It’s freezing outside and you are sitting in an airplane brimming with excitement over your unfolding trip and the warmth and adventures that await you…in Cyprus! Are you familiar with this feeling?
The coolest part about any adventure are the emotions that you experience upon seeing something new. It is a moment when almost all of your sense organs are engaged. Your wide-open eyes, expressing amazement at what they see, and every step you take towards the unknown — this is all unforgettable. And these are the things I felt when I visited the Bellapais Abbey — the best example of gothic architecture in Cyprus.
Getting to the Abbey is quite easy. If you are in the part of Cyprus occupied by Turkey, just go to the central square at the end of Girne Avenue and hire a taxi, which will cost 8 euros and take 15 minutes to get you to your destination. If you are in southern Cyprus (for example, in Limassol), then take route A1 up to Nicosia, pass the Turkish border, buy car insurance and keep going towards Girne. Don’t forget to follow the traffic rules and drive under the speed limit — locals take road safety very seriously. Turn right before reaching the port (I recommend downloading Maps.me — a great phone app that works even when you are offline). Driving is going to be a real pleasure thanks to the beauty of the landscape. When you enter the small village of Bellapais, notice the narrow, cobblestone streets and the old houses. Keep driving and then park your car. On one side you will see the Besh Barmag Mountain and on the other side — a steep drop and majestic ruins. The sight is bound to take your breath away.
Nearby is a small park, where many local residents like to socialize. There are many Turkish cafes and restaurants in front of the abbey, which is typical for tourist spots. We purchased our tickets (3 euros each) and entered the abbey. Since we arrived by noon, the place wasn’t crowded at all, which was great: we could wander around freely and absorb the atmosphere in silence.
The Bellapais Abbey (Abbaye de la Belle Paix, which literally means «the abbey of beautiful peace») was founded in the 12th century by Augustinian monks who came to the island from Jerusalem. The abbey was later transferred to the Premonstratensians, who used to wear white hooded capes, which is how Bellapais became known as the «White Abbey».
The abbey reached the height of its power in the 13th century after it inherited a fragment of the True Cross from Jerusalem along with 600 bezants (pure gold coins issued in the Late Roman Empire, 9th century BC) from Sir Roger the Norman. Following this event pilgrims began to come to the abbey in herds. Their donations helped to build a new monastery church, a refectory and other pavilions.
Even members of the royal Lusignan family had stayed at the abbey, while Hugh III gave its abbots the privilege of wearing a mitre, bearing a gilded sword and wearing golden spurs. Bellapais’ reputation spread far beyond Cyprus and every Catholic considered it his duty to visit the abbey.
But in the 14th century the Genoese invaded Cyprus and raided Bellapais, stealing almost everything. As a result of the pillage, the abbey went into spiritual and moral decline, with monks abandoning the strict canons of their previous lifestyle and many of them taking a wife (or two). After centuries of spiritual purity the abbey became a place of debauchery.
Legend has it that one day an abbot was walking down Bellapais and heard a strange sound. He looked into one of the cells and found two monks fornicating with two women. The abbot said: «Are you looking for intimacy? Then you will find it. You will spend an eternity together, but will be unable to touch each other». The sinners were buried in four different corners of the monastery’s courtyard (whether they were buried dead or alive is unknown). Their graves were marked with cedars, which are still there. All four of the trees are of the same height and are so straight that there isn’t a chance that their branches will ever touch even though the courtyard is quite small. The sight of these cedars gave me goosebumps.
With time the abbey ended up under Turkish control, which led to more ransacking and its complete deterioration. Then the English came and used it to house their troops. Then following World War II Bellapais became a tourist attraction.
The abbey’s surviving gothic church has been well preserved: its vaults aiming towards the sky and towards God. They still bear traces of soot from campfire and feature fragments of the original frescoes. The refectory (27 meters in length, with 38 meter high ceilings) is also still relatively intact and features gothic vaults and has great acoustics. You can spot bullet marks on the walls — the British used this space as a shooting range. Today the refectory is used as a venue for the famous International Bellapais Music Festival.
As you enter the cafeteria you will pass by a marble sarcophagus and a lavatory, where monks used to wash their hands before entering the refectory. The basement below the refectory has also been well preserved and is now used to display photographs and notes on the abbey’s history (I wrote down one of the titles, «Bitter Lemons», by Lawrence Durrell).
Quite ironically, Bellapais still contains a great number of antique artifacts and yet for some reason the building that served as the living quarters for the monks and the abbots is gone. Could it be retribution for the monks’ abandonment of their strict religious vows?
Bellapais is saturated with history and legends. The gothic arches pierce the sky and the four lonely cedars remind us of the sins committed here. Breathtaking views of the nearby fortress and the Kyrenia bay make for a powerful backdrop.
I glanced at my watch and realized that I had spent more than three hours at the abbey. It was time to go back to Limassol. As I walked back to the parking lot, I noticed the same people still hanging out in the shade of the park’s trees. I wondered: «Don’t they work or have other things to do?»
But when I got home and looked up the title «Bitter Lemons», I came across the mention of the «Tree of Idleness». In the book Durrell talks about a tree, whose shade makes people unfit for work. Can you imagine my surprise?
So if you want to enjoy stunning views and love history, come to visit Bellapais. But be careful not to sit under the Tree of Idleness. Who knows, maybe it’s real.