Some refer to it as ‘the Panhandle’, while Churchill, ever dramatic with his choice of words, described the peninsula as a “dagger pointing at the soft underbelly of Turkey.” Another analogy might be that of a horn — a unicorn’s horn perhaps. Whatever the choice of description for its shape, North Cyprus’ Karpaz Peninsula is lauded in the tourist literature as one of the island’s most beautiful and unspoiled regions, a place of “unblemished nature” where “you can hear the call of your heart.”
More prosaically, the peninsula is famous for its wild donkey population and breeding turtles. The donkeys are feral descendants of the working animals that used to toil in the fields here before mechanisation made them redundant; the turtles are actually two species — the loggerhead turtle (Caretta caretta) and the endangered green turtle (Chelonia mydas). The females of both species return each summer to lay their eggs on some beaches of the Karpaz Peninsula.
It is hard to say exactly where the Karpaz Peninsula begins. The protrusion of land that extends eastwards from the north of Cyprus to point accusingly at Turkey’s Hatay coast clearly has an end, but where does it start? A good place to get a sense of the peninsula’s tapered topography is at Kantara Castle, a Crusader fortress that sits high on a ridge overlooking both coastlines. To reach the castle it is necessary to first follow the winding road which hugs the north coast of the island as far east as Kaplıca before turning inland.
The view from Kantara
At the Kaplıca Hotel a coach party of elderly Turks wait patiently as heaving plates of fried fish and salad are brought to their tables by an attentive but slightly flustered waitress. Our sudden arrival and additional demand for food seems to cause mild exasperation but we manage to negotiate a meal of sorts. After eating we drive the twisting vertiginous road that leads up to the castle high on the spine of the Beshbarmak (‘Five-Finger’) mountain chain. The castle, originally constructed by Byzantines in the 10th century, is a microcosm of Cyprus’ rich and complex history, a history composed of successive occupations by Byzantines, Arabs, Crusaders, Genoese, Venetians, Ottoman Turks, Greeks and British. Richard the Lionheart captured Isaac Komnenos here in 1191 before taking control of the island during the Third Crusade. Nearly two centuries later, the Lusignan Prince John hid here from the invading Genoese; another century on, the castle changed hands once again when the Venetians came.
The air is cooler up at Kantara, and spring arrives a little later here than down on the coast. Bright mountain flowers are beginning to come into bloom: pink cyclamen find a foothold at the base of rocks and yellow umbellifers compete for the attention of bees. While not quite as high as its sister castles of Buffavento and St Hilarion, the view is no less impressive. Stretching to the northeast, the peninsula tapers away into the distance until its vanishing point is lost in the haze.