How we got there
Nicosia in Cyprus is literally a tale of two cities, on the south side is the Greek Cypriot part and north Nicosia is the Turkish occupied part known as Lefkosa. After the Berlin wall fell it became the last divided capital city in the world! On my recent visit to Cyprus visiting north Nicosia was pretty much the number one thing that I wanted to do (other than eat all the halloumi natch!) and experience a city with two different cultures, languages, religions, money, foods. I’ve visited Berlin and seen the wall, visited the museums and seen the videos but I was fascinated to see how a divided city with a tense relationship worked in reality and what it would be like to visit as a tourist.
We were staying in Paphos right down in the south west of the island, a fair distance from Nicosia, but it was still pretty simple to get there. We decided to get the public bus from the bus station in Paphos old town which takes approx. 2hrs and goes direct to Nicosia bus station, just a 5-minute walk to the border crossing to north Nicosia. You can’t drive a hire car over the border and at 13 Euro per person for a round trip ticket, plus being able to just sit back and enjoy the view on the journey it seemed like the best option. Buses also run direct from all the other major cities like Larnaca, Limassol, Aya Napa etc. The buses are comfortable, the drivers are friendly and speak English, easy peasy!
Crossing the Green line
The border between south and north Nicosia is known as the green line. One lady on the bus who has lived in Cyprus for 20 years said that it was because the British officer who divided the island between Turkish and Greek Cypriot only had a green pen, ha! I’ve no idea if that is true or not, but honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised. Access to the north is from Ledra Street, which is a fairly ordinary shopping street with cafes, McDonalds, H&M etc. Then you reach the border crossing, you need to show your passport on the Cypriot side and again on the Turkish side. You don’t need a visa if you are an EU citizen, it’s all pretty straight forward. In between the two passport controls is the UN controlled no man’s land, a derelict street of deserted apartments that separate north and south. It’s a little bit earie to see the empty buildings peppered with bullet holes and consumed by weeds. However, there is no access to this street and you can’t really linger long in this area either. But considering the extent of conflict between the two sides the border crossing doesn’t appear nearly as heavily militarized as you might expect. We did note that leaving Greek Cyprus the border guards were pretty grumpy and on entering Turkish controlled Cyprus the border guards were laughing and smiling and saying “welcome, welcome” to the lines of tourists coming through from the south. Make of that what you will!
Immediately across the border there was a stark contrast of a modern European city with hipster coffee spots and all the usual global brands in the south, to narrow streets filled with market stalls selling knock off clothes, knick-knacks and the air thick with the smell of barbecued meat from all the traditional Turkish restaurants. First things first we sat down at a little café and ordered some traditional Turkish coffee, which comes in tiny little cups but is like rocket fuel, and did a bit of people watching around the market square.
Once properly caffeinated we headed towards the Selimiye Camii mosque which was originally a Catholic cathedral called Saint Sophia. It’s a bit of a weird experience hearing the call to prayer coming from an obviously gothic looking cathedral. Non-Muslims are allowed inside, but not during prayer times, so we’d arrived at exactly the wrong time, damn it!
Looking to kill time until prayers were over we wandered the narrow lanes close to the mosque which was full of beautiful Ottoman era buildings. The Büyük Han just in front of the mosque is especially stunning. A courtyard filled with little cafes and traditional craft workshops that was apparently a sort of travelers Inn during the Ottoman rule. It’s a little quiet oasis away from the hustle and bustle of the main street and feels like stepping back in time.
We also found a traditional covered market selling loads of traditional Turkish foods from spices to hundreds of varieties of Turkish Delight, candied nuts and fruits. A perfect place to buy some souvenirs! Having given prayers plenty of time we wandered back to the mosque to have a look inside. You need to kick your shoes off outside and they ask that you be fully covered up including using a headscarf provided for women, although no one seemed to be managing this. I’ve been scolded at Buddhist temples for not having my legs covered fully before, but it all seemed very relaxed here. For the record I was appropriately dressed at Selimiye Camii, but plenty of people were just ignoring the signs! The inside isn’t the most spectacular mosque I’ve ever been in, but it was definitely worth a visit.
Tummies rumbling hard now it was time for lunch! There are loads of traditional restaurants in this area, so it wouldn’t be hard to just rock up somewhere, but I’d already spotted somewhere I fancied on Instagram that looked super cute and also had really good reviews. So, we headed to Bibliotheque, a restaurant, bar and club just a couple of minute’s walk from the mosque. We sat outside on their beautiful terrace and ate shish kebabs with pilaf rice, fries, pickles etc. washed down with Efes Turkish beer, yum. At 12 Euro for 2 people including complementary snacks it was also pretty good value.
It was hard not to be distracted by the gangs of cats swirling around our feet as we ate. I did give in a throw a few scraps their way, how could you not give in to the cute kitties???
After lunch we went to see a couple of Sufi Whirling Dervish guys do their thang in the church opposite Selimiye Camii mosque. They explained that they spin to sort of put themselves into a trance, which brings them closer to god. And that they are the only practicing Dervishes in Cyprus! At 7 Euro each it was pretty steep for a 30-minute show, but it was a really interesting experience and unlike anything I’d seen before.
There is a Dervish museum in North Nicosia where you can learn about their history, but we were starting to be pushed for time with the bus back to Paphos, so opted to have a beer/coffee at the Kumarcilar Han, just a few meters from the earlier Büyük Han. It was beautiful sunny little spot and we were plied with freshly picked oranges and candied nuts to go with our drinks. The oranges in Cyprus really are amazing, my mouth is watering just thinking about them!
By late afternoon it was time to cross the border back into the south. Passports in hand we queued to pass first at the Turkish Cypriot check point then again on the Greek Cypriot side. They were doing random bag searches for contraband, but we passed through straight away, and in the blink of an eye we were back in Europe.
Cyprus in general is a really interesting place, a European country on the edge of Asia, it’s been conquered and ruled by everyone from the Ottomans to the British and the east meets west blend of cultures are evident all over the island. But the stark contrast between the North and the south of the island is really apparent in Nicosia. I would highly recommend a day trip to north Nicosia if you’re visiting Cyprus.
Technically they use the Turkish Lira, however we found no issue paying in Euros, although the prices are slightly higher. I did pay for lunch in Turkish Lira using my Monzo card though which btw is a game changer, I can highly recommend it! I didn’t need to withdraw cash from the ATM which may/or may not all get used, and I didn’t have to use the rip off money exchange kiosks either making it very straight forward to visit just for the day like we did.
Is it safe?
In a word, yes! I realise I was only in North Nicosia for a day so I’m hardly an expert on safety, but as a tourist I felt perfectly safe. Everyone was so warm and welcoming, and crossing the border in both directions was very easy even with passport controls. I’ve had worse border crossing experiences even with friendly neighbours!
When we told people in the south that we were heading to North Nicosia there were a few raised eyebrows and a joking “well good luck”. But I think that’s just prejudices from years of conflict rather than any real danger of being caught up in any trouble.
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