North Cyprus is a sun-dappled home to medieval castle ruins, vast archaeological sites of once mighty classical cities, and snoozy villages where old men gather on the teahouse veranda to while away the daylight hours. Most visitors come for lazy resort breaks lolling in the sunshine, but this slither of land which swoops from mountain to sea in the blink of an eye, has so much more to offer.
The old town of Kyrenia (Girne) –
Wrapped around a harbour chock-a-block full of bobbing gülets (traditional Turkish yachts), the old town of Kyrenia (Girne) is a postage-stamp-sized squiggle of narrow lanes teetering into genteel decay. Stride up the honey-toned stone ramparts of Kyrenia Castle, perched on the harbour’s northern cliff. Stroll the waterfront, bordered by tall carob warehouses converted into cafes, then wander out into the alleyways to capture a thread of Kyrenia’s yesteryear.
Famagusta (Mağusa): a Gothic ghost town –
Hemmed in by bulky walls which failed to save the once lavish Byzantine city from the Ottomans in 1571, Famagusta (Mağusa) is a shattered mirror of its medieval grandeur. An incisor chunk of half-toppled church wall makes for an incongruous traffic intersection. Roofless chapel remnants, with faintly visible scraps of fresco work, stand amid weed-filled plots. Discover scraps of golden-stone Gothic finery peeking out between scruffy modern cottage rows, then head to the walls to soak up the dilapidated decadence from above.
Fairytale castles of St Hilarion and Buffavento –
A roll-call of kings and conquerors have eyed Cyprus up as a prize to plunder and possess, and the island’s two mightiest castles are monuments to these waves of invasion. The fortifications of St Hilarion Castle wind like a trooping stone regiment up the mountain slope, punctuated by watch towers, Gothic-arched royal apartments and barracks where Byzantine soldiers once slept. At Buffavento Castle jagged tower remnants jut out over a lush pine-forested ridge. Clamber up the wonky stone steps to the top tower, where Richard the Lionheart may once have stood to survey his captured land.
Bellapais (Beylerbeyi): abbey ruins and a literary pilgrimage –
More than a few travellers come toting a copy of Lawrence Durrell’s evocative memoir of 1950s Cyprus. The starring role in his book Bitter Lemons of Cyprus is played by the village of Bellapais (Beylerbeyi), and a yellow plaque marks the house where Durrell once lived. This hillside hamlet’s highlight is the sprawling remains of Bellapais Abbey, founded by Augustinian monks after Saladin’s capture of Jerusalem. Its ornate church, Gothic-arched cloister and vast refectory summon a vibrant picture of medieval monastery life.