Famous for its wild donkeys and relatively little else, the Karpaz Peninsula (Kirpaşa) stretches for 70km, a tapering finger of land pointing northeast towards Turkey and Syria. One of the most sparsely settled places on the island, road improvements have now made it more readily accessible and holiday villages are springing up along its otherwise pristine beaches. Greek Cypriots also make pilgrimages here to visit Apostolos Andreas Monastery, near the peninsula’s tip. There is no fixed view on where Karpaz begins, but we’ve defined this area as east of Iskele/bogaz on the south coast, and Kaplica on its north coast. On this basis the atmospheric castle of Kantara falls within its boundaries.
Continuing 4km up the coast road from the Iskele turn-off brings you to BOĞAZ, which is much more worth visiting. A pretty little harbour lined with fishing boats and pleasure craft, it has a well thought out pedestrianized area, numerous bars and restaurants, and a sandy beach. It also boasts a couple of hotels, making it a feasible base for exploring the peninsula.
Fifteen kilometres beyond Agios Thyrsos is DIPKARPAZ, the last village on the peninsula and your last chance to fill up with petrol. It’s a prosaic kind of a place, reflected in the preponderance of vans and pick-up trucks on its streets, and is mainly notable for the fact that there are still Greeks living here among the largely Turkish incomers. In the centre is an Orthodox church overlooked by a very large mosque, and behind them arcaded shops. Around Dipkarpaz, to the north (follow the signs for the Oasis Hotel), lie the substantial ruins of the twelfth-century Agios Philon church, one of the few Orthodox churches in Cyprus built in the Romanesque rather than the Byzantine style (all of which are found on the Karpaz Peninsula). Standing in a cluster of palm trees, the church is characterized by a profusion of blind arches and windows. Beside and around Agios Philon are the remains of Greco-Roman Karpasia and a fifth-century AD cathedral built from stone plundered from it. From the beach you can see the remains of the ancient harbour, including a 100m-long breakwater stretching out to sea.
Just 3km inland off the main coast road from Gazimağusa, ISKELE is the administrative centre for the Karpaz Peninsula. For centuries called Trikomo, a name that reflected its creation by the amalgamation of three villages, it was renamed Iskele after the place in the south from which many Turkish Cypriots were resettled after 1974. There’s not much to detain you – even its own tourist information map can muster only two places of interest, both churches. George Grivas was born in Trikomo, but you wouldn’t expect much to be made of that in north Cyprus.
Kantara Castle is the third of the great mountain fortresses built originally by the Byzantines along the Kyrenia Mountains, the others being St Hilarion and Buffavento. Kantara Castle is worth visiting not only for its Gothic architecture and atmosphere, but also for its views – from here, you can see both coasts of the Karpaz Peninsula stretching off to the east, and on a clear day the mountains of mainland Turkey. The first mention of Kantara Castle is in 1191 AD when, legend has it, Richard the Lionheart captured Isaac Komnenos here. Lusignan prince John, brother of King Peter I, is said to have hidden out here from the invading Genoese in 1373. Later, his brother James I of Cyprus refortified the castle – the origin of much of the stonework that remains today. The nearby village of Kantara is a hill station which has seen better times.
The easiest route to the castle is along the north coast road from Girne to the Karpaz. At Kaplica, a fine, wide new road climbs up from the sea, and within minutes you’ve covered the 6km to the Karpaz village intersection. From here, there’s a clearly signposted and good-quality tarmac road which takes you past a large picnic ground to the castle car park, some 4km from the village. You can also approach from Gazimağusa, turning off the east coast road just before Boğaz and following a vertiginous mountain road via Yarkoy and Turnalar. After around half an hour of white-knuckle driving (there are no safety barriers) you reach Kantara village.
