GIRNE (still widely known by its Greek name Kyrenia or Keryneia) is the most beautiful town in Cyprus, owing to its ravishing harbour, mighty Venetian castle, and a backdrop of sharp and craggy mountains. It even has a pleasant climate, courtesy of those mountains, which bring cooler air and a greener landscape than in the rest of Cyprus. Away from the harbour area, the town is less appealing – some parts are run down, others beginning to succumb to characterless tourist development. But for all that, it’s a place that all visitors to the island should try to take in, for the day if not longer.
Apart from the harbour and the castle, there’s much else hidden away amongst Girne’s steep serpentine alleys. The Anglican Church, the Cafer Paşa Camii, the Ottoman Cemetery and the Chrysopolitissa Church attest to the spiritual life of the town, the tiny Folk Art Museum and Icon Museum to its cultural life, and the Bandabuliya together with a host of shops to its commercial side. Finally, Girne’s numerous cafés and restaurants offer the opportunity to eat, drink and socialize with friendly locals, or just enjoy the views and the chance to people-watch in comfort.
Girne was established in the tenth century BC by the first Greek invaders of Cyprus, the Myceneans, and can therefore claim to be the settlement with the longest history of continuous occupation anywhere on the island. During the time of Classical Greece it was one of the ten kingdoms of Cyprus. In the seventh century AD, Arab raids led to the building of a castle by the Byzantines, possibly on the site of an earlier Roman fort, later added to and strengthened by the Lusignans and then the Venetians. Although the castle was never taken by force of arms, it was starved into surrender by the Ottomans in 1570. During the occupation that followed, Girne declined and stagnated, but saw something of a renaissance during the British period as the new rulers built roads and developed the harbour. It became a busy port, exporting carob pods, importing goods from Greece and Turkey, and building ships. Prosperous and with a delightful climate, it was no wonder that British civil servants, streaming back from the collapsing empire, saw it as a paradise to which they could happily retire. However, this Levantine Shangri La changed as Cyprus gained its independence in 1960, and was then riven by intercommunal friction. Girne was one of the first places to fall during the 1974 Turkish invasion. With properties being looted, and then confiscated during the early post-invasion years, British expats left in droves, their number falling from 2500 to a couple of hundred. The spaces left by them, and even more by departing Greek Cypriots, were filled by Turkish Cypriots relocating, mainly from the Lemesos, and by Turks coming in from the mainland. Since then, the Brit expat community has burgeoned once more, though issues over property ownership in the north has stifled the second-homes market.