If you’re considering taking a break in North Cyprus why not spend some time exploring North Cyprus’s ancient castles? Even if you aren’t a keen walker or you’re coming to the island in the heat of the summer sunshine when walking too far is pretty impossible, you can still get close enough to each magnificent castle to be impressed – we promise you!
North Cyprus is home to a trio of Lusignan Gothic Crusader castles: St. Hilarion, Buffavento and Kantara, as well as the Byzantine built Kyrenia Castle. Each dominates its location so that you can’t miss them really! A word of warning though, there are steep climbs at fairly high altitudes to the Crusader castles, and parents need to keep a close eye on children, and those who suffer vertigo should hold the hand of someone they trust! Another tip would be to have fluids readily available and to not visit in the heat of the midday sun in the summer time, as it can get a little too hot for many!
This is an immense Byzantine structure, thought to have been built on top of the foundations of an ancient Roman port, and it dominates the old harbour area in the town of Kyrenia. The Lusignans also had a hand in its construction too, whilst in later times the British used it as a prison and a police school, and before that the Ottomans used it as a tomb for one of their generals, whilst during the Venetian reign it was altered by fortification.
It is well intact and an incredible sight to behold both inside and out. Visitors to the castle are rewarded with full access to the entire building, and they can scamper around and right up onto the very top totally unrestricted. Visitors to the harbour area often watch with horror as the plucky castle-goers stand right on the edge of the huge walls looking down at the sea! Parents with young children should maybe consider reins! If you do decide to visit the castle, be sure to go to the Kyrenia Shipwreck Museum located within the castle where you will see one of the oldest wrecks ever recovered from the sea preserved and housed.
There is a peaceful courtyard area too, where you can sit under the trees and enjoy a cool drink, and it is has also been the venue to many of the classical music concerts held in North Cyprus each year, providing a wonderful location in which to appreciate a great evenings entertainment.
St. Hilarion Castle
To visit St. Hilarion you take the main road to Lefkoşa (Nicosia) from Girne and head up over the Kyrenia mountain range, the castle is signposted off to the west. Originally St. Hilarion castle was named after a ‘hermit’ monk of the samename who lived and died in a cave on the mountain where it’s built.
Although no original construction date is available, it is estimated that during the 10th and 11th centuries a monastery was built over the tomb of the Saint and then future occupants of Cyprus – including the Lusignans, Venetians and Ottomans – all had a hand in adding, destroying and altering various aspects of the castle, and it was used as a military outpost, residence and fortress. More recently in 1964 Turkish Cypriots used it to fend off EOKA inspired attacks.
The road up to the castle is a bit bendy but well worth the drive for when you get closer to St Hilarion you realise just what an incredible position it’s perched on, and the views just cannot be replicated anywhere else! Built 2,400ft up above the plains before it and seemingly growing out of the rocks around it, St. Hilarion is one of the best castles in the world. A true fairy tale castle that will have both young and old visitors enchanted!
Plan plenty of time to visit the castle as it will take you a good long while to explore all the hidden rooms, tunnels, gardens, views and steep, steep staircases! And trust us, the climb to the very top and out to Prince John’s Tower is worth it! Legend has it that Prince John, nice man that he was, threw two of his bodyguards – who he believed were plotting against him – out of the tower and over the cliff to their death. When you venture to the edge of the tower and look down you can share their final view!
If you’re travelling to Buffavento from Kyrenia you head out east past Ozanköy and Çatalköy, and then instead of turning left towards Acapulco and Turtle Beach you head on up the mountain. Right at the top of the road you’ll see a signpost to Buffavento Kalesi…now you can either park here in the car park and take our challenge of walking all the way to the castle (about 6km) or if you have a sturdy vehicle (or a hire car!) you can drive the rough track to the foot of the mountain on which the castle is built.
It’s believed that the castle began life as a Byzantine watchtower before surrendering to Richard the Lionheart when he invaded in 1191. During the Lusignan period it was used as a prison, and then it fell into a state of disrepair through neglect – which is why it may be the least impressive ruin but certainly the one with arguably the best views. The castle is indeed not particularly well preserved, but if you visit at the right time it can feel like you are up in the clouds as it’s pretty well camouflaged among the mountain peaks!
The castle sits atop a sheer 3,100ft peak, and when you see it you wonder how on earth you’re meant to access it! In fact the final climb up to it (which has to be done on foot, or hand and knees?!) takes about 30 – 40 minutes, and you’ll be able to see why the castle needed no other form of protection than its position – as there really is only one way in!
Buffavento means ‘wind buffeted,’ and when you visit you’ll see why! It is situated exactly where the warm air rises from the plains, the cool air rises from the sea and it swirls and swirls round the castle. You can reach out and touch the clouds as they circle round you at the top of this amazing castle.
Usually accessed from Famagusta or Boğaz, this is often described as the most romantic of the trio of Crusader Lusignan Gothic castles in Northern Cyprus. You can drive to it from Kyrenia, but it takes at least an hour and a half and the road gets a bit rough along the way!
Kantara (meaning ‘arch’ in Arabic) castle is slightly lower than either St. Hilarion or Buffavento at ‘just’ 2,000ft up, and it is the best preserved of the three. Its documented history begins in 1191 when Richard the Lionheart ‘acquired’ it, though it’s believed to have been built around the year 900. The Lusignans are responsible for rebuilding and expanding it, and the Venetians are responsible for dismantling it!
However, despite their best efforts the northern sections of the castle, including an impressive barbican and square tower, are well preserved. With incredible views of both sides of the Karpaz peninsular and Turkey and Syria on a clear day, the castle is well worth the trip.
If you would like to know more about the many interesting places to visit in North Cyprus, then please check out our articles on museums and other places of interest in our Sightseeing Section. In addition, if you fancy visiting with a specialised tour group then please visit our articles on tours and tour companies which can accommodate various tailored holidays to suit your preference. Our article on the ancient history of North Cyprus can also provide you with more information on the various rulers who have overseen and built these wonderful castles.