Nicosia. City with border experience

Nicosia is the capital of Cyprus and Nicosia is the only still divided capital in the world. This status quo is certainly known to every tourist visiting the Mediterranean island. Less well known is how easy it is for EU citizens to cross the border that runs right through the middle of Nicosia’s old town and get their own picture of both sides of the city, and indeed the entire island.

Shacolas Tower Museum und Observatory im Süden von Nikosia. Rundumblick über die gesamte seit 1964 geteilte Stadt Nicosia / © Foto: Georg Berg
Shacolas Tower Museum and Observatory in the south of Nicosia. Panoramic view of the entire city of Nicosia, divided since 1964 / © Photo: Georg Berg

Border in mind

So far, it is rather the case that when preparing for a trip to Cyprus, a border builds up in one’s mind almost unnoticed. Greek-Cypriot sources praise the attractions in the south of the island, Turkish-Cypriot travel tips focus on the sights in the north. Hardly any offers combine destinations in the north with excursions to the south or vice versa. The Green Line, which has divided the island since 1964, also seems to set limits to one’s own vacation. But this does not have to be the case. Whether you choose a hotel in the south or accommodation in the north of Cyprus, whether you arrive at Larnarca airport in the south or Ercan airport in the north, you can get to know the whole island without any major problems. The best place to start is Nicosia. Curiosity and an identity card are enough.

Innenhof Büyük Han, Great Inn, die größte Karawanserei auf Zypern. Errichtet im Auftrag des ersten Herrschers der Ottomanen auf Zypern, Muzaffer Pasha, 1572. In der unteren Etage mit umlaufender Arkaden gibt es 10 Geschäfte. Noch heute treffen sich hier die Einheimischen zum Kaffee / © Foto: Georg Berg
Inner courtyard Büyük Han, Great Inn, the largest caravanserai in Cyprus. Built by order of the first ruler of the Ottomans in Cyprus, Muzaffer Pasha, in 1572. Even today, the locals meet here for coffee / © Photo: Georg Berg

The split fried egg

Nelin Tunç stands in front of a map of the city, showing Nicosia in all its outline, with fortified walls and jagged towers once built by the Venetians to ward off Ottoman conquest. They failed, but that’s another episode in Cyprus’ troubled history. What is really remarkable about this map is the complete illustration of the old town of Nicosia. Nelin Tunç is a certified guide, more than that, she is a Northern Cypriot, grew up in Nicosia and dedicated her thesis in architecture to her hometown. It’s hard to imagine more expertise for a city tour.

Nelin Tunc, zertifizierte Stadtführerin und Architektin während  einer Stadtführung vor einem Stadtplan der Altstadt von Nikosia innerhalb der venezianischen Mauer / © Foto: Georg Berg
Nelin Tunç, certified city guide and architect during a city tour in front of a map of the old city of Nicosia / © Photo: Georg Berg

We are standing in the Bandabulya, the large market hall in the northern part of Nicosia. Nelin Tunç points to a map of the city, “If the Old City is a fried egg, then we are standing in the yolk.” Already during the Ottoman rule (1571-1878), there was a bazaar on this spot. During the British administration (1878 – 1959) the big market hall was built. The main entrance at that time is now a dead end and ends directly at the Green Line. The circular city center with a diameter of 1.6 kilometers and a circumference of 5 kilometers along the old city wall has been cracked since 1964. At the time, a British major general drew the Green Line through the middle of Nicosia’s winding alleys to pacify the escalating civil war between Greek and Turkish Cypriots. Streets became dead ends, with barbed wire barricades erected at the end.

Markthalle in Nicosia. Bandabulya wurde 1939 während der britischen Kolonialzeit vollständig überdacht. Hier der ursprüngliche Haupteingang, der heute an einer Sackgasse an der Green Line liegt / © Foto: Georg Berg
Market hall in Nicosia. The Bandabulya was completely covered in 1939 during the British colonial period. Here is the original main entrance, now located at a dead end on the Green Line / © Photo: Georg Berg.
Geschäft mit einer großen Auswahl an Turkish Delight im Schaufenster. Bandabulya, Große Markthalle in nordzyprischen Stadtteil von Nikosia / © Foto: Georg Berg
Store with a large selection of Turkish Delight in the market hall / © Photo: Georg Berg

