Crusader castles and Byzantine churches in Cyprus
Ever since Aphrodite, Greek goddess of love and beauty, was said to have risen from the waves, Cyprus has been a popular destination for both lovers and sun-worshippers, many of whom get no further than the luxury hotels and the beaches. But Pamela Harris finds there is more to this island, as revealed in the Cicerone guide, Walking in Cyprus.
It is now easy to cross from one side of this divided island to the other, and we were pleasantly surprised to find that trails throughout are well marked. With 44 walks described in the guidebook there is a lot of choice, but we decided to limit ourselves to the Kyrenia mountains in the north, and the Tröodos mountains in the south. Both areas had the advantage that many routes included a visit to an interesting site, which might be a crusader castle, an abandoned monastery or a Byzantine painted church.
The town of Kyrenia (or Girne, as it is known in Turkish) makes a perfect base for the north; its old quarter set around an attractive harbour at the foot of the Besparmak mountain range, which runs along the north coast in spiky crags. Here, some of the most spectacular walks go up to crusader castles, dramatically situated high above the sea. Originally built by the Byzantines to protect the island from Arab attacks, their fortifications were strengthened in the 13th century when crusader knights moved here after being forced to leave the kingdom of Jerusalem. Beacon messages warning of attack could be transmitted from the highest point of one castle to another, and then onwards to the main cities of Nicosia and Famagusta.
The castle that is best preserved and easiest to reach is St Hilarion, not far from Kyrenia. This was still in use as recently as 1974, when it was seized by the Turks at the time of their invasion and used to command the road to Nicosia. The walk to the castle follows a dirt track up from the road, and then the slope steepens to reach the massive double gateway that leads up to three levels of fortifications. There are stables and soldiers’ quarters on the lower floor; a chapel, banqueting hall and kitchens on the second; and royal apartments on the third, where a lovely Gothic tracery window overlooks the sea. Right at the top is Prince John’s tower, and you can scramble even higher onto the crag, from where the view is breath-taking.
There is also a walk to Buffavento castle, which we did not take, but we did go on the easy one further east along the coast, to Kantara castle. We started at Kantara village, where we found a delightful little restaurant to return to after the walk, and followed the undulating track, which took us all round the castle before reaching the entrance. The castle itself is less well preserved than St Hilarion, but has spectacular views in all directions, especially eastwards along the length of the Karpas peninsula and across the sparkling blue sea to Turkey and Syria.
Other routes in the north lead to small, abandoned monasteries; one of the shortest in the guide being the Sina Monastery circuit, along the coast west of Kyrenia. The monastery itself is in a spectacular setting, with the mountains towering above and the sea below. Although what was once a large, imposing building is now in ruins, it is clearly often visited by locals – as we were leaving, a newly married couple drove up in a small car, covered in balloons, to have their wedding photos taken.
Another monastery we visited was Antiphonitis and its small 12th-century church. Starting at Enteseppe, we followed the long forest track to join a small road leading down to the church. The exterior looks in perfect condition, with a lovely little loggia added at a later date by the Venetians, but once inside you can see the damage done to the Byzantine frescoes. The image of Christ Pantokrator in the dome remains intact, but many on the walls have been hacked off and even sold. Although some of the frescoes have now been recovered and the church is guarded by a caretaker, sadly this is too late.
In contrast, the painted churches in the south are well looked after, for the Greek Orthodox religion is still practised here and the beautiful paintings venerated. The churches were built at the time of the crusades, when the Lusignan rulers of Cyprus followed the Catholic form of Christianity and the Orthodox priests and monks fled to remote sites in the Tröodos mountains. Here, they built small wooden churches with insignificant, barn-like exteriors but beautifully painted interiors in the Byzantine style, the frescoes depicting figures from both the old and new testaments.
We stayed in the village of Pedhoulas, which had its own small painted church as well as a much larger one, built more recently. With several hotels and restaurants, this made a good base both for visiting more of the painted churches and for walks in the mountains. One of the walks in the guide went to the church at Asinou, a UNESCO World Heritage site that is home to some of the finest frescoes. The narrow trail is well signposted and easy to follow and, at the end, opposite a surprisingly large restaurant, is the church itself in a clearing in the trees. We spent more than an hour inside admiring the paintings, for they are beautifully executed and cover every inch of the interior. In the dome Christ Pantokrator presides over all, and there are delightful personifications of Earth riding on a lion and Sea on a water monster, and another of St George on horseback stabbing down at the dragon.
We also wanted to explore some of the guidebook’s walking routes in the Troödos, and decided first on the Artemis Trail around Mount Olympus, at 1952m the highest point on the island. This is a popular circuit and we met hikers of all nationalities as we made our way around the mountain. The path was mostly easy to follow, often with lovely views through the trees across range after range of rolling hills to the sea far below. As it was designated a nature trail, many of the trees were labelled, and we came across stinking juniper and 500-year-old black pines. This was autumn, but in spring the woods must be full of wild flowers.
Our final walk was the Caledonia circuit up to the Caledonia Falls, named by Scots who visited the area in the late 19th century. This is another popular nature trail where we met many other walkers, and the path, although rocky and steep, is well maintained, with frequent river crossings on narrow wooden bridges. After about an hour we reached the dramatic waterfall crashing down high rocks into little pools. Most people retraced their steps from here, but we continued on the circular walk, heading more steeply uphill to reach the road leading to Tröodos resort. Here, we turned south again, on a contouring path, with lovely views down to the villages below and across the hills towards the south coast. The path soon became a forest track, where the views were obscured by trees, and eventually steepened as we lost height to reach the trout farm where we had started.
There are many more routes in the guide for us to explore, and those we tried have but whetted our appetite for our next visit to Aphrodite’s island.
Photos by Pamela Harris and Alan Norton
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