Situated on the north coast of Cyprus, Girne / Kyrenia, with its 6,000 year long history, unique remains of countless civilizations, miles of natural beaches, calm sea, and mild climate is an idyllic Mediterranean town. Bounded to the north by the sea and to the south by the greenery of the Besparmak (Five-finger) Mountain range, it offers the most magnificent scenery on the island. It’s charming and tiny harbour, full of yachts and fishing boats, is framed by the colossal hulk of its Crusader castle.
Girne is possibly the best holiday area on the island, bringing history to visitors while entertaining them. You can catch the nostalgia by visiting the historic places and travelling around its streets, sensing the smells of jasmine and orange blossom. You can taste its delicious cuisine in the plentiful restaurants and sip your coffee at coffee houses during summer evenings. You can enjoy an environment of people laughing, or let the smell of the sea and the sound of the waves dreamily waft you away to other worlds.
Horseshoe shaped Old Harbour serve tourists in a unique atmosphere. This tiny harbour, full of yachts and fishing boats, is framed by the colossal hulk of its Crusader castle. With the backdrop of the jagged mountains behind and the calm sparkling sea in front, the harbour has an intoxicatingly serene atmosphere. The graceful arc of the harbour side is filled with the tables of restaurants and cafés, ideal for sitting back and simply watching the world go by. The former carob warehouses have been converted into restaurants and shops, giving the harbour a bustling lively feel without feeling rushed or crowded.
Back from the harbour, the narrow medieval town streets wind amongst shops, workshops and historic buildings, such as the Agha Cafer Pasha mosque, is dating from around 1570. It’s a fascinating wander up and down the steps that link the streets of Kyrenia, so take time to stop and admire a craftsman at work or just catch a glimpse a hidden walled garden. You can shop at the Municipal Market for your fruit and vegetables to take back to your North Cyprus villa, and then drop in at the Round Tower Gallery, housed in a former town walls defense tower, for local North Cyprus crafts. You really can’t help but walk on history in Kyrenia; under your feet are over 70 catacomb tombs cut into the limestone, many of which have long since been built over. Kyrenia’s former churches have been put to various uses, such as housing the Icon Museum, whereas others exist as picturesque ruins. The outskirts of Kyrenia have grown immensely in recent years due to new development, but the historic heart still beats with life and interest all year round. This attractive and charming city is also where the heart of nightlife beats in North Cyprus. You can lose yourself in a flood of entertainment and forget about the time.
There are many places of interest to visit. In Girne itself, probably the most spectacular is the castle and shipwreck museum. Just 5 Km outside Girne, a visit to the 14th Century Lusignan Bellapais Abbey is a must, while slightly further afield lies the fairy-tale castle of St. Hilarion. Rumored to be the original inspiration for Walt Disney's "Sleeping Beauty", St Hilarion was built during the Crusades, and those intrepid enough to brave the long walk to its battlements will be rewarded with stunning views of Girne and the whole of the island's northern coastline. Cyprus, the third largest island in the Mediterranean, has had a very eventful history since the first group of settlers came to the island. There has always been fierce competition between a variation of different ancient communities to have power over the island, due to its richness in copper and timber and also its strategic location at the centre of all the important trading routes. Among the many different nations who have fought to have Cyprus are the Egyptians, Greeks, Ottomans, Assyrians, Persians, and the Phoenicians.
Strangely, there is no information about the founders of this city. Some say it was established by the Achaeans coming from the Peloponnese around the 10th Century BC, while others claim it was founded by the Phoenicians around the 9th Century BC. It was, for many centuries, one of the 10 kingdoms of Cyprus. Taken over by its rival Salamis in 312 BC, the port continued to be important throughout Roman times.
Arab raids during the 7th century prompted the citizens to construct walls around the town, but they were largely ineffectual. (castle later expanded by the Lusignans and the Venetians In 1191, the ruler of Cyprus Isaac Comnenus sent his wife and daughter to the castle at Kyrenia for safety against the forces of Richard the Lionheart. However, the castle surrendered when faced with the might of the forces behind Guy de Lusignan. Guy rebuilt the castle, and it was made into a royal palace during the reign of Hugh I. After years in the doldrums of island politics, Kyrenia became a powerful town once more, and the whole defensive system was revised and improved in 1291. The winding streets behind the harbour, that you can walk and shop in today on your Northern Cyprus holiday, date from this prosperous period. By 1300, the town was well defended, with a moat around the castle and the entrance to the port guarded and crossed by a protective chain. In 1373 the Genoese laid siege to Kyrenia by both land and sea, but the town and its castle held out until the Genoese were driven from the island. The new Venetian rulers modernized the defenses to withstand artillery fire, rebuilding the west wall and adding new tower to the wall system. They also remodeled the harbour and moved it, creating the harbour area we can still enjoy today on a holiday in North Cyprus. However, when the Ottoman forces arrived in 1570, the castle at Kyrenia gave in without a fight, perhaps disheartened by the fall of Nicosia.
After the Venetians were defeated in 1571, Lala Mustapha Pasha left no less than 16,000 Ottoman soldiers in Cyprus to colonize the island, and they were joined by a further 22,00 decommissioned soldiers from the mainland. The Ottoman Empire gave these settlers excellent tax breaks, especially if they were skilled craftsmen such as cobblers, weavers, farmers or masons. Many settlers came from the Black Sea area around Trabzon and Sinop.
Kyrenia's population varied according to the influence of drought and plagues, and at one stage around 1814 there were just a handful of families living there. However, by the time of the British administration, Kyrenia became a popular town for British officials to retire to. (It still is – there are several high quality property developments around Kyrenia too.) The castle was used as a prison and a police training school.