Two Sides of Cyprus

Now that the island is part of the European Union, visitors can travel between the Greek south and Turkish north with few difficulties.

The Mediterranean

September 18, 2005|By Carol Pucci | Carol Pucci,Seattle Times

A five-minute walk from where a bunker manned by soldiers divides the Turkish north and Greek south sides of the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, Starbucks manager Faye Avraamidou serves iced lattes to customers relaxing on a sidewalk patio.

The signs above the cash register are in Greek and English; the coffee prices are in Cypriot pounds.

When Avraamidou finds out that my husband and I are from Seattle, Starbucks' headquarters, she offers us drinks on the house.

"Welcome to Cyprus," she says, extending her hand.

A few days later, on the other side of the bunker, a man named Dervis introduces himself as we walk along a street lined with storefronts with names such as Dubai Bazaar and the Istanbul Shop.

The signs are in Turkish and English; the prices are in Turkish lira.

Dervis, too, shakes our hands and welcomes us to Cyprus, not with a latte, but a slice of halvah, a Middle Eastern sweet made with ground sesame seeds that his friends, the Yagcioglu family, have been making for five generations.

Imagine a country of a million people about the size of Connecticut. Then split it two-thirds, one-third, each section with its own culture, religion, food, flag, language and traditions.

This is the island of Cyprus. Ruled during various periods by the Greeks, Romans, Ottoman Turks and British, it was politically and physically split in 1974, when tensions between Greek and Turkish Cypriots came to a head and Turkey intervened to stop a coup led by a Greek military junta.

Nowhere are the contrasts more striking than in the ancient city of Nicosia, Europe's last divided capital.

The Green Line -- a hodgepodge wall of concrete, barbed wire and sandbagged barriers -- divides a compact historical core, easy to navigate on foot and filled with Gothic cathedrals, Venetian-style buildings and Ottoman-era monuments and mosques.

Between the two sides is an unpopulated buffer zone of overgrown weeds and abandoned homes and businesses guarded by United Nations peacekeepers and Greek and Turkish Cypriot soldiers.

The Greek-dominated Republic of Cyprus, set up in the 1960s after the former British colony gained independence, is the only government recognized internationally, but it controls just the southern two-thirds of the island.

Turkish Cypriots set up their own government, and in 1983, the northern third became the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, officially recognized only by Turkey.

Both sides warmly welcome visitors, but until recently, border crossing regulations required tourists to essentially pick sides. Most Westerners chose to spend their holidays in the wealthier and more developed South.

Those rules were lifted when Cyprus entered the European Union last year, and for the first time in recent history, visitors can travel back and forth without restrictions.

Elegant buildings with faded ocher facades and curved wrought-iron balconies line Lidras Street, the main pedestrian shopping street inside the Greek sector of Old Nicosia.

A modern city sprawls outward, but it's the compact old city, surrounded by a three-mile 16th-century Venetian wall, that attracts most visitors.

Starbucks anchors a busy corner near shoe stores, boutiques and cafes. Another pedestrian area called Laiki Yitonia is a miniature version of the Plaka district in Athens, with souvenir shops and sidewalk restaurants.

Separated city

Walking along Lidras Street is a little like strolling along Main Street in a small town, then suddenly finding it blocked by a concrete wall.

While a U.N.-patrolled cease-fire line runs almost the entire length of the country, the Green Line cuts east and west through the old city, turning Lidras and every other north-south street into a dead-end.

Free of conflict since 1996, Cyprus today is a resort popular with sun-seeking Europeans. Most don't visit the city that's been the capital for 1,000 years, and from a beach chair, it's hard to visualize the island as a country broken in two.

In Nicosia, the reminders are everywhere.

The tourist office still hands out maps that leave out the street names in the north. Whole areas are labeled "inaccessible because of Turkish occupation."

At Holy Cross Cathedral, just west of Lidras Street, the rear door has been sealed off because half the church lies within the buffer zone. A sign on a vacant lot next door reads "Uncontrolled area. No parking."

A few blocks from Starbucks, at the Lidras Street Lookout, tourists can climb a ladder and peer over a wall into the buffer zone that separates the two sides.

From the 11th floor of the Ledra Museum-Observatory in the Shacolas Tower off Lidras, it's possible to view the entire city as it was built to be: united, rather than divided.

Minarets jut from the top of the former St. Sophia Cathedral, now the Selimiye Mosque, in the Turkish sector. Visible on a hillside in the north are giant side-by-side imprints of the Turkish and Turkish Cypriot flags.

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