St Hilarion Castle sits atop a rocky crag in the Kyrenia Mountains in Northern Cyprus. As you approach this magnificent landmark, it’s difficult to pick out the crumbling buildings from the craggy landscape. Look up from the foot of the castle, however, and you’ll see the mighty stone walls and half-ruined buildings with their elegant turrets, tumbledown towers and graceful arching windows. It’s said this crusader castle was the inspiration behind the fairytale castle in Walt Disney’s Snow White. Whether this is true or not, it’s the sort of castle I used to dream of as a kid, and I couldn’t wait to climb to its lofty summit and drink in those glorious views.
St Hilarion didn’t start life as a castle. It was originally a monastery dedicated to a Syrian monk who fled persecution in the Holy Land to live in a cave on Cyprus. He lived a simple life, existing on a diet of figs, vegetables, bread and oil, and, according to rumour, never washing.
The Byzantines constructed a church and monastery over St Hilarion’s tomb, but owing to the site’s strategic position overlooking the pass between Nicosia and the coast, with sweeping views over the Kyrenia plain and out to sea, it was converted into a castle and watchtower.
The castle’s fortifications were strengthened at the start of the Lusignan kingdom in the early 13th century, as it became a focal point in the Lusignan’s four-year battle for the island of Cyprus with the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II.
Once defeated, sumptuous royal apartments were added, and it became a summer residence par excellence for the Lusignans.
Like all good castles, St Hilarion is steeped in myth and legend. One legend tells of the hermit-monk purging the mountain ranges of demons that used to haunt its wild peaks. His success was attributed to him being stone deaf, so he could resist the terrible cries of the demons.
My favourite legend tells of a fairy queen who used to live in a secret garden, accessed via the 101st room of the castle. It’s said she used to lure travellers, hunters and shepherds here, before placing them into a deep slumber and robbing them of their treasures.
I didn’t find any demons or fairy queens at St Hilarion, neither did I stumble upon a magical secret garden. But I was blown away by the elegantly crumbling buildings and its majestic location. And those sensational views! It’s one of those places where you’re constantly taking pictures because each time you turn a corner or scramble up a staircase, you’re confronted with a view that knocks the socks off the one you’ve just seen.
From the summit, you can appreciate the spine of mountains that runs across North Cyprus, and the coastline curving from Livera to the tip of the Karpass National Park. On a clear day, it’s said you can see the Taurus Mountains over 100 kilometres away in Turkey. At times the climb can be challenging, but it’s worth every thigh-burning step!
My trip to St Hilarion Castle was unplanned, a surprise courtesy of a friend I met up with while on the island last year. It turned out to be one of my Cyprus highlights. Next time you’re in Cyprus, find space in your trip to include a visit to the summit of the castle. I promise you won’t be disappointed…