In my school years, Czechoslovakia was one single country.
Back in those days, the geography of Eastern Europe was quite different from what it is now, and mass tourism was largely unknown.
Fast forward 2-3 decades and the young countries of Czech Republic and Slovakia – born in 1993 from the peaceful dissolution of Czechoslovakia – are now popular destinations for tourists of all ages. With Prague, the Czech capital, one of the most visited capital cities in Europe.
So why was Prague still missing from my travel CV?
“You have travelled so much, and you haven’t been to Prague?!” was the usual surprised comment from my friends.
So it was time to do something about it. As usual, a bit of a late decision, with flight and accommodation booked just over two weeks before departure and no other planning done…but not much planning was actually required.
Follow me for more posts and photos of my trip to Prague!
I decided to take the 2-hr bus journey from Pafos to Nicosia (cost: Euro 7) mainly because I wanted to cross the Green Line, the border between the Greek part (South Nicosia, Lefkosia) and the Turkish part (North Nicosia, Lefkosa) of the capital city of Cyprus. The idea of a capital city still split between two countries – so many years after the end of a similar situation in Berlin – sounded very interesting.
As most tourist, I reached the border via Lidras (or Ledras) Street, a pedestrianised area in South Nicosia full of the usual high street stores and cafes. Passport checks were quick and relaxed, and within a couple of minutes I was on the other side.
It was a very surreal experience, though: the vibe in North Nicosia is very different from the South, it is very Arabic/Turkish and it reminded me of Marrakech. Apart from the border crossing area I didn’t see many tourists and the streets and narrow alleys of the Old City were largely empty.
Entering North Nicosia
Street in the old town of North Nicosia
Street in the old town – North Nicosia
Houses in the old town – North Nicosia
I wandered around for a few hours, checking out the main sites of Lefkosa but also losing myself in the alleys of the old town, soaking up in the atmosphere.
Here is what I saw:
Büyük Han– considered one of the finest buildings in Cyprus, it was built in the 16th century. Originally a caravansarai, it was restored in the 1990s and is now a thriving arts centre, with galleries, workshops, cafes and souvenir shops.
Büyük Han – North Nicosia
At the Büyük Han – North Nicosia
Selimiye Camii (Mosque) – also known as the Cathedral of Saint Sophia, this is now an unusual mix of Western cathedral and mosque, with landmark minaret towers that can be seen from most of Nicosia. The building is a beautiful example of a Roman Catholic cathedral, built mostly in the 13th century. Taken over by the Ottomans in 1570 it was then converted into a mosque and the minarets were added to the building.
Selimiye Camii- North Nicosia
Selimiye Camii- North Nicosia
Selimiye Camii – North Nicosia
Inside the Selimiye Camii- North Nicosia
Inside the Selimiye Camii – North Nicosia
The Bedesten – another example of a church that was converted to a mosque during the Ottoman period, and is now a cultural centre.
Bedesten – North Nicosia
Bedesten – North Nicosia
Bedesten – North Nicosia
Belediye Pazari (also known as the Bandabulya) – for a lover of traditional markets like me, this was quite a disappointment. Apart from a few grocery stalls, where most locals gathered, the market was largely empty and only a handful of souvenir shops were open. I was quickly out of it, not before having bought a silver ankle bracelet, though!
Entrance to the Belediye Pazarı – North Nicosia
Belediye Pazarı – North Nicosia
The Venetian walls – initially built in the Middle Ages then rebuilt in the 16th century, they surround Nicosia and are very well preserved. They also contain eleven bastions and three gates.
I stopped for lunch in one of the local kebab houses, where I joined lots of locals enjoying their meals sitting outside and I tasted a traditional Cypriot dish: sheftalia kebab.
At the kebab place in North Nicosia
Traditional Sheftalia Kebab in North Nicosia
Walking along the Green Line from the Armenian Church back to the Lokmaci gate, the atmosphere was a bit eerie, a lot of buildings here have been destroyed and hardly anyone walks around, while frequent signs remind you that this is still military zone and photography is not allowed. I didn’t see police around but thought it was better not to take chances and didn’t take any photos…
I really loved North Nicosia and when I crossed the border back into the Greek part, the tourist crowds and the shops of Lidras Street made this part of the capital city quite disappointing. I ended up catching the bus back to Pafos without exploring any further, also partly due to the odd bus hours and the long journey back.
Top tip if you visit Nicosia:
the Turkish part of Nicosia doesn’t belong to the cheap European roaming/mobile data plans that apply to its Greek counterpart. As soon as you cross the border, you will incur hefty charges on your smartphone, unless you switch roaming and data off. I forgot to do that and saw my £15 balance disappear in about an hour just by having internet switched on!
Despite its lacking major sightseeing attractions, Colombo is worth spending a few hours wandering around. If you can bear the excruciating heat, that is.
Here is my pick of sites, in the order I visited them:
#1. Central Bus Stand. This is the main bus station, you will arrive here from the airport and it’s also a handy arrival/starting point if you move around town by local buses, like I did (buses are overcrowded but travelling with the locals is fun!).
The bus station is very chaotic, with dozens of buses coming and going every minute and hundreds of people waiting or running around. Asking for information can be an interesting experience – there are a couple of booths with officers from the Sri Lankan Transport Board but you can also approach the bus drivers. You may often find someone willing to walk you to your platform, or you may just be given vague directions with fingers pointed at ‘somewhere’ in the distance.
Central Bus Stand
Waiting for the bus
#2. Pettah market. I loved it! Spread over several streets, this chaotic area offers many photo opportunities. Head for the food area, characterised by colourful displays of groceries, meat and fish. This is a photographer’s heaven as the people are often keen on having their photos taken and will happily pose for you. Then walk around the area but watch out as all streets are very crowded and you will have to constantly avoid tuk tuks, carts and men carrying heavy loads on their shoulders.
Pettah market area
Fresh vegetables at the market
#3. Colombo Fort. No, there is no fort. This area is undergoing modernisation and is where most old colonial buildings (many of which are now government buildings) are. The Old Dutch Hospital, now turned into a series of shops and restaurants, can be found here. Although I enjoyed taking a break from the heat by checking out the shops, I didn’t find the Old Dutch Hospital much interesting. The Sambodhi Chaitya is instead worth checking out, with its white stupa perched about 20m off the ground.
Memories of the colonial days
Old colonial building: Cargills
Old Dutch Hospital
Buddha statues at Sambodhi Chaitya
#4. Galle Face Green. A strip of grass and promenade facing the sea, this is where the locals hang out, often at sunset. Despite the heat (I visited around lunchtime), families and groups of school kids crowded the small pier and the viewing platform at its end, while lots of couples enjoyed the view from the benches along the promenade. Food carts were everywhere.
Along the waterfront at Galle Face Green
At Galle Face Green
Being my first days in the Sri Lankan heat, I didn’t last more than a handful of hours, so I missed temples, museums and parks in Colombo. I will keep them in my wishlist for another visit.