Almost exactly halfway between St Hilarion and Buffavento is the flower-bedecked village of Bellapais, a tangle of narrow lanes and steep hills, with fine views down to Girne’s modern harbour. The village is synonymous with its medieval abbey, one of the most beautiful in the eastern Mediterranean. Yet, it’s not just the abbey that makes Bellapais so popular – one of its principal cheerleaders was English author Lawrence Durrell, who lived here in the 1950s and included detailed descriptions of the village and its inhabitants in his book Bitter Lemons. Bellapais is one of the principal tour-stops on the island, so it is often packed. Try to avoid high season and late morning/early afternoon.
Despite being such a popular attraction, Bellapais is not easy to find. Travelling east on the main road from Girne, turn right at the Bellapais-signposted “peace” roundabout (with its two figures holding olive branches), and, a few hundred metres along, take the first (unsignposted) main turning left. At the top of the hill turn left at the (unsignposted) roundabout, and continue on to the village. Or just stop and ask.
Bellapais abbey was founded by the second Lusignan ruler Aimery to house Augustinian monks expelled from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre when Jerusalem fell to Saladin in 1187. Known as the “Abbaye de la Paix” or the Abbey of Peace, most of what remains dates from the period 1267–84, with the cloisters and refectory being added in 1324–59. In its early years the monastery adopted strict Premonstratensian beliefs, but as time went on it started to earn a name for a variety of corrupt practices, where monks ate and drank to excess, took wives (sometimes two or three), had children, and would then only accept their own sons into the monastery as novices. Though it built up considerable wealth, its treasure was plundered by the Genoese in 1373. After the Ottoman Conquest in 1571 the abbey became derelict, and was raided for its dressed building stone – only the church escaped, as it continued to be used for worship by the local Greek Orthodox community. Vandalization of the monastery continued under the British, who even used the refectory as a rifle range.