Saturday, 24 January 2015

What is the last divided capital city in the world? (The clue is Lawrence Durrell) And when is an island not an island?

A divided city is one split between two countries, like Berlin used to be between East and West Germany, for example.

The answer (give or take a Jerusalem) is Nicosia, the capital of both the Cyprus's. I'm reading about it now, in the gorgeous technicolour prose of Lawrence Durrell and I was there last summer, celebrating my birthday. I flew into the Greek side, and spent most of my time there, near Larnaca. Nicosia is a must-see, though. I arrived on the Greek side, on the bus, and wandered around until I came to blocked streets, like this,

 and ironic shop names, like this.

The area around is a no mans land of empty houses, and boarded, up, old buildings, that haven't been used, or lived in since the residents fled when the city was split up. It's an odd contrast to the rest of the island which often looks like this:

Or this, which is the view from the mosque in Larnaca

Or this, which is an ancient church, built by the Byzantines, about fifty yards away from the mosque.

Nicosia has its highlights, though, this is an ancient inn, which now serves as a restaurant and tourist centre. There are beautiful old streets, squares, and churches, everything built of this same, butter-coloured stone.

You cross the border, though, and everything is very different. The crossing sits in the middle of the main street, which is a bit odd. You get your passport stamped, and you pass into a place that has no official recognition in the world, except by Turkey. You walk through it a while, realising something is weird, but unable to put your finger on it until...

There are no western brands at all. Nothing. The Greek side is full of Starbucks, and Adidas, and McDonalds. The north side is a bit faded, the prices change from Euros to Turkish Lira, and not a single name is recognisable. The north of Cyprus doesn't exist, so nobody can do business there

The definitive book about Cyprus is this:

Lawrence Durrell wrote one of my favourite books of all time: The Alexandria Quartet. This is different, autobiographical, more real and more rushed. Mainly it tells me how much of Cyprus I missed. It describes it so beautifully, mountains from the distance, looking like tumbledown, ivy-covered walls, and haunted mosques hanging over the silken sea. It is an enchanted island. I shall go back, and get a car, and explore the villages and quiet coves.

I ate properly, squid and octopus on the sea front in Larnaka, and loukanikou and sheftalia on the terrace of a village bar. The main furniture of the terrace was a big, round table, where old men of the village played cards and shouted at one another. They all spoke English, learned in Kebab shops in Birmingham or Portsmouth. Still, Durrell tells me that I didn't eat enough, and I didn't try enough of the wine.

The last thing that Bitter Lemons tells me is the story of how the break happened. A blissful island sleepwalking towards disaster. Now, to go from one end of the High Street to the other you need one of these:

A visa. Because when is an island not an island? When it's two islands. Read the book, visit the island. Recommended. I'll be getting another visa.

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