The beauty of Bellapais is legendary; when Lawrence Durrell bought a house here, he felt ‘guilty of an act of fearful temerity in trying to settle in so fantastic a place’. Set in the foothills of the Kyrenia Mountains just 10 minutes southeast of Girne, the mainly 13th-century Crusader abbey is a must-see during any stay in North Cyprus. A well-timed, early morning visit to avoid the crowds will allow you to fully soak up the tranquillity and enjoy the panoramas over Girne.
Those who knew Bellapais before the 1950s speak disparagingly of the encroaching commercialisation of the abbey. There are indeed several cafés and souvenir shops beside the abbey, and even a restaurant inside it, but they can all be counted on the fingers of one hand, and the narrow streets of the village will scarcely permit more than this. Parking can sometimes be a little tricky, particularly if your visit coincides with a classic-car rally, though there is a large and free open parking area just beyond the abbey. Beware of sitting under the famous Tree of Idleness, an ancient mulberry by the abbey entrance, one of two trees claiming the title, lest you are struck down with the indolence for which the villagers are famed. Bellapais, Durrell was told, was synonymous with laziness and the villagers lived for so long that even the gravedigger was out of a job.
At least 2 hours should be allowed for the visit, starting from Girne, and the most special time is sunset, when the place is alive with the glowing silhouettes of arches. ‘The dawns and the sunsets in Cyprus,’ wrote Durrell, ‘are unforgettable – better even than those of Rhodes which I always believed were unique in their slow Tiberian magnificence.’ Durrell himself would frequently see the dawn, for when he ran out of money for renovating his house, he took a job teaching English in a Lefkoşa school, which meant he had to get up at 04.30.
Any time from mid-morning to late afternoon should be avoided if at all possible, as the abbey is swamped with tour parties and the seductive atmosphere of calm is lost amid a frenzy of selfie-obsessives and clicking camera shutters. If, however, you have no other means of transport, such a tour may be your only means of reaching the village (though a taxi is always an option). It should be noted that most tour buses eject passengers near the army camp, leaving a long uphill trek of about 10 to 15 minutes to reach the abbey itself.
If you are especially fortunate, your visit may coincide with one of the concerts occasionally held in the abbey refectory: a more picturesque musical backdrop is hard to imagine. Later, after a stroll, you could stay on for dinner at one of the nearby restaurants and soak up the abbey, illuminated in its own surrealistic halo. Sipping wine on the terrace, you may wonder if you are hallucinating as a tractor trundles by towing a grand piano.
The annual Bellapais Music Festival is held in May and June. In 2018 it attracted classical performers from as far afield as France, Italy, Bulgaria and even Thailand. Apart from the festival, there are ad hoc musical performances at other times of the year, including opera and displays by whirling dervishes. Reasonably priced tickets are generally available from various outlets in the village and in Girne: see the festival website for more information. Tickets can also be bought on the door, if the performance is not sold out. If you can get into a recital, the atmosphere and location are likely to rival anything you have experienced elsewhere.