Of the three magnificent castles in the Kyrenia mountains, by far the most accessible, popular and most complete is St Hilarion. Dramatically sited on a rocky crag with elegantly ruined turrets, towers and windows, it certainly fires the imagination – in writer Dame Rose Macaulay’s words it’s a “picture-book castle for elf kings” – and formed the template for both the fairy-tale castles of King Ludwig in Bavaria and Walt Disney’s Magic Kingdom. If possible, visit in spring when the surrounding landscape is a riot of wild flowers. The views from the snack bar are to die for.
To reach the castle from Girne you need to drive south along the Lefkoşa motorway as it climbs up into the mountains, and just before it gets to the top of the pass and begins its descent to the Mesaoria plain, follow the yellow signpost off to the right. A 3km side road snakes up through a military camp, past a large statue of a soldier in battledress at its entrance. (The firing range on the left was once the site for medieval tournaments.) Up a sharp hill, you arrive at a small car park outside the castle gate. The whole trip from Girne takes about twenty minutes. On this road bear in mind that you’re in a restricted military area, and not allowed to stop, let alone take photographs. This is a pity because it’s as you approach the castle that you get by far the best view.
St Hilarion was originally a monastery dedicated to an obscure fourth-century Syrian hermit who lived in a cave on Mount Didymus (“Twin peaks”). An ascetic of the most extreme kind, Hilarion reputedly never washed and built up a following thanks to banishing demons and performing miracles. The monastery’s strategic position, commanding the pass through the Kyrenia mountains and overlooking the northern coastal plain, was not lost on the Byzantines. Facing repeated Arab raids, they converted it into a castle, probably sometime in the eighth century AD. The Lusignans improved and strengthened it in the thirteenth century – most of what you can see today was built in 1228 by John d’Ibelin – and it became not only a military stronghold but also a palace for Lusignan royalty, nicknamed “Dieu d’Amour”, loosely translated as Cupid’s Castle. This was the castle’s heyday, an era of tournaments, knights and courtly intrigue, especially under the rule of King Peter I and Queen Eleanor of Aragon.
St Hilarion continued to be a castle of importance during the latter Lusignan period, but when the Venetians took over in 1489 it fell into disrepair and became the ruin it is now, to see action only during the mid-twentieth-century troubles, when the Turkish TMT occupied it.
Once through the castle entrance – which includes a barbican – you will find yourself in the large outer bailey originally built by the Byzantines. Follow the sign to the right for the first of many wonderful views then continue upwards along the “Main Road”. It’s a well-made path with occasional steps, and you’ll see as you climb a watchtower and, to your left, the impressive curtain wall that rises steeply to the upper parts of the castle. This outer bailey was the area into which peasants and livestock could be withdrawn when the castle was under attack.
The castle stables are now used as a small visitor centre which offers lots of sketches, and information about the Lusignans. Beyond the stables, the path winds steeply upwards to the tunnel-like gate of what is described as the “second section”, perhaps the Lower Ward. It’s a warren of alleys, buildings and rooms opening off a central tunnel, some of which were part of the original tenth-century monastery. The first structure, up to the right, is the monastery church, now open to the elements, but with a well-preserved apse. North of here is the Great Hall, now home to the Café Lusignan. Along one side of the hall is a wooden balcony hanging over a staggering view of the coast below – on a clear day you can see Turkey, some 100km away.
Beyond the hall are a group of rooms which serviced it – kitchen, buttery and privies – and a belvedere, a shaded vaulted terrace with picnic tables and arches, again with those superb views. To the left (west) of the hall are more workaday rooms and the castellan’s quarters, which contain displays with mannequins illustrating medieval life. Continuing along the path which tunnels through this clutch of lower ward rooms, you emerge into the sunlight to signs pointing one way (off to the right) to the barracks, and Royal Apartments, and the other way, onward and upward, to the third section.
You pass a very large cistern which appears to have been built rather than hewn out of the rock (it has stone buttresses), and then the path, partly steps, partly rock-strewn tracks, soars upwards. Just before you reach the top, a fork leads left to the isolated Prince John’s Tower, where several of John’s Bulgarian mercenaries were murdered. Turning right instead of following the path to Prince John’s Tower brings you to the main gate of the Upper Ward. Once through the gate, there are, in succession, a Byzantine tower, a kitchen, a cistern and a group of subsidiary buildings. Beyond them are a further set of Royal Apartments and the famous Queen’s Window at which Queen Eleanor is said to have sat. From here glorious views to the west open out, with, in the foreground, the village of Karmi. All that remains to be seen is the Western Tower and the Zirve (summit) of the mountain, marked with a sign: “732m – Congratulations! You are at the peak”.