‘You have to be in-the-know to get where you want to go!’ Alix Norman discovers why we don’t navigate our island by street names, and meets a few very confused newcomers

Few in Cyprus appear to know street names. We all tend to navigate by landmarks – some of which may not have existed in decades!

In Nicosia, we still meet friends at Woolworths and Debenhams; both of which went out of business years ago. In Limassol, we might guide people by the Fysko Lotus Plaza (abandoned for years), or the Ariel traffic lights (named for a cinema that closed in the 1980s).  

The point being that landmarks remain our primary method of positioning ourselves within the larger landscape. Even the best-known street names tend to remain secondary locaters to the buildings and businesses we know so well.

For the most part, these landmarks are not important sites. They’re not historical or cultural tourist draws. It would be rare indeed to hear someone direct you to ‘turn right at Curium’ or ‘forge on past the House of Dionysis’. But that’s because most of our landmarks exist in an urban setting, a way to orient ourselves when neither mountains nor sea are visible.

Historically, these landmarks served as essential reference points within the community. People looking for Omodhos might have been told to bear east until they came to the stone that resembled a goat, and then south at the three olive trees. Visitors travelling across the dusty plains to Kyrenia would have looked early on in their journey for the Pentadaktylos.

This practice of using physical features for orientation is deeply rooted in human history, evolving from necessity. Long before GPS or maps or even street names existed, at a time when literacy remained the exception rather than the norm, landmarks were crucial navigational aids – the familiar markers our ancestors used to find their way…

“Before 1900, many people could not read or write,” says historian Antigone Heraclidou, a senior research associate at the CYENS Centre of Excellence and an expert on Cyprus’ colonial history, decolonisation, education and cultural heritage.

Nicosia in the early 1930s

“In fact, at the turn of the 20th century, 97 per cent of Cypriot women remained illiterate! So it made sense that streets were referred to by purpose, rather than officially named: Ermou, for example, was called ‘Manifatouras’ (Manufacturers’ Street) in honour of its many shops.

“However, in 1912, the Nicosia Municipal Council began officially naming streets. And by the 1930, with educational reform, increased quality of life, and more travel, most people could read the signs.”

But the landmark mindset remained. And was further confounded by the island’s troubled history…

“In the early 1900s, when the British created a bridge over Nicosia’s Venetian Walls, the central square was named Tripiotis Opening after the local neighbourhood. A few years later, a very famous café was established where the CDA college now is, and the square became the Café Hadjisavvas Square in local parlance.

“After World War II, it became Metaxas Square. But then, in the mid-1970s answering to public pressure to rename the space, it finally became Eleftheria Square – as we know it today.

“You have to imagine our towns in the mid-20th century,” she suggests. “Nicosia is still small – suburbs such as Strovolos and Latsia are outlying villages; the area is green with fig trees and roads are few. As the first high buildings were constructed, they became easy to spot – the Gavrielides traffic lights, for example, still bear the name of a building that could once be seen for miles – and thus they became important points of orientation.”

Today, such landmarks continue to influence how we navigate the island. And new arrivals often fall foul of our system…

The Pentadaktylos dominates the Mesaoria plane

“When I arrived in Cyprus a few years ago, I’d get lost all the time!” says Nicosia resident Joanna Stylianides. “Everyone was immensely helpful, but I’d often get directions that made no sense to me. Even my husband did it: I remember him telling me to get to Jumbo by passing Orphanides.

“Turns out, Orphanides is a supermarket chain that went out of business long before I arrived in Cyprus, and the only location that still exists on Google Maps is in the backstreets of Aglanjia. Which is exactly where I ended up: hot, bothered, and very, very lost!”

Washington DC native Ethan Collins moved to a Limassol village nine years ago. But he has the same problem.

“Cyprus is an old island, the towns sprang up before there was city planning. Where I’m from, if you’re lost, you turn left, left, and left again and you’re round the block. Here, if I go round a block I could end up 20 miles away! There are also multiple streets with the same name: Makarios 52 could mean any number of buildings. So I get why people rely on landmarks. But even after almost a decade here, it’s still confusing!”

When Carlo Pérez moved to Larnaca from El Salvador, he too was bemused by our landmark-based system. “Where I come from, we use distance and compass direction. At the centre of every town is a Catholic Church, and its doors always face east. So you’d say ‘Go to the church, walk 300 feet west and 50 feet to the north’. 

“I tried that in Limassol, and it does not work! There are churches everywhere, and nobody pays attention to the compass or to distance. Everyone relies on landmarks – you have to be in-the-know to get where you want to go!”

It’s the same in Paphos, according to 65-year-old retiree Margaret Walker.

“Newcomers navigating the island often feel like they’re on a treasure hunt!” she exclaims. “When my husband and I first started exploring Cyprus, we realised that while the major arteries of each town were common knowledge, once you hit the backstreets it was all landmark-based. You’d constantly find yourself directed towards ‘Costas’ café’, or ‘the shop that sells the good sujuko’.

“It does take some getting used to, and it’s certainly no help when you’re in a rush. But if you’re not, it’s great fun – you get a sense of the local culture and history. Every landmark here has a story; discovering that story becomes part of your Cyprus adventure!”