Last winter (yes I can say that because we’re officially in spring now, WIN), I spent three weeks volunteering at GROL Garden located in Girne (Greek name: Kyrenia), Northern Cyprus, and I have to say during that short time, I settled quite well in this idyllic little Mediterranean town. Wherever I went around the island, it always felt good to come back to what I was calling home during those three weeks. I found it less crowded than most places I had been to (which in fair honesty isn’t that much to start with) but also the “island-y” feeling it gave off definitely reminded me of Mauritius. For all I know, it could easily have been one of the coastal towns of my home country – except we have prettier beaches, of course.
Without further ado, here’s my top five things to do when in Girne/Kyrenia:
1. Have a walk around and a drink at the harbour
One of the guides that I read said that Girne Harbour was probably the prettiest town in the country –it didn’t mention if that consisted of only the occupied part or the whole island. I would say that it’s definitely one of the prettiest. The first thing that I did after putting my bags down was go out with some other volunteers to have a drink on the many boats converted to restaurants, which offered a beautiful view its harbour with a 6000 years old history and the majestic castle that stands next to it. We had a nice little stroll around the streets of this charming rustic down, walked up the rainbow coloured stairs behind the castle and discovered a nice pee spot if you’re really desperate. On a clear day, you can even see the (what I assume are) the snow-capped Taurus Mountains in Turkey from the harbour.
2. Go to the beach
It’s this close to the sea, so of course going to the beach is always going to be on the list-to-do. Girne itself doesn’t have a beach but one of the locals we met suggested going to Kervansaray beach, about 10-15 minutes by dolmuş (mini-bus) going the Alsancak-Lapta way. Whilst I’m not usually awed by the Mediterranean as most – this is what growing up on a tropical island does to you – it still felt good to sit on the beach and relax. Since it was winter and hence off-peak season, we pretty much had the small sandy strip to ourselves. The perfect azure Mediterranean did not lure me in but others did brave the freezing waters for a swim. After seeing them shivering for what seems like hours after their swim, I’m actually glad I chose to bask in the winter sun instead. Point to note: February is definitely not a good time to swim in Cyprus, no matter how enticing the water looks.
- Fail to hitchhike to the St Hilarion’s Castle
The St Hilarion’s Castle situated on the Kyrenian Range only a few kilometres away is definitely one of the must-sees of the island, and one of the few sights that I failed to see. Yep, you read that right. It’s said to have been the original inspiration for the castle in Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, which is the reason why I was so excited to see it in the first place. However you can only reach there by car since there is a military base which is why it’s prohibited to go there on foot. I know because I tried it and was asked to turn around after about an hour spent climbing up. Unless you’re driving – which I don’t – the only way to reach up there is by hitchhiking. What an utter fiasco. Lesson learned, off peak season and bad weather don’t make a particularly good combination to go up and see the beautiful castle even if Northern Cyprus is quite hitchhiking-friendly. I’ll write this off my list the next time I’m there, in a few months hopefully.
- Hike the amazing Kyrenian Range
Northern Cyprus is basically hikers’ heaven and the 143-mile trail through the Kyrenian Range is said to be one of the Mediterranean best-kept secrets. There are trails starting from just about anywhere near Girne and even Lapta, a small town half an hour away. You can easily have half-day, a day or even a week’s hiking trip in the mountains just to enjoy the breathtaking relief of this part of the island. Also, more than 25% of the plants in Cyprus is edible so even if you get stranded, you won’t starve. Well unless you go for one of the poisonous species then you won’t live long enough to starve.
- Visit the Bellapais Abbey
I don’t regret my hour and a half walk from Girne to the Abbey. Driving or hitchhiking would probably take less than 10 minutes but it was such a glorious day to not walk. Not much is left now of Bellapais (originally “Abbaye de Belle Paix”), a monastery built in the 13th century but it’s enough for the imagination to go back in time and see the beauty that this place once was. It’s not actually that high up compared to St Hilarion, only about 220 m above sea level, but provides a magnificent view of the harbour and the Mediterranean. You can have some fresh orange juice or Turkish coffee from one of the cafes next to it or wander around the village and visit some souvenirs shop. Also, there a hiking trail that starts just near the parking lot, if you’re feeling a tit bit adventurous.