I never used to take my passport when I went shopping, but then I’ve never lived in Cyprus before. Now my well stamped border paper and passport are an essential part of a trip to the city. That’s because shopping in the country’s capital is a peculiar experience.
Yesterday I strolled down Nicosia’s Ledra Street with a couple of family members, we past some familiar names like Debenhams, Peacocks and Starbucks and could have been walking through any European city centre. The several storey buildings loomed above us and cafe tables and A-frame blackboards with enticing offers spilled onto the pavement. But after a few minutes the shop fronts disappeared and we were wandering past a bare section of walls and barricaded fencing before we found ourselves in a queue at a customs kiosk. Our passports were examined and stamped and we continued on down the street into another world of shops and stalls, slightly scruffier this time, but also spilling onto the pavement with an array of goods, where new scents and sounds were on offer. It was a little like walking through the wardrobe into Narnia, but without the fur coats. The currency had changed to Turkish Lira within a few metres, yet it was the same street and the same city. This other side of the city looked poorer though and more run down, there were less high rise buildings and many more crumbling sections of concrete and simple shops selling anything from fake designer T-shirts and handbags to rolls of material and chunky baskets.
Stopping to admire some tablecloths, a stall-holder and his son began to chat to us.
“So you’re staying on the rich side and visiting the poor side are you?”
We felt a bit embarrassed by this and I promised to return another day, when I had room and time to buy a basket and a tablecloth. They pointed out the barricade at the end of a side street and shook their heads, “We’re not Turkey, we’re one Cyprus…it’s one country. We’re Cypriot”, they explained. Winding our way through the narrow streets of shops I knew what I was heading for, but which streets led there was another matter.
After taking a circuitous route we eventually found the ‘Buyuk Han’ or Great Inn which dates back to the 1500s. Walking in through the archway we found ourselves in a walled courtyard lined with arches in a soft sandstone. In the middle was a domed hexagon shaped building, also with arches at its base. Round the corner wide steps led to the upper floor, which looked down on the courtyard, with rooms leading off, where travellers, and I imagine crusaders, would have stayed, leaving their animals to rest down below. Now the rooms are filled with artists and craftspeople, selling anything from painted glassware to jewellery and sculpture. It hasn’t lost its atmosphere though and sitting at the cafe tables below you could imagine being transported back to the days of Robin Hood and Richard the Lionheart, with camels and horses appearing in a ball of dust through the archway. In fact, this place wouldn’t have been there in that era…but why let the facts get in the way of my imagination?
Nicosia is filled with history and culture and I was keen to show off some of the bits I could remember from a fleeting visit a few weeks earlier. But I’m not the best with directions and maps and unfortunately my sister is no better! Still, we found ourselves at the ancient Cathedral of St Sophia, now a mosque. The massive gothic building had been carpeted throughout, two minarets tower above the arched windows and many of the carvings and statues have been chipped away to remove the Christian symbols. But it couldn’t take away the similarities with many gothic English Cathedrals. Carvings of leaves still adorned the door arches and curled themselves around pillars at the entrance, but it wasn’t quite Southwell Minster. I slipped off my shoes, wound a scarf round my shoulders and head and stepped inside. It was strange to feel the carpet on my bare feet and look up at the vaulted roof and massive pillars – Richard the Lionheart had been crowned King of Cyprus right here. If these walls and pillars could speak, what would they tell me?
We were keen to see some more of the history and walk along the massive Venetian built city walls, so after pouring over a map and turning it round a few times to see if that helped, we headed off in what we thought was the right direction. One of the party was sighing frequently and looking over his shoulder as the streets became more and more empty and the houses increasingly dilapidated. “Where are we going?” was the question…we were heading for the city walls of course, patience was required. More twists and turns and the only people we saw were children peering from behind half open doorways. A shrill whistle just beside us made everyone jump and we peered round to see a clutch of small children giggling at us from behind a parked truck. I think they knew something. Sometime later and no wall in sight we gave up on the map reading and wound our way back in the direction of the minarets, through more deserted alleyways and streets and even a motorbike graveyard hidden behind a corrugated fence. A collective sigh of relief was breathed when shops appeared and other people were walking past us! The wall was also eventually found, after we asked for directions (who does that?). Below the huge Venetian built walls we looked down into the massive moat which runs right round the city and part of which hosts a shared football pitch in the middle of no-man’s land, where young people from both sides can play. No matches were on today. Looking across the vast dried out moat between the walls we could see the UN headquarters, with its flag fluttering on top, in a former hotel that had seen much better days.
Finding our way back to the border crossing involved tackling another maze of streets that frequently led us to dead ends and barriers with a red sign of a soldier with a gun and a camera crossed out marked as a ‘forbidden zone’. As we skirted the buffer between north and south, the buildings became more and more derelict, some with war damage and many crumbling through neglect. Later, after we eventually crossed the border from one shopping street into another, we paused to look at the narrow gap between the buildings in no-man’s land. This little stretch of land, barely 10 feet wide, where several storey buildings towered above us, is called ‘Spear Alley’ after an incident where a soldier was killed by one from the opposite side simply leaning across with his weapon and running him through with his bayonet. Apparently at one time bayonets were strapped to broom sticks and there was jousting across the alley from the balconies above. This area of the city is called ‘the Green line’ and is a constant reminder, to all those who cross, of the deep divisions that remain. A few steps from Spear Alley as the first European shops emerged there was a bench and plastered into the wall above it a tile which read: PEACE. We sat there for a moment and wondered how long before that will become a reality for the Cypriots living on both sides of the line. I wasn’t in the mood for shopping anymore.