By Alexia Evripidou
AFTER DECADES of neglect and almost six years of work more recently, Nicosia’s historic Ermou Street is on its way to being placed firmly back on the map, attracting museums, musical venues and arts and crafts professionals from all fields.
Courtesy of the predominantly EU funded bi-communal “Nicosia Master Plan” (NMP), Ermou is sprucing up nicely. Once the heart of Nicosia, the once-well-known street has been neglected since the intercommunal troubles in 1963.
In 1974 half of it was buried in no man’s land.
Ermou maybe on the road to recovery, but it is not quite yet the vibrant commercial Mecca of yesteryear Nicosia, although it is most definitely oozing potentiality.
New and original businesses are blossoming, building facades are shining their renovated historical architecture proudly, roads have been evened out and paved, one-way traffic systems implemented, and more pavements and pedestrian areas are now in abundance.
It began with upgrades to the facades, injecting energy and character, whilst at the same time preserving the historical architecture and individualism of the buildings.
They then took to the streets, digging, re-modernising and repairing all the underground fixtures and roads. The next step was the scruffy wiring and cables that used to hang from houses and buildings, distracting from the beautiful architecture that adorns the old city.
Even early 19th century underground rainwater drainage systems were found and upgraded. Some of them, like the ones at the bottom of Ermou, are so close to the surface that they are unable to withstand traffic and have been pedestrianised with drains protected by glass coverings.
All this would not have been possible without the NMP. Set up in 1979 the bi-communal project is co-funded to the tune of 85 per cent from EU structural funds and the remainder from government and municipalities.
Makis Nicolaides, Communications Officers at Nicosia Municipality said: “It’s a municipal initiative to rejuvenate, upgrade, renovate and modify old Nicosia. The works which run from Famagusta Gate to Paphos Gate have helped restore old architecture, upgrade buildings, streets and homes, so as to help improve the quality of life for the locals and attract investors”. It all began simply with the concept of upgrading the joint sewage system then, matured to the ultimate preservation of the historic city of Nicosia.
The street, which splits the capital into two parts, running from the north end of Ledra Street and into Ektoros Street to the east, was once the backbone of the city’s main marketplaces. Used by all communities, Ermou was a hub of commerce during the 40s and 50s, buzzing with manufacture and small businesses, such as shoe shops, car repairs, carpenters, factories, dyes and textiles shops. It was the epicentre of Nicosia’s trade.
Up until the rejuvenation works began, the street had been run down and derelict, an unsavoury place that most people would not set foot in. One of the first to breathe new life into Ermou was the Shoe Factory (Pharos Arts Foundation) in 2008, which helped attract people back to the area.
Now, the furtherance of the work has seen some exciting shops popping up and they are carving out a unique new scene in Nicosia.
A certain calibre of professional is being drawn there, enquiring daily on the availability of workspaces and shops and keen to establish the area as the ‘creative part of town’.
This year has seen the opening of the awaited four-storey CVAR (Centre of Visual Arts & Research). Dr Rita Severis, believes that “when the other large empty buildings in Ermou are restored and utilised, they could help contribute to the revival of a cultural core. We’ll have a cultural triangle here starting from Famagusta Gate to Paphos Gate, where you have The Armenian Church, the Catholic Church, Castelliotisa and the first Museum of Nicosia,” she said.
Craftsmen and women can be seen busily working along the narrow long neighbouring streets of Ermou and small promising businesses are debuting, all hoping that ‘business as usual’ along Ermou will one day become a reality, particularly if a Cyprus settlement is reached and the divided street will be united again. But that is another long story and under the current political climate, not exactly imminent.
Yet business owners carry on regardless. Tucked away in a corner off Ermou Rena Kyprianidou Ralli, an arts and crafts shop owner of ‘Sinthesis Kataskeves’, has been working hard to keep her business open for 14 years. With numbers dwindling since the crisis, she is forced to work part-time in a supermarket. Selling all sorts of quaint handcrafted goodies, most of which were designed and created by her, the shop is bursting with Christmas arts and crafts. “In 2000 when I opened, I had many more customers, even though the area wasn’t as done up as it is now,” she said. “Then came the crisis and business fell. There is still interest in handmade products but they are less inclined to spend money on it now.”
