And so to the capital Nicosia. The bus from Limassol dropped me at Eleftheria (Freedom) Square, really a land bridge into the old city where the Venetian walls had been breached doubtless in modernity to provide better access. Another trail out to the youth hostel, which this time I had made sure in advance was open for business, and it was strange because I had stayed at this hostel many years before and yet struggled to recognise it. It later transpired that in fact it had moved, but only by 2 or 3 buildings along in the same street. I rang the bell and eventually was greeted by a stunning Chinese girl wearing only a wet towel and a brilliant smile. Man, that was my kind of a welcome. Mae Lee showed me to the dorm where I would share with a bunch of older Romanian guys, an immediate reality check. There was no communal room as there had been before in the old place and it was quite obvious that though bearing the official international youth hostel badge, it was more a doss house for Eastern Europeans and Indians living on peanuts whilst they waited for a visa or business deal to come through. It was a hovel.
The bathroom, a loosely applied description, was a case in point. Where the shower should have been there was merely a black hole in the ground, with no shower head, only a dangling hose and nothing to support it. The toilet sat adjacent set high on a pedestal and I contemplated which alternative was the worse. Sitting on the loo in danger of falling into the grungy hole, or trying to shower with a hose in your hand and a toilet in your face. The sink had come away from the wall and could only be half filled before the water would run over the edge and into your lap. It was good preparation for Asia I resolved and I didn't hang around.
Nicosia has always been the capital of Cyprus. It had started off as the ancient Kingdom of Ledra around 700BC and had been added to by successive conquerors, most notably by the Venetians who left a legacy in the shape of the aforementioned walls. Most recently the Brits had arrived when one Admiral Lord John Hay stepped ashore from HMS Minotaur ın 1878, entered through what became known as the Channel Squadron Gate and claimed the island for Queen Victoria.
I took a wander along the main pedestrianised street and found myself at the Lidras Street barricade, the point at which no-mans-land beyond abruptly severed what had once been the heart of the city. From a gantry where you could view the north beyond, a lone teenage sentry stood with a mean looking G3 assault rifle strapped across his chest and a pannier of 250 7.62mm rounds at the ready. It was bigger than him and if any Turk fancied his chances at further conquest this kid was goıng to put a hole in him big enough to put your fist through. From the other side a banner proclaimed "To those who are watching from the wall of spies this is the bridge of peace". Time had stood still in the buffer zone since 1974, the streets lay overgrown, the buildings in ruins. Houses sat with personal effects still left as they had been, the occupants leaving in the panic of the Turkish invasion expecting to be back within days, never to return. A car showroom still allegedly housed 1974 models in factory condition. A cat wandered across the rubble and momentarily broke the spell. Presumably it was a UN cat!
The best view however of the north was afforded by none other than Debenhams, which had christened the top floor of its tower the Ledra Observatory. Storyboards and old photos explained the history of the city, picking out notable buildings in turn and explaining their development. You could also get a great view from the restaurant and so I elected to try the Greek dish Stifado (a beef stew) for the first time whilst scowering the north. The Kyrenia mountains looked very enticing and had the Turkish and TRNC flags defiantly etched across one of the hillsides.
İ walked round to the only other breach in the city walls in the south, the Pafos Gate where unmanned UN watchtowers stood dotted around. The "Fuck the UN" graffiti said it all. At this point the buffer zone forced allcomers outwith the walls and for a short stretch the ramparts above actually became the frontier, with nosey Turks cooing from behind the fence at passers by below. I followed the walls round which led to the Ledra Palace Hotel, a very large building which had had the misfortune of landıng up in no-mans-land and now subsequently housed Argentine peacekeepers. It was all very relaxed at the border and İ ambled about unchecked, noting political slogans strategically emblazoned. Plastered on the sides of the speed barriers was an emotive picture of lost souls. "1619 Still Missing - We Demand to Know" it proclaimed. Another very large sign which appeared to have been uprooted and placed aside wasn't so prosaic. "Beyond this checkpoint is an area of Cyprus still occupied by Turkish troops since their invasion in 1974... The invaders expelled 180,000 Cypriots of Greek origin from their ancestral homes and brought over colonists from mainland Turkey to replace them. Enjoy yourself in this land of racial purity and true apartheid. Enjoy the sight of our desecrated churches. Enjoy what remains of our looted heritage, and homes. From inhabitants of those areas who are forbidden to return". I guessed that it had been removed as a concession to the border restrictions loosening up, but they had still placed it where you could read it.
The road back out pointed towards a park where I finally met my mouflon, one of the few unique endemic species I could hope to see. The poor beastie was caged on its own and obviously going round the bend, shameful. It was a braw beastie though as sheep go, with long legs, a short tan coat and white underbelly. Adjacent lay what appeared to be the old redundant railway station in the hospital grounds and now serving as an innoculation centre. Why take the train when you can have a Jag, right! The city walls had become barely discernible above modern development, the stagnation of the north being palpable due to the more high rise appearance of the south.