beat a hasty retreat to the air-conditioned interior of the Leventis Municipal Museum. This converted two-storey house isn’t mentioned in my Lonely Planet guidebook to Cyprus, and yet it turns out to be one of the best museums I’ve ever set foot in. It contains artifacts dating back to the ancient world and tells the story of Nicosia and Cyprus up to the present day. The displays are immaculate, the artifacts themselves are illuminating and the story of the island comes alive inside this otherwise unassuming building. At one point, I catch a glimpse of the mosque and the Turkish flag in the north and feel a twinge of excitement about the thought of the crossing. I also find myself amused by a display featuring a book dating back to the start of the British colonial administration in the late 19th century entitled “Cyprus: Our New Colony and What We Know About It”. How cute. If you’re ever in Nicosia, seek out this award-winning little museum on Hippocrates Street. You won’t be disappointed.
The southern part of Nicosia in 2012 reminds me of the more upmarket districts of other Mediterranean cities, such as Barcelona or Rome. Pedestrianised streets feature attractive, smooth tiles, as fashionable high-end clothes stores beckon affluent tourists and well-heeled locals to part with their cash. Gleaming banks and pharmacies seem to be everywhere. This was before Cyprus began to feel the pinch, its economy buoyed by rising tourist numbers (especially from Russia) and a lightly regulated financial services industry. However, as Greece began to fail, dragging Cyprus with it, western institutions insisted that the country take a stricter approach to offshore finance, a move which saw investors begin to pull out. In March 2013, Cyprus would require a bailout – one which, due to the country’s small size, would go largely unnoticed by the wider world. In 2016, I have no idea if these events have had a detrimental effect on south Nicosia. I can only assume they must have. But back in July 2012, before the facade slipped, the city appeared to the casual observer to be in rude health.
Finding myself back on Ledra Street, I begin to walk in a northerly direction, towards the checkpoint at which I will enter the unrecognised Turkish republic. I have no idea what to expect. Will there be long queues? Will I have to answer questions? Will I be felt up by an over-zealous border guard? When you arrive at the crossing point, the first thing you see are the flags of the Republic of Cyprus and the European Union. On the right is a kiosk at which Republic of Cyprus officials do their business. The Republic claims all of Cyprus, which means there’s no need to stop at this kiosk on the way through. There are no customs checks as such, as the Republic doesn’t consider the Green Line to be an international boundary. On the way back, they may occasionally ask to see ID, but at this point, I’m free to pass. On my way through, I see some very disappointed-looking American tourists who have turned up without their passports and been turned away by the Turkish Cypriot authorities on the other side. The Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus sees itself as a sovereign, independent state, and as such, insists on visitors obtaining a visa at the crossing point, for which you’ll need a passport. Fortunately, I’ve come prepared.
There’s a small queue on the Turkish side, but nothing too alarming. The border guards sit in another unassuming kiosk on the left hand side as you pass through. I notice how resplendent they look in their spotless navy blue uniforms. Approaching the desk, I’m greeted by a pretty young Turkish Cypriot border guard with a friendly smile and a perfect grasp of English. She asks me a couple of routine questions, takes out a piece of flimsy paper on which I scrawl my name and passport number, tells me I am now in possession of my Turkish Cypriot visa, flashes me another charming smile and sends me on my way. If only immigration officials everywhere in the world were as welcoming as those of North Cyprus.
Things are immediately and strikingly different here. Ledra Street, just a few metres behind me, seems a world away as the road forks in a number of directions. The red and white bunting of the Turkish and Northern Cypriot flags is omnipresent. The upscale shopping streets of the south could be on a different continent now. The streets close to the crossing point are tight and winding, some lined with market stalls and Turkish eateries. The air is dusty and the buildings charmingly scruffy in comparison to the tidy south of the city. Signs display information in Turkish (and English) rather than Greek (and English). Most shops and businesses appear to accept Turkish lira alongside the euro. The dustiness enhances the impact of the heat, making north Nicosia feel like a cauldron. It’s now 41 degrees.
Yielding to the oppressive temperatures, I take a seat at a table on a shaded terrace outside a Turkish café. Still only metres from the Green Line, most places appear to cater to tourists in this part of town, but I notice that the place I’ve chosen seems to be serving a healthy number of locals. The surly proprietor brings me an ice-cold bottle of water and an ice-cold Pepsi, both of which go down a treat. Eager to see what a proper Turkish kebab is like, I place an order and watch the world go by while I wait for it to arrive. Back home in the UK, kebabs are best ‘enjoyed’ when you’ve imbibed enough intoxicating liquor to suppress your best nutritional judgement, but in the part of the world where kebabs are a central component of the local cuisine, it seems worth a try. I don’t remember exactly what I thought of my first (and so far only) Turkish Cypriot kebab, but four years on I’m still just about alive, so it can’t have been that bad. I remember enjoying it, though, so what else really matters?
