St Hilarion Castle

This gorgeous North Cyprus castle and royal summer palace make an exciting and mildly strenuous half-day trip from Girne. Dieu d’Amour was the name the Frankish knights bestowed upon it, and certainly from afar its extravagantly crenellated walls and towers tumbling over the craggy hilltop evoke a fairy-tale vision of bygone chivalry. From within, the paths and steps wind up through the three castle sections, one superimposed on the other, culminating in the royal apartments ingeniously sheltered in their own natural courtyard of rock.

Rose Macaulay, author of The Towers of Trebizond, described it as ‘a picture book castle for elf kings’, and Walt Disney is said to have used it as inspiration for the palace in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Some controversy exists about which of two Hilarions the castle is named after. Although Hilarion the Great is documented as having been on Cyprus in the 3rd century, some contend that the castle is actually named after a second Hilarion, who only arrived some four centuries later.

At St Hilarion, the first section of the ascent through the castle now begins up well-laid steps and concrete paths. The main gate and outer walls were built originally by the Byzantines in the 11th century for extra defence, and these lowest parts were for the men-at-arms and the horses. In the many long sieges of medieval times this area and its cisterns were invaluable. The castle had its exposure to modern warfare too, serving in 1964 as a stronghold for Turkish Cypriots. Such were the castle’s defences, even in ruin, that a garrison of boys was able to ward off the Greek attack. The Turkish army still used the castle until relatively recently, before moving out to their camp along the ridge.

Once through the main gate, the anayol (main road) takes you up to the left. First you will see two cisterns, one to each side, as well as the former stables, which now house the ‘Introduction Section’. This is a small visual display that briefly explains the castle’s history. A few metres further on, as the path turns sharply to the right, is the corner tower. After a few minutes’ climb you reach the main gatehouse, a huge and powerful arched structure that originally closed with a drawbridge.

St Hilarion is tucked in a craggy hilltop among winding paths © ElenYrebyata, Shutterstock

At the end of the gatehouse passageway, a set of steps leads up to the Byzantine church, quite well preserved and with faint traces of 12th-century paintings on the south (car park) side of the wall. Some restoration work was done here in 1959. It is larger than you would expect for a castle chapel, and this is because it belonged originally to a 10th-century monastery built here by the Byzantines to honour St Hilarion, a hermit who had fled to Cyprus from the Holy Land to escape persecution. He died here in a nearby cave.

The area all around the church was originally the monastery, and the rooms to the north and east of it were the buttery, cellars, kitchen, belvedere and castellan’s (commander’s) room. The largest room in this group was the refectory, or main hall, used in Lusignan Crusader times as a banqueting hall. It has now been restored as the modest Café 101, selling tea and coffee, soft drinks and homemade honey. The walls are currently home to an excellent display of wildflower photographs, the work of the café’s proprietor Mustafa Gürsel.

Immediately below is another series of rooms, thought to be barracks built for the 14th-century Crusader knights, which are curious in that their floors follow the contours of the natural bedrock below. Along from these, to the east, are the summer royal apartments, accessible by way of a wooden staircase.

From the refectory in the central, middle section of the castle, you now continue to the uppermost and in many ways most intriguing part: the winter royal apartments and watchtowers. The path zigzags steeply up on uneven rock steps. In the heavy rains and floods of 1968 it was washed away completely, and access to the castle summit was impossible. Just as the path begins, notice below you to the right a huge open cistern designed to collect winter rainfall.