Thus, when walking through Nicosia, one encounters this one border on both sides. Nelin Tunç deliberately does not leave it out. Again and again, one looks into dead ends, sees bay windows and balconies in no man’s land or a church whose nave lies in the buffer zone but is accessible through the main portal in the south of the city. Significant buildings such as the Büyük Han, the great caravanserai, the British colonial-era courthouse, or St. Sophia Cathedral and present-day Selimiye Mosque are located in the north of the city. The atmosphere in the northern old town is bustling oriental and serene at the same time. The alleys are full of life, textile merchants offer African fabrics, fashion fumbles, fake luxury labels, towels, basketry or fresh vegetables. In between, coffee shops, restaurants and vendors offering samples of baklava and Turkish Delight.

Altstadt von Nikosia. Händler fahren mit Handkarren durch die Gassen und verkaufen Obst und Gemüse / © Foto: Georg Berg
Old town of Nicosia. Vendors drive through the alleys with handcarts selling fruits and vegetables / © Photo: Georg Berg
Traditionsreiches Kaffeegeschäft in der Altstadt von Nikosia mit eigener Kaffeerösterei / © Foto: Georg Berg
Traditional coffee shop in the old town of Nicosia with its own coffee roaster / © Photo: Georg Berg

Crossing Point Ledra Street Lokmaci Gate

Since 2008 it is also possible for tourists to cross the border between North and South Cyprus. Nowhere is this easier than in the old town of Nicosia. On foot and with the ID card you showed when entering the country, you can be in the other part of town in just a few minutes. The checkpoint is called Ledra Street in the south and Lokmaci Gate in the north. Nelin Tunç regularly guides participants from the south through the old city. Mostly they are tourists who do not want to miss the worth seeing north of Nicosia on their trip. Sometimes, however, they are also elderly Cypriots who, after long years of procrastination, make an effort to visit the northern part of Nicosia to review their memories.

Die Venezianische Säule am Atatürk Square. 1489 von den herrschenden Venezianern errichtet. Die Ottomanen stürzten die Säule und entfernten den auf ihr trohnenden venezianischen Markus-Löwn. Während der britischen Kolonialzeit würde die Säule wieder errichtet und mit einer Bronzekugel versehen. Im Hintergrund das Gerichtsgebäude aus der britischen Kolonialzeit / © Foto: Georg Berg
The Venetian Column in Atatürk Square. Erected in 1489 by the ruling Venetians. The Ottomans toppled the column. It would be rebuilt during the British colonial period. In the background, the courthouse from the British colonial period / © Photo: Georg Berg

It is highly recommended to see both sides of Nicosia. On one as well as on the other side of the barricades are the same houses. The massive sandstone buildings from the British colonial period are particularly striking. The closer the houses are to the border, the more dilapidated they look. On both sides, people have begun to restore the houses.

Haus aus der britischen Kolonialzeit aus hellen Sandstein im Norden von Nikosia / © Foto: Georg Berg
House from the British colonial period made of light-colored sandstone in the north of Nicosia / © Photo: Georg Berg
Barrikaden und Stacheldraht an der Green Line im Süden von Nikosia. Im Hintergrund sieht man die Spitzen der Minarette der Selimiye Moschee im Norden der Stadt / © Foto: Georg Berg
Barricades and barbed wire at the Green Line in the south of Nicosia. In the background you can see the tops of the minarets of the Selimiye Mosque in the north of the city / © Photo: Georg Berg

Starbucks and star architect

The Greek Cypriot south is a little more advanced in the rehabilitation of houses. But over the years, the charm of the historic city center has suffered here as well. Ledra Street, which is passed by everyone who uses the checkpoint in the old town, is dominated by Western chain stores. Here, the focus was on Starbucks instead of Turkish Coffee, and star architects were hired to revitalize the urban problem areas. Today, Ledra Street leads directly to a lavishly redesigned square.

