Launchpad London: Nicosia culture break

Most visitors to Cyprus head to the resort towns clinging to the coast. But not me, at least not for my first visit. London has been warm this spring and I’m in no rush to scurry to a beach. I wanted a few days in an unfamiliar city wandering through alleys and into churches and mosques.

Good for me then that the divided Old City of Nicosia is teeming with churches, mosques, and winding side streets. To seal the deal, it’s also ringed by a 16th-Century fortification wall and split apart by a militarized border referred to as the Green Line. This border divides the Greek-speaking Republic of Cyprus in the south and the Turkish-speaking (and diplomatically almost completely unrecognized) Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus in the north.

South Nicosia feels prosperous and sleepy. Though there are department stores and even a Cinnabon, local shops predominate. The most remarkable feature of the city is likely its fortification wall, and the Famagusta Gate is the best place to get a sustained look at it. Several churches in the Old Town are worth a visit, among these are the architecturally schizophrenic Faneroméni and the city’s official cathedral, Áyios Ioánnis.

Another standout is the Cyprus Museum, located just outside the Old Town, with its extraordinarily deep collection of archaeological artifacts. Admission is a very reasonable €3.40. The museum is closed on Monday. There’s also a cute outdoor cafe to the side of the entrance, surrounded by a garden.

Everyone knows that the antidote to tired museum feet is a hammam, and South Nicosia boasts an amazing Turkish bath. At Hamam Omerye (across from the Omerye Mosque), two hours of relaxation run €20. A heavenly and highly recommended full body scrub costs another €20. The hammam has been painstakingly renovated and is a beautiful place to hang out for a few hours. The hamman is reserved for men on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday and women have run of the place on Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday. Monday is reserved for (one assumes heterosexual) couples.A visit to north Nicosia is easy as pie. Visitors enter on foot through one of two pedestrian crossings. The more central crossing is at Lidhras/Lokmaci Street. Visitors simply walk to the checkpoint, fill out a simple visa form with name, passport number, and nationality, and hand it over to a Northern Cypriot officer. He or she stamps the form and returns it. The return to south Nicosia is equally painless. The form is stamped again and returned to the visitor. Following this, a Republic of Cyprus official may give a passports a quick look, but hassles appear to be rare.

If south Nicosia feels sleepy, much of north Nicosia feels fast asleep. The central commercial streets of north Nicosia’s Old Town are home to very few familiar chains; the only one I recognized was Gloria Jean’s Coffee, which is widespread in Turkey. Local shops predominate and there are no hard sells from salespeople along the crowded streets. This acknowledged, I was convinced of the need for a slice of warm chocolate cake with orange peel at Özerlat Turkish Coffee. It was delicious.

Many historical sites in north Nicosia are devoid of tourists and in quite good condition. The cavernous Selimiye Camii mosque is one; adjacent is the Bedesten, used as religious and market space at different historical points. Nearby places of interest include the beautifully restored Eaved House and the Gothic Haydar Pasha Mosque. Entry to all of these sights is free. An undirected wander away from the tourist spots through the side streets of the Old City is recommended, as it provides a marked contrast to wealthy south Nicosia.

Be sure to pick up an excellent little map of north Nicosia’s Old Town and surrounding area at the Lidhras/Lokmaci Street crossing.

The upshot: Tourists who crave culture and find the prospect of political division more thrilling than discomfiting should include a visit to Nicosia in their Cyprus itineraries.

For the nitty-gritty on how much it costs to spend two budget-friendly nights in Nicosia, see yesterday’s logistics post.

Launchpad London: Nicosia logistics

Though largely bypassed by Americans, Cyprus is a very popular warm weather destination for Britons and other northern Europeans. Cypriot coastal resort towns include Ayia Napa, Larnaca, Limassol, Paphos, and Protaras. Planeloads of sun-hunters descend on Cyprus throughout much of the year; the island occupies a kind of sunny mid-haul position not unlike the place of the Caribbean and Mexico for many Americans.

For my second budget-friendly Launchpad London excursion I bypassed the coastal strip altogether and ventured instead to Nicosia, the divided city serving as the capital of both the Republic of Cyprus as well as the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus–the latter recognized only by Turkey.