Access to the castle (750m) is up well-graded paths and steps, with a few safety barriers (though higher up the castle, barriers are not always present, so keep an eye on children). Once you’re through the main gate, an inner entrance leads between the massive northeast and southeast towers to a path that leads westwards. A succession of vaulted rooms with arrow slits, probably the barracks, is followed by a latrine. Beyond here are several more chambers and ruined towers. At the southwest corner of the castle are more chambers and latrines, and a hidden gate. At the top of the castle is a beacon tower which could send warning of attack west to Buffavento, which in turn lit beacons to warn St Hilarion.
You can see KAPLICA clearly from the ramparts of Kantara Castle. The village, its white mosque prominent, stands back from two curved sandy beaches on the north coast of the peninsula. On the one to the west stands a large hotel and restaurant and a mobile home/caravan site, the one to the east a small boat harbour. Both beaches are pleasant enough spots to idle away an afternoon, and have fine sand and clear water.
Beyond Dipkarpaz there’s a real feeling that you’re approaching the edge of the world. This is a land of roaming donkeys, open country, isolated beaches and wild geological formations. Along the north coast are the ruins of Aphendrika, one of the largest cities of Ptolemaic Cyprus, marked now only by the ruins of three later churches – Panagia Chrysiotissa, Agios Georgios and Panagia Asomatos. Along the south coast (turn right at the mosque in Dipkarpaz) a good-quality highway turns, after about 5km, into a rough and bumpy road and remains so for the 17km to Apostolos Andreas monastery, which is amply signposted. Look out for herds of sheep and goats, and for the famously importunate wild donkeys. Side roads strike off to the right, giving access to several south coast beaches, including one of the finest in Cyprus – Nangomi, or Golden Sands Beach. Backed by substantial dunes, the beach is some 6km long, with a hill at the end of the western promontory, and consists of fine sand and shallow pellucid water, with access down several paths at different points from the road. Besides being a fine bathing beach, Nangomi is also a sea turtle nesting site where the security of the eggs are ensured by particularly aggressive sand flies. It is also, as is the whole tip of the peninsula, a protected area.
A couple of kilometres beyond Galounopetra Point, at the eastern end of Golden Sands Beach, is one of Cyprus’s greatest pilgrimage destinations, the Apostolos Andreas Monastery. A kind of Cypriot Lourdes, its reputation for miracles comes from the tale of the Apostle Andrew who is said to have run aground here on his way to Palestine. St Andrew went ashore, the story goes, struck a rock with his rod, causing spring water to gush out. The ship’s captain was blind (perhaps why the ship ran aground), but bathing his eyes in the spring water cured him. A chapel was built on the spot in the fifteenth century followed by a church in the eighteenth century and the monastery buildings in the nineteenth.
The monastery’s miraculous reputation was boosted in 1895 by the story of Anatolian Greek Maria Georgiou, whose son had disappeared seventeen years earlier. She was told in a dream to visit the monastery to pray for her son’s return. On the boat over she told her story to a young dervish, who asked how she would identify her son after all this time. She said that he had distinctive birthmarks on his shoulder and chest, at which point he threw his cloak back to reveal identical marks, prompting a tearful reunion (and, of course the reversion of the son to the Orthodox faith).
The monastery was the site of frenetic mass pilgrimages on the saint’s name days, August 15 and November 30, until the events of 1974 caused its closure. Since the opening of the Green Line in 2003 it has been growing in popularity again, not only with the religious, but also as a general tourist attraction. The long-awaited renovation of the monastery complex, partly financed by the United Nations and seen as a step towards reconciliation of Greek and Turkish Cypriots, is now well under way. Before renovation started, it consisted of a huge plaza surrounded by lodgings and stalls selling souvenirs and religious items with, towards the sea, monastery buildings surrounding a church topped by a bell tower. Inside, in addition to the usual icons, were numerous votive offerings. From the church, steps led down to the chapel and the holy well. As with many monastery buildings in Cyprus, the whole place was overrun by cats. At the time of writing, renovation was taking place; in due course the monastery, restored to its former splendour, will be well worth visiting.
