Set in the main square in the heart of old Gazimagusa, the twin towers of the St. Sophia Cathedral are visible from most parts of the old city. Making them even more distinctive is the incongruous minaret that tops one of them. There is usually somewhere to park near the main square (though the square itself is pedestrianised), and this is the best place to begin your walking tour within the walls.
The imposing western facade of the cathedral has been likened to Rheims Cathedral in France, and it dominates the main square. Its towers were badly hit in the Turkish bombardment of the 16th century, and further damaged by earthquakes. Nevertheless, the cathedral is an undeniably beautiful building, its Gothic grace and elegance far exceeding that of its sister cathedral in Nicosia. It was built 100 years later than St Sophia, in the early 14th century, and its more delicate tracery work and ornate design reflect the more luxurious lifestyle and tastes of the ostentatious merchants of the port. The architects were themselves brought from France, and the cathedral may well have taken 100 years to complete. A tradition tells that the architects were a master and his pupil, and the master, on seeing the pupil's genius in the work, was consumed with jealousy. He invented a technical error he claimed to have noticed in the top of the towers, and having led the pupil up there to point out the error in detail, pushed him headlong over the edge – the first of much blood spilt at St Nicholas. The cathedral is built from the same familiar soft brown limestone that is used in the ramparts and walls. All the Crusader and Venetian buildings are from this stone and you need only walk round the town looking out for this colour to identify immediately all the older buildings.
The atmosphere of the square is much marred by an ugly hotchpotch of newer buildings and a plethora of telegraph poles and wires, inescapable from whichever direction you try to take a photo. To the left of the facade the small domed building was once an Ottoman madrasa, built around 1700. Next to it is a small shrine.
Foreign visitors to St Nicholas today must buy a ticket, the only one of the churches where this is the case. Inside, the whitewashed walls almost serve to emphasise the superb proportions and height of the nave. The stained glass was all blown out in the bombardment and blasting of the siege, save for the high rose window in the front facade. Today, the remaining colour is supplied by the mosque accessories, painted the usual reds and greens – the raised platform for the Koran-recitation classes, the wooden pulpit or minbar, and the mihrab niche, indicating the direction of Mecca and around which all the decorative effort is concentrated, as in all mosques. If you are lucky, the keeper will take you to the northern corner of the building where, behind the green screens and hidden under the carpet, lies a stone slab etched with a medieval depiction of St Nicholas.
Your imagination has to work hard to recreate the splendid coronation ceremonies that took place here under the Lusignans. The custom had developed that each ruler was first crowned King of Cyprus in St Sophia in Nicosia, and then, after an elaborate and exhausting procession on horseback, was crowned King of Jerusalem here in St Nicholas, Gazimagusa being symbolically that bit closer to the Holy Land.
The huge old tree that looms to your right as you come out of the cathedral/mosque main door is thought to have been planted around 1250, shortly before construction of the cathedral began. It is a type of tropical fig, originally from East Africa, and it keeps its foliage all year round except in February. The old Venetian loggia (open-sided arcade) facing the tree now serves as the mosque ablutions area. Beneath one of its two circular windows is a section of frieze with animals and garlands, taken from the cornice of a Roman temple, probably in Salamis.
Behind the cathedral/mosque is a little garden cafe (summer only) housed in a converted chapel, with tables and chairs scattered outside round a rudimentary fountain. Here you can sit and have a simple lunch of kebab and chips whilst overlooking the apse and buttresses of the cathedral. Youths are often clustered here playing backgammon, drinking coffee or Coke. No beer or alcohol of any sort is on the menu, because the owner says that the government will not permit the sale of alcohol on premises that were once a church.