Cyprus — 1 island, 2 countries

Nicosia, the capital of Cyprus, with the Kyrenia Mountains in the distance

Last week in Lebanon’s archaeological museums, I learned about all the empires that conquered that humble strip of land. These same empires occupied Cyprus. The difference is that Cyprus is still occupied today. The southern 2/3 of the island is home to Greek Cypriots, many of whom have been here for generations. The northern third of the island has been under Turkish control since 1974. How things got this way involves a Green Line that the British drew on a map to separate the Greeks from the Turks. The good news for tourism is that, since 2003, the two sides have agreed to let people pass between north and south. Still, it’s a curious situation. More about that later.

The Venetian walls of Nicosia, built 1567-1570

Nicosia, Cyprus’s divided capital, is a gem of a city. The old town is encircled by a 16th century defensive wall, complete with 11 pentagonal bastions with rounded orillions. (There’s a word you don’t see often!)

Tourism is Cyprus’s main industry. 1.2 million Cypriots host more than 4 million tourists every year. Most tourists come here in summer for the beaches. In winter, the place to be is Nicosia with its excellent museums, ornate Orthodox cathedrals, unusual mosques and wide pedestrian streets packed with cafes and restaurants. I was glad to be here during the off-season.

Christmas carols in Greek

Even in December, Cyprus isn’t quiet. Southern Cyprus is Christian. So, there’s a festive spirit everywhere. Carols are sung in Greek. Cyprus turned out to be a lively place to celebrate my Christmas.

A gilded Orthodox Christian church

Although the churches are Greek Orthodox, Cyprus celebrates December 25 as Christmas as much as anyone else. With all the gilded icons, these Orthodox churches look like their halls are decked all year long.

One of many busy restaurants along Ledra Street

There’s a noticeable contrast between the north and the south. The south has a robust economy. The currency is the Euro. There are 3- and 4-star hotels and international chain stores. Shops and eateries are packed with customers. Pour yourself a glass of ouzo. Then click either of the audio links below to get a feel for what south Nicosia’s cafes are like in the evening,

A barrier at the Green Line

If you walk north 100 meters from where the previous photo was taken, you come to the Green Line. This is the barrier between the two halves of Nicosia. Since 1974, Turkey has controlled the northern third of the island. The Greek Cypriots, some of whom have lived here for generations, are hoping for an eventual unification with the “occupied territory.” But for now, 30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Nicosia remains the last divided capital in Europe.

Inside Nicosia’s old town, there’s a border checkpoint for pedestrians. To pass between the Greek and Turkish halves of the city, all you have to do is show your passport to two immigration officers — one Greek and one Turkish — then walk on through. There’s as much to see and do on the north side of the Green Line as on the south side. I crossed the Green Line six times in three days.

Dining “con gatos” in north Nicosia

Crossing to the north side of the Green Line feels like going back in time to the 70s. The north is not so crowded. Instead of international chains, there are of mom-and-pop stores. The Turkish lira is the currency (although Euros are accepted). You’ll hear the call to prayer instead of church bells. There are cats everywhere.

Something you won’t see in south Nicosia would be a whirling Dervish dancing in a 6th century Byzantine church. Click here to see him dance and hear the music.
One thing that the north and south have in common is backgammon. It’s played everywhere by everyone.
I took a day trip to the north coast to the port of Kyrenia. This medieval fortress, with its dungeons, moats and drawbridges was built, destroyed and rebuilt many times by crusaders, Venetians and finally the British.
My Christmas Eve lunch, overlooking Kyrenia Harbor

The old harbor at Kyrenia is picturesque and, yes, very old. It was used for centuries as the easy access from Cyprus to mainland Turkey, Greece and Lebanon. This was a perfect spot for my Christmas Eve feast. Merry Christmas, everyone!