No31. Spitting fire (and bullets)

Out of a handful of coffee shops around the world (at least those with a searchable internet presence) with this name, I would dare to say that the Spitfire coffee shop [ΚΑΦΕΝΕΙΟΝ ‘ΤΟ ΣΠΙΤΦΑΙΑΡ’] of Nicosia is the only one which has CONFLICT AND DIVISION “painted” all over it. Together with so many other historical buildings which form the Green Line/Buffer Zone cutting Nicosia in two [over the former bed of the Pediéos river that in the past cut through Nicosia from East to West], it, too, fell victim of the decades-long divisive mentality which plagues Cyprus up to this day.

To be correct, the spray-painted words currently seen on the wall of the coffee shop facing Paphos Gate are BICOMMUNAL ANTIFASCISM and  “ΟΜΟΣΠΟΝΔΙΑ”, the Greek word for Federation, both implying support for the peaceful re-unification of the island.

The coffee shop, whose owner was a Greek-Cypriot, was named after the Spitfire planes which the British Royal Air Force used to victoriously defend Britain against the German Luftwaffe in the Battle of Britain in 1940. It was located on a corner at the end of Paphos Street (where many construction and building material shops were located) and the start of Tenzimat Street which run across the Armenian neighborhood of Nicosia, with its beautifully ornamented mansions, in the pre-1963 and pre-1974 eras. Just a few steps away were also the start of Victoria street and the Roman Catholic church, as well as the Kasteliótissa medieval hall, all of them landmarks of the Tophane neighborhood. Tophane is the Turkish word for “arsenal”, not surprisingly as this neighborhood was the location of the houses and armory of the Ottoman army up to 1878.

The Spitfire’s location was ideal for business, as it was situated right across the wider entrance to the city that the British had opened between 1879 and 1931, by cutting through the Venetian walls right next to the West-bound Paphos Gate (the smallest of the 3 gates the Venetians opened in the walls for entering the walled city). The area outside of Paphos Gate (the highest point of entering the walled city at 149 m.a.s.l.) became a very popular location for the settlement of British high society and military personnel after the beginning of the 20th century. The presence of many trees watered by the Pediéos river (which led to the creation of the Public Gardens), the Hospital, the Archaeological Museum and the Court Houses gave the area a high significance.  Eventually the British residents were followed by the affluent Cypriots that built their own beautiful mansions in the neighborhood of Ayios Andreas. Added to these was also the Ledra Palace hotel, constructed in 1947 as one of the largest and most luxurious hotels of Nicosia.

In 2011 I accidentally came across a photo of the coffee shop (see below) with the following legend: “Nicosia, May 3rd, 1965. UN soldiers oversee the security of Greek Cypriots that re-open their businesses in the Paphos Gate area of the Green Line, following the events”. The “events” refer to the armed clashes between the two communities which forced Cypriots (of all communities) to relocate their homes and businesses to areas which were safer and away from the “enemy”. It was, as I mention in other posts, the 2nd phase of the division of Nicosia.

It appears, judging from the photo, that the coffee shop was not sand-bagged and abandoned in the 1960’s but from 1974 onwards, when the presence of the buffer zone and the military tension drove everyone away but the armies. I am noticing from the photos that the sign with the name of the place was different in 1965 than the current one, with the current one showing the name both in Greek and English. Right above the coffee shop is the Roccas bastion, one of 11 of the Venetian walls, where only a wire fence that runs its perimeter separates the northern from the southern part of Cyprus. Completely insane!

My activist friend, Orestis Tringides, attempted to peacefully “break the wall” by entering the buffer zone in the Paphos Gate area in February 2017. This is a short video he took of the inside of the coffee shop. He was eventually removed from the area by the police.  Looking at the comments under the video, I realize there are some stories to be heard about the coffee shop, from the owner’s daughter. (Note taken!)

Sadly, a place that was meant to offer the opportunity to relax and socialize eventually became a symbol of war, division and abandonment…. in a way mirroring the evolution of the walled town of Nicosia, from a place that was opening its eyes and wings to the modern world after the Ottoman era to a city that remains the last divided capital of Europe. To say it differently, The Spitfire was named so in order to honor the end of one war, only to be caught up in the middle of another one some years later. Ironic, isn’t it?

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