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: Oslo budget strategies

In hindsight, Oslo was probably the worst possible inaugural destination for a budget travel series. And in fact my first few hours in Oslo, though a great deal of fun, were a budget traveler’s nightmare. An hour in and $90 down, I had to wonder if I would be able to come up with any useable Oslo budget strategies at all.

A one-way journey on the airport express train, which sets off from a vast concrete bunker-like station at the airport, costs 170 NOK ($29). Ouch. While cheaper than a taxi, $29 is a bruising amount to shell out for an airport train.

Never mind. There is lunch to eat. My first stop is Grünerløkka, a hip neighborhood and the home of Delicatessen, a tapas restaurant on my advance research list. Delicatessen is a very appealing place. Lighted candles–a standard feature in Oslo restaurants, it turns out, at least during the darker months–grace every table. Heavy wooden tables give the place an almost rustic feel. The waiters are friendly. I took my time with the menu, ordering a chorizo sandwich, a small salad, and finally a crema catalana. For a moment, I forgot about the objective of my journey. The chorizo, from La Rioja, was delicious. The bill was not. With tip, my meal plus coffee cost 350 NOK ($60).

Clearly I needed to rethink this whole restaurant thing. I had to get to a supermarket. At the discount chain Rimi, I bought a peppery salami, two rolls, some yogurt, bananas, and mineral water for 125 NOK ($22). Again, not cheap, but the haul was big enough for my dinner and breakfast the following day. For lunch on my second day, I ate a vegetarian smørrebrød at Café Tekehtopa on St. Olav Plass in central Oslo, relatively cheap at 79 NOK ($14). And then, in a stroke of unplanned luck, I was treated to dinner by Oslo resident Sam Daams of Travellerspoint, whose acquaintance I’d made via Twitter.

But if I thought I was going to close the evening without another moment of sticker shock, I was mistaken. We met several of Sam’s friends, all foreign men involved with Norwegian women, at the newish Schouskjelleren Mikrobryggeri, a lively cellar microbrewery and bar in Grünerløkka, and I bought a round of beers for the crew. Four pints came to 292 NOK ($52). I gazed off in a miniature stupor, trying to figure out precisely how much I’d just spent, while Sam and his friends laughed in recognition. This was, after all, an experience they’d all had previously.So where are Oslo’s budget-friendly bargains?

Several museums are free, including the Oslo Museum‘s three museums (Oslo City Museum, Intercultural Museum, and Theatre Museum); the National Museum – Architecture, the Museum of Decorative Arts and Design, the National Gallery, and the Museum of Contemporary Art (all of which fall under the authority of the National Museum of Art, Architecture, and Design); the National Library; and DOGA (the Norwegian Design and Architecture Centre).

On the retail front, things are grim for bargain hunters, although the Marita Stiftelsen charity shop on Markveien had some funky second-hand goods for 5 NOK ($1).

How might my costs have been lowered? I could have utilized the services of a regional train instead of the airport express train for the airport-center link. The regional train runs 110 NOK ($20) for a one-way journey, a roundtrip savings of $18 against the airport express. And while I slept in one of Oslo’s very least expensive beds, booked through airbnb, a more serious budget traveler would find cheaper accommodations in a private room booked through the tourist office for as little as 300 NOK ($53) per night. A campground site (during the summer months only) would be cheaper yet, and free accommodation options like Couchsurfing are of course the cheapest of all.

Sticking exclusively to supermarkets for food and drink is the safest bet, as even the fast food kebab spots that provide budget meal relief in other parts of Europe are pricey in Oslo.

Check out the introductory post in the Launchpad London series.

Launchpad London maiden journey: Midweek jaunt to Oslo

London is one dizzyingly well-connected city, uniquely positioned as a hub for air travel around Europe and beyond. The city has five airports–Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted, Luton, and London City–six if you count tiny Southend. In 2010, over 127 million passengers were carried through these airports. By way of contrast, Paris, the next biggest city in Europe in terms of passenger numbers, saw 83 million people pass through its two airports in 2010.

With this post, Gadling launches a new series designed to call attention to London as a launchpad for travel around Europe and beyond–from daytrip locations just outside the borders of Greater London to destinations as far afield as Dubai. We’ll provide an overview of transportation options and also provide a budget-minded navigation of each destination.

First up: OsloSeveral airlines fly from two London airports to Oslo. From London Heathrow, British Airways and SAS fly to Oslo-Gardermoen, the city’s main airport. From London Gatwick, Norwegian Air Shuttle flies to Oslo-Gardermoen and Ryanair flies to Oslo-Rygge, a secondary airport south of the city. When I searched for fares on Kayak, Ryanair’s flights to Oslo-Rygge were cheapest, though I decided against this option in order to avoid having to deal with the lengthy transit time between the center of Oslo and Oslo-Rygge.

The cheapest flight I found to Oslo-Gardemoen was flown by Norwegian Air Shuttle, a Norwegian low-cost airline with good reach across Europe and an especially strong network throughout Scandinavia. My flight ran £95.60 ($153). I booked it just six days prior to departure.

My accommodation, organized through airbnb, cost me $152 for two nights. The $76 nightly charge breaks down as follows: $68 for the room plus a $16 airbnb service fee. Budget watchers will observe that I’ve spent $305 before arriving in Oslo.

My accommodation via airbnb amounts to one of the cheapest beds in Oslo, though single rooms at Ellingsens Pensjonat, the least expensive Oslo guesthouse I came across during research, are cheaper at 400 NOK ($70) per night.

Bargain-hunters can find relatively low rates in private accommodation. Rooms in private homes can be booked at the train station tourist office on the day of requested accommodation. These rooms begin at around 300 NOK ($53) per night, and there are dozens of private Oslo rooms on offer depending on season.

Want more options? Bed & Breakfast Norway lists the following accommodations with single rooms available for under 400 NOK per night: the centrally-located Den Blå Dør for 400 NOK ($70) and Enerhaugen for 370 NOK ($65); and Ambiose Bed & Breakfast for 370 NOK ($65) and Bed & Breakfast Poppe for 250 NOK ($44), both of which are located on the outskirts of Oslo. During the summer, camping is another budget-friendly accommodation option. From June 1 through September 1, sites for one or two people can be booked at Ekeberg Camping‘s Oslo City Camp starting at 180 NOK ($32) per night.

I set off with a backpack containing two changes of clothes, my passport, a small present for my hostess, a notebook, a print-out of my ticket, my researched list of museums, neighborhoods, and restaurants, and my iPad. And my heavy winter coat, which I had to drag out of storage.

My objectives are straight-forward: to explore Grünerløkka, Grønland, and the city center; to hunt for good things to eat (especially hearty, rustic Norwegian fare and, if I’m lucky, some good Pakistani grub); to explore the local design scene; to avoid frostbite; to run into Stella Mwangi; and lastly, to remain financially solvent.

For another look at how a new home base opens up travel destinations, check out Gadling contributor Meg Nesterov’s Weekending series. In this series, the author details her travels from her home base in Istanbul to Bosnia, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Greece, Lebanon, and around Turkey.

[Image: Flickr | Hyougushi]