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When dark streets come to life

Sarah (left) and Bike at Luna Art, a cafe in northern Nicosia

In the past year northern Nicosia’s old town has been transformed, and it’s attracting the young from both sides of the divide

By Agnieszka Rakoczy

The pulsating revival of south Nicosia’s old town, much of it a serendipitous defiance of the gloomy consequences of the financial crisis, has been a marvel to behold these last few years. Now it looks as if something equally energetic and similarly youth driven is happening just north of the Ledra Street Green Line crossing point.

The once slumberous narrow streets of north Nicosia’s old town are vibrant in the thrum of a coffee-fuelled awakening. Young people flock to new watering holes and hole-in-the-wall eateries. Small businesses, often partnership based, are bringing new vigour and imagination to places long abandoned or ignored. The common coin is community, creativity, conviviality and a re-awoken appreciation of the hidden treasures within the walls of the old town.

Not much more than a year ago, walking back from a Saturday night party with friends, I bumped into a group of Greek Cypriot youths who, somewhat hesitantly, were exploring the Arasta neighbourhood, the web of pedestrian streets that spreads out just after the Ledra Street crossing. After an evening in a nearby, southside club, they had decided to venture north and explore. The idea, said one, was ”to cross and see what is happening on this side – but there’s nothing.”

They hadn’t seen a single person in the course of their wandering. ”There is nobody. We can’t even ask where clubs are.”

And any impartial observer would have to admit that his was an accurate assessment of the situation at the time. In contrast to the glitter and buzz of the old Nicosia south scene, a night’s stroll through its northern counterpart was akin to a shadowy glide through a ghost town. A flicker of light here and there. A muffled echo of receding music from some inaccesible or invisible recess. A baffling twilight zone for the unfamiliar and the uninitiated.

But the first stirrings of change were to hand with one significant catalyst pointing the way. Last December, Hoi Polloi, a small streetside coffee shop-cum-bar, located within 200 metres of the Ledra Street crossing, opened under the affable proprietorship of filmmaker and journalist Simon Bahceli.

Sandy Brour, a band from the south, performing at Hoi Polloi
Sandy Brour, a band from the south, performing at Hoi Polloi

Within days of its launch, the word was out and Hoi Polloi soon became a magnet for youth from both sides of the divide seeking a common space to mix and mingle while relaxing over Cypriot coffees, beer and zhivania.

”The choice of location was very important,” says Bahceli, noting the proximity to the crossing. ”I wanted a place easily accessible for everybody so here we are today.”

Over the years, Bahceli has written about Cyprus for local and overseas publications and Hoi Polloi reflects his open-minded, easygoing sensibility.

More coffee shop than bar by day, come nightfall it features a wide range of musical styles and entertainment. Musicians from both sides perform regularly, often joining forces in impromptu sessions. When traditional and progressive musicians magically blend forces, it is not uncommon for entire families, Greek and Turkish Cypriot alike, to listen raptly into the wee hours.

Encouraged by Hoi Polloi’s enlivening impact on the neighbourhood, two other venues, Strada Bar and Bonobos Club, have just opened in the same vicinity.

”I have always wanted to have a place in the old town,” says Strada co-owner, 29-year-old Serdar Durukan. A political scientist and a former bank employee, Durukan, like Bahceli, wants to attract Cypriots from both sides of the line. He openly admits that his venture into the realms of the ‘‘forbidden” old city, had raised a few eyebrows among some of his friends.

”Some questioned whether the old town is a safe place. For years, we had been hearing from our parents that it is not. Happily, now, more and more of our friends are coming, and the old town is working its spell on them. Many are attracted to their business prospects here and ask if I know of any spaces for rent,” he says.

The same story is repeated at many of the new venues recently opened in the neighbourhood.

”People are coming back to the old town, especially young people,” says 31-year-old Halil Duranay, one of three co-owners of Hippo, a small vintage shop that opened its doors in Arasta in May.

”They love it here. They love the fact that it has a very special atmosphere and that everybody knows each other. In the old town, every day is adventure. We meet people in this place we never dreamt existed. For me this place is the most diverse and multicultural on the whole island,” says Duranay.

