Wednesday, August 5, 2009

A Walk in Old Nicosia

Yesterday morning in Nicosia I took a walk that I haven’t taken for seventeen years. I left our Laiki Yitonia hotel and walked to Solomou Square, then back along Rigenous Street to Eleftheria Square, all the way down Ledra Street to the Green Line, then along the Buffer Zone to the Archbishopric. I didn’t have time to go all the way to Agios Kassianos, so I turned south and went back to the walls, then through the other side of Laiki Yitonia and back to the hotel.

I saw many changes and much unchanged.

Seventeen years ago, I would have seen very few African or Asian faces, but yesterday, Solomou Square was crowded with foreigners catching the early buses to work. Housing is cheap in the crowded streets of the old city, and many legal guest workers, asylum seekers, and illegals have taken over the old houses and neighbourhoods. Most Cypriot residents don’t have a problem with this – the newcomers tend to be quiet and keep their heads down to avoid trouble – and the multicultural presence breathes life into crumbling areas as well as ensuring that the manual work which Cypriots won’t do any more gets done.

Ledra Street is now pedestrianized. It had been the last time that I was here, but I hadn’t walked its length. The street is still dirty – bags of rubbish were piled in the corners, and dirty papers blew in the breeze – but retains a certain majesty. The old art deco sandstone buildings with their green louvered shutters still comprise the bulk of the buildings, but now, in place of the old signs above wooden doors, the old Greek and Armenian names, plate glass and plastic with the logos of Starbucks, McDonalds, KFC, Guess, Next, Debenhams, and Marks and Spencers give a distinctly ‘High Street, Anytown, UK’ feeling to the place. “We’ve seen off a lot on invaders,” Best Beloved shrugged when I told him of my disappointment. “We’ll see this lot off, too…”

Outside the commercial streets, a few locals were up and about – sipping coffee, reading newspapers, and flipping their worry beads – an early morning male ritual while wives sweep dooryards and air bedding. I approached a group of them on a quiet street near the metalworkers’ alley to ask if Artin Baltayan, an Armenian coppersmith on whom I had written a Sunjet article twenty years ago was still around. One of them told me that he had died, but when I asked if anyone else was still working who could repair an antique brass Turkish jug, they shook their heads noncommittally and went back to their coffee, papers, and beads.

I put their lack of interest down to their being jaded by tourists – now that the Ledra Street crossing is open, outsiders disturb the calm of quiet neighbourhoods – but when I described the conversation to Best Beloved later, he said that they were probably Armenians. “Cypriots, Turkish- or Greek-, would have invited you for coffee, asked where you were from and never, ever, corrected the way that you spoke!” he said. “They would have probably commandeered a workshop and offered to fix the jug there and then!” Armenians, it seems, are more reserved.

The police woman at the checkpoint nodded in response to my ‘Kalimera’, as did the young Guardsman coming off line duty and edging through the open door through which I glimpsed two rows of tightly-made iron bunks. In the furniture makers’ area, an old man working in a cavernous arcaded room that I thought might be an ancient inn because of its double arcade of arches, said that he thought instead it had been a wine storehouse. “When all these planks and boards are cleared away,” he gestured at the dusty piles around him. “You can see pits and spaces where there were big storage tanks. When I took over the building, they told me that it had probably been a warehouse for wine or oil.”

Despite the new crossing into the Turkish side at Ledra Street, the Green Line looks the same. The sand bags and concrete-filled barrels suddenly block an north-south artery, the reinforced firing positions still rear up against the sides of unoccupied buildings. Soldiers still lean out of windows and loiter on balconies.

Workshops and warehouses gave way to residential neighbourhoods, and through doors ajar I caught snippets of lives – a newspaper folded beside a radio that played softly on a shelf; an old sofa on the corner of a rag-rug; the scent of early coffee; water gurgling through taps.

As ever, among the occupied buildings were tumbling walls of mudbrick and stone, old doorways and fan-lights. Sometimes a sheered-off wall showed the internal structure of a former room: a bricked up arch or window, a fireplace, the start of a rotting staircase. I peered through the broken glass and wrought iron of one doorway into the hall. Under mounds of rubbish, the encaustic tiles showed: dust-dull now, but a splash of water would show their rich terracotta and mustard tones. But no-one had splashed them for thirty years, and probably no-one would again: the fate of those lovely tiles will be a landfill some time in the future when this part of the city is ‘renovated’.

The old yards were full of vehicles – some abandoned, some merely parked, concrete mixers, bags of cement. But the old trees still stood – two or three stately palms leaning over the cistern, a mulberry in the corner, olives and citrus, still cherished and harvested for their oil and fruit.

A shock of concrete and steel beside the old Municipal market was a restaurant, it’s plate-glass walls revealing red and black fabric-covered chairs drawn up to tables set neatly for two with a profusion of cutlery, water- and wine glasses. The nearby archaeological site seemed to have made no progress since I saw it last, as I drove past five years ago: the same group of men gossiping in the shade while the red cement mixer turned. The pits were the same depth, the ancient walls the same height, the same green matting flapped on the chain-link fence.

Time was running out, so I headed back to the walls, and threaded my way through the alleys of Laiki Yitonia towards breakfast at the hotel. The touts beckoned me into restaurants for coffee, the sellers of Chinese tat smiled without using their eyes, the street sweeper winked and gave me a friendly wave. Nicosia yawned, stretched, and prepared for another August day.

1 comment:

  1. I do so enjoy your writing.

    We head out in late September and so I find myself thinking even more of the place than usual; it's great to be able to absorb some of the flavours to be found there through your posts.

    Thank you.