Though some geographers argue that Cyprus is actually part of Asia, the third largest island in the Mediterranean Sea has long been considered culturally European. Located almost at the centre of the island, Nicosia is the world’s last divided capital city, a legacy from the war of 1974. Curious to explore such a place, we took a day trip to the Cypriot capital while spending a holiday on the island. Given that the city is split in two, this day trip looks just at the southern part of the city, the capital of the south or the Republic of Cyprus.
At a glance:
Republic of Cyprus / Κυπριακή Δημοκρατία (Kypriakí Dimokratía) / Kıbrıs Cumhuriyeti
Capital:Nicosia (Λευκωσία (Lefkosíα) in Greek, Lefkoşa in Turkish)
Currency: Euro (EUR)
Area: 5,896 km2 (Republic of Cyprus only)
Population: 864,200 (Republic of Cyprus only)
National Day: October 1st (Republic of Cyprus only)
National Anthem: Ύμνος εις την Ελευθερίαν (Ýmnos Eis Tin Eleftherían) – Hymn to Freedom
Highest Point: Όλυμπος (Olympus) – 1,952 metres (6,404 ft)
Famous for: beaches, ancient ruins, Halloumi cheese
- George Kallis (film and TV composer)
- Touker Suleyman (entrepreneur)
- Anna Vissi (singer)
- Hussein Chalayan (fashion designer)
- Copper has been mined in Cyprus since 4,000 BC and the island has been an important source of the metal since Antiquity. Its Latin name ‘aes сyprium’ even means ‘metal of Cyprus’ and the colour also features on the flag of the Republic of Cyprus.
- According to legend, cats were introduced to Cyprus by Emperor Constantine’s mother in an attempt to rid the island of snakes. In 2004, the remains of a cat were unearthed in a grave in Shillourokambos that were thought to date from 9,500 years ago. As it was buried with a person, this suggests cats were domesticated almost 6,000 years earlier than previously thought!
- With its crystal clear waters, white sandy beaches and yearly average of 340 days of sunshine, Cyprus has long been a popular holiday destination. The island boasts an impressive 64 Blue Flag Beaches and according to both the European Environment Agency and European Commission, Cyprus has some of the cleanest beaches in Europe.
- Cyprus has a long standing association with love and romance. According to Greek mythology, the goddess of love and beauty Aphrodite rose from the sea near Paphos, while the Egyptian queen Cleopatra received the island as a gift from her lover Mark Antony in 40BC!
- Part of the Eurovision Song Contest’s most infamous voting bloc, Cyprus first entered the contest in 1981 and has awarded Greece almost 350 points since then! Cyprus currently holds the record for most appearances at Eurovision without a win, their best result to date coming in 2018 when Eleni Foureira and ‘Fuego’ came 2nd.
Although Cyprus technically has two official languages, Greek and Turkish, they are not as intermixed as they once were following the conflict and division of the island – meaning you’re very unlikely to hear Turkish spoken south of the Green Line. One of the world’s oldest documented languages with over 3500 years’ worth of written records, Greek has its own alphabet and is spoken in Cyprus, Greece and also in pockets of Italy, Albania and Armenia. The Greek spoken in Cyprus has its own unique character, but is still completely intelligible with Standard Greek, save for a few small vocabulary and occasionally phonological differences. Here are some phrases in Greek to help you navigate Cyprus and the Greek-speaking world.
|Hello||Γειά σας||yah sas|
|How much does this cost?||Πόσα κοστίζει αυτό;||poh-sa ko-sti-zey af-toh|
|Do you speak English?||Μιλάτε αγγλικά;||mi-lah-te ang-li-kah|
|I don’t understand||Δεν καταλαβαίνω||dehn ka-ta-la-vay-no|
|Tell me again you love me||Πες μου και πάλι μ’αγαπάς||pes mou kai pah-li ma-ga-pahs|
Unusually for a capital city, Nicosia doesn’t have its own functioning airport. Following heavy war damage, Nicosia International closed in 1974 and has never reopened. The closest airport to the Cypriot capital is at Larnaca, some 40 km south-east of the city and about an hour away by bus. Flying to Paphos International is also an option, but the airport is 140 km away and the transfer will take nearly 2 hours.
