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.