Cyprus is served well by a range of airlines from London. From one or another of London’s four big airports, Larnaca in the southeast is reached by British Airways (Heathrow), Cyprus Airways (Heathrow), easyJet (Gatwick), Monarch (Gatwick and Luton), and Thomas Cook (Gatwick, Heathrow, and Stansted). Paphos in the southwest is served by Cyprus Airways (Heathrow), Monarch (Gatwick), Thomas Cook (Gatwick, Luton, Stansted), Thomson (Gatwick, Luton, Stansted), and Tor Air (Gatwick), while Ercan in the north sees indirect traffic from London Stansted courtesy of Pegasus Airlines.

I chose Monarch for my jaunt last week from London Gatwick to Larnaca because it was very cheap: £108 round trip, purchased, remarkably, just 12 days prior to departure. Once the credit card surcharge was taken into account, my grand total came to £113 ($182). I managed to hold onto that fare by refusing all the extras Monarch threw my way: reserved seats, meals, flight status texts, and insurance.

Between Larnaca and Nicosia there is an affordable shuttle van by Kapnos Airport Shuttle, just €7 to an anonymous parking lot in the south of the city. From there, it’s fifteen minutes by taxi (€10) into Nicosia’s Old Town.

Budget hotels are thin on the ground on both sides of the Green Line, the island’s buffer zone. Though I knew I would spend time on both sides of the Green Line, I researched hotels in south Nicosia only. Two fine business-class midrange hotels in south Nicosia’s Old Town are Royiatiko, where I booked my single room (€110 for a double) and Centrum Hotel (€99 for a double). Averof, 15 minutes from the Old Town by foot, is also well-liked (€60 for a double without breakfast). Airbnb lists a number of budget rooms in Nicosia. Rather unfortunately, none of these had a sufficient number of photos or reviews to make me feel confident about making a reservation.

Restaurants are reasonably priced. I snacked at cafes for €3 and had an unremarkable lunch for €10. My dinner at a fine Cypriot restaurant was considerably more expensive, though far cheaper than a simple lunch in most cities in Western Europe–and with gargantuan portions, to boot. A meze meal at Zanettos is big enough to do service as lunch and dinner. I counted 17 plates, some groaning with a range of delicious things. There were strips of liver, snails, mushrooms, eggs in tomato sauce, and plenty of greens. Along with an enormous bottle of KEO, the local beer, my outlay came to €23.

Visit Gadling tomorrow to read my two-day Nicosia culture break itinerary.

Five ways to get more European stamps in your passport

Lake Ohrid, Macedonia.

Yesterday, I wrote about the fact that European passport stamps have become harder and harder to get. The expansion of the Schengen zone has reduced the number of times tourists are compelled to show their passports to immigration officials. For most Americans on multi-country European itineraries, a passport will be stamped just twice: upon arrival and upon departure.

Where’s the fun in that?

There’s nothing wrong with enjoying your passport’s stamps. They’re souvenirs. So ignore the haters and treasure them. You won’t be the first to sit at your desk alone, lovingly fingering your stamps while daydreaming of your next adventure. You won’t be the last, either.

And if you are a passport stamp lover with a penchant for European travel, don’t despair. There are plenty of places in Europe where visitors have to submit their travel documents to officials to receive stamps. Some countries, in fact, even require Americans to purchase full-page visas in advance.

The Western Balkans remain almost entirely outside of Schengen. Russia, Belarus, Armenia, and Azerbaijan all require visas for Americans, while Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia do not. Immigration officers at the borders of all of these countries, however, will stamp your passport when you enter and when you leave. Turkey provides visas on arrival. These cost €15. Among EU countries, the UK, Ireland, and Cyprus remain outside of Schengen for the time being, while Romania and Bulgaria will soon join it.

Pristina, Kosovo.

Ok then. How to maximize the number of stamps in your passport during a European jaunt? Here are five ideas.

1. Fly into the UK or Ireland and then travel from either of these countries to a Schengen zone country. You’ll obtain an arrival stamp in the UK or Ireland and then be processed when entering and leaving the Schengen zone.

2. Plan an itinerary through the former Yugoslavia plus Albania by car, bus, or train. Slovenia is part of the Schengen zone but the rest of the former country is not. Traveling across the borders of Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro, Kosovo, Macedonia, and Albania will yield all sorts of passport stamp action.

3. Visit the following eastern European countries: Turkey, Moldova, Ukraine, Belarus, Russia, Georgia, Armenia, and/or Azerbaijan. Unavoidable passport stamp madness will transpire.

4. Visit San Marino and pay the tourist office for a passport stamp. The miniscule republic charges €5 to stamp passports. The bus fare from Rimini on Italy’s Adriatic coast is worth it for the bragging rights alone.

