For decades, the most famous (or rather infamous) barrier in the world was the Berlin Wall. Surrounding the entire West Berlin, it separated the city for 28 long years. But in 1989, it all came to an end. The people’s will helped collapse the concrete monster and Germany was once reunited again.
Another famous divided capital was Jerusalem, from 1948 to 1967. For 19 years, the Jordanians occupied what became “East Jerusalem”, expelling all of its Jewish residents and demolishing synagogues and cemeteries. For these 19 years, the Jews were even banned from their holiest place—the Wailing Wall. After the Six Day War in 1967, however, Jerusalem was once again united and declared Israel’s undivided eternal capital.
Unfortunately, the Cypriots haven’t been that lucky. When the Turkish army captured the northern part of Cyprus in 1974, the city of Nicosia was cut in half to a Greek Cypriot zone in the south, and a Turkish Cypriot zone in the north. To this day, the city is divided and separated by a barrelled and barb-wired fence, albeit the wall that once divided the two sides was demolished in 2008. Before removing the wall, the same year, the Greek and the Turks of Cyprus came to a historic agreement to open crossings between the two sides of Nicosia; despite that, the city remains in two halves, separated by a narrow UN buffer zone to keep the two sides from slitting each other’s throats.
A tale of two cities (that are one)
All right, that was a major exaggeration. These days, there is no visible hostility between the Greek and the Turks. EOKA-B is long gone and the massacres that took place in and around 1974 are history that is hopefully never to be repeated. The Turkish Cypriots are welcome to visit their former homes on the Greek side (although not vice versa, see Famagusta), and everyone has the right to cross from one side to the other.
On the other hand, the Turks like to show off that they are the masters of (Northern) Cyprus. When you approach Nicosia from the south on road A1, you can see a giant flag of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus on a hillside in the Turkish side. It’s as if the Turks (yes, the Turks, not the Turkish Cypriots) deliberately want to rub under the Greek Cypriots’ noses that they’re there and they aren’t going anywhere. The flag is made of hundreds of lights and when dark, the lights are turned on. It’s a constant reminder of the Turkish power and the division of the island.
The most famous pedestrian crossing in Nicosia is at Ledra (Lidras) Street where you pass a narrow corridor, fill up the Turkish Cypriot immigration card (takes two minutes, you write down your name, document number and nationality), present your passport (ID-card is enough for EU citizens) and go enjoy a nice ice cold Efes. When entering the Turkish side, only the Turks check one’s documents, but when coming back, there are checks on both sides. The Turks also stamp the immigration form, but from some people they ask whether they want a stamp in their passports—as a souvenir. Interestingly, the immigration cards are not taken away from people, just stamped when entering and leaving the Turkish territory—which makes one question their entire point.
There are no major differences between the two sides of Nicosia, only the language and the products you see are different. On both sides, houses and streets in the city centre are rather worn out, but look quite the same as any southern European city or town. The outskirts are slightly different as in the southern part of the town there are more new and renovated houses, and the business district of southern Nicosia seems to be flourishing. Admittedly, the Greek Cypriots are better off in terms of earnings and GDP than their northern neighbours, and they also get billions of euros EU funding every year that the Turkish Cypriots can only dream of.
People are happy, and that’s the southern way
And it’s not as if the Turkish Cypriots get enormous help from their occupiers. The Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus is not a major concern for Ankara and the Turkish government only provides them with thousands of soldiers for “protection”, the rest the Turkish Cypriots have to be able to manage themselves. And unfortunately for them, they’re not very good at it. For comparison, the nominal GDP per capita in the Republic of Cyprus is $28,237, in the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus it’s a mere $16,158.
But on both sides, the people look happy, minding their every-day business and leading their daily lives. Only constant prayer calls from the mosques remind you that you’re in an Islamic country. Although, seeing the locals drinking alcohol proves that the Turks are clearly very secular, liberal people. It’s said that the Turks are traditionalist in the sense that they obey the traditional laws of Islam (like circumcision), but don’t attend religious services very often and try to enjoy their lives as any southerner.
One major difference between the two sides of Cyprus is prices. When Greek Cyprus’s prices are similar to these of Spain and Italy (i.e. relatively cheap compared with northern Europe), then the Turkish side can amaze you with utter cheapness. For €15 you can get a huge lunch for two with all sorts of salads and sauces plus two large bottles of Efes. And food, as always in the Orient, is absolutely divine. Add Turkish coffee, buttermilk-like drink Ayran and brilliantly cooked kebabs, and you’re in a gourmet paradise.
Be careful when doing business
For €30, a petrol station rents you a relatively new, automatic Volkswagen Polo for a day. (The downside is, the car may very well break down at some point; ours had about two litres engine oil over the limit and when going uphill, it decided to die for a while. I resurrected it, but the engine warning light remained on and generated a fair amount of worry for me.)
The official rate between the Turkish lira and the euro is about €1=TRY2.5, and the euro is widely accepted on the Turkish side. However, beware, in about 60% of the places, they divide the TRY sum by two when calculating the price in euros. True, even with this rate, everything is still cheap as chips, but just be informed.
One thing that can ruin one’s impression about the entire “country” is the way people do business. You have to be constantly on your toes, careful that someone is not trying to cheat you in any way. When we took back the rental car, naturally the gentleman who rented it to us wasn’t there. And the two gentlemen who were there had no idea we had rented the car. So they tried to claim (and they didn’t speak, or pretended not to speak English) we had taken the car actually four days earlier than we claimed, and changed the date on the contract. The actual office where the other copy of the contract was held, was closed, and thus they tried to extort us for extra money for the four days we supposedly had had the car. At the end, they called their boss and he confirmed that we really had taken the car in the morning of the date on the contract, so they let us off. However, before we got to walk away, they very forcefully tried to keep our copy of the contract and that generated another fuzz, which we solved by yelling and grabbing the document. In any case, an incident like this can fuck up your entire positive emotion.
But in any case, Nicosia is an interesting city on both sides. Yes, the Greek side is more civilised and the Turkish side leaves an impression of it being more extreme, but that’s what makes it more interesting. As you can see from this story, there isn’t much to tell abut the Greek side of Nicosia as it’s completely normal—a nice, quiet and rather European city, the likes you can see everywhere in southern Europe. Definitely worth a visit, but spend most of the day on the other side.