Anyone who is attracted by all things Turkish should spend a day in Lefkoşa. Here, within the walls of the old city, are the island’s major Ottoman monuments, many of them either still in use or renovated (or being renovated) as museums. Apart from the renovated buildings, the town has a kind of shabby charm.
If you poke around the backstreets, particularly on a Sunday, the peace will be gently interrupted only by the sound of a caged bird, the chatter of children or an animated conversation between
persons unseen behind shuttered windows. On other days, you may stumble across a carpenter, a tailor or other craftsman, plying their trade as if caught in a time gone by.
What to see and do in Lefkoşa
The city walls
The modern suburbs offer little to the visitor besides standard shopping, but as you approach the centre from the north, the one-way system does a wide loop and sweeps around to bring you in through the fine medieval walls at the Kyrenia (Girne) Gate, which now stands isolated like a traffic island. It looks more like a bewildered little chapel than a major gateway, as cars and trucks pass by either side of it, through the two breaches in the walls made by the British in the 1930s.
Between the gate and the Atatürk statue are a few huge iron cannons, several more of which can be found displayed in public gardens or on the ramparts. They were British, made in about 1790 at the Woolwich Arsenal, and were used in the Napoleonic wars in Egypt, later finding their way here after being acquired by the Turks.
The wide moat area below the walls was never intended for water, but rather as open space where, unprotected, the enemy soldiers could be fired at as they approached. In times of peace, the town’s dung and rubbish was tossed over the walls as natural fertiliser and good yields of corn were obtained. Today, these open spaces serve well as football grounds or public parks, or occasionally, alas, as dumping grounds.
From the air or using Google Maps they still define the outline of Lefkoşa’s walls very clearly. At regular intervals around the circumference of the walls are 11 huge bastions, six of them now in the Turkish sector, five in the Greek. Of the three fortified gates, the Famagusta Gate and the Paphos Gate, now in the southern, Greek sector, were always larger than the northern Kyrenia Gate, reflecting the relative importance of the sizes of the ports in Venetian times.
The Nicosia Trail
In a city so brutally divided by the Green Line, anyone could be forgiven for thinking that the ‘Blue Line’ was some kind of bad joke. It’s not. Somebody thought it was a good idea to paint an incongruous blue line around the streets of Lefkoşa to direct tourists from one sight to the next.
Though the blue paint has flaked off in many places, the 4.5km Nicosia Trail starts and finishes at the Kyrenia Gate and takes 1–2 hours at a gentle stroll, not allowing for time spent at sights en route. Truthfully, the old city isn’t big enough to warrant a guided path, and in any case it’s often more rewarding to find places for yourself.
Having said that, if you should get lost you can always follow the line and eventually you’llarrive at somewhere you recognise, and it could be useful if you’re short of time. In a few years, the blue line may have disappeared, unless someone repaints it; the Green Line, sadly, is likely to outlast it.
From the Kyrenia Gate, follow the inside of the walls a few hundred metres to your left (east) to find the museum, the entrance to which is through a gate in what was once a restricted military area. Until recently, you had to show your passport and surrender your phone to visit, but this is no longer required.
The museum is dedicated to the battles of 1974 and the formation of North Cyprus. Many of the information labels have been translated into English to accompany exhibits that consist mainly of rifles, oil paintings and gruesome photos. A visit won’t detain you for long.
Mevlevi Tekke Museum
Returning and continuing towards the heart of the city along the main road (Girne Caddesi), you soon come to the Monastery of the Whirling Dervishes or Mevlevi Tekke Museum, dedicated to the mystic order of Islam founded by Mevlana, a Persian-Turkish poet of the 13th century. It is the only monastery of its kind on the island, and your eye will be caught by its low-rise domes immediately to your left after the roundabout just inside the Girne Gate.
The early 17th-century building was in use as the dervishes’ monastery until the 1920s, when Atatürk banned them along with other monastic orders in his determination to make Turkey a secular state. The Turkish Cypriots followed Atatürk’s policy and closed the tekke. The remaining dervishes now have their headquarters in Aleppo, Syria. Though much of the original complex was destroyed, the meeting room and part of the shrine were restored in 1963 and reopened as a museum of dervish paraphernalia.
An elaborate entrance portal carved in stone is now all that survives of the church of St George of the Latins, the original incarnation of this building before the Ottomans converted it to a Turkish bath. The sunken level means that the carving on the entrance arch presents itself for a close inspection of its intriguing mix of Gothic, Italianate and Muslim elements.
In 1989 these baths were reopened as a functioning establishment, the government having rented the premises to private individuals to run, and, following yet another recent further renovation, they are once again being used by locals and tourists. Well, in theory at least: reviews are distinctly mixed and the opening times are unreliable. A shame, as this is a magnificent structure with huge potential. If they are open, however, the minimum time needed for the whole process of heating up the body and allowing it to sweat freely in the hot room is about an hour.
The Bedestan has a certain curiosity value; however, as you approach it from the Büyük Han you’ll inevitably find your attention drawn towards its more complete and magnificent neighbour, the Selimiye Mosque, once upon a time the St Sophia Cathedral.
The best place from which to survey the outside of the cathedral is the simple, almost rustic garden café, residing in a fine old two-storeyed crenellated building with Gothic windows that was once the Chapter House, and reached by walking between the cathedral and the Bedestan. This quiet spot has a superb view of the cathedral’s south wall with its flying buttresses, and gives you space to relax and appreciate the soft golden stone, harmonising with the background of the green cypress trees and the deep blue sky.
The Sultan’s Library
Directly behind the Sultan’s Library, through a pair of large wooden doors, the Lapidary Museum can be found. The guardian used to open these doors on an ad hoc basis by means of an enormous key that stretched from his wrist to his elbow, but today the museum has more customary scheduled opening times and a regular guardian to take your money. Inside this Venetian nobleman’s house, the English colonial rulers, with their love of antiquities, gathered together fragments of stonework from Lefkoşa’s ancient palaces and churches.
Getting there and around
On the main highway, funded by the Saudi Arabians, it takes a mere 20 minutes from Girne to Lefkoşa, and many people who work in Lefkoşa commute with ease in half an hour from Girne. Gazimağusa is a 50 minute drive away. It is therefore possible, especially from a Girne base, to visit the major monuments of Lefkoşa in half a day, but it will be more leisurely and enjoyable to spend a whole day there. What’s more, history fans may decide to stay overnight and take two days to absorb the museums and monuments in a more relaxed manner.
Dolmuş and buses run regularly to Lefkoşa from the other major towns in North Cyprus. Currently, it will cost you only TL20 to or from Girne. Dolmuş minibuses drop passengers off just outside the Kyrenia Gate, which is also the pick-up point for your return trip. From 07.00, Girne-bound buses leave on the hour from outside the gate and there is another company, Kombos, who operate from behind the Dr Fazil Kücük Museum. From Lefkoşa to Güzelyurt/Gazimağusa, the dolmuş operate from the main bus terminal, rather than the city centre, between the hours of 07.00 (08.00 w/ends) and 20.00 (18.00 w/ends), with singles costing TL22 and TL30 respectively. Services are roughly every 30 minutes, or hourly on Sundays.
Airport buses also leave from the main bus terminal, with 12 departures per day (TL35): look for the Kibhas office, tucked away at the back. For Gazimağusa only, you can also get the bus at the alternative Itimat terminal, only 2 minutes’ walk from Kyrenia Gate, with similar times and prices. There is also an additional service for Güzelyurt that runs between 06.30 and 18.00 on weekdays from a point close to the Kyrenia Gate.