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The world’s last divided capital. Episode 2: Northern Nicosia.

15 February 2013 Cyprus, travel stories No comment

Things to see in Nicosia: Selimye

For many years, the border between the Turkish Cypriots and Greeks was tightly closed… From one side to the other, only high officials and UN troops were passing by. Then, a passing point was opened, the famous checkpoint called Ledra Palace, next to what it used to be the coolest hotel of united Nicosia. After that, foreigners were allowed to cross on the other  side, but only by foot and provided they returned by 6 P.M. If they arrived late, The Republic of Cyprus did not accept them anymore in Southern Nicosia.

As Cyprus joined the EU and the liberalization from the Turkish side led to big changes. Today, you can pass the borders only by using your ID card and also return whenever you want without any problems. Moreover, there are new crossing points, including one at the end of the pedestrian street Ledra, situated in the very center of Nicosia. But despite all this, there are just a few locals that go from one side to the other…

I started by foot on Ledra street, admiring the window display of boutiques, I had a tea cup and then crossed on to the other side. The Greek frontier guard had a look at my passport and didn’t make any comment and so did the Turkish one who applied a stamp on my passport. Ledra Street finishes abruptly… two steps away from the Greek frontier checkpoint, there are still boutiques and European cafes. Advertising signs and street directory are in Greek letters, prices are expressed in Euros. One hundred meters away, Ledra suddenly turns into an Oriental bazaar. Despite the feeling you have stepped in Europe and few moments later, teleported in the Orient, the ads written in Latin letters (although in Turkish), give you a familiar feeling…Boutiques turned into small shops, sophisticated cafes into terraces using plastic chairs and umbrellas on which is written Efes Pilsner, Greek letters turn into Latin ones, the prices in Euro are now expressed in Turkish Lira, Lefkosia becomes Lefkosa, the white-blue cross flags metamorphose into flags with the white-red half-moon… Even the mobile phone provider keeps on switching to the Turkish networks. There are only 100 meters between them!

Northern Nicosia has a special kind of feeling.  Here I do not feel the threatening shade of the South, buildings are more cramped and even if you look up, you cannot get a glimpse of the buildings from “the other side”. Here it’s the Oriental world of shops at a low ground level, but cramped together, a place where children run with their tea or coffee tray from one shop to another…

Life goes by slowly, in a normal and modest way. In Southern Nicosia, girls are using the streets as their own catwalk, whereas here are covered by shawls and long coats. But men are as cool and hip as on the other side.  What are not at all cool are the stores. Indeed, they are cheaper as prices are expressed in Turkish lira, but you can stay assured that your Euros will be gladly accepted almost everywhere. In the days I spent in Northern Cyprus, I haven’t even held one Ataturk banknote in my hand.

Northern Nicosia has its monuments share. Here you can find the most impressive architectural monument from historical Nicosia – the immense Selimye Mosque… sorry, I meant St. Sofia Cathedral…Just like its counterpart from Istanbul, St. Sofia was a Christian cathedral, in fact a Catholic one which was built in the gothic style as in France or Spain. In 1570, when the city fell into the hands of Ottomans, the construction was left intact but the altar and statues of the saints were destroyed. To the existing building, Turks added two minarets, thus transforming it into a mosque which was renamed after Sultan Selim II.

Today, from the two minarets hang the two sister flags: the red and white half-moon flag of the TurkishRepublic and the white-red half-moon flag of Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. If St. Sofia from Istanbul with its typical Byzantine architecture almost suggests that it is a mosque, on the other hand, the mosque from Nicosia seems so out of place with its gothic aspect!

But well, two steps away from the mosque-cathedral there are some samples of authentic Ottoman architecture –Büyük Han caravanserai, the first building erected by Ottomans after the occupation. It has arches with small rooms where tired merchants used to sleep and which are now turned into souvenir shops, art shops, etc. From the moment the border was opened to the public, tourism flourished in the North too, as there are many tourist groups going from one side to the other in order to experience the “metamorphosis” of the town.

Further from the historical center, nicely redone (with European funds), you step into the poorer outskirts of the town which resemble the destitute suburbs of Turkey with service shops repairing any junk car, with tailors and shoemakers, houses that are more or less well kept. Following the guiding lines of Lonely Planet, I visit Dervish PashaMuseum, a small ethnographic museum housed into a restored typical Ottoman building. The museum won’t knock your socks off, but the building itself is very nice. The rest of the surrounding neighborhood is newly painted and the streets don’t have too many holes. If the bazaar is life filled, animated, here, by some spell, people are inexistent…You can find only cats and then suddenly, the street comes to a dead-end: a wall, metal oil cans, barbed wire in the middle of the street…oops, The Green Line!

I finally reach the Venetian walls surrounding the entire town. By the time they were constructed, nobody imagined that the town would have one side on a continent and one side on the other… Thus, the walls are just like in the South in a unitary and solid style. The statue of Ataturk guards the town entrance from Kyrenia Gate. Well, Kyrenia is the Greek name, while Girne Gate is the Turkish one. A few steps away is the bus station filled with people and small buses going in all the Northern directions – Girne (Kyrenie), Magusa (Famagusta)…In the South, there isn’t much public transportation as the Greek Cypriot seems to have been born and raised in the car… Public transportation is for immigrants but they don’t really matter. The Turkish Cypriot doesn’t own a car, so buses are a normal thing. As independent tourist, it’s much easier to travel in Northern Cyprus and maybe that is why I visited more of Northern Cyprus. But more of the other stunning places from Northern Cyprus some other time…

Images from Northern Nicosia

Nicosia streets

The first steps in Northern Nicosia

Things to see in Nicosia: local flags

Even flags change

Things to see in Nicosia: Turkish bazaar

Once again, boutiques turn into a bazaar

Things to see in Nicosia:: Selimye mosque

Selimye Mosque

Things to see in Nicosia: Selimye

Things to see in Nicosia: Buyuk han.

Things to see in Nicosia: Buyuk han.

Things to see in Nicosia: bazaar

In bazaar

Things to see in Nicosia:: bazaar

Things to see in Nicosia: city center

The more European part of the center

Things to eat in Nicosia: Turkish delight

What can be tastier than Turkish delight?

Things to see in Nicosia: Dervish Pasa Museum

Dervish Pasa Museum

North Nicosia streets

In the Northern streets

Things to see in Nicosia: Ataturk statue

Mustafa Kemal – Ataturk guides the entrance of the old town

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