Standing in a protected position and appearing almost as if glued to the side of the Kyrenia mountain range, the façade of Bellapais Abbey is the distant view that first fascinates visitors and attracts them to explore this fascinating and ancient Cypriot village. Now lying in the Turkish part of the island, Northern Cyprus, Bellapais has an interesting history, but it is the atmosphere of the place that keeps bringing people back – and not just the atmosphere in the abbey, but the entire village.
Surprisingly little is known of its early history, but it is likely that the site of the abbey was first occupied and that the village grew around this. It has been suggested that the first construction might have dated back to the seventh or eighth century, however, the first documented occupation and building on the site was by religious leaders who had fled from Jerusalem around the end of the twelfth century. The site offered many benefits to them. If was difficult to reach and almost impossible to do so unseen, so was relatively easy to protect. Further, its mountainside location guaranteed a reasonable supply of water and some respite from the hottest weather. Originally called Abbaye de la Belle Paix (the abbey of peace), this gradually became shortened to the current form.
Just like Cyprus as a whole, Bellapais went through many changes under many rulers over the centuries. Although not infrequently plundered – often just for building materials – the Abbey today is still in a remarkable state of preservation and still forms the heart of the village. In fact, it is now used as a setting for art exhibitions and concerts, with the annual Bellapais Music Festival attracting performers from around the world. However, anyone who visits the abbey should spend a little time also wandering through the tiny surrounding streets. Meandering in seemingly every direction, each twist and turn brings new views of ancient buildings and occasional glimpses of the sparkling waters of the Mediterranean. Most of the property here remains residential, though in the small square and the area around the abbey, there are a number of restaurants and small shops.
Apart from the abbey, Bellapais is probably best known for being the home for a while of the author Lawrence Durrell, and the home seemingly for ever of what is known as ‘the Tree of Idleness’. Durrell bought a home in one of the steep back streets, and it remains there to this day. He wrote affectionately and amusingly of his time here in the novel Bitter Lemons of Cyprus, and the Tree of Idleness is mentioned many times. The tree itself has the magical property that anyone who sits and drinks under its boughs will be “forever consumed with idleness”. The tree also has the magical property that nobody is actually certain of its location and as there are two trees that each claim to be the genuine article, at least two restaurants have areas where you should presumably sit only if you are planning on retiring!
Today, despite being somewhat ‘touristy’, Bellapais retains a quite remarkable atmosphere. The abbey seems to exude a feeling of peace and tranquility that is almost physical and that seems to spread out into its surroundings. Even in the restaurants and shops, there is the sense that life is something to be savoured and not rushed and a meal here in the evening can be quite spectacular, as the abbey is floodlit at night and forms a stunning backdrop to a leisurely dining experience.
There are many reasons to choose Northern Cyprus holidays, but a visit to Bellapais should definitely not be missed if you do.