Editor's note: Last week's crash of Helios Airways flight 522 near Athens, Greece, brought new attention to the island of Cyprus, divided during a violent upheaval more than 30 years ago but free of conflict for nearly a decade. Earlier this year, Times travel writer Carol Pucci visited both sides of the Green Line, which divides the island's capital of Nicosia.
Sampling two cultures in the Cypriot capital of Nicosia
A five-minute walk from where a bunker manned by armed soldiers divides the Turkish north and Greek south sides of this Mediterranean island...
Seattle Times travel writer
Northwest Travel Guides
NICOSIA, Cyprus — A five-minute walk from where a bunker manned by armed soldiers divides the Turkish north and Greek south sides of this Mediterranean island, Starbucks manager Faye Avraamidou serves iced lattes to customers relaxing on a sidewalk patio.
The signs above the cash register are in Greek and English; the coffee prices are in Cypriot pounds.
When Avraamidou finds out that my husband and I are from Seattle, Starbucks' headquarters, she offers us drinks on the house.
"Welcome to Cyprus," she says, extending her hand.
A few days later, on the other side of the bunker, a man named Dervis introduces himself as we walk along a street lined with storefronts with names such as "Dubai Bazaar" and the "Istanbul Shop."
The signs are in Arabic and English; the prices are in Turkish lira.
Dervis, too, shakes our hands and welcomes us to Cyprus, not with a latte, but a slice of halva, a Middle Eastern sweet made with ground sesame seeds that his friends, the Yagcioglu family, have been making for five generations.
Imagine a country of 1 million people so small (about the size of Connecticut) that you can drive most distances in less time than it takes to go between Portland and Seattle. Then divide it two-thirds, one-third, each section with its own culture, religion, food, flag, language and traditions.
Nicosia is on the island of Cyprus, 45 miles south of Turkey. Cyprus is the third largest island in the Mediterranean, after Sicily and Sardinia.
The closest airport is Ercan in the North, serviced by Turkish Airlines and Cyprus Turkish Airlines, both operating flights in and out of Turkey. Cyprus Airways, the national airline of the Republic of Cyprus, is the major carrier flying into Larnaca and Paphos in the South from Athens and other European cities. Helios, a discount airline, also operates scheduled and charter flights into those airports from Europe. The airline is the subject of an investigation because of its recent crash that killed 121 people.
Most hotels are geared toward business travelers. The best are in the Greek sector. An economical choice is the Sky Hotel, a remodeled two-star within the old city walls of South Nicosia. Doubles with breakfast are $60. Information at www.skyhotel.ws or 011-357-226-668-80. Also in the old city is the three-star Classic Hotel. Doubles with breakfast are $135. Information at www.classic.com.cy or 011-357-22-664-006. From both hotels, it's about a 15-20 minute walk to the Ledra Palace border crossing into North Nicosia.
Americans are required to have a passport to enter Cyprus. North Cyprus requires visas, issued free at the borders.
Until recently, visitors who entered Cyprus through the North were not allowed to cross into the South. Those who arrived in the South could go to the North for the day, but had to be back by 5 p.m.
New European Union-related crossing regulations allow Americans and others to now cross back and forth freely. The U.S. State Department warns that travel policies are subject to change. For the latest information, see www.travel.state.gov, or contact the Embassy of the Republic of Cyprus at 202-462-5772.
The Republic of Cyprus and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus maintain separate tourist information offices. For information on South Nicosia, see www.visitcyprus.org.cy or call Cyprus Tourism at 212-683 5280. For information on North Nicosia, see www.tourism.trnc.net or www.trncwashdc.org, or call 202-887-6198.
The Nicosia Municipality and Cyprus Tourism in the Greek sector offers free walking tours in English around the southern half of the old city. Contact Cyprus Tourism for details. Maps for self-guided walks in North Nicosia are available at the tourist kiosk at the Kyrenia gate.
This is the island of Cyprus. Ruled during various periods by the Greeks, Romans, Ottoman Turks and British, it was politically and physically split in 1974, when tensions between Greek and Turkish Cypriots came to a head and Turkey intervened to stop a coup led a Greek military junta.
Nowhere are the contrasts more striking than in the ancient city of Nicosia, Europe's last divided capital.
One city, two cultures
The Green Line, a hodge-podge wall of concrete, barbed wire and sand-bagged barriers, divides a compact historical core, easy to navigate on foot and filled with Gothic cathedrals, Venetian-style buildings and Ottoman-era monuments and mosques. Between the two sides is an unpopulated buffer zone of overgrown weeds and abandoned homes and businesses guarded by United Nations peacekeepers and Greek and Turkish Cypriot soldiers.
Call it a slice of Berlin on the Mediterranean.
The Greek-dominated Republic of Cyprus, set up in the 1960s after the former British colony gained independence, is the only government recognized internationally, but it controls just the southern two-thirds of the island.
Turkish Cypriots set up their own government, and in 1983, the northern one-third became the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, officially recognized only by Turkey.
Both sides warmly welcome visitors, but until recently, border crossing regulations required tourists to essentially pick sides. Most Westerners chose to spend their holidays in the wealthier and more developed South.
Those rules were lifted when Cyprus entered the European Union last year, and for the first time in recent history, visitors can travel back and forth without restrictions.
