Our first stop in Cyprus after leaving the capital was Kyrenia, the main tourist destination of Turkish-controlled North Cyprus. Like Nicosia (and really everything around here) Kyrenia has a long and storied history. Alexander the Great’s successors fought over it, the Romans and Byzantines ruled it, no less an historic figure than England’s Richard the Lionheart captured it.
By the 19th century the city’s population was roughly split between Muslims and Orthodox Christians, but with the onset of British rule in 1878 many of the Muslims fled to nearby Anatolia in Turkey. As a result when the Turks invaded Cyprus in 1974, then, the city was primarily Greek Orthodox. Those Greeks, though, largely left after the invasion so today the city is primarily Moslem (as evidenced by the mosque immediately adjacent to our hotel, whose daily 5:17 AM call to worship you couldn’t miss). The Greeks certainly haven’t forgotten, though. The driver who took us from Nicosia down to Kyrenia lamented that while they had always gone down there when he was a child they were no longer welcome.
What is Kyrenia like today, then? I was expecting something a little down-scale, maybe economically depressed as a result of its separation from most of Cyprus and its status as an illegally occupied zone. We’ve had plenty of experience where the Moslem parts of countries are just a lot less vibrant because of the anti-alcohol and just generally anti-fun impact of the religion. And I was wrong. It seemed like a lively, successful town. Lots of development, lots of bars, no problem getting beer or wine or better when you’re out and about. In fact there was a lot to love about Kyrenia.
Our first full day there we hired a driver to take us to the two major sites out of town, St. Hilarion Castle and Bellapais. St. Hilarion Castle sits maybe 10 miles southwest of Kyrenia, high up in the mountains. St. Hilarion was a monk who escaped here from persecution in the Holy Land and for whom the Byzantines built a church and monastery in the 10th century. Fast forward a few years and it became an important defensive stronghold given its strategic location. Today it’s just a great place to hike around and enjoy the fabulous views. Oh, and according to at least some rumors it was the inspiration for Walt Disney’s Snow White. Now that’s some important history.
Next stop on our little day trip around Kyrenia was Bellapais, a charming little village up in the mountainside above Kyrenia. The main draw is an abandoned Augustinian abbey that dates from the early 13th century. The ancient church, still beautiful, was abandoned in 1974 when the Greek Orthodox fled to the south in front of the invading Turks. Just how beautiful are the abbey remains? Beautiful enough to occupy the front cover of Lonely Planet’s Cyprus edition. You know you’re hitting the highlights of a country when you recognize that shot!
The next day we went up to a beach a few miles West of town, a pretty nice Mediterranean beach. This late in the summer the water is wonderfully warm so that made for a pleasant few hours. At first I was annoyed by the loud music blasting out of the speakers (it’s common around the Mediterranean but that doesn’t mean I have to like it) but eventually I got used to it and, when I was out swimming, even enjoyed it. The food situation there was just too grim to contemplate having lunch, though, so we went back to town. Later that day Mark toured the castle right in Kyrenia while I laid around and was lazy. This was the castle that Richard the Lionheart had captured so it, too, had some great history.
And finally the other major thing to do in Kyrenia is to eat, and we found some great food. There are lots of reasons to love Turkey, but the food is high on the list. Just around the corner from our hotel was the aptly named Corner Restaurant, right on the town’s harbor, and they had some of the best food we’ve had in a long time. In a short three-night stop we ate there three times and loved it every time. One dish in particular – a baked eggplant thing with small shrimp and some Middle Eastern spices – was just amazing. Unlike anything we’ve ever had and we had it every time we went there. And I would have it again in a heartbeat if I could ever find it on a menu.
So that was Kyrenia – a beautiful little place with a somewhat sad history if you consider centuries of fighting and even modern-era massive displacements sad. I do. But all that notwithstanding, a beautiful, vibrant city.