Discovering North Cyprus – Part I
Discovering North Cyprus is Often described as the hidden gem of the Eastern Mediterranean. Each region of Northern Cyprus has something special to offer. From its diverse heritage and culture to its spectacular landscapes and wildlife, North Cyprus is waiting to be discovered.
The Harbour Town of Kyrenia
Kyrenia is the tourist hub of the north and with its increasing popularity, is now seeing high-rise hotels and high-street chains here. On the contrary, it is the historic charm of this picturesque harbour town that keeps Kyrenia firmly on the tourist map. Once a thriving ancient maritime port, sailing yachts and colourful fishing boats now dock in the horseshoe harbour. At the harbour’s eastern point sits an ancient fortified castle, a stronghold that once played a pivotal role in protecting the town from raids. Today, home to a fascinating shipwreck museum, visitors can step back in time exploring the castle’s towers, dungeons and chapel. By night, Kyrenia castle is spectacularly lit up, and the old export warehouses that line the harbour transform into bars and bistros, buzzing with tourists and locals alike.
For the more adventurous, the Kyrenian five-finger mountain range is the magnificent backdrop to the town, named as such because of its legendary five finger-like peaks. With no less than 120km of mountainous terrain to be explored, visitors can indulge in hiking, mountain biking, horse-riding, jeep safaris and even paragliding. For a truly magical trip, brave the trek to the fairytale castle of St Hilarion, rumoured to be the original inspiration for Walt Disney’s castle in ‘Sleeping Beauty’. St Hilarion is one of three Byzantine defences, all strategically placed along the ridge of the Kyrenian mountains. Her sister castles, Buffavento and Kantara, gave refuge to the Governor of Cyprus from Richard the Lionheart when he invaded Cyprus. The ruins of each of these enchanting Crusader castles will capture your imagination with tales of old.
Just a few kilometres south-east of Kyrenia lies the beautiful hilltop village of Bellapais. Immortalised by British writer, Lawrence Durrell, in his enchanting novel ‘Bitter Lemons’, this village features in all good tourist guides. With a name that translates to ‘beautiful peace’, Bellapais sits amid heavily scented citrus groves on the northern slopes of the Kyrenia mountains. Almost untouched since its colonial days, this is where visitors can wile away the day and sample the Cyprus of a bygone era. For others, the real jewel in the Bellapais crown is its abbey. Built in the 13th century, the impressive gothic ruins of Bellapais Abbey provide seductive photo opportunities. With its beautifully preserved cloisters, this piece of architecture remains one of the most impressive gothic monuments in the north. Its cloisters form a sunlit quadrangle-courtyard, today used for classical music concerts including the annual Bellapais Music Festival.
Heading west from Kyrenia along the costal route will bring you to the charming market town of Güzelyurt. Awash with underground springs, the town sits on one of the island’s richest agricultural areas. It is literally a ‘beautiful land’. Abundant with citrus groves, this is where visitors can buy fresh local produce and join in the celebrations at the annual orange festival, just one of many food festivals across North Cyprus. Güzelyurt is also the lush setting for a fascinating piece of Cypriot folklore, the sarcophagus of St. Mamas. The sarcophagus, an ornate marble coffin, is displayed at St Mamas Monastery in Güzelyurt. This is one of fourteen churches on the island dedicated to Saint Mamas, the patron saint of tax avoiders, and around whom many legends have arisen.
Located next to Güzelyurt, the coastal town of Lefke sits at the foothills of the Troodos mountains. Once a prosperous mining town, these mountains were rich with copper. Today the town is a fine example of an Ottoman settlement, although it is the nearby ancient sites of Soli and Vouni that put Lefke on the historical tourist trail. The origins of the ancient kingdom of Soli can be traced back to the 6th century BC, although during Roman times it enjoyed its heyday as a copper exporting harbour. Whilst Soli was mostly destroyed during Arab raids in the 7th century, excavations during the early 20th century revealed a Roman Amphitheatre and an early Christian basilica, complete with mosaic floor. The mosaics depict animals, birds and a majestic swan, symbolic of the wealth once enjoyed by this kingdom. The remains of Vouni palace, just a little further afield, are set 250m above sea level, high on a hilltop. Thought to have been built during the Persian occupation during the 5th century to watch over nearby Soli, it was burnt down between 400-300 BC. Today, its ruins still command some of the best views of the region.
To explore more of North Cyprus, read Part II of our guide on visiting the island’s split-capital, witnessing a real-life ghost town and walking with wild donkeys.