Straßenschilder auf der Ledra Street im griechisch-zypriotischen Teil von Nikosia. Hier dominieren westliche Einkaufsketten / © Foto: Georg Berg
Street signs on Ledra Street in the Greek Cypriot part of Nicosia. Western shopping chains dominate here / © Photo: Georg Berg

Elefthería Square was completed in 2021 according to plans by Zaha Hadid Architects (London) after 11 years of construction. Geometric elements dominate on two levels. The incorporation of the old Venetian city wall from the 16th century and the use of the old moat as a green space is exciting. The design by star architect Zaha Hadid picks up on the themes of separation and division that characterize Cyprus and Nicosia in particular. The forms refer to the basic shape of the old fortress, a circle with the jags of the eleven bastions. The overall urban planning concept goes far beyond the design of the square and should one day represent the reunification of the city and the island. Political solutions for this are currently not in sight. This makes it all the more important for travelers and locals to be able to commute between the two parts of the city without much effort, in order to get their own impression and cultivate friendships.

Platía Eleftherías am südlichen Rand der Altstadt nach Plänen von Zaha Hadid Architects (London) wurde 2021 nach 11-jähriger Umbauzeit fertiggestellt zeigt geometrische Elemente auf zwei Ebenen / © Foto: Georg Berg
Platía Eleftherías on the southern edge of the old city according to plans by Zaha Hadid Architects (London) was completed in 2021 after 11 years of reconstruction shows geometric elements on two levels / © Photo: Georg Berg

In the north, too, Nelin Tunç tells us, the rehabilitation process is picking up speed. Paradoxically, this also has to do with the pandemic. The border crossings were closed again during the Corona period. The young people who were used to visiting clubs and restaurants in the south of the city discovered their own part of town. This remained the case even after the pandemic. Since beer is cheaper in northern Cyprus and going to restaurants is more affordable, more Cypriots and tourists also come to the north.

Blick vom Norden Nikosias in den Süden. Rechts Teile der Venezianischen Mauer. Im Hintergrund das ehemalige Luxushotel Ledra Palace / © Foto: Georg Berg
View from the north of Nicosia to the south. On the right, parts of the Venetian Wall. In the background the former luxury hotel Ledra Palace / © Photo: Georg Berg

Buffer zone in view

Nelin Tunç also leads her groups to less known corners of Nicosia. On the way to the buffer zone, they pass through the Samanbahçe neighborhood. It is the first social housing project in Cyprus. The whitewashed houses were built between 1918 and 1925 by the Saban Pasha Foundation. The complex consists of 70 houses. The hexagonal well in the center of the complex served as the central water supply for the residents. Each house consists of two rooms, bathroom, kitchen and a private courtyard. At that time, only local building materials were used, adapted to the climatic conditions. The houses are still inhabited today.

Samanbahce Viertel. Erstes Sozialwohnungs-Projekt auf Zypern. Errichtet zwischen 1918 und 1925 von der Saban Pasha Foundation. Die Anlage besteht aus 70 Häusern mit kleinen Innenhöfen. Der hexagonale Brunnen im Zentrum der Anlage diente der Wasserversorgung der Häuser. Die Häuser sind noch heute bewohnt / © Foto: Georg Berg
Samanbahce neighborhood. First social housing project in Cyprus. Built between 1918 and 1925 / © Photo: Georg Berg

With a diameter of 1.6 kilometers and divided into two halves, one quickly encounters the Venetian city wall that encloses the old town when walking around the city. Along the old moat with a direct view of the south of the city is the former luxury hotel Ledra Palace. It has long been the headquarters of the UN peacekeeping mission. There is also a border crossing here that can be used by pedestrians. The buffer zone here is much wider than in the old town. Just past the Greek Cypriot checkpoint is the Goethe Institute, which offers many bi-communal projects for the urban community. A little further on is the UN headquarters. You pass a photo exhibition documenting the last official talks on reunification. Only after a few hundred meters does the Turkish-Cypriot border post follow.