A further 4km from Apostolos Andreas Monastery brings you to Zafer Burnu (Cape Apostolos Andreas), which has a rocky shore and a small archipelago offshore – the Kleides (“Keys”) Islands. A rock, hollowed out by caves and bearing Turkish and TRNC flags, marks Cyprus’s northernmost and easternmost point.
At the easternmost end of the Karpaz Peninsula, beyond Dipkarpaz, hundreds of wild donkeys roam free. Though seemingly native to the region, their wild status goes no further back than the Turkish invasion of 1974 when, thousands of domestic donkeys, the mainstay of peasant agriculture on the island, were abandoned. The new administration of the north herded them together and let them loose on the Karpaz Peninsula, whose covering of marquis was felt to be ideal for their sustenance. The donkeys, however, preferred the more succulent crops being grown by local farmers, and made a thorough nuisance of themselves, even jumping fences to get at the crops. Understandably angry, the farmers put pressure on the authorities to do something about them, but a proposal to relocate the animals to mainland Turkey caused a storm of environmental and animal-rights protest. So the donkeys remain, and the farmers take what measures they can to keep them out. Perhaps five hundred to a thousand feral donkeys survive here, and visitors are advised to treat them with respect – they have a notoriously bad temper.
Midway between Kantara and the tip of the peninsula is YENIERENKÖY, now populated by migrants from the Kokkina Enclave in the west. It has a bank, a petrol station and a tourist information office. Before reaching the village a turn-off some 11km west leads to the villages of Gelincik (Vasili) and Boltasli (Lythrangomi). Between them lies the church of Panagia Kanakaria, made famous by the theft of its mosaics after the 1974 invasion, and even more so by their return in 1991.
East of Yenierenköy are some fine beaches, though the view is now dominated by the luxury Karpaz Gate Marina. Seemingly aimed at superyacht-owning oligarchs, the marina was opened in 2011 and boasts a 200-seat restaurant, dive centre and a 33m infinity pool among its attractions.
On the edge of the village of SIPAHI, to the right off the main road about 5km after Yenierenköy (follow the yellow sign), are the remains of an impressive early Christian basilica, Agia Trias dating from the fifth-century AD. Particularly remarkable are its large geometric mosaics, with, at the northern and southern end, inscriptions acknowledging the men who financed the church. Further along the main road (8km from Yenierenköy) and occupying a terrace on the shore is the old stone church of Agios Thyrsos, in the crypt of which is a sacred spring said to have healing powers.
The widespread looting of religious art treasures from Orthodox churches in the north after 1974 is epitomized by the fate of the Kanakaria mosaics, whose story reads like a Hollywood thriller. At some point between 1974 and 1979, thieves raided the church of Panagia Kanakaria, about halfway along the Karpaz Peninsula, and made off with four sections of its sixth century mosaics. In 1988, Indianapolis art dealer Peg Goldberg (“Indiana Peg”, perhaps) agreed to buy the mosaics from a Turkish art dealer for just over $1million. Goldberg soon began hawking the mosaics around museums and art galleries in the US, with a price tag of $20million. One museum, the Getty, became suspicious, and checked with the authorities in Cyprus. It confirmed that the mosaics were stolen and demanded their return. The Church of Cyprus followed up with a legal claim, and the Indiana Federal Court found in favour of their repatriation. In 1991 the mosaics were returned to the Archbishop Makarios III Cultural Centre in Lefkosia, where they can be seen today.
The dealer who sold the mosaics, Aydin Dikmen, was tracked down to Munich in 1997 and his flat raided by police. They discovered a huge haul of Cypriot icons, frescoes, bibles and other artefacts worth some $40million. After a tortuous legal dispute with the German authorities the stolen artworks were eventually repatriated in 2010. For more information on Cypriot icons, see Iconography: Religious art in Cyprus.