The Karpas has been called the nature reserve of Cyprus, with abundant wildlife and flowers, for the most part relatively untouched by encroaching development. Remote and isolated by virtue of its geographical position, it holds itself apart from the rest of the island and almost feels like a different country. If you set out to find tranquillity in North Cyprus, then you’ll find it here or not at all.
What to see and do
The first section of the Karpas, before Ziyamet, has the largest number of sites to visit, albeit minor, and for those with the time and inclination to explore fully, there are three possible detours from the main road.
Kalecık means ‘little castle’ and by the sea just 1km short of the storage tanks are the heavily ruined 12th-century twin Templar castles of Kastros and Strongylos. A few foundations and cisterns are all that remain today, so it’s a detour only for the dedicated, especially as accessing the rock may require a paddle at high tide. Nearby is the ruined chapel of Ayios Ioannis. In the village itself, a few kilometres further north, the school is a former Byzantine church. Kalecık is the second port of North Cyprus after Gazimağusa and before Girne, used for exporting quantities of cargo, especially the tobacco grown in the Karpas, and for importing oil.
At Tuzluca, the village on the crossroads to the north, the curious used to be able to seek out a large stone in the old churchyard. The stone had a hole in the middle and local tradition held that every Easter Monday, if the married men of the village clambered through the hole, they could check that their wives had remained faithful. Any that had been cuckolded got stuck because of their ‘horns’ and, having extricated themselves, rushed off to beat their wicked spouses and begin divorce proceedings.
At Çayırova (Greek Ayios Theodhoros), the next village on the way to Ziyamet, an 8km dirt track forks south to the headland of Zeytin Burnu, Olive Cape (Greek Cape Elea). Here, to the right of the track, close to the sea, are the ruins of ancient Phoenician Cnidus set in a natural harbour. Today the ruins are scarcely visible among the ploughed fields, but the town was inhabited from the 5th century bc until the 2nd century AD.
At Ziyamet (Greek Leonarisso) the character of the Karpas changes, becoming much more rural and hilly. Just beyond Ziyamet, a small town inhabited largely by mainland Turks, is a crossroads, where a fork right signposted to Gelinçik will take you, just a couple of kilometres beyond, to the monastery church of Kanakaria, in Boltaşlı (Greek Lythrangomi). This fork continues all the way to Kaleburnu and Dipkarpaz. The track going north marked on most maps between Kaleburnu and Sipahi has been replaced with a new road, so it is now possible to easily reach the north coast.
The large Byzantine monastery church of Panagia Kanakaria stands on the left of the road soon after entering Boltaşlı village. The monastery outbuildings are gradually decaying and in the graveyard round the back, three desecrated graves of the last monks have now been submerged below the weeds, behind the wall. In the semi-circular ceiling above the main entrance is a well-preserved fresco of the Virgin dated 1779. The original 11th- to 12th-century church was restored at that time, giving the church stone a (comparatively) newish look.
The church of Ayios Philon stands alone on the shoreline. This was the site of the ancient city of Karpasia, founded by the legendary King Pygmalion of Cyprus. It was a flourishing Christian community until the Arab raiders burnt and sacked it in 802 AD. Its inhabitants fled inland at that time and Rizokarpaso grew up. Today Ayios Philon is the spectacular location of Oasis at Ayfilon , a sustainable ecotourism venture offering simple, excellent food and rooms by the beach.
The spot is beautifully remote, with only the sound of the sea against the rocks and the twittering of the birds. The church is set on the cliffs above a rocky bay with six solitary palm trees breaking the skyline. Traces of the old harbour wall can still be seen where you swim, the large stone blocks still extending some 100m, while the remainder of the town lies hidden under the sand dunes away to the west. Philon was the name of the 5th-century bishop who converted the inhabitants of the Karpas to Christianity. The well-preserved church complete with roof is 10th century, but beside it, open to the elements, the red, white and grey mosaic pavement and column remnants belong to a 5th-century basilica, the original church of Bishop Philon. Money has been spent on renovation works and helpfully erecting trilingual signboards. Nearby are a few heavily vandalised Greek houses of this century. Walking either east or west from here will enable you to see some rugged coastline and beautiful beaches, only slightly marred by flotsam and jetsam.
Beyond Ayios Philon to the east, a dead-end, potholed, tarmac road leads to Aphendrika in just 10 more minutes. There’s no habitation at all on this stretch of coastline, and the tarmac turns into dirt track some 400m short of the Christian settlement of Aphendrika, where the shells of three churches clustered together can still be easily explored. Silent except for the birdsong and the buzzing of flies echoing in the ruined church, the spot is utterly deserted.
Strabo the Greek historian tells us that in 200BC Aphendrika was one of the six great cities of Cyprus, and the site is deceptively extensive. Apart from the three churches – Panaghia Chrysiotissa, St George and Asomatos – which date from the 12th and 14th centuries, you should also search for the citadel, set up on the hill east (inland), with many of its rooms cut into the bedrock.