‘Most of what you see has been untouched for the last 40 years because of our political situation,” says my guide Yusuf, gesturing to the ruins behind him.“The embargo imposed on us by the international community after the country divided in 1974 has meant that we have been unable to excavate any of this site.”
St Hilarion Castle is the jewel in the crown of northern Cyprus, perched high in the mountains overlooking the ancient city of Kyrenia. Its lofty position provided a strategic lookout for the Crusader kings who conquered the island nine centuries ago, and today it offers spectacular views of the surrounding countryside and the Mediterranean coastline below.
Its scattered remains, gradually eroded by the elements over time, sit on top of a huge limestone bluff that rises straight up out of the ground to meet the clear blue sky above. The fragments of Gothic windows and turrets dotted around the site hint at the country’s rich cultural past.
It is divided into three parts and linked by a series of steep staircases: the lowest being the servants’ quarters, the middle for the church and clergy, and the top reserved for the royal family.
Yusuf explains that there are still parts of the castle that are unexcavated and new ruins potentially waiting to be discovered. “Who knows what we may find here, one day,” he says. “Given northern Cyprus’ long and proud history, I wouldn’t be surprised if, in the future, we unearthed something of real significance.”
Visitor footsteps have visibly eroded much of the castle over time, but efforts have been made to preserve what’s left. To give you an idea what life was like all those years ago, a scene has been recreated using waxwork knights in one room, while metal handrails have been erected in the more precarious parts of the castle for safety.
Climbing up to the highest point, Prince John’s Tower, a welcoming cool breeze percolates around the castle. I need it; after a few flights I am breathless.
St Hilarion is said to be the inspiration for Walt Disney’s film Snow White and it’s not hard to see why, with its windy staircases and window where the queen used to sit and survey her kingdom. Unfortunately for the bodyguards of Prince John of Antioch, there was a less than fairy tale ending. After being suspected of plotting to assassinate the prince, they were summoned to the top of the tower, where they were thrown to their deaths.
Safely back on terra firma, 10 miles away is the village of Bellapais, situated between Kyrenia and the capital Nicosia, where Lawrence Durrell wrote his novel Bitter Lemons of Cyprus in the 1950s. Here, narrow lanes of red roofed houses give way to orange trees scattered among the grounds of the ancient abbey that overlooks the Med’s inviting coastline.
The pace of life is strictly pedestrian here. Locals sit in doorways whiling away the hours playing backgammon, chatting and sipping Turkish coffee. You can almost imagine Durrell sitting under a tree in the main square on a hot summer’s day penning his latest volume.
To get some further insight into what rural Cyprus is like, the next day I venture out to the Karpas Peninsula, on the north-east tip; a 50-mile expanse of remote countryside scattered with villages, monasteries and beaches. After making the long drive and steep ascent to Kantara Castle at the gateway of the peninsula for a 360-degree view of the region, it’s time for lunch so I take the long and winding road back down towards the Oasis Restaurant at Ayios Filon Beach, just beyond Dipkarpaz, the island’s most northerly village.
The sparse landscape is striking, nestled above a small sandy cove, with the poppy spattered ruins of Agios Filon Church on one side and the remote shoreline on the other; the only sounds are the waves crashing on the shore. Finding a table overlooking the beach, with the place almost deserted, I order the catch of the day and a glass of the local red, and soak up the atmosphere.
A few miles up the coast is Golden Beach, my final destination. The beach is empty, save for a few circling sea birds. On the way, I pass rustic huts with hammocks gently swaying in the breeze and follow a winding broad walk beyond the sand dunes that run all the way out to sea.
For a moment I stand completely still and survey my surrounds, breathing in the fresh sea air. This harsh yet captivating landscape hints at a Mediterranean before the tourist invasion of the 70s and 80s. It’s a world away from the clubbing scene of Ayia Napa a hundred miles south.
Now part of a national park and a prime turtle-nesting ground, its shallow waters are just the spot for lying motionless for a few moments and drifting off into another world untouched by time.