Little did the Lusignan Kings imagine, when they were expanding and reinforcing the 3 Byzantine fortifications on the Pentadaktylos/Besparmak mountain range in the 13th century, that these sites would become one of the island’s most magical places to visit a few centuries later. Regardless that the Venetians neglected or destroyed much of them.
The castles of St. Hilarion (guarding Kyrenia/Girne and the northeastern side of the island), of Buffavento (guarding Nicosia and the plains) and of Kantara (looking over Famagusta and the Karpasia/Karpas peninsula) were meant to protect the island from attacks by the Arabs. Imagine the scene [Lord of the Rings’ style]: enemy ships approach, the guards on the castles run to the towers and light up the beacons, the signal is received, command is given, troops are mobilized….
All three castles were called Kástra tis Rígenas (The Queen’s Castles) in medieval urban legends. In the absence of proper roads at that era, one can imagine the challenge of building them and accessing them.
The castle of St. Hilarion was the main of the 3 castles. The mountain top on which it is built was called Dídymos (twin) in ancient times because it is divided in two peaks. In other words, Twin Peaks: Cyprus Special Edition. This name was mispronounced as “Dieu d’ Amour” (God of Love) in the Middle Ages. Urban legends also connected the castle to Cupid, son of Aphrodite. Nowadays it carries the name of a Syrian hermit that lived on the mountain in the 6th century.
A visitor in 1893 describes the following regarding a visit to Buffavento: “We proceeded with horses up to the Monastery, passing by many ruins of small churches, up to the point where no four-legged animal could go any further. And we had to go up with our hands and feet, following the trail over the cliff, which is nothing more than a hardly visible goats trail. It was an extremely tiring climb, breathless, as if it would never end.  must have lasted for at least an hour and a half.” * Nowadays, the 1.5km of tall concrete steps up to the castle (from the parking lot below) takes about 20-25 minutes.
Kantara, whose name means bridge or arc in Arabic, was first referenced in records in 1191 when Richard the Lionheart captured Cyprus. Issac Comnenos, a Byzantine prince from Trapezus proclaimed himself King of Cyprus and sheltered himself in the castle. When the Genoese conquered Famagusta and Nicosia in 1373, Kantara remained in the hands of John of Antioch, brother of King Peter 1 of Cyprus. King James 1 of Cyprus refortified the castle between 1382 and 1398. [Cool stuff, don’t you think!? 🙂 ]
What I personally love about the castles:
a) St. Hilarion: Its impressive look as it is perched on top of the cliff, the many levels one has to explore
and the views from the Queen’s window out towards the northwestern coastline (including the villages of Karmi and Lapithos/Lapta drowning in the forest on the foothills of Pentadaktylos). The Lusignan Queen surely chose the best room in the “house”!
b) Buffavento: The amazing sunsets and the clouds escaping from the north side of the mountain to the south side as you are approaching the
main entrance of the castle. Bonus: the commanding view of Nicosia, the Mesaoria plains and the Troodos mountain range on a clear day.
c) Kantara: The view of the Karpasia peninsula on a clear day. As I’m in love with the Pentadaktylos mountain range,
any clear view of it after much needed rain makes my heart bounce with joy.
I would suggest the following ways to access the castles:
a) By private car, the easiest to visit them all in one day, which would be best in March-April when the day is long enough and the natural surrounding is as beautiful as it can be. When the atmosphere is clear, the snow-capped mountain range of southern Turkey is visible.
b) With a hike, the toughest but also the most rewarding: St. Hilarion is reachable from the village of Karmi. Buffavento from the Pentadaktylos rock locality (Besparmak restaurant). Kantara is reachable from the villages of Flamoúdi/Mersinlik or Eptakómi/Yedikonuk.
*Source: The Island of Cyprus: A photographic itinerary from the 19th to the 20th century (2007).