These damsels are not in distress. Uniformly blonde, wearing vertiginous heels, low-cut tops and velour hot pants, they stand giggling outside the arrival gates at the Turkish Republic of North Cyprus’s Ercan airport. The girls hold display cards advertising casinos, tempting Friday night’s late arrivals to risk their holiday money on the whimsy of the roulette wheel. “Casino, sir?” one of the girls asks me. But my bag is stuffed with old maps rather than used notes; I’ve come in search not of craps tables but Crusader castles.
In happier days no cruise to the Levant was complete without a day trip to one of Syria’s cliff top Crusader fortresses, and the young TE Lawrence put mighty Krak des Chevaliers at the centre of his university thesis. But the news this month that president Assad’s planes had strafed Krak des Chevaliers, a world heritage site, was a stark underlining of the fact that those celebrated castles are now firmly out of bounds to the traveller.
Nevertheless, only 200km away there are mountaintop Crusader castles of astonishing beauty, where the danger is limited to losing your footing if overcome by the breathtaking splendour of the view. And you can see them all in a long weekend.
St Hilarion, Buffavento and Kantara are a chain of bastions developed in the 13th and 14th centuries along the ridge of the Kyrenia range, the razorback spine that runs west to east along Cyprus’s northern littoral. Graceful concoctions of arch and turret, all you need to enjoy them are stout shoes and a bottle of water. So, avoiding the casino in my plush Kyrenia hotel, I rise early on Saturday for flat bread, sheep’s cheese, black tea and even blacker olives before starting the 70km drive along the island’s northern coast towards Kantara, easternmost of the castles.
As soon as I turn inland from the beaches, new development is replaced by old, and I pass through villages gathered around mosques, where children chivvy livestock. The road twists up through pine forests and emerges among limestone cliffs and tortured volcanic outcrops. It’s just 9am when I buy a ticket and start my walk up through wildflowers and herbs but the heat is growing and I soon break sweat. Above me rise two towers of equal grace and strength. There was an earlier Byzantine fort here, but these walls, like the other castles I’ve come to see, are the work of the Lusignans, an eccentric, wealthy and cruel royal house established on the island in 1192 by Guy of Lusignan, deposed monarch of the Kingdom of Jerusalem.
Guy’s descendants lived under constant fear of attack by Turks, Arabs and even other Crusaders – the castles were lookout posts, dungeons and refuges. They chose Kantara well. Breathlessly reaching the gatehouse, I’m in no condition to wield a scimitar.
Clambering on through deserted chambers and past cracked stone stairways I emerge into an open area and get my breath back by a wind-stunted conifer as the call to prayer drifts up from a village far below. White-ruffed crows ride the thermals and then cartwheel through the sky for fun. I edge out on to a tower for a peerless view of the range’s dramatic tumble down to the panhandle of the Karpas peninsula, beyond which Syria hovers on the horizon. Immediately to my south the dusty expanse of the Mesaoria plain spreads out, on its eastern edge are Famagusta and the coast; to the west, Nicosia.
Later I drive down to Famagusta, where the cathedral of St Nicholas – repurposed as the Lala Mustafa Pasha mosque since the Ottoman conquest in 1571 – is the centrepiece of the medieval city. Then, in search of sea breezes, it’s on to Kyrenia, where the next castle looms over the harbour. Its immense squat walls are mostly Venetian work built to resist Ottoman cannon but the Lusignan “Crusader Tower” remains. Too late for entry, I buy a pistachio ice and join the promenade along the breakwater that loops around Kyrenia castle. As the sun slips away a boy plays a reed flute and the harbour lights refract off the water and play on the tower’s walls.
In 1291, the last mainland Crusader outposts were lost to the Muslim forces. Most of the survivors fled to Cyprus but the Lusignans continued to pine for their lost fiefs across the water. One king, Peter I (1358-1369), captured Alexandria and Tripoli (in Lebanon) but is recalled today for the capricious cruelty that would be his undoing. He attempted to behead his steward for failing to provide olive oil for his asparagus, and the dungeons he stuffed with noblemen can still be seen in Kyrenia castle, two 20ft vertical shafts that end in chambers carved from the bedrock. Inside the castle the next morning, I find a mannequin of Peter’s mistress Joanna l’Aleman in one of the shafts. Tortured by the Queen for bearing the King’s child, today her traumatised dummy is laid out below, breasts revealed to the delight of the two goggling schoolboys beside me.
Disconsolate and long-bearded, the nobleman John Visconti occupies the second hole. He was later pulled out of his confinement in Kyrenia and taken to the cells of Buffavento, 1,000m above, where he was left to starve. Later that afternoon I follow the unfortunate prisoner’s route up the vertiginous trail to Buffavento. Perhaps because the climb is so stiff, there is no entry charge here – you earn admittance on the twisting track to the summit. When the path breaks on to the ridge I’m confronted with an astonishing view of the island’s north coast and the distant humps of the Taurus mountains.
It is no place to be overwhelmed, and walking very carefully along the still rising ridge I come to a graceful Lusignan archway that announces the entrance. From here Visconti would have gone down into darkness but I climb up into the light and air of the castle’s upper quarters where its name, defier of the winds, seems misplaced on such a still day.
At the western end there is an unannounced drop into empty green space. I stop just in time, narrowly avoiding adding my last anguished cry to the murmur of the breeze in a thousand pine trees. These forested slopes are home to 10 species of snake, three amphibians, seven lizards, one chameleon, two geckos and more than 30 species of orchid plus a myriad of butterflies and birds, with most of them seemingly out today. Buffavento is abuzz with life yet I’m saddened by the thought of Visconti. Entombing him underneath a place of such beauty was a particularly spiteful punishment.
Peter paid the price. When his courtiers finally turned on their king, his own brother, Prince John, joined the mob that stabbed him to death. Regretting the regicide perhaps, John retired to St Hilarion, the Lusignans’ summer retreat and greatest of their mountaintop castles, guarding the millennia-old route through the mountains from Nicosia to Kyrenia. It takes under an hour to drive to St Hilarion, arriving via the four-lane highway that now splits the ancient pass. Unlike empty Kantara and Buffavento, the island’s coach tour operators are here in numbers. Even so, the fortress still overwhelms. Curtain walls hug precarious drops, high towers overlook the old jousting fields (it’s now used by the Turkish army as a shooting range).
The man who serves me a muddy sweet Turkish coffee says it will take 45 minutes to climb to the top but I do it in 30, travelling along increasingly steep pathways until staircases give way to just rock and I reach the royal quarters of the Lusignans in a hollow inside the mountain’s crown.
The widowed Queen persuaded Prince John that his Bulgarian guards were plotting against him. He responded by having them thrown from the window of his high chamber here, one by one. The window still exists, at the end of a lone vaulted room that sticks out beyond the summit’s time-cracked boulders. But I end my day with another view, looking out from the balcony of the open gallery where generations of Lusignan monarchs looked down on their strange and ultimately doomed Crusader kingdom. Carved into the mountain’s summit, it’s high enough to eyeball the pilots as a new supply of high-rollers for the islands’ casinos comes scudding in over Asia Minor.
Michael Hodges was a guest of Pegasus Airlines (www.flypgs.com) and Green Island Holidays (www.greenislandholidays.com), which offers a week at The Colony Hotel in Kyrenia from £339. Pegasus has daily flights from London to North Cyprus from £228 return