The castle is said to be the inspiration for Walt Disney’s film Snow White and it has certainly got a magical feel about it. Arriving in northern Cyprus for the first time, I indeed feel like I’ve entered a magical kingdom, which is fitting considering that it doesn’t actually exist as a country – officially at least.
The breakaway state, known (only to Turkey) as the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, split from the Republic of Cyprus in the south in 1974 after years of fighting and bloodshed between the British, Greek and Turkish Cypriots for control of the island. And for that reason, for the last 42 years, the international community has refused to recognise it as a country and has continued to impose economic sanctions.
Forty-two years later, however, my guide Yusuf says, there is finally hope of reconciliation with the leaders on both sides in talks to find a resolution. A referendum is expected this year, which, if agreed upon, would see the formation of a federation of Cyprus. “I have friends on both sides of the island who have been divided or moved far away from their homes,” he said. “But I have always lived in the hope that one day I would see a united Cyprus.”
Due to restrictions on the excavation of ancient sites as a result of the embargoes, St Hilarion has remained largely untouched for the best part of four decades. Divided into three main parts, the lower and upper levels and Prince John’s Tower, it is linked by a series of steep staircases, which after a few flights leave me breathless. Yusuf, however, is quick to have a laugh at my expense when he sees me start to flag. “Last month, I had a 94-year-old on my tour who climbed up here all by himself,” he says.
The panoramic views when you reach the top, however, are well worth the hike, as is the story that Yusuf tells of Prince John of Antioch. Legend has it that upon becoming convinced his Bulgarian bodyguards were plotting to kill him, he summoned them to the top of the tower, where he threw them to their deaths.
Safely back on firm ground, we head for the sleepy village of Bellapais further down the road, 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 overlooking the Med’s coastline. You can imagine Durrell sitting under a tree in the main square on a hot summer’s day penning his latest story.
To get an idea of what life in Cyprus was like before the division, 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, and the last untouched part of the island. Hiring a car for the day, I make the steep climb up to Kantara Castle at the gateway of the peninsula for a 360-degree view of the region and I’m soon glad I made the effort. As I climb the lookout tower to the summit, I’m greeted by the sight of a rich tapestry of green pastures and olive groves and carob trees unfurling down below.
According to the earliest records, the castle dates back to 1191, when Richard the Lionheart (of the crusades fame) seized it from Isaak Komninos, the Byzantine emperor of Cyprus at the time. Locally the castle was known as the ‘House of 101 Rooms’ and according to popular belief anyone who entered the 101st room would go to straight paradise.
While the thought of spending my days in eternal bliss sounds appealing, there’s plenty more to see, so I set off down the long and winding road towards the Oasis Restaurant at Ayios Filon Beach, just beyond Dipkarpaz, the island’s most northerly village.
The sparse landscape is striking – perched above a small sandy cove, with the 12th century Agios Filon Church on one side and the remote shoreline on the other; the only sounds you can hear are the waves crashing on the shore. Finding a table overlooking the beach, I order the catch of the day and a glass of the local wine and while away a good hour gazing into the crystal clear waters beneath me.
A few miles up the coast is Golden Beach, my next destination. The beach is deserted, save for a few circling sea birds. Making my way there, I pass rustic beach huts with hammocks swaying in the breeze and follow a winding broad walk that runs all the way to the sea.
For a moment I stand absolutely still and survey my surrounds, breathing in the fresh sea air. This harsh but captivating landscape hints at a Mediterranean from a bygone era before the tourist invasion of the 70s and 80s. It’s a world away from the clubbing scene of Ayia Napa a hundred miles further south.
Now part of a national park and a prime turtle-nesting ground, its shallow waters are just the spot for lying motionless and drifting off into another world.
Alex Wright was a guest of GoNorthCyprus and stayed at the Pia Bella hotel. Rooms for two people are from £44 per night, half-board, in the winter, and from £68 per day in summer. For more information or reservations contact 0800 612 6600, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.gonorthcyprus.com
Car hire is from £10 per day in winter, and from £19 per day in summer. For more information visit www.pacific-rentals.com