The two worlds of Nicosia, Cyprus – the capital of two states

Тази статия може да я прочетете и на: Български

Curiousity brought us to Nicosia. But before we take you through the key sites of the city in one very hot day in May, let’s tell you more about Cyprus. Cyprus, you may know, is a popular destination for holidaymakers, especially Brits and Russians. About Bulgarians – well, there are plenty of Bulgarian expats living in the country who left home many years ago, mostly to work. But now we are very curious to discover how life is going on in Cyprus so we took the flight on one day in May,

Exploring the streets of Nicosia with baby Adriana
Exploring the streets of Nicosia with baby Adriana

We may think that it is still spring in May, but we have also been to Israel in May and it was indeed very hot. So welcomed us the yellowish island of Cyprus, as seen from the plane. We landed at the Larnaca airport and headed to the hot capital Nicosia. Nicosia is a capital of two states – one of them is the EU member Republic of Cyprus and the other one is the occupied Northern Cyprus, or the unrecognized Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.

Restaurants in Nicosia, Cyprus
Besides historical sites, in Nicosia you can also enjoy the many cozy restaurants

Politics and history – I will do my best not to confuse you

Cyprus has been a part of several empires and states. We will start our story with the Venetian republic that received the island after the last monarch of the Kingdom of Cyprus – Catherine Coronaro, was forced to abdicate in 1489. The story of Catherine Coronaro is indeed very interesting, if you are curious, you can read more about it.

Nicosia_by_Giacomo_Franco
The most important map of Nicosia from 1597, by Venetian Giacomo Franco, made for his book „Viaggio da Venetia a Costantinopoli per mare e per terra & insieme quello di Terra Santa / da Gioseppe Rosaccio ; con brevità descritto, nel quale, oltre à settantadui disegni di geografia e corografia si discorre, quanto in esso viaggio si ritroua, cioè: città, castelli, porti, golfi, isole, monti, fiumi è mari ; Opera vtile à mercanti, marinari & à studiosi di geografia.

The Venetian republic ruled the island for less than a century and made attempts to build fortresses in the bigger cities. In 1570 – 1571 the troops of Sultan Selim II conquered Cyprus and the island fell under the rule of the Ottoman empire. After the Russian-Turkish war (1877-1878), despite being left under Turkish sovereignty, Cyprus received new administration and rule by the British empire. After the end of WWI the island became a British colony.

The many mosques in the old town of Nicosia are heritahe from the Ottoman times
The many mosques in the old town of Nicosia are heritage from the Ottoman times
You will notice the British heritage immediately – they drive on the left.

In 1960 Cyprus received independence from the British empire. However, two British overseas territories remained on the island – the Sovereign Base Areas of Akrotiri and Dhekelia, where are hosted military bases and installations.

One of the cars of the first president of Cyprus, archbishop Makarios III
One of the cars of the first president of Cyprus, archbishop Makarios III

Apparently, during all of these years, the Greeks and Turks in Cyprus did never get on well and in 1974 Turkish military occupied the northern part of the island. This is how was created the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, recognized only by Turkey.

Cyprus and Nicosia today

Our visit to Cyprus coincided with the MEP elections in 2019. Cyprus is an EU member since 2004 with all of the territory of the island. However, voting is only possible in the territories governed by the Republic of Cyprus. But the Turkish population also has the right to vote. And since 2019, the Turkish minority in Cyprus also has a representative in the EU parliament – university professor Niyazi Kizilyurek.

There are various architectural styles in Nicosia
There are various architectural styles in Nicosia

We may have made a detour from our story about Nicosia, but the common picture of the state is important. This is why we decided to spend the first two nights in the capital.

Around the Green line in Nicosia - the building on the left falls in the buffer zone and the right one seems to be inhabited
Around the Green line in Nicosia – the building on the left falls in the buffer zone and the right one seems to be inhabited

With the historical reference above I wanted to lead you to the most important part of Nicosia for every curious tourist. Nicosia is the largest city on the island and is split by the Green Line, which makes Nicosia the only city in the world that is a capital of two countries at the same time. This neutral territory, which you can recognize well on the satellite photos, is literally under greenery and is administered by UN forces. When you take a tourist map of the city, no matter from which part, you will notice that it does not show areas beyond the Green line. On some maps you can even read “Area Inaccessible because of the Turkish occupation“. This is not completely true.