A country broken in two
Elegant buildings with faded ochre facades and curved wrought-iron balconies line Lidras Street, the main pedestrian shopping street inside the Greek sector of Old Nicosia.
A new, modern city sprawls outward, but it's the compact old city, surrounded by a three-mile 16th-century Venetian wall, that attracts most visitors.
Starbucks anchors a busy corner near shoe stores, boutiques and cafes. Another pedestrian area called Laiki Yitonia is a miniature version of the Plaka district in Athens, with souvenir shops and sidewalk restaurants.
Walking along Lidras Street is a little like strolling along Main Street in a small town, then suddenly finding it blocked by a concrete wall.
While a U.N.-patrolled cease-fire line runs almost the entire length of the country, the Green Line cuts east and west through the old city, turning Lidras and every other north-south street into a dead-end.
Free of conflict since 1996, Cyprus today is a resort popular with sun-seeking Europeans. Most don't visit the city that's been the capital for 1,000 years, and from a beach chair, it's hard to visualize the island as a country broken in two.
In Nicosia, the reminders are everywhere.
The tourist office still hands out maps that leave out the street names in the North. Whole areas are labeled "inaccessible because of Turkish occupation."
At Holy Cross Cathedral, just west of Lidras Street, the rear door has been sealed off because half the church lies within the buffer zone. A sign on a vacant lot next door reads "Uncontrolled area. No Parking."
A few blocks from Starbucks, at the Lidras Street Lookout, tourists can climb a ladder and peer over a wall into the buffer zone that separates the two sides.
Hope for unification
From the 11th floor of the Ledra Museum-Observatory in the Shacolas Tower off Lidras, it's possible to view the entire city as it was built to be — united, rather than divided. Minarets jut from the top of the former St. Sophia Cathedral, now the Selimiye mosque, in the Turkish sector. Visible on a hillside in the North are giant side-by-side imprints of the Turkish and Turkish Cypriot flags.
An outsider can't help but be struck by the potential of replacing the abandoned buildings along the Green Line with the cultural equivalent of a footpath between Turkey and Greece.
The constant sound of jackhammers and construction signals some hope.
With the United Nations and European Union urging reunification of the country (Greek Cypriots last year turned down a United Nations proposal while Turkish Cypriots voted in favor of it), planners are anxious to jump-start a fledgling master plan for a unified Nicosia.
Projects funded by the European Union, the U.S. Agency for International Development and the United Nations are under way to restore neighborhoods on both sides.
One of the most ambitious is the Omeriye area, a South Nicosia neighborhood that was one of the city's wealthiest in medieval times.
Recently restored were the Omeriye Mosque, formerly St. Marie Church, converted to a mosque in the 16th century under Ottoman rule, and the elegant Omeriye Hamam where customers can now sip tea and snack on oranges while treating themselves to steam baths and body scrubs.
The red-and-white Turkish and Turkish Cypriot flags flutter just a few hundred feet away on the other side of a concrete barrier, but the only legal way to cross into the North from anywhere in Cyprus is at the Ledra Palace Hotel check point, a 20-30 minute walk from the Omeriye area.
No longer the luxury hotel it was before the war, the bullet-ridden Ledra Palace now serves as United Nations headquarters. The road leading to it is littered with run-down buildings, political billboards and handmade signs.
Next to T-shirt shops and a vendor selling rose-flavored ice cream is the Lipithos Refugee Center in a battered building with a facade of corrugated metal. A sign outside calls for "Turkish settlers and troops out of Cyprus."
The messages change as the road continues on closer to the Turkish sector border. A bright yellow sign proclaims the "Turkish Republic of North Cyprus Forever." Another says "This is not America."
Along the 'Blue Line'
Along the main shopping street of Kyrenia Caddesi in North Nicosia, a vendor wheels a cart filled with glazed ropes of fried dough. Another dabs the arms of passersby with jasmine-scented oils.
Poorer and lacking the Western-style boutiques and cafes found in the South, North Nicosia tempts visitors with the smell of baking bread and the sounds of the Muslim call to prayer.
Rooms inside the Ottoman-era Mevlevi Museum are filled with musical instruments and flowing, white robes used by Whirling Dervishes who observed mysterious rituals such as beginning and ending each meal with a pinch of salt.
The "Blue Line," a path laid out by the tourist office, leads visitors on a walking tour past stalls selling grilled sandwiches made with a rubbery white cheese called halloumi, a covered market and Gothic churches converted by the Ottomans into Turkish baths and mosques.
One of the star projects is the restoration of the Buyuk Han or Great Inn. The Ottoman-style inn was built around a stone courtyard in the 16th century and reopened recently with shops and restaurants.
"Hopefully, Nicosia will soon be reunited and the buffer zone will only be a reminder of the city's history and not a painful scar," says Anna Caramondani, a Nicosia planning and environmental consultant.
In the meantime, a few creative shopkeepers have come up with some ways to improve the atmosphere for the old city's 11,000 residents, many low-income immigrants who live near the Green Line.
A few feet from where a soldier stands at attention atop a lookout, one cafe owner has covered the concrete barrier next to his restaurant with a mural depicting volcanic rock formations in Cappadocia in Central Turkey.
It's not the most realistic of scenes, considering that Nicosia is surrounded by flat, dry plains. But when the alternative is concrete and barbed wire, it's sure to transport customers to a better time and place.
Carol Pucci: 206-464-3701 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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