In a divided capital, a singular sense of hospitality

Archbishop Makarios Avenue in southern Nicosia near the Old City is full of restaurants and cafes.
Archbishop Makarios Avenue in southern Nicosia near the Old City is full of restaurants and cafes. (Yannis Kolesidis/The New York Times)
By Rachel Nolan
Globe Correspondent / September 28, 2008
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NICOSIA - "This coffee tastes a lot like Greek Cypriot coffee," said Harris Hadjipavlou, swirling the muddy grounds in the bottom of his cup.

We were sitting in a cafe in the capital, the last divided city in Europe. The cafe is set into the corner of the Büyük Han, or Great Inn, a 16th-century caravanserai where travelers rested and watered their animals, usually donkeys. The inn is the most spectacular of many preserved buildings in Nicosia. The menu read "Turkish Cypriot coffee."

It was fitting that my self-appointed host took me to the medieval hub of hostelry in his city. Travel brochures make much of the myth that Aphrodite washed ashore on Cypriot beaches. But the more relevant god may be Zeus, one of whose epithets is Xenios, "he who guards hospitality."

Three afternoons earlier I had walked, sweaty and disgruntled, into the bar/club/art gallery that Hadjipavlou, 34, runs on the Greek side of the city. The hotel next door where I had a reservation was boarded up. Hadjipavlou invited me to sit on the terrace, fragrant with oregano and basil plants, while he called the hotel owner.

After living in Berlin for the last year, curiosity about the divided city had brought me to Nicosia, although most tourists prefer Cypriot beaches to the country's barricaded capital. Outside of hotels geared toward business travelers, accommodations are hard to find.

"Yes, closed unexpectedly and forever," Hadjipavlou said cheerfully after talking on his cellphone. "Do you like dogs?" If so, I could stay with his friend Maria Pavli, 25, whose mutt had recently given birth to five puppies. I assumed he was suggesting a room-for-let deal of the type common on the Greek islands. But it turned out he was offering pure hospitality.

Pavli, a graphic designer, later said: "God brought you to Harris because he is so knowledgeable about politics and history." But I think if God, or Zeus, brought me to anyone it was to Pavli, who took me in, made me breakfast, and worried about my whereabouts when I came back late.

Nobody I spoke with in Cyprus found my serendipitous adoption strange. "It is the old way," Hadjipavlou said. "Even if your enemy comes you have to take him in."

Of course, the enemy is already here, according to nationalist Greek and Turkish Cypriots. The island's strategic location among three continents attracted the imperial attention of Venetians, Ottomans, and Britons, among others.

After gaining independence in 1960, violence between ethnic Turks and Greeks rocked the wheelbarrow-shaped island. Turkish forces invaded in 1974 to oppose a Greek Cypriot coup, which sought to unite the island with mainland Greece.

The UN-guarded Green Line has divided the country since, slicing through downtown Nicosia. The southern two-thirds of the island constitute the Republic of Cyprus, a European Union member state that switched to the euro last January. The northern third is the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, recognized only by Turkey. Rancor from '74 still dominates politics on the island and relations between the two motherlands.

Travel rules eased in 2003, and many young Nicosians saw the other side of their city for the first time. Pavli crossed over once but hasn't been back to the Turkish side since. She says she doesn't know any Turkish Cypriots.

After a good first night's sleep at Pavli's, I strolled downtown into the Old City through a gate in the sandy-colored Venetian walls. In this city straddling two countries, I worried I might make an illegal move. Could I wander over the Green Line without knowing it? A Coca-Cola cafe umbrella was the same red and white as the Turkish flag - had I strayed? No. The sight of a guarded roadblock, stacked 50-gallon barrels painted blue and white and topped with barbed wire, made it all too clear there would be no such mistakes. Next to it was a stand called Berlin No. 2 Snack Cafe.

It was late July and the streets were almost empty. Cypriots avoid the sweltering heat by day and come out at night, packing sidewalk restaurants and bars to share communal meals of meze (a selection of small dishes to accompany ouzo) in the south or kebabs in the north. Most tourists arrive at other times of year. In July, the heat and dust are oppressive.

As much to cool off in the air conditioning as to get a view of the city, I made my way to the Ledra Museum and Observatory Tower. Obvious on the ground, division is harder to see from 11 stories up. Roadblocks fade into the surrounding buildings. There are mosques and churches on both sides. The only way to trace the Green Line, so named after the color ink used to plot the division on a map, is to look for the color green. The abandoned buildings in the UN buffer zone are overgrown with trees and shrubs.

