Culture-Rich Nicosia Merits More Than a Quick Look-See

NICOSIA, Cyprus -- Europeans love beaches, and since they make up the great majority of tourists on the Mediterranean isle of Cyprus, the country's landlocked capital, Nicosia, sees more day-trippers, bent on a shopping and museum splurge, than overnight guests.

Americans, on the other hand, are unlikely to fly 10 hours for swimming and tanning. Europe, for these travelers, means culture and sight-seeing, and Nicosia -- Lefkosia in Greek -- satisfies on both counts.

In the mid-16th century, the Venetians erected a fortified wall around the city. Four hundred years later, this wall is part of a barrier separating the two parts of the world's last divided city.

Clients can visit the so-called Green Line, which is policed by the United Nations. This line demarcates Greek Cypriot Nicosia from what is commonly called Turkish-occupied Cyprus.

For a $2.25 fee, the curious can cross the border for a day trip, assuming they are not deterred by a poignant sign wishing them a "good time viewing our desecrated sites."

Certainly, there is much to see in Greek Cypriot Nicosia: churches, mosques, old mansions, outdoor cafes and enough museums to give even the most die-hard cultural consumer pause. Shops are said to offer the island's best prices.

Two of the city's three original gates survive, each named for the town it faces. The Famagusta gate's interior was restored in 1981 and now houses an exhibition and cultural center.

The House of the Dragoman, constructed during the 15th to 18th centuries, is an exotic mix of Venetian and Ottoman architecture.

Its most famous occupant, the Dragoman, served as translator and liaison between Ottoman authorities and Orthodox Christian powers. From the mansion's reception room, a tunnel once led to the Archbishop's palace nearby.

The new palace, a 20th century structure, is built in neo-Byzantine style. It is dominated by a towering statue of the nationalist hero, Archbishop Makarios. Adjoining the palace, the Byzantine Museum holds the island's largest collection of icons, dating from the ninth to 18th centuries.

Museums devoted to the 1950s struggle for independence from Britain and to the island's folk art also are located in this area. The latter, housed in a former monastery, recently reopened following renovation.

Even clients who consider time spent in museums a sort of travel duty will be impressed with the Cyprus Museum and its chronologically displayed collection of antiquities from Neolithic to Byzantine periods.

Especially pleasant for strolling, the reconstructed area known as Laiki Yitouna (also spelled Laiki Geitonia) houses picturesque shops and cafes. The nearby Leventis Museum, named European Museum of the Year in 1991, depicts Nicosia from its earliest days to the present.

Nicosia, capital of Cyprus since the 10th century, serves as the nation's financial, cultural and commercial center.

Both business and leisure clients will find the Nicosia Hilton well situated for their purposes. The 30-year-old property recently underwent major renovations, totaling more than $50 million.

Most notable is a completely new executive wing joined to the main property by a shop-lined walkway. Considered a "hotel within a hotel," its four stories are designed in an atrium configuration.

The atrium has a somewhat Middle Eastern ambience, an effect the designer achieved by studying Nicosia's old homes. Bubble elevators shoot guests up to 84 rooms that are 20 percent larger than those in the older section.

A clubroom, for exclusive use of guests in this wing, continues the light, open feel with panoramic views of the city and atrium.

All 214 guest rooms in the original section have been renovated with furnishings in iron and wood and fabrics in bright yellows, reds, greens and oranges, appropriate for a land that boasts 340 days of sunshine during the year.

Additionally, the pool area has been extended and upgraded, and the restaurants and lobby have been refurbished. According to general manager Ashley Spencer, the Hilton is "committed to staying ahead and keeping guests satisfied."

Four Meeting 2000 rooms, seating from 35 to 90 theater-style, and the Olympus 2000 boardroom, accommodating 16, are located in the new wing. All utilize natural daylight and are equipped with the latest technology.

Six additional conference and banquet rooms are available along with a business center. Nicosia's International Conference Center is a five-minute walk from the hotel.

The Hiltonia Club, a complete spa and health club designed in marble and sandstone, opened in March 1995. Clients can enjoy a sky-lit indoor pool, sauna, steam bath, massage, various body and facial treatments and two gyms offering high-tech, computerized machines.

Outdoors, sports and fitness enthusiasts will find a pool, four artificial grass tennis courts, a mini-basketball court, a mini-golf course and a life-size chess board.

The Hilton's staff can arrange special interest excursions focusing on breweries and wines, ceramics, cooking, archaeology and Greek dance.

Rates run $209 to $236, single, $222 to $249, double; suites range from $400 to $956. Executive floor rooms run $267, single, $302, double, and $367 to $500 for suites. Breakfast is included for executive floor only. Taxes and service are additional.

To book, call (800) HILTONS or fax (011) 357-2 377-788.

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