The Beauty of Bellapais

Decades of political limbo have left North Cyprus largely overlooked by mass tourism and so it hasn’t fallen victim to the over-development that blights the south of the island. The only golden arches you’ll see here are the gentle curves of Bellapais Abbey bathed in a yellow glow as the sun sets over Kyrenia – not a Macdonalds or fast-food joint in sight.

On the contrary, the charming village of Bellapais offers quaint cafes and bistros serving mouth-watering local cuisine, scattered amongst the whitewashed buildings, tucked away down narrow streets that wind away from the main square. One of the most beautiful villages in Cyprus, Bellapais sits amid heavily-scented citrus groves on the northern slopes of the Kyrenia Mountains. Almost untouched since its colonial days, Bellapais (which translates to “beautiful peace”) is a place you can wile away the day, sampling the Cyprus of a bygone era.

The tranquility of this hilltop village was immortalised by British writer, Lawrence Durrell, in his enchanting novel about life in the village in the 1950s. Ironically entitled “Bitter Lemons”, Durrell talks of an ancient mulberry tree at the heart of the village, setting his characters in the cool and comfort of its shade. According to folklore this tree is so seductive that if you sit under it you will become eternally lazy. Aptly coined the “tree of idleness”, this epitomises the relaxing pace of life in the north. It is virtually impossible not to take time out to soak up the beauty of this side of the island.

Today, there are two locations in Bellapais which lay claim to the “tree of idleness” (Durrell never pinpointed it clearly), but don’t get too lazy making up your own mind as the north has so many other beautiful places to see. Today, no doubt Durrell would also warn about sitting for too long in one of the eateries overlooking the surrounding valley, as once seated you won’t want to leave.

That said, the real jewel in the Bellapais crown is its abbey. Built in the 13th century, the impressive ruins of Bellapais Abbey majestically sit on a natural terrace which commands a stunning view across the coast. From this superb vantage point, teetering above a sheer 100ft drop, you can see right across the plains of Kyrenia to the deep-blue Mediterranean beyond.

This beautiful gothic building is accessed via a promenade of palms and through a fortified gateway. The oldest part of the abbey is its well-preserved church and a spiral staircase which leads to the roof, affording an even more magnificent view of the mountains and sea.

Built in the French gothic style of the Lusignan period, the abbey was originally occupied by a French brotherhood of monks to whom it was known as the “Abbaye de la Paix (the Abbey of Peace). Unfortunately the abbey, despite its name, did not escape the invasion of the Ottomans when much of it was plundered and pillaged.

However, 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 which today is used for classical music concerts including the Bellapais Music Festival held annually in May and June. The abbey is also the site of a museum, restaurant and café.

Just a short hop from Kyrenia, Bellapais is the perfect short trip for visitors. With its quality boutique hotels, it is also the perfect bolt hole from which to explore the rest of the island.

For those who still need persuading, perhaps the best way to describe the beauty of Bellapais is through the words of a well-known writer who lived there for many years:

“…that first spring morning as I walked in those deserted cloisters, touching the rosy stones of the old abbey with an idle hand, noticing the blaze of flowers . . . and here and there, bursting from a clump of fallen masonry, cracking the rock triumphantly. . . plumes of yellow fennel. . . . in that silence, the light airs of the plain climbed up to us, full of the small sound of birds as they stooped and dived in the blue gulf below… and somewhere near at hand came the rustle and dribble of spring-water feeding the flowers”  (Lawrence Durrell in Bitter Lemons).