The most westerly of the three Crusader castles, St Hilarion, is a short hop up the Nicosia highway from Kyrenia town centre. If Kantara Castle has the best location of the castles, then St Hilarion wins as the best preserved. A healthy set of lungs and stout shoes will certainly ease your visit as it’s a hard uphill from the car park and will take you the best part of an hour. Leave plenty of time as you’ll want to stop to get your breath back and also to admire the view, both northwards toward the Turkish coastline and southwards to the Mesaoria Plain.
When you get to the castle itself, you’ll be surprised at the wide area that it’s strewn over. From the entrance at the Barbican, it’s a longish trek along a small path to the far-flung royal apartments in the area known as the Upper ward. Thence the path twists back towards the Lower Ward which houses cistern, barracks, belvedere and bath house and another set of royal apartments. In these apartments is the famous Queen’s Window where Eleanor of Aragon, Queen consort of Cyprus and the wife of King Peter I of Cyprus is reputed to have sat. There are some ever-so-slightly kitsch displays of mannequins depicting the lives of medieval knights in the rooms of the Castellan’s Quarters. At the highest part of the castle is another photo-op with a slightly bizarre chain-mailed knight bearing a shield with a message congratulating visitors for reaching St Hilarion’s 732 metre high peak.
There’s a lot of history attached to this period:-murders, intrigue and treason, palace coups and betrayals. Eleanor was involved in a lot of it. While her husband, King Peter was murdered in his bed, most likely at Eleanor’s instigation, she managed to die peacefully in hers in her mid-eighties.Her famous window and another similar one, now nearly one thousand years old, are still beautiful examples of gothic elegance and they provide the visitor with incredible views and wonderful photo-opportunities.
In the mid-13th century the castle provided a refuge from the Black Death which ravaged Europe and may have carried off up to a third the population of Cyprus. It was around this time that, first the Lusignans, and then the Venetians built the coastal defences of Kyrenia and Famagusta and which, with the invention of canon artillery rendered the mountaintop redoubts obsolete.
As happened often with so many of the medieval fortresses of the Middle Ages dotted all over Europe and the Middle East, the decline into ruin was a sad and sorry affair. Once the Venetians no longer had a use for it-by the mid-15th century-it had little more value than as a depository for building stone. Those that were not carted away fell prey to hundreds of years of the elements. Much though, is well preserved, including the Great Hall which serves as a welcome café today-all visitors to St Hilarion require rest and refreshment at some pointed the view of the coastline from the large wooden balcony here is truly breathtaking.