Quirky places make interesting destinations.
The homogenization of the world can make for dispiriting travel. One destination starts to look exactly like another, and global brands, identical shops, and “authentic pedestrian zones” litter the world’s branded destinations.
However, there are still plenty of places where you can escape this monotony, and the island of Cyprus offers an inviting respite.
Split into two sections following the abrupt invasion by Turkey in 1974, and still harbouring much of the character of the 46 years of British rule, the island is a wonderful mystery.
During my previous visit to Northern Cyprus I had not had time to visit Lefkosa, as the Turkish population call Nicosia, and I had very much wanted to see it for myself.
Nicosia is a contemporary Berlin in many ways. It is split between the Greek and Turkish communities, and until 2003 extremely limited traffic was permitted between the two. The border is a large, well defended strip of land called the Green Zone, and cuts through the centre of the city with barbed wire fences, watchtowers, anti-tank ditches and concrete walls.
There are only two crossings in Lefkosa, both for foot traffic. The rest of the border remains unyielding: a perpetual reminder of the precarious state of tension that underlies the island.
Within Lefkosa itself, it is impossible to remember that only metres away lies another completely different city. My hotel was only about 200 metres from the line, yet no sounds or ideas permeated the air. It was a completely different land.
A most interesting land too, and for afficionados of dilapidated colonial architecture (as I am) it is a wonder. Beautiful buildings that have served many colonists are everywhere. The Supreme Court has served as an Ottoman Governor’s mansion, the British Supreme Court, and today the highest court of Turkish Cyprus. Lawyers today still affect the dress of the Old Bailey, wearing black gowns, ties, and wigs as they argue their cases and drink coffee.
It is, in many ways, a land of coffee and lawyers.
Coffee shops abound, to the point that one can barely imagine the quantity of coffee that must be consumed. Every street corner offers a cup or two, and most are their own “specialized” roastery. And every other corner seems to have a battery of lawyers ready to attend to one’s every need, although it is difficult to imagine just how litigious this island must be to warrant such a phalanx of legal expertise.
Otherwise, the city is slow and measured. There is little hurry, much time for conversation and coffee, and a general sense of time passing quietly and unnoticed. It is a city that keeps ticking on, but not really moving forward; it treads water and encourages lassitude, a rather pleasant combination.
And so, wandering through Lefkosa, one has the feeling that the city has so many layers, but not all joined together. The history and the historical buildings are delightful; the central attraction is the 16th century Büyük Han (Great Inn), a massive structure built as a caravanserai for travelling merchants from the rest of the island and abroad.
Today, tastefully restored, the Great Inn currently houses several coffee shops, restaurants, and souvenir shops. It seems to have served as an inn from its construction in 1572 until the British occupation when it was, in 1872, briefly turned into a prison. Later it became a refuge for poor families offering very low rental accommodation, and this downturn in its fortune finally led to its ruin until its restoration in the late 1990s.
It is also a fine place from which to start exploring Lefkosa and admire the restoration work that has been only spottily emulated in the private sector.
Wandering through the city’s back lanes and weaving through the older sectors of town is delightful and an epiphany. To see houses that somehow keep standing, keep families protected, and maintain their dignity as they crumble is quite a revelation.
Houses that date back centuries prop each other up as old friends do, and continue to do their work, often aided with elaborate props.
It is a timeless scene, and one that characterizes this charming city.
Globetrotting appears exclusively in Respect. For more Max, visit www.maxglobetrotter.com