Goethe Institut in der Pufferzone in Nikosia. Auf dem Gelände finden bikommunale Projekte statt. Zu Fuß kann dieser Grenzübergang (Ledra Palace) passiert werden / © Foto: Georg Berg
Goethe Institute in the buffer zone in Nicosia. Bi-communal projects take place on the grounds. This border crossing (Ledra Palace) can be crossed on foot / © Photo: Georg Berg
Grenzübergang Ledra Palace, Nikosia. Blick aus der Buffer Zone auf den türkisch-zypriotischen Kontrollposten mit den Flaggen der Türkischen Republik Nordzypern und der Türkei / © Foto: Georg Berg
Ledra Palace border crossing, Nicosia. View from the buffer zone to the Turkish-Cypriot checkpoint with the flags of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus and Turkey / © Photo: Georg Berg

In addition to all the border experiences one can literally walk through in Nicosia, there are also stories that tell of community and the quest for coexistence and reunification of the island. Nelin Tunç leads her group to a fence above the Venetian city walls and points to an unadorned square just beyond the fence. It is the only place along the Green Line where people from both parts of the city can see each other. When the borders were closed again during the pandemic, she says, the bi-communal choir met here and Cypriots from both parts sang together. The Büyük Han Coffee Club is another example of the Cypriots’ sense of community. For the past 20 years, they have been meeting weekly in the Great Caravanserai.

Büyük Han, Great Inn, ist eine der touristischen Hauptattraktionen von Nikosia. Die alte Karawanserei besteht aus zwei Etagen. Im unteren Teil der quadratischen Anlage befinden sich Cafés und Restaurants. Seit 2004 trifft sich hier wöchentlich der Coffee Club / © Foto: Georg Berg
Büyük Han, Great Inn, is one of the main tourist attractions of Nicosia. The old caravanserai consists of two floors. In the lower part of the square complex there are cafes and restaurants. The Coffee Club has been meeting here weekly since 2004 / © Photo: Georg Berg

Travel tip – Travel without borders

To overcome the borders in one’s own mind, it is helpful to look for local tour operators and guides when preparing for the trip, who assist travelers in visiting both parts of Cyprus. Driving a rental car from north to south or vice versa is nowhere near as easy as crossing the checkpoints in Nicosia on foot. Cyprus Travel is a resident and also German speaking tour operator that offers tours to all regions of Cyprus and wants to encourage crossing the Green Line. From rental car tours, walking tours, day trips to cultural sites, island tours of several days with hotel booking, to city tours, everything is available that makes the island of Cyprus. A city tour of Nicosia with Nelin Tunç is also included.

Kyrenia Gate im Norden von Nikosia ist eines von drei Toren der Stadtmauer gebaut 1562 von den Venezianern. 1931 während der britischen Kolonialzeit wurde die Mauer um das Tor entfernt um Zugang für die Autoverkehr zu schaffen / © Foto: Georg Berg
Kyrenia Gate in the north of Nicosia is one of three gates of the city wall built by the Venetians in 1562. In 1931 during the British colonial period, the wall at the gate was removed to provide access for vehicular traffic / © Photo: Georg Berg.

At the end of the city tour, Nelin Tunç takes us to a very special place for her. Directly at the Kyrenia Gate, at the entrance to the park along the old city wall, are the sculptures of two men with dogs. She puts her hand on the shoulder of one of them and introduces us to her father. Kemal Tunç was a well-known and popular Cypriot actor, theater director and author. He wrote the skits about Alikko and Caher, which are about the everyday life of the Northern Cypriots in the troubled and dramatic 1960s. Nelin Tunç, who studied architecture in Vienna, offers her guided tours of Nicosia and other cities and regions of Cyprus in German, Turkish and English.

Nelin Tunc an dem Denkmal für ihren Vater Kemal Tunc. Der bekannte Schauspieler und Autor starb 2007. Das Denkmal steht nahe am Kyrina Gate in Nikosia und erinnert an die beliebte Radiosendung und Theaterstücke Alikko und Caher, die das Leben von Türkisch-Zyprioten um 1964 zum Thema haben / © Foto: Georg Berg
Nelin Tunç at the monument to her father Kemal Tunc. The well-known actor and author died in 2007. The monument stands near Kyrina Gate in Nicosia and commemorates the popular radio program and plays Alikko and Caher, about the lives of Turkish Cypriots around 1964 / © Photo: Georg Berg

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The research trip was supported by Cyprustravel.

Travel Topics on Tellerrand-Stories

Our mode of operation is characterized by self-experienced, well-researched text work and professional, vivid photography. For all stories, travel impressions and photos are created in the same place. Thus, the photos complement and support what is read and carry it further.

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