The observatory is a few blocks down from the Ledra Street crossing, a new checkpoint that opened to foot traffic on Nicosia's main drag in April. New reunification talks began early this month and are ongoing. Both Turkish and Greek Cypriot leaders voice more optimism about a solution than ever before, but any agreement to unify must be ratified by a referendum of the kind that failed in 2004.

During my visit I crossed back and forth on three or four occasions, the first time with Hadjipavlou. It was his first trip through the new crossing. The walk through no man's land takes less than a minute. Enormous curtains hide the buildings. A no-photography rule is posted everywhere but I didn't see it enforced. People strolling past the armed guards licked ice cream cones bought from stands on either side.

The only piece of bureaucracy I had to contend with was to fill out a small photocopied visa on the north side. While we were in line to get our visas stamped, a Turkish Cypriot struck up a conversation with Hadjipavlou about the so-called Cyprus question: if, when, and how to unify.

"The politicians are not able to decide, they are holding it up," he said. "The people want unity now." Hadjipavlou agreed.

Most Cypriots I met were ready to end the deadlock. But those willing to talk to foreigners may be a self-selecting group. Farther along the Green Line, watched over by armed Greek Cypriot soldiers, a message was painted across one of the roadblocks: "Nothing is gained without sacrifice and freedom without blood." One Turkish man spit on the ground when I told him I was staying with Greek Cypriots.

We were through the checkpoint quickly. Depending on whom you ask, we were entering the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, the illegally occupied territories, or the future partner in a united Cyprus.

Although the area around the new opening has built up fast, crossing still feels like entering another region - from the developed to the not-quite-developed world. Northern Cyprus is not recognized by the international community and has suffered the economic consequences. Moving south to north, Ledra Street's designer boutiques give way to cramped stores selling polyester clothing.

Once on the Turkish side we followed the tourist route, stopping for coffee in the Great Inn and taking our shoes off to pad through the Selimiye Mosque. The mosque was completed as a Gothic church in 1326. Ottomans added the two enormous minarets and changed the name in 1570. (Many old buildings in Nicosia are composites. Omeriye Hamam, a recently renovated working public bath on the Greek side, had two former lives: as an Augustinian church and an Ottoman mosque.)

The sand-colored buildings are more rundown in the occupied areas but recognizably the same style as those on the Greek side. Locally made grilled haloumi cheese, a mix of goat and sheep milk, and soutjoukoi, strings of nuts sweetened with grape juice, are available all over Nicosia. I experienced the same kindnesses, small and large, on both sides: People offered me directions, advice, water, and rides - if only around in circles to cool me off.

On my last day in Nicosia, my hosts were at work and I headed to the Turkish side alone. I stopped for a Turkish Cypriot coffee and a seat in front of a fan. The coffee shop owner asked where I was staying and what I was doing. When I explained she said, "You should have come here. We would have taken you in, too."

Rachel Nolan can be reached at


If You Go

What to do

Büyük Han (Great Inn)

Arasta Street, Old City Stop for a look around the art galleries and antiques shops in this inn, built in 1572.

Ledra Museum and Observatory Tower

Shakolas Building, Ledra Street, Old City


The Green Line is hard to make out, but the Turkish and Turkish Cypriot flags emblazoned on the hills beyond the city are unmistakable. $1.25.

Omeriye Hamam

8 Plateia Tyllirias, Old City


Slough off the dust at this 16th-century Ottoman-style bath. Day pass $29.50.

Where to stay


Agioi Omoloyites Ave., New City


Rooms at this minimalist design hotel have balconies looking onto an interior courtyard. Doubles $177-$225.

Classic Hotel

94 Rigenis St., Old City


Centrally located, a cut above other business hotels in Nicosia. Doubles from $118.

Hilton Park Nicosia

Leoforos Arhiepiskopou

Makariou III


The only five-star hotel in Nicosia, as bland and as comfortable as the chain name suggests. Doubles from $235.

Where to eat

Kavouri Fish Tavern

125 Strovolou Ave., New City


Fish meze includes salads, vinegary octopus, cuttlefish and swordfish kebabs, and fried calamari. About $30 per person.


Leoforos Athinas 23, Old City


Popular for convenient location, souvlaki, and meat meze. Meals about $20 per person.


Cyprus Tourism Information

Aristokyprou 11, Old City


The starting point for free tours of the Old City.

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