Between the walls of Nicosia

We settled in a small hotel in the old town, just next to the Freedom square – a very important square that was still under renovation, but will turn into a very nice place. After all, the reconstruction project was made by architect Zaha Mohammad Hadid, known as the Queen of the curve. I am really curious to see the final result which is supposed to be ready in 2020. The new square will cover the old one and parts of the fortification walls and the former moat, just next to D’Avila bastion.

I will take you again up in the air to take a look at the old town and the fortification walls. The walls are the most notable attraction of Nicosia. Here we go back to the Venetian times when the Ottoman empire was willing to conquer Cyprus. As it finally did. In 1567 started the construction of entirely new fortification walls and a moat on a Venetian model. For the purposes of the construction were then demolished important buildings from the Byzantine and Frankish era. Among them were the royal palace and several catholic and orthodox monasteries.

The fortification walls of Nicosia, Cyprus
The fortification walls of Nicosia, Cyprus

 So let’s see the walls from above – they form a star with 11 heart-shaped bastions. And Pedieos river, which until then passed through the city, was diverted to fill the 80-meter wide moat. The Venetians never completed the fortress which was supposed to be impregnable. The Ottomans invaded the island and after a 40-day siege, on 9 September 1570 the city fell and 20 000 local people died.

A map of the surrounded by walls old town of Nicosia with a couple of walking routes
A map of the surrounded by walls old town of Nicosia with a couple of walking routes. If you want to see it larger, write me and I will sed it to you in original size

The Ottomans completed the walls which were preserved until nowadays with the 11 bastions or at least their lines. In the moat today are located car parks, sport venues and recreation parks.

Anna on the wall of one of the bastions in Nicosia
Anna on the wall of one of the bastions in Nicosia

A walk through the main Ledra street

As I mentioned earlier, we settled in the very nice and air conditioned Centrum Hotel, just near the Freedom Square. From here also starts the Ledra street, which is the main walking promenade in the southern part of Nicosia.

Ledra street in Nicosia, Cyprus
Ledra street in Nicosia, Cyprus

When you walk by Ledra street, you will notice many old buildings. It is hard to define a certain style of the architecture in the area. Indeed, there are various architectural styles. You will notice this on the photos. Nowadays Ledra street is a typical shopping street with stores of popular brands and cozy cafes and ice cream shops.

Ledra street, Nicosia, Cyprus
Ledra street, Nicosia, Cyprus

Be cautious when you go for walks in Nicosia. We visited in May and the heat was almost unbearable most of the time – around 38 degrees. So we avoided being outdoors in the hottest hours of the day, despite there is some shadow on pedestrian streets.

Anna eating ice cream on Ledra street
Anna eating ice cream on Ledra street

The heat on Ledra street had one advantage. It made us try every ice cream we saw. Indeed, they were very delicious. About the ice creams in Cyprus – most of them are actually sorbet-type, very suitable for the heat on the island.

Ledra was the lively shopping street, but we were happy to discover that may other old buildings and streets aside of the promenade are also being renovated and awakned for a new life
Ledra was the lively shopping street, but we were happy to discover that may other old buildings and streets aside of the promenade are also being renovated and awakned for a new life

From Ledra to the Turkish bazaar

Walking by the promenade under the hot waves of the summer day, we reach the border crossing in Nicosia. In the city there is one pedestrian border crossing, opened in 2008 and located just on Ledra street. Here we showed our IDs first to Greek-speaking officers, then to the Turkish-speaking officers on the other side. And we entered the unrecognized state where Turkish is the official language.

Border crossing in Nicosia between the Republic of Cyprus and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus
Border crossing between the Republic of Cyprus and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus

Here the environment changed dramatically. It was still clean, but everything became quite more Oriental-style, with the numerous small stalls and shops offering deals for cheap goods. We immediately spotted the places for ice cream, cold lemonade and delights like baklava.

Some restaurants in the northern part of Nicosia
Some restaurants in the northern part of Nicosia

In the occupied side of Nicosia remained many of the biggest attractions between the fortification walls. If we take a look of the old map of Nicosia again, we will spot in the middle of the city the Saint Sophia cathedral, later turned into Selimiye mosque. Nowadays it is on the Turkish side of the border. But first let us tell you how we reached it.

The Turkish side of Nicosia

First we have to thank our Bulgarian friend Silvia who took us through the border and through the stalls and streets in old Nicosia. It was about 9-10 am when we went out and we could not leave it unnoticed that while in the Greek part everyone was still waking up, on the Turkish side life had begun quite earlier. Everything was open and was crowded with Russian tourists.