5. Visit the EU’s three Schengen stragglers, Cyprus, Romania, and Bulgaria. In the case of the latter two, visit soon.

Schengen and the disappearance of European passport stamps

Creative new use for border crossing posts at German/Austrian border.

In the late 1980s, an American spending a summer traveling across Europe with a Eurailpass would see his or her passport stamped possibly dozens of times. With a few exceptions, every time a border was crossed, an immigration agent would pop his or her head into a train compartment, look at everyone’s passports, in most cases stamp them, and move on. Every Eastern Bloc country required visas, some of which could be obtained at the border and others of which had to be applied for in advance.

Today, an American can enter the Schengen zone in Helsinki, fly to Oslo and then on to Amsterdam, proceed by train through Belgium, France, Italy, Slovenia, Austria, Hungary, Slovakia and Poland, then by bus to Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, and then by ferry back to Helsinki before catching a flight to Athens and landing in Greece without once needing to submit a passport to a border guard’s scrutiny.

The development of the Schengen agreement across Europe has altered the geopolitical map of the continent in many ways. For tourists, the development of the Schengen zone has simplified travel by drastically reducing the number of times a passport can be checked and stamped as national borders are crossed.

The Schengen Agreement is named after the town of Schengen in Luxembourg. It was here in 1985 that five countries-Luxembourg, Belgium, the Netherlands, West Germany, and France-signed an agreement to essentially create borderless travel between them. A model for this agreement had been created years before by the Benelux countries (Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg), which eliminated border controls back in 1948. The Nordic countries also did away with internal border posts, in 1958.

In 1995, the five original Schengen countries plus Portugal and Spain inaugurated the zone. In 1997, Austria and Italy joined. Greece followed in 2000 and the five Nordic countries joined in 2001. In late 2007, nine more countries joined the Schengen zone; most recently, Switzerland signed up in 2008.

Abandoned border crossing between Slovakia and Hungary.

Today, 22 European countries are part of Schengen. Every European Union country (save the UK, Ireland, Bulgaria, Romania, and Cyprus) belongs. Other members include EU holdouts Iceland, Norway, and Switzerland. The European microstates present a few complications. Monaco’s borders are administered by France, which makes the tiny principality a part of Schengen, while Liechtenstein’s accession, approved by the European Parliament in February, is pending. San Marino and the Vatican are de facto versus official members, while mountainous, landlocked Andorra remains outside of the zone altogether.

There are five EU countries not currently part of the Schengen zone. The UK and Ireland (as well as the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands) operate a Schengen-like agreement called the Common Travel Area. Neither country is obligated to join the zone.

Romania, Bulgaria, and Cyprus, however, are all bound by treaty to eventually join. Romania has fulfilled all the criteria for joining Schengen and Bulgaria is close to fulfillment as well. These two countries will accede together, likely later this year. Cyprus presents a more complicated situation given the division of the island between the Republic of Cyprus in the south and the largely unrecognized Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus in the north.

With the coming accession of the Western Balkans to the European Union, the Schengen zone will almost definitely continue to grow. Might it one day cover the entire landmass of Europe? Check back in two decades.

[Images: top image Flickr | Mike Knell; middle image Flickr | jczart]

J. Lo faces possible lawsuit from Cyprus hotel

Jenny from the Block might lose some of those killer rocks she’s got. A luxury hotel in northern Cyprus is threatening to sue Jennifer Lopez for $40 million after the pop star canceled a concert there, citing political reasons, according to Sky News.

Lopez was scheduled to perform at the Cratos Premium hotel on July 24, but backed out after the booking “outraged Greek Cypriots in the south of the island nation.” Apparently, J.Lo’s appearance triggered fury among Greeks who felt her concert gave legitimacy to northern Cyprus. The protesters sent thousands of notes and letters to J.Lo and her representation, causing the singer to back out of the show.

A spokesperson for J.Lo told celebrity gossip website TMZ:

“Jennifer Lopez would never knowingly support any state, country, institution or regime that was associated with any form of human rights abuse. “After a full review of the relevant circumstances in Cyprus, it was the decision of management to withdraw from the appearance. This was a team decision that reflects our sensitivity to the political realities of the region.”

J.Lo can still salvage the relationship with Cyprus, though. The hotel owner said the lawsuit will be dropped if Lopez reconfirms her concert at the hotel.