Hippo is located in Uray Street adjacent to the renovated Bandabuliya municipal market, almost at the epicentre of the Venetian-walled old town. The street, run down and ignored for many years, of late has been experiencing a renaissance of sorts reflecting the growing awareness of the unique qualities the northside old town has to offer.

Resident establishments today include Luna Art Cafe opened in March by two young women artists, Turkish Cypriot Bike Koralp and German Sarah Nadine Wortmann and Studio 21, an alternative meeting point funded by dancer Dervis Zeybek, a community activist who runs there dance classes for local children from underprivileged families.

Studio 21 run by dancer Dervis Zeybek, a community activist who runs dance classes for local children from underprivilaged families
Studio 21 run by dancer Dervis Zeybek, a community activist who runs dance classes for local children from underprivilaged families

The street recently hosted the first ever Yuka Blend Festival, a brainchild of Zeybek, that featured music and dance shows, exhibitions, body-painting, henna and tattoo, and stands selling books, handmade products, food and drink. It attracted hundreds of people from both side of the divide.

”The aim was to bring everybody together, people who live in the old city and those from outside as well – Cypriots and non-Cypriots, old and young, you name it. We wanted to give a message to the community that we can live together and achieve transformation if we get together,” says Zeybek.

“We thought if we can change our street for the better then we could change our city, our whole country and ultimately the whole world. What happened exceeded all our expectations. People kept on coming. Almost 1,000 people attended.”

According to Turkish Cypriot Nicosia’s mayor, Mehmet Harmanci, these days some 4,000 people visit the old town every weekend. Not a lot when contrasted with the numbers thronging the bars and restaurants of the old town south, true. But a huge difference compared to a mere year ago.

For the breakfast set, another new venue finding favour among young Cypriots is the Tezgah Cafe, close to the landmark Buyuk Khan, where Bugce Kucuk, a self-described ”foodie” bakes both local pastries as well as various cakes on premises. Open until midnight, Tezgah also serves wines and cheese. Kucuk, who has her own food blog, opened the cafe five months ago and professes she has never been happier.

Bugce opened Tezgah near the Buyuk Khan five months ago
Bugce opened Tezgah near the Buyuk Khan five months ago

”I was looking for the right place for my coffee shop and patisserie. To start with, I was checking places in Dereboyu (the Turkish Cypriot equivalent of Makarios Avenue). But Dereboyu is cold. Here, I feel like I am home. And we all help each other. If I need anything I can always ask my neighbours and for sure if they can they will help.”

Doga Baglarbasi, owner of Bandabulya No 40, a small shop that opened in the historic municipal market a month ago and sells natural creams, liqueurs and vinegars produced by his family, concurs.

”Here, we all are friends. We help each other, we send customers to each other because we want this place to succeed and grow and we know that we will grow together with it,” he says.

In this spirit, he points out other shops in Bandabulya run by young people. These include the secondhand bookshop owned by Ridvan Arifoglu, the Atelier KabuK that sells handmade reed love flutes, board games, woollen jumpers and tablecloths, and Redesign Antique specialising, similarly to Hippo, in vinyl records and other vintage objects.

Halil, one of three co-owners of vintage shop Hippo
Halil, one of three co-owners of vintage shop Hippo

This sense of belonging seems to unify all the newcomers to the old town. All of them stress how they have come to stay; that even though most of them still live outside the Venetian walls, this old place has become their new home.

”I would love to buy a house in the old city. Hopefully, one day it will happen when the timing is right,” Baglarbasi confesses.

Meanwhile, Zeybek, together with his young dancers, has started a major clean-up project in the area of Studio 21, an activity that takes in the wholesale section of Bandabulya, where the municipality is planning to open a youth centre. He says he hopes these new beginnings will help awaken a feeling of pride in everybody who lives or works in this historic neighbourhood. It is, he says, the right time for people to take on ownership of these old streets in a right way, with respect for the past and without commercial greed.

Whether it will prove right remains to be seen but one thing is certain – the north’s old town is stirring …

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