Further up amongst the many empty shops, sits the refreshingly quirky Riverside Studio. It’s gifted owners, Julian Howard and Socrates Pascalides are delighted to talk all things arts, crafts and collectable.
The shop, which opened in February 2014, is filled with both new and old fascinating paraphernalia. Inside, on the right-hand wall, hangs an intricately weaved instillation piece by Socrates. The piece consists of metal wire twisted together extensively to create a scene of a clothes line with wire garments. Socrates enjoys using ‘interesting mediums’, many of which also have practical uses such as the handmade metal trees for hanging jewellery.
Colourful and untouched Cyprus vintage tea towels and rare Bollywood cinema posters give off a mismatch vibe of vintage and new, presented in a near minimalist fashion. It is a collector’s heaven and an artist’s muse reminiscent of shops in London’s Spitalfields Market.
Julian proudly shows the first Cyprus milk bottle by Pantelakis from the 1960s, It comes with an original receipt and is being sold for €80. Julian defends the price. “If you bring me one of these, original and rare pieces of collectable items, then I would happily give €80 for it. They are rare and therefore worth more. This area is attracting the kind of people who have some kind of understanding of this type of shop,” he said, adding that they have a steady stream of collectors.
Although there are still many empty renovated shops, the area is gradually filling with artists, craft makers, wood cutters, carpenters, sculptors, restorers, glass blowers, designers and the list keeps growing.
And, with the one-way traffic easing inner city congestion plus the pedestrian areas, the NMP is in the last stages of securing the tender for small buses to cover the old city. Ermou is an up and coming street with a history, which seems to be evolving organically with like attracting like, holding the promise of hope economically and politically.
A platform to explore cultural heritage
NEWLY-OPENED in September 2014, Ermou Street’s CVAR (Centre of Visual Arts & Research), is a haven for the preservation and exhibition of Cypriot history throughout 18th-20th century.
Using the personal collection from the Costas and Rita Severis Foundation, a non-governmental, non-profit organisation, the centre offers a platform to learn and explore the cultural heritage of Cyprus through art, books, photographs and historical memorabilia; offering one of the largest collections of its kind.
The four-storey 19th century renovated building, houses Cyprus collections by foreign artists. “We wanted a big space close to the Green Line as this is the first bi-communal museum. We want it to be as accessible to our Turkish Cypriots compatriots,” said art historian, Dr Rita Severis.
Visitors can see over 1,000 paintings. The walls are lined with imagery of Cyprus and all its communities spanning three centuries. The development of Cypriot costumes can be explored as can Ottoman and British memorabilia.
The centre offers over 5,000 books on Cyprus and the Near East in different languages and in the controlled temperature settings of the archive room, material and thousands of unpublished photos from 1880-1950, await researchers and curious visitors. Volunteers to help sort through these are always a welcome sight. The museum also hosts book launches, CD launches, private and corporate events.
As well as the permanent collection, CVAR hosts temporary exhibitions of both local and foreign artists. It’s currently hosting two Norwegian photographic exhibitions. One by Andrea Gjestvang, which follows the surviving children from the 2011 attacks on the island Utøya in Norway and the other is by Hebe Robinson. Robinson’s work captures the past lives of people from the remote fishing village in Lofoten, northern Norway, where almost 60 years ago, the families were forced to relocate. The CVAR’s next exhibition starting December 15 will be Emil Cizenel; a well known Turkish Cypriot artist, who will present his work titled ‘Antique Piece Prize’.
However, the impressive museum needs a lot of money to run. “The moment you put the key in the door, you count a thousand euros a day. Everything is under special humidity control, temperature control, some of them need to be conserved so money is needed for that,” said Severis. A €5 entrance, café and roof garden, and gift shop help with the running costs. CVAR is open six days a week.