Maria, Silvia and the kids at Arasta sokak, Turkish part of Nicosia
Maria, Silvia and the kids at Arasta sokak, Turkish part of Nicosia

The streets were now named “sokak” – the Turkish word for streets. For us, Bulgarians, sokak is assumed as a small narrow street. And they looked just like this. We walked ahead for a while and reached a small square which locals washed with the hose. Then we turned right and headed to the main attraction of this part of the city. Indeed, the street we were walking by was Arasta sokak. The whole market in this area is also known as Arasta.

Colourful goods at the Turkish market
Colourful goods at the Turkish market
Once Arasta was that part of mosques where traders were allowed to do their business. Nowadays many markets and shopping streets bear the name Arasta.

In 1191, during the Third Crusade, led by Richard the Lionheart, Cyprus was taken over by crusaders. Indeed, it was sold to the Templars, then sold to Guy of Lusignan as a compensation from the crusaders. It seems like Cyprus was often used as a bargaining chip through the centuries.

The Gothic cathedral Saint Sofia in Nicosia, Cyprus
The Gothic cathedral Saint Sophia in Nicosia, Cyprus

So, Cyprus was a kingdom ruled by French dynasty Lusignan. In 1209 was placed the base stone of the newest the largest cathedral in Nicosia, that will be completed in the early 14th century. Here were crowned the kings from the Lusignan dynasty. And some of them were buried here as well. During that period and later in Venetian times, the cathedral was named Saint Sophia and was the largest cathedral on the island.

We passed by the Buyuk Han, indeed then we did not know it was it. And stood in front of the two minarets of the mosque. For Anna it was a castle, Adriana did not still understand what it was and just enjoyed the morning coolness.

Saint Sophia cathedral, turned into Selimiye mosque

The Gothic cathedral Saint Sophia in Nicosia, nowadays Selimiye mosque
The Gothic cathedral Saint Sophia in Nicosia, nowadays Selimiye mosque

We stopped at the entrance of the mosque and from the inside we could hear the quiet voice of the only prayer. After the Ottomans took over the island and Nicosia, the catholic cathedral was reorganized as the main mosque in Cyprus. At some point it was named after Selim II, the conqueror of Cyprus. Nowadays, many centuries later, from the minarets, built by the Ottoman rulers, is heard the voice of the imam. However, since 1949 the imams are no longer climbing on the minarets and the call to prayer is played by speakers.

One of the minarets of Selimiye mosque in Nicosia, north Cyprus
One of the minarets of Selimiye mosque in Nicosia, north Cyprus
The interior of Selimiye mosque in Nicosia, Cyprus
The interior of Selimiye mosque in Nicosia, Cyprus

I don’t need to explain how majestic this building is with its vast space. Really notable architecture and construction. We removed our shoes in front of the mosque, Maria and Anna covered their heads and shoulders with scarves. Adriana and Silvia stayed outside. The soft carpets were absorbing our steps and the coolness of the place enchanted us. We were the only visitors inside, unlike the crowded shopping areas outside.

Our daughter Anna at Selimiye mosque in Nicosia
Our daughter Anna at Selimiye mosque in Nicosia

We love to immerse in the history of places we visit. Anna, from the other side, loves misbehaving and running on the thick carpet. And we, as parents, wondered whether to shout at her not to do it or leave her since she is not disturbing anyone. Later in the evening, when we talked to Silvia, she said that some people are hesitant to leave their shoes outside because they are afraid their shoes can be stolen. I admit that such fears have never passed through my mind.

It's a magic when you get lost and discover cozy streets and cafes
It’s a magic when you get lost and discover cozy streets and cafes

Hammam and a caravansarai

After the Selimiye mosque we allowed to get lost among the narrow streets, Maria took photos in front of a pink wall and Anna collected stones from the ground. There is nothing bad about getting lost in the northern part of Nicosia. This is how we finally found ourselves next to Kumarcilar Han, which means Gambler’s Inn. Kumarcilar Han is a beautiful building with inner yard and nice-looking restaurant where I would happily sit for lunch but it was too early. The building was in ruins until recently but it was reopened in 2018 after long restoration. We took a nice walk through the inner yard and the terrace.

Kumarcilar Han, Nicosia Turkish part
Kumarcilar Han, Nicosia Turkish part

Our biggest with for our next visit to Nicosia is to go to a Turkish bath. On this side of the city is Buyuk Hammam, we love hammams. It is also close to Buyuk Han, the largest caravansarai in Cyprus.

