If you are interested in the history of the Crusades and want to see some of the castles built upon impossibly high and craggy mountain tops, you need look no further than North Cyprus. Running along the spine of the Kyrenia mountain range are a series of castles built in the 13th and 14th centuries. St. Hilarion, Buffavento (see above) and Kantara form a chain of castles ranging from west to east along the mountain peaks all well worth the time and effort of getting there.
Take a hearty picnic, you will get hungry after your efforts, plenty of water too and head off for Kantara, the easternmost castle 70km from Kyrenia. If you intend to clamber up to the top, be sure that you have the right kind of comfortable and sturdy footwear.
To access Kantara, you turn inland away from the coast, passing through old villages, by mosques and goatherds. The route winds up through pine forests and opens up onto cliffs and rocky outcrops. Mind out for the odd coach.
Buy your ticket from the man in the hut and begin your heart stopping ascent. I had to seriously overcome my fear of heights and it was worth it. Because when you get to the very top, the view is absolutely spectacular. You will see the panhandle of the Karpaz peninsula stretch out into the misty distance. Look south and the Mesaoria plain spreads out, to the east lies Famagusta and the coast; to the west, Nicosia (Lefkosa).
There was in the distant past a Byzantine fort here, but the walls that you will see now were built by the Lusignans. A royal house established in 1192 by Guy de Lusignan the deposed king of Jerusalem. His descendants lived in constant fear of attack by Arabs and Turks and defence became their main concern.
When you descend, drive down to Famagusta right into the old town within the ancient city walls and take a look at the Lala Mustapha Pasha Mosque formerly St. Nicholas Cathedral but converted after the Ottoman invasion in 1571.
Also, within the city walls, not far from that mosque and near the quay-side, if you are in need of refreshment, visit Peteks, famed for its traditional Turkish sweets and pastries. Sit inside the cool tiled interior, where a fountain plays and sip Turkish coffee, or whatever pleases you and try a selection of their excellent pastries. If you have come this far, you have earned it!
If you have the appetite for more castle viewing on another day and can stand its dizzying heights, visit Buffavento Castle which stands between Kantara to the east and St.Hilarion to the west. Its name is Italian and means, “Defier of the Winds”, reflecting the fact that the winds at its location at 950 metres above sea level can reach quite a high velocity. It is the highest and most difficult to reach out of the three castles. The castle is irregular in shape as it makes use of the mountain itself for its defence.
To get there, take the turning that is signposted at the top of the Five Finger (Besparmak) mountain pass and follow the route for a little over four miles. All along this approach road there are magnificent views over the Mesaoria plain and the City of Nicosia (Lefkosa).
As both of the other castles are visible from Buffavento, it was used to pass signals between them. It also controlled an important pass through the mountains and was used as a prison in the 14th century. This visit is not recommended for those suffering from vertigo.
The lowest part of the castle was probably built by the Byzantines in the 11th century. The Lusignans expanded the castle in the 14th century. During the Venetian control of the island, Buffavento fell into disuse as the Venetians saw the coastal castles of Cyprus, such as Kyrenia and Famagusta, as more important.
The final castle to the west, is St Hilarion, the Lusignans’ summer retreat and greatest of their mountaintop castles, guarding the ancient route through the mountains from Nicosia to Kyrenia. It takes under an hour to drive to St Hilarion, arriving via the four-lane highway that now splits the ancient pass.
Although both Kantara and Buffavento are pretty quiet, St. Hilarion attracts a lot of coaches.
However, it is well worth a visit, looking up at the craggy heights is quite overwhelming. The Turkish army now use the old jousting fields below as a shooting range. Do not wave cameras when passing the military camp at the base of the castle – they don’t like it!