The Last Divided Capital
To be honest with you, I knew very little about the island nation of Cyprus until I started researching it as a potential destination for our trip. Even then, it just seemed like a warm, sunny place to bridge the gap between the Middle East and continental Europe. It quickly became apparent though that Cyprus is heavily influenced by Greek culture, but there’s a sprinkle of Turkish in there as well. Little did we know that what started as just a warm destination would turn into such a unique interesting place.
We landed in the coastal city of Larnaca (Larnaka) and we were greeted by the warm weather and sunshine that we had hoped for. We also immediately discovered that people were upbeat, helpful, and very direct. People set us on the right path quickly to getting a sim card and helped us to the right bus to get downtown. We were also happy to see that streets were clean and well kept. We did see several stores that were out of business, which was a bit of a surprise, but with such a small city my assumption is that the supply was too high and the demand not enough. While one of the biggest cities on the island, the population is only just over 50,000 people.
The streets of Larnaca
2000 years ago Larnaca was known as Kition, one of the kingdoms of Cyprus. It was here that the Lazarus from the Bible, the very one resurrected by Christ, came to preach the Word for over 30 years until his second passing. While some of his remains were lost, some are still on display at the church in town. The current church on the site dates from the 9th century, and it was at this point we really realized how ancient this island’s civilizations are.
The remains of St. Lazarus
Church of St. Lazarus
The rest of our time was spent wandering the beautiful old streets of the city, exploring each narrow one, trying to decipher what secrets they may hold. Larnaca also has a beautiful beachfront promenade which we took advantage of several times. The water didn’t feel too cold to the touch, but we weren’t ready for a cold swim. Well, Ethan was ready, but he got out voted this time around.
All that water
Over the weekend we used public buses to take a trip out to Cape Greko, which is a peninsula on the far southeastern tip of the island. We hiked through some amazing scenery along the coast for a few hours, stopping to take in the blue waters, green hills, and the brown caves and arches. Amazing landscapes, cute towns, nice beaches… is there anything Cyprus doesn’t have?
Sea Caves, Cape Greko
As it turns out, Cyprus is home to the world’s only remaining divided capital, Nicosia. Move over Berlin! In 1963, shortly after Cyprus gained its independence from Great Britain, disagreements between the Greek and Turkish Cypriots (they even have a cool name for themselves!) caused the United Nations to step in and divide the city right down the middle. Turks to the north, Greeks to the south! If that wasn’t bad enough, Turkey invaded Cyprus in 1974 and claimed the northeastern chunk of the island for their own. Nicosia was no longer just a divided city, it also became the doorway to a divided country.
Map showing the division of the walled city
45 years later, things have changed very little. The good news for us is that tensions ceased enough in 2004 that a few border points were opened for both foreigners and Cypriots alike from both sides. A simple check of the passport and you are through to the other side. The unique political climate and the fact that Nicosia has been capital of the island for over 1000 years were enough reasons for me to want to check it out! The nice thing about Cyprus is that it is small. You can drive from west coast to east coast in less than 3 hours. That, with a nice public bus system make getting around easy. We rolled into Nicosia on such a bus from Larnaca, with the journey taking only an hour. We spent the first day exploring inside the old city, surrounded completely by walls built by the Venetians some 500 years ago. Spoiler alert: the walls did very little to stop the Ottomans from conquering when they showed up.
View of both sides of Nicosia
The old city is filled with old buildings and churches, all choc full of history. While still decidedly European, since the city has changed hands so much in the last 1000 years, there are influences from Byzantine to Ottoman. There are even several churches that have been converted into mosques, adding even more to the complexity of the city. Perhaps most interesting is the area along the division line, which on both sides has fallen into disrepair. While the area occupied by the UN is still abandoned and crumbling, the Greeks and Turks have come together to begin restoring neighborhoods on their respective sides. The show of teamwork bodes well for the future.
UN buffer zone with crumbling buildings
Pretty streets of Nicosia's old city
Like I hinted at the beginning of the section, we used a day of our time in Nicosia to cross the border into Turkish Cyprus. Crossing the border was as simple as stated, we crossed in the morning and no one else was in line. Known as Lefkosa to the Turks, there was a subtle change in the vibe as we entered. souvlaki stands were replaced with kebabs, the signage changed to the Turkish Latin alphabet, the Turkish language floated through the air, and the view in the city were two minarets. We weren’t in Kansas anymore, Toto.
The Turkish side of town
As we wandered the streets and visited the mosques, neighborhoods, shops, restaurants, and sites, the differences between the two sides quickly faded away. The differences were insignificant, we were still in Cyprus. Lefkosa on the Turkish side was just as beautiful a city. It just pains me to see the division; I hope the two sides can continue to work together and some day tear the wall down. On a side note, I regret that we didn’t spend any more time exploring the Turkish side of the country. Another time, I guess.
Church turned mosque
From Nicosia we took a whopping 1 hour 45 minute bus ride to the coastal town of Limassol (Lemesos). This “large” city boasts 100,000 people and it clearly split into an old and a new city. We’ve been somewhat unlucky with weather here, it’s been raining for the last 3 days (woe as us, I know) so we haven’t been out as much. There have been some gaps in the rain though and we’ve been able to walk around the old part of town. Limassol itself isn’t big on sites, but the region is host to some of the best archaeological finds in Europe. Interested in hearing more? Be sure to tune in next time! Even if you’re not interested in hearing more,