By Waylon Fairbanks
NICOSIA is not the usual stop on the European backpacking tour. Rarely does one see a sun burnt student with a sleeveless shirt, sandals and overstuffed backpack waddling about, equipped with everything needed to trek from the cafes of Amsterdam to the isles of Greece.
Nicosia lacks the Picasso paintings, clubbing scene or even the sea needed to attract such tourists.
No surprise then, that Nicosia hosts only one youth hostel. Supervised and subsidised by the Youth Board of Cyprus, the building itself is owned by Nicosia municipality.
Since opening in 2011, the hostel has hosted hundreds of visitors from dozens of countries.
I came to Nicosia to work for six weeks, without any place to stay. I booked my first few nights at the hostel, having few euros and even fewer expectations.
But for 10 euros a night, I wasn’t going to complain. I arrived around noon and a large Bulgarian man of about 55 was there to unlatch the old wooden door of the mansion.
The yellow building itself is old, elegant, with large, colonial windows and arches in the garden. The neighborhood is among Old Nicosia’s quietest, except when chatter fills the adjacent church on a Sunday morning.
I walked up the creaky wooden stairs to the first floor. There, the hostel houses five rooms containing four bedrooms and en suite toilets and showers, and a fully-equipped, communal kitchen.
According to an employee there, the hostel typically has four to five guests a night, which often results in private rooms for the residents.
Once the man showed me to my room, I fastened the shutters and collapsed on the bed.
Shrill, childish screams woke me an hour later. I went downstairs to observe the commotion and found five kids, about age 11, sprinting around the hostel.
Apparently, one kid had scaled the three metre wall surrounding the building, and opened the front door for his mates.
They ran haywire, messing with the internet and unplugging computers till the police showed up, at which point they began to cry. Very clever children, I must admit.
Later that night, and for the following nights of my stay, I sat with the Bulgarian security guard in the garden. I drank coffee and he rolled cigarettes.
Between my Bulgarian and his English, meaningful conversation was futile. Instead we sat, pen and blank paper between us, writing down the cost of coffee and cigarettes in the places we have visited, and scoffing at the prices.
Mutual outrage and universal gestures always suffice in bridging the language barrier.
While the typical European hostel attracts a certain clientele, the guests at Nicosia’s only hostel were more eclectic. My first few nights, either an Egyptian or an Israeli occupied every bed but my own. An Israel-Egypt youth workshop had rented the large conference room at the hostel, and took up residence for a week.
The hostel hosts “many meetings, cultural events and programmes,” in which the participants stay in the rooms, explained Elektra, a manager at the hostel.
Heated debates on the Middle East stretched long into the night, giving the hostel a certain energy and vibrancy it doesn’t always have. After the exodus, the building was empty, till peculiar groups of tourists and job seekers from the continent arrived.
The Nicosia Youth Hostel is not for luxury living. But for the budget traveller, who can tolerate occasional absurdity, no better value exists in Nicosia. And in the hellish heat of mid-July and August, the surroundings even bear a certain charm.
After all, as Mark Twain put it, go to heaven for the climate, and to hell for the company.
The Youth Hostel of Nicosia is located at 30-32 Chrysaliniotissis Street, Nicosia. For reservations, call 22459691 or email [email protected] The website contains all essential information, at http://www.youthboard.org.cy