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.Read More
The harbour and around
The harbour and around
Busy with excursion boats, laced with wooden pontoons and bristling with masts, Girne’s medieval harbour is one of the most picturesque in the Mediterranean. Almost perfectly circular, its western side is dominated by the massive Venetian castle, while the harbour entrance is now protected by a long breakwater built after independence. The horseshoe-shaped quay is taken up with restaurants and small hotels, some in converted carob warehouses, others in modern buildings, with balconied upper stories and canopied ground floors. Nearby is the Customs House, converted by the British from a medieval tower to which, during troubled times, a chain was slung from the castle to prevent access to the harbour. It is now occupied by the tourist office. There’s an even older, ancient harbour immediately to the east (you can see it from the Venetian tower of the castle) and a much newer, modern one even further east beyond that.
Girne Castle has a confusing architectural history, having been adapted, destroyed, rebuilt and improved so many times. The Byzantines first built a castle here, perhaps on the remains of an earlier structure, in the tenth century AD. Rectangular in shape, it was reinforced and extended during the Lusignan era, with the addition of living quarters and a moat. Its present form took shape under the Venetians in the sixteenth century, with the addition of the west and south walls and the construction of three new bastions. The British used the castle as a prison and as a police academy, and, during the late 1950s, to incarcerate EOKA fighters.
Never taken by force (though it was almost destroyed by the Genoese in 1373), the castle did succumb to the Ottomans in 1570. It is said that the Venetian commander of the castle negotiated a truce with the Ottomans until it became clear how the siege of Nicosia turned out. When the Ottomans presented him with the severed head of his Nicosian counterpart, he promptly surrendered.
Visiting Girne from the south
Visiting Girne from the south
The best place to cross over from the south if travelling to Girne is at the Agios Dometios checkpoint west of Lefkosia city centre. It’s not well signposted – drive west along Leoforos Agiou Pavlou, and when the road bears sharply to the left immediately after Nicosia Racecourse, look out for a sharp right turn. The crossing is a few metres up this side street. Once across, you’re in Metehan, and it’s no more than half-an-hour’s drive to Girne. But do memorize the route after the crossing so that you can find your way back – the signposts are for Metehan, and there’s no mention of it being a crossing point.