With my stomach setting to work on the helping of minced lamb and pitta bread I’ve just introduced it to, the only thing to do is to start exploring North Nicosia. I have a strange and completely misplaced sense of apprehension about the place, as if I’ve somehow stepped out of reality by entering an unrecognised state. Still, I can’t ignore my giddy excitement at standing in the middle of a country that doesn’t really exist. Or rather, a country that does exist, but everybody ignores. Setting myself no targets or time constraints, I decide just to walk around the city streets, taking in the sights and sounds of this unusual place, observing Turkish Cypriots going about their lives as they do every day. Several streets are strewn with rubble due to the sheer number of building sites and roadworks that seem to suggest that change is beginning to come to this once isolated corner of the Mediterranean. I reach the ring road known as Istanbul Street, a busy, wide thoroughfare beyond which lie the residential districts of north Nicosia. I’m fascinated to see how the road is criss-crossed by more red and white bunting. The locals must be fiercely proud of their Turkish and Turkish Cypriot identity. I stumble across Kyrenia Gate, another of Nicosia’s famous medieval city gates. This one was the main point of entry and departure between the city and the island’s northern reaches. Nowadays, it houses a tourist information office.
Northern Cyprus is one of the least devout and most secular Muslim societies on Earth. However, the top attraction in north Nicosia is the Selimiye Mosque. Originally built as a cathedral and converted into a mosque in 1570, the towering minarets are visible both north and south of the Green Line, the call to prayer not requiring a visa to make itself heard on the southern side as well as throughout north Nicosia. It’s always advisable to dress modestly when entering a place of worship, and there are signs instructing visitors to do just that. Whilst I wouldn’t want to be accused of encouraging visitors to break this rule, I do notice that large numbers seem to be ignoring the advice. On stepping inside, it appears that the small band of worshippers are unmoved by this. The atmosphere inside the mosque is relaxed, with the locals barely seeming to notice the outsiders in their midst. The former Gothic cathedral has an understated interior, all whitewash walls and a number of simple but attractive arches. I love the way the mosque seems to dominate the whole city, and I love how the eye-catching Turkish and Turkish Cypriot flags are never far away, even inside a mosque.
Leaving Selimiye Mosque behind me, I amble through a small, dusty market selling a combination of tacky tourist merchandise and local foodstuffs. Food markets are always interesting and give the visitor a real insight into local ways of life. Here, the majority of people jostling for space on the narrow street appear to be tourists haggling for a souvenir of their brief visit to the TRNC, the food largely ignored. I suspect most Turkish Cypriots are far too sensible to be out buying tomatoes in the middle of the day in Nicosia in July. Continuing my brief odyssey in north Nicosia, I come to Atatürk Square, named after the founder of modern Turkey. In the middle is a Venetian column, while all around, Turkish Cypriots go about their busy lives, far more oblivious than I am to the searing heat. Sitting in this little square and taking in the architecture of the courthouse and other historic buildings, I find myself wishing I could stay longer.
Alas, my friend in the car park in the south probably wouldn’t like that. One day I will return to North Cyprus to explore the traditional villages, rugged coastline and wilderness of the Karpaz Peninsula, hopefully before re-unification comes along to steal the novelty away. I return to the checkpoints and join a queue to re-enter the Republic of Cyprus. Things seem to be slow moving, the guards’ attention monopolised by a handful of confused-looking tourists. I notice that people seem to be walking straight past us, as if the checkpoint wasn’t there. I wonder what makes them so special that they don’t need to stop and officially re-enter the south, as I am attempting to do. There’s only one thing for it: I decide to find out what is so special about these people by becoming one of them myself. I strike out from the line, walk straight past the kiosk and back onto Ledra Street, back into the legally recognised Cypriot state. I’ll never know what the queue was for as it becomes clear that there is no real need to stop on re-entry. By this point, all this walking in balmy heat has given me some serious blisters on the soles of my feet, blisters that won’t let up for the rest of my trip to Cyprus.
On returning to my car, my new friend is nowhere to be seen. The car park is deserted, and I’m grateful to see that my Ford Focus is peeping out from the shade of a low-hanging tree. I decide to set a steady pace back to Larnaca, taking in as much of the scenery as I can while I drive. I notice a small football stadium on the outskirts of Nicosia, almost certainly home to APOEL and probably the Cyprus national team as well. I can’t stop to find out, but I’m always intrigued to see sights such as this when travelling. The drive back to Larnaca is blissful along the motorway as I leave the heavy traffic of the city behind. I won’t encounter much traffic again until I arrive back in Larnaca and get lost trying to return to my hotel. I’ve had a brilliant time in Nicosia – a beautiful city with a real difference.