Buyuk Han, a caravansarai in Nicosia, Cyprus
Buyuk Han, a caravansarai in Nicosia, Cyprus
The huge Buyuk Han in Nicosia
The huge Buyuk Han in Nicosia

Buyuk Han was built only one year after Cyprus fell under Ottoman rule – in 1572. It is a very beautiful and well-organized building. Just like the other inns from those times, Buyuk Han is a complex of four buildings, surrounding a large inner yard. During the British times the caravansarai was used as a prison, then as shelter for the poor. Nowadays it is full of workshops and acts like an art place. There are also several galleries and a restaurant.

A workshop in Buyuk Han, Nicosia
A workshop in Buyuk Han, Nicosia

We always spend a lot of time just wandering around and it is now time to return to the buffer zone and then to the Republic of Cyprus.

Back to southern Nicosia

Despite the largest in scale attractions are on the Turkush side of Nicosia, the southern side of the border is also full of wonderful places. The old town is a relatively quiet place and cars are not a common view. We first walked by the fortification walls, bastions and the old gates. Nowadays some of the bastions are turned into car parks. On D’Avila bastion is the municipality building, on Podocattaro is the Liberty Monument and on Constanza there is a parking and a small mosque – Bayraktar Mosque. The best preserved bastion now falls within the buffer zone – Flatro bastion. All of the bastions were named after rich Venetian families who supported the construction of the wall.

Parks and car parkings in the moat of Nicosia fortress
Parks and car parkings in the moat of Nicosia fortress

In middle-age Nicosia there were three entrances to the city. Best preserved is the Famagusta gate, or the eastern gate, which is guarded by the Caraffa bastion. Nearby you can also see an old stone aqueduct. There are two more gates – the northern gate, leading to Kyrenia, and the western one, the Paphos gate. Paphos gate nowadays is within the territory of Republic of Cypris and Kyrenia gate is in the Turkish territories. Both of them are not very well-preserved.

Famagusta gate in Nicosia, Cyprus
Famagusta gate in Nicosia, Cyprus
A view towards the Famagusta gate from the bastion in front of it
A view towards the Famagusta gate from the bastion in front of it

During our walk we stopped by several orthodox churches and beautiful church buildings. We admit that we spent so much time admiring certain places that we could not see all of the beauties worth seeing. The impressive building of the Archbishop’s Palace is another must-see place. Church is indeed a very important institution for the Cyprus state. After all, the first president of Cyprus was Makarios III – an archbishop of the Church of Cyprus.

The archbishop's palace in Nicosia
The archbishop’s palace in Nicosia
St. John cathedral in Nicosia, located just next to the Archbishop's palace. The buildings on the right are museums
St. John cathedral in Nicosia, located just next to the Archbishop’s palace. The buildings on the right are museums

The Fairy Tale Museum

When you are travelling with children, you always search for a place where they can also have fun. For us this place was the Fairy Tale Museum in Nicosia. A beautiful old building which we would probably skip if we were not with Anna.

The entrance to the Fairy Tale Museum in Nicosia. The building is just near the buffer zone
The entrance to the Fairy Tale Museum in Nicosia. The building is just near the buffer zone

Anna was very impressed by the numerous illustrated books in the museum. Indeed, Anna was probably in the best age to visit such a place. She cannot read so she is unable to understand that the books are in another language. She is only admiring the illustrations. In the Fairy Tale Museum we stopped for rest in the cool inner yard and Anna dressed like a princess and ran all around the rooms.

The Fairy Tale Museum in Nicosia
The Fairy Tale Museum in Nicosia

The Fairy Tale Museum in Nicosia is attractive both for children and adults, especially if you like to return to your younger years. Inside there are plenty of attractions and games for both small and grown-up kids. Actually, you can play with almost everything, read the books or dress like fairy tale characters. You could really spend a lot of time there as we did.

Anna dressed like Snow White, reading books in the Fairy Tale museum in Nicosia
Anna dressed like Snow White, reading books in the Fairy Tale museum in Nicosia

Here was the place where overexcited Anna went into a small accident while playing. Somehow she fell on her hand and the next day we needed to use our travel insurance and visit a local hospital. Luckily, it was only a soft tissue injury and she recovered in a few days.

