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.