At the hotel we’d been told that it was easy to find and join a tour to Northern Cyprus, but once we got into the details about it we quickly realised that it was both expansive and full of weird stops in Medieval Amusement Parks. Thus, we decided to visit Northern Cyprus on our own.
We got a bus early morning from Larnaca to Lefkosia from where we made our way through the Ledra Street border crossing and unto the place from where we could catch a bus or shared taxi to Kyrenia – or Girne as it is known in Northern Cyprus.
Unlike in the southern part where busses run on a simple schedule which basically only informs you of the departure time from the first stop and the approximate duration of the bus route, in Northern Cyprus busses and shared taxis (both known as dolmuş) only leave when full. I definitely prefer the Northern Cypriot way of handling public transport and it took us only ten minutes and a chat with a local guy before we were pushed into the first available dolmuş in the direction of Girne.
The minivan was old and the highway bumpy and it took us some time to stop fighting the constant jumping around in our seats. Once we’d accepted the bumping it felt like a roller coaster ride. After 25 minutes north we arrived in Girne.
Walking around Girne
Walking around the city, I can understand the comparison to Chania in Crete, but Girne is much more chaotic in the centre and the old town is not as well maintained. However, the city is charming and full of life.
As always we tried to find a local place to eat far away from the general tourist traps which seemed to dominate the harbour area. We came across Halil İbrahim Sofrası which was a no-nonsense Turkish place serving the generic kebab, but also offered a lot of other Turkish dishes. We got a Turkish pizza called a pide and a firin beyti – both of which tasted marvellous.
Lunch well over we were ready to find our way to Saint Hilarion Castle and the Bellapais Abbey.
We found a taxi for around 145 Turkish lire which would take us to Saint Hilarion and wait for us for an hour before dropping us off at Bellapais Monastery. We might have found it cheaper, but with limited time we were eager to get going.
Saint Hilarion Castle
This magnificent castle on the top of the mountain range with stunning vistas of the North Cypriot coast has without a doubt been the highlight of out trip to Cyprus. The massive construction seems to grow from the rock of the mountain with towers extending the height of the mountain peak.
Should I do it all over again I would skip Bellapais Abbey which is a pretty but not extraordinary ruin and instead spend more time breathing in the hard winds from the top of Saint Hilarion. One hour was just about enough to reach the very top and find our way back down. One hour of terrifying heights and marvellous view points.
The castle was originally a monastery built in the 10th century, which the Byzantines began to fortify in the 11th century. Along with the lesser known Kantara and Buffavento, it protected the Northern coast of the island from Arab pirates until the Venetians took over the island and dismantled large parts of it while focusing their defence on the coastal castles such as Kyrenia and Farmagusta castles.
I can only imagine how magnificent it used to be before dismantlement. Even now in its crumbling state it is a terrifying sight balancing on the mountain top.
On the other hand I was mighty pleased when we turned around after an hour because while I might have been fascinated with the views front eh top of the castle, I was also freaking out due to my fear of heights was by all measures was put to the max. The small delicate platform at the very top seemed to be strung up only by a few metal lists and it was rocking in the wind. I was basically crawling around on the top of the mountain breathing in heavily while attempting to take pictures. Not my finest moment, but I got the shots.
After a run down the stairs from the castle to our taxi, we headed off towards Bellapais Abbey. It is a prettily situated ruin of an old abbey which was built in the 13th century by Canons Regular of the Holy Sepulchre – an order which arrived in the area after having escaped Jerusalem when Saladin conquered the city in 1187.
The abbey is nicely situated with views over the coast and sea, but it seemed a let down after the magnificence of Saint Hilarion and with only a few walls left standing it didn’t take long for us to look through the place.
At the tourist information we’d been told that we could walk back from Bellapais, but the drive from Girne had seemed rather long, so we were a bit apprehensive as we started our descend towards the city.
After a beautiful, but not overly fantastic walk along the main road, we decided to try our luck hitch hiking. We were fortunate that the first car we saw decided to stop and bring us along to the centre square from where we got a dolmuş back to Lefkosia.
You can read about Lefkosia in my blog with the very original title: Lefkosia (Nicosia).