What to do:
Known as the Murder Mile during the turmoil of the 1950s, nowadays Ledras Street is the centre of the modern capital and the narrow pedestrianised street is crammed with shops and restaurants. While it feels like any other busy shopping thoroughfare in the world, the far end of the street leads into the demilitarised UN Buffer Zone – more commonly known as the Green Line. Supposedly named after the colour of the pencil it was drawn onto the map in, there’s little to see in the abandoned side streets that have been sandbagged up since 1974 but it’s worth remembering that for over 3 decades this border was completely closed. The Ledras Street Crossing reopened in 2008, but if you want to take a look at North Cyprus without crossing the Green Line then head around the corner to Shacholas Tower. While this fairly ordinary-looking concrete tower block is only 50 metres tall and just scrapes into the top 20 tallest buildings in all Cyprus, what lacks in elegance it more than makes up for in location. Up on the 11th floor, you’ll find an observatory that gives you a fantastic and unrestricted 360° view of the whole city, including North Nicosia and the surrounding mountains. There’s also a small museum with a collection of old photographs of Nicosia’s changing cityscape.
A short walk away from the tower you’ll spot the minaret of the Ömeriye Mosque, which was built in 1571 on the site of a 14th century church. Local legend claims it was the first place in Cyprus where Turkish Muslims prayed and it’s still a working place of worship today. If it’s not a time of prayer, you can enter to have a look around the mosque’s peaceful interior. Just across the street, the Ömeriye Hamam opened as a public baths and place of healing in the 16th century but its stone doorway dates from some 200 years earlier. Closed for many years, the building was renovated and reopened in 2003 as an award-winning Turkish bath and spa. For a look at home life during the Ottoman period, head down the street to the Hadjigeorgakis Kornesios Mansion. This two storey sandstone house was built in 1793 as the residence of an Ottoman government official and converted into an ethnographic museum in 1960. For a small fee, visitors can explore the house’s beautifully furnished rooms including the impressive carpeted reception room, as well as an arched courtyard and gardens with their own private bathhouse.
Just around the corner behind the white statue of Makarios III, the neo-Byzantine palace Archiepiskopikó Mégaro was finished in 1960 and is the official office and residence of archbishop of Cyprus. Though closed to the public, it’s still worth stopping by to admire its impressive columned façade. Several of Nicosia’s museums can be found in the buildings nearby including the Byzantine Museum and the Cyprus Folk Art Museum, both of which look back at Cypriot history over the centuries. For a more recent look into history, the National Struggle Museum deals with the Cypriot fight to end British colonial rule. Though deeply thought provoking, just bear in mind if you do want to visit that the museum’s opening times seem to be a law unto themselves despite the published timetable. Directly next door, the slender sandy coloured Kathedrikós Naós Agíou Ioánni or St. John’s Cathedral was built over 14th century ruins in 1662. Deceptively plain from the outside, the lavish murals inside date from the 1750s and make St. John’s the only church in Nicosia that still has its original frescoes.
Stretching almost 5km around the old core of the city, the Venetian Walls were built in the late 1560s to replace the medieval defences and protect Nicosia from impending invasion – indeed, the Ottomans conquered the city before the walls were ever completed. Repaired following the siege, the walls are still largely intact today though most now overlook the modern scenes of roads, car parks and sports courts. Some however, like the leafy Podocatoro Bastion, are home to public green spaces that make for great places to stroll and relax. Amidst the trees here you’ll find the white stone Liberty Monument, erected in 1973 to honour those who fought for Cypriot independence. Featuring several life-sized statues, the memorial shows Cypriot freedom fighters raising a prison gate to free their fellow countrymen, all overseen by Liberty herself. Heading further through the park, you’ll spot the few remaining arches of the Nicosia Aqueduct and also the sloping stone roof of the Famagusta Gate. Built in 1567 as the chief entrance into the city, the vaulted look-out post also served as a warehouse before being transformed into cultural centre in 1980.
The scars of the past are still clearly visible in Nicosia and offer a sobering reminder of the turmoil the island has witnessed. And although some wounds are still raw, the small Cypriot capital nevertheless remains a laid-back city with a lot to offer visitors. With its historic core, mix of influences and a border through its heart, Nicosia may be unusual, but it’s a fascinating place and a must for anyone hoping to better understand this beautiful island.
A big thank you to Graham Rimmer for all your help and insight into Cyprus, and for answering all my questions – Ευχαριστώ πολύ!
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