"Simply a stunning site." Saint Hilarion Castle by leics
Saint Hilarion Castle Travel Guide: 3 reviews and 10 photos
It is entirely amazing that anyone should be able to build anything in such an inaccessible place, let alone build a castle which once had at least 100 rooms fit for royalty.
St Hilarion is set upon a high peak overlooking Kyrenia and the northern coast, with clear views to both west and east. You access it by a somewhat tortuous and hairpin route off the main Kyrenia-Nicosia road via one of the many 'forbidden zones', passing through a North Cyprus army camp. The road is controlled by the military, and you may have to stop (as we did) whilst firing practice takes place.
The castle has a long and rather complicated history, beginning with the eponymous saint who lived here as a hermit during the seventh century. First a monastery was built to commemorate him, and then a Byzantine fort.
St Hilarion was one of the last to be taken by the Crusaders (not really surprising, given the inaccessibility of the site) but they finally managed it in 1191. Over the following centuries the castle was extended, with royal apartments and gardens added and fortifications improved. It served as a summer palace for royalty, and must have been a most pleasant place to avoid the extreme Cypriot summer heat (for the royals, of course, perhaps not so much fun or the servants and soldiers!). But when the Venetians took over the island in 1489, it was abandoned.
In 1964 it became the headquarters for the surrounding Turkish Cypriot community, and travelling the pass between Kyrenia and Nicosia was only possible in UN escorted convoys.
St Hilarion almost seems to grow out of the mountain, winding and twisting its way through three levels. At its highest point is Prince John's tower (732m), from where Prince John of Antioch is supposed to have defenestrated his Bulgarian bodyguards having been told (wrongly) that they were plotting against him.
The first level was for soldiers and workers, with cisterns (the castle water supply came from rainwater channelled through a complex series of cisterns), stables, kitchens and so forth. The main defence wall at this level has horseshoe-shaped guardtowers, some of which date from Byzantine times.
Up the steps, through the pasage and into the second level where there is a small and most delightful Byzantine chapel, partially restored and dating to the 10th century. There are also kitchens, a hall, barracks, toilets (of course) many of which now have models within to help you interpret their past use.
Up to the third level via a steep and somewhat tricky series of steps.....apparently this was once much easier, with more steps in far better condition. I found it a bit of an effort in the December cool, and suspect it would be more or less impossible for many in the summer heat. the workmen I was following up certainly did not appreciate their long journey to work....there was much huffing and puffing, and chuntering in Turkish. I felt especially sorry for the chap who, once they had reached the highest point, reaised they'd left the extension lead in the lorry....and had to go all the way down and then back up again!
But it is worth the effort. The views on the way are superb, and once at the very top a further series of royal apartments lie ahead, with their Gothic window traceries ('the Queen's windows') still in place. There was once an internal garden here (the site is very overgrown), kitchens and dangerously deep cisterns.
So, do make the effort to explore St Hilarion. The views alone make it worthwhile, but I found it a stunning example of what could be accomplished in the past. It is so very easy to underestimate what could be done without modern technologies. St Hilarion proves that creating beautiful architecture in the most inhospitable of sites was entirely possible.
- Pros:Wonderful ruin
- Cons:Not accessible if you can't climb lots of steps
- In a nutshell:Simply a stunning site.
You'll need good footwear to visit St Hilarion. It's not a place for flip-flops (thongs) or heels, or strappy... more travel advice
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