The beautiful books at the fairy tale museum
The beautiful books at the fairy tale museum

Hammam on the southern side – the luxury SPA in Nicosia

While we were planning our trip to Nicosia we heard about the wonderful SPA procedures at the Omerye Hamam. Our friend Silvia said really good things about it and we would be very happy to immerse ourselves in the 16th century atmosphere.

Anna playing in front of the Omerye Hamam in Nicosia
Anna playing in front of the Omerye Hamam in Nicosia

We almost imagined how we lie on the marble stone and enjoy a 2-3 hour stay in this pleasant environment. We really love baths, like Romans. But as you may guess – we didn’t go. Our two days were not enough for everything we wanted to see and do in Nicosia. But if you go to the hamam – feel free to share your story with us!

You have no idea how sorry we were for not visiting the Omerye Hammam
You have no idea how sorry we were for not visiting the Omerye Hammam

Nicosia, Lefkosia or Lefkoşa

While you drive on the Cyprus roads, you will very occasionally see the name Nicosia. Instead, you will see signs pointing to Lefkosia. This is actually the name of the city as used by locals from both sides of the border. In the south the capital is known as Lefkosia and in the north – Lefkoşa. Nicosia, from the other side, is the internationally used name for the capital of Cyprus.

Generally, according to historical sources, the name of the city through the centuries was closer to Lefkosia. According to some sources, ancient Ledra was also known as Leucotheon. In the Byzantine literature is also present the name Leukousia. There are numerous theories about the origin of this name. According to one, the city was named after the son of Ptolemy I Soter, a companion of Alexander the Great, who revived the city in the 3rd century BC. Other theories say that the name came from an ancient tree that was commonly found on the island millenia ago. About Nicosia – well, we cannot say for sure where it came from either. It is believed that the name appeared during British times and remained in used after the liberation of the island.


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Some wonderful places to see near Nicosia

You may think that we have missed to see so many places in Nicosia. Well, we would say that we just left them for the next time. Meanwhile, we dedicated one lunch and one dinner to two real gems outside Nicosia. One of them is on the northern side of the border, the other one is in the south.

Kyrenia

Kyrenia is a beautiful city with very beautiful old harbour and an old castle. Kyrenia falls within the occupied territories in the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. So if you are travelling with a rented car from the Republic of Cyprus, it will not be easy to go there. Kyrenia is some 30 km north from Nicosia and the road is a highway.

Kyrenia harbour, North Cyprus
Kyrenia harbour, North Cyprus
Kyrenia castle
Kyrenia castle

We spent a wonderful evening there with a delicious dinner in one of the many nice restaurants along the harbour. If you manage to go there and want to escape the heat in Nicosia, we strongly recommend it. We were lucky enough to have the hospitality of Silvia and her husband Costas, who took us to Kyrenia with their car.

Lefkara

Lefkara village is slightly further but if you are staying in the Republic of Cyprus, you will not need to pass borders and going to the village will be much easier. The road is nice and not difficult, only mind the left driving.

Maria walking around Lefkara, Cyprus
Maria walking around Lefkara, Cyprus

Lefkara is probably one of the cutest villages in Cyprus. It is famous with its beautiful doors, stone buildings and its needlecraft art. On the streets of the village you will see how local women make these amazingly beautiful works with their hands. Lefkara is also very nice for lunch or dinner. Read more about Lefkara.

Lefkara village in Cyprus
Lefkara village in Cyprus

Where we stayed in Nicosia?

Thanks to our friends Diana and Silvia, we had the chance to spend our first two days in Cyprus without needing to rent a car. With the help of Nicosia Tourism Board we managed to find a wonderful hotel with great location in the old town, very close to Ledra street. In Centrum Hotel everybody was very kind, among the staff we also met fellow Bulgarians and in our room and the cozy lobby we found escape from the outside heat. If you are looking for a central location in Nicosia and do not have a car to care about, Centrum Hotel is a wonderful choice.

Our cozy and spacious room at Centrum Hotel in Nicosia, Cyprus
Our cozy and spacious room at Centrum Hotel in Nicosia, Cyprus

Mind that if you arrive in Nicosia by car, entrance to the old town is very limited and parking is difficult. Around the walls there are public parkings but I advise you to research their terms and prices in advance.

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Despite Nicosia is a wonderful place and there are plenty of things to see, we were impatient to discover the Cyprus countryside. So we rented a car and headed to one less popular but stunning beautiful part of Cyprus – the villages in Trodos mountains. We will tell you about this trip in another story.


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