When I landed in Cyprus, I had no idea I would get to explore an abandoned castle in the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. Heck, I didn’t even know that there was a separate territory to Cyprus on the island.
On the evening of my second day in Cyprus, I got a message from Ashley Brown of The Way Away Vlog. She and her husband Josh had teamed up with Go North Cyprus to explore the northern half of the island, and they offered me to tag along on a tour of the port city of Kyrenia. Of course I accepted. I just had to get there…on the other side of the island.
Getting to Kyrenia in Northern Cyprus
Kyrenia is a port town and the second-largest city in Northern Cyprus. It’s a key tourist destination, especially with the monastery, castle and several other attractions nearby. Northern Cyprus itself is a really interesting destination. Turkey recognizes it as an independent territory, but the country of Cyprus doesn’t. That’s why you see it as a dotted line on Google Maps, and there’s still a lot of contention between the countries. Thankfully, it’s safe to travel between the two, and easy too.
I only had a few minutes to research how to get to Kyrenia from Larnaca, where I was staying in an Airbnb. I left my Airbnb at 6:15 in the morning, catching the 6:40 bus to Nicosia from the Old Hospital bus stop. The round-trip ticket costs $7.70 (€7). The ride took an hour and I was dropped off at the central bus station in Nicosia, the capital of both Cyprus and Northern Cyprus.
From the bus station, I had to walk a little over half a mile to the border control. Using my US Passport, I left Cyprus and entered Northern Cyprus without a problem. A website I had read said I would need to get a free 90-day visa, but they simply looked at my passport and waved me through. I found an ATM to withdraw a handful of Turkish Lira (as different from the Euros used in Cyprus).
The contrast from Cyprus to Northern Cyprus was startling. I went from a large European boulevard filled with major retailers and restaurants to a town that was significantly dingier. It did still feel like the same city, but clearly the southern side had received all the money for renovations.
From the northern side of the border, it was over a mile of walking through the old town, and then another half a mile to the bus station. I was using Google Maps and none of the locals helped me with directions. I found out later that the bus stops outside the entrance of the old town. If you know where to go, you can get from one bus to the other in half an hour. Since I didn’t know (and I got a little lost navigating through the streets of the old town), it took me nearly an hour.
The bus from Nicosia to Kyrenia was $3.30 (€3) round trip, although nowhere near as comfortable as the air-conditioned buses in the south. I was entertained by how the bus would take off with the door open, using momentum to close it. The ride was half an hour. Without any indications of stops or road signs (with everything in Turkish), I had to jump off onto the street when the bus veered away from my final destination.
I arrived at Ashley’s hotel just after 9:30 a.m., exactly when we agreed to meet by. A few minutes later, our tour began.
Go North Cyprus Tours had provided a car and private tour guide to Ashley and Josh for the day. The guide, Huseyin, was a Turkish Cypriot with an amazing knowledge of his country and its history. Rather than exploring the city of Kyrenia, we went straight up to Bellapais to visit the famed monastery overlooking the town.
Bellapais Abbey was originally built in the 12th century during the Crusades as a refuge for the Knights Templar. Over the years, it was expanded several times to accommodate the increasing number of monks on the island.
Our tour guide led us through the abbey, giving us all kinds of information and historical facts. Ashley and Josh recorded their vlog, while I ran up and down the hidden staircases (because that’s what I do). The view of the city was wonderful, but I’m always more interested in seeing how they built such a fantastic structure so long ago. After all, the Knights Templars were an order connected to the Masons.
Here are a few more photos of the abbey to give you a virtual tour.
Entrance to the abbey is $2.50 (€2.25), but it will probably be included in any tour you take of Kyrenia, such as with Go North Cyprus.
St. Hilarion Castle
We were on a bit of a time crunch so we only went to one more stop. While the abbey was rated #2 in Kyrenia, our final stop was the main attraction.
Nearly 1000 years old, the ancient stronghold of St. Hilarion started off as a monastery as well. It was later converted into a castle fortress, one of many dotting the island. Together, they formed a mass communications network in the middle ages.
There are three levels to the castle complex, with royalty getting the highest living quarters. The queen’s balcony definitely had the nicest view in the castle, and it also had one of the nicer walls still intact, perfect for taking photos at.
No matter how much I travel, I will never get tired of castles. Perhaps that’s why I’m so enamored with Scotland. True, there are far more ruins than castle at St. Hilarion, but then again, very few castles around the world remain truly intact. Don’t worry, there still are several that are maintained and even inhabited to this day if you want to see one in its full splendor.
We spent a couple hours wandering around the various rooms and parts of St Hilarion. Josh and I climbed up to Prince John’s tower – the one part of the fortree where Huseyin refused to adventure for superstitious reasons. The tower has quite a sordid history. As legend has it, back in the 13th-century, John threw his entire army to their deaths out of the tower, one by one. Several tourists have even spotted apparitions around the tower. Well, I like haunted places too, so the story certainly didn’t stop me from climbing up for the view.
Returning to Cyprus
Finally, it was time to get back to Cyprus. John and Ashley had their daily vlog to upload, and I had a dinner date with Sarah Funk and her fiancé for supposedly the best lamb dinner on the island (story coming soon). Before leaving, we all stopped in Kyrenia for a quick kebab. I then retraced my route back to Larnaca, making much better time since I knew which streets to take and where the bus stops were.
Two attractions hardly qualify as exploring a whole country (or territory rather). The story behind the separation of the island is rather involved and deserves its own post (or you can just watch The Way Away’s video). I look forward to going back someday to see the rest of the island. Perhaps it will be a completely different political situation the next time. What do you think? Would you like to visit Northern Cyprus someday?
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Planning to Visit Cyprus?
I feel like I only scratched the surface of activities to do in Cyprus, especially without my own car to get around with. If you’re interested in the places I did make it to, here are my articles on them.
- Budget Travel Guide: Cyprus Isn’t Backpacker Friendly, But You Can Still Visit on a Budget
- Follow in my Footsteps: One Day Trip to Paphos, Cyprus – Europe’s 2017 Capital of Culture
- Journal Entry: My SNAFU With Couchsurfing in Cyprus
Here’s some extra reading to save hundreds on your next vacation or stage of your journey.