An essential outing for all who love heights, castles and adventure. This is the highest of the island's three Crusader fortresses, and the most difficult to reach. Its setting is the most dramatic of any ruin on the entire island. Remember, however, that the final 8km of the approach is a long dirt track, rocky in parts and for much of the year unsuitable for anything except 4x4, and that the climb from where the dirt track ends to the summit takes about 45 minutes, often on a concrete pathway and steps, with very little shade.
There is no longer any guardian at the castle, so in theory you can visit anytime. However, in recent years the military have been known to restrict visiting days to just three or four times, the exact days changing regularly. A barrier at the start of the dirt track used to be lowered on days when it was closed, though that seems to have gone missing recently too. Before setting off, therefore, make sure that the castle is open. The drive from Girne to where the dirt track ends below the castle takes about 45 minutes.
The distinctive shape of Buffavento's rocky crag dominates the northern coastline, and hovers ever present, beckoning seductively for most of the approach drive. Its outline bulges upwards, as if an unseen hand has struck the brow of the mountain range, making the terrain come up in an almighty bump. The only road approach is by a dirt track from the east. The really masochistic can, however, make a whole day of it, ascending from Bellapais by donkey on a 12km (7.5 mile) track, having made arrangements at the village beforehand.
By car, you leave Girne on the Gazima?usa road, following the coastal strip castwards for some 10km, until you reach the fork left towards Esentepe and the Karpas. You stay on the main Gazima?usa road as it heads inland and begins to climb up into the mountains, approaching the distinctive Be?parmak Mountain to the left of the road, with its five rocky fingers reaching to the sky. Immediately at the brow of the pass, two stony, signposted tracks head off to the left and right. To the left is the path to the Sourp Magar Monastery. To the right, and also signposted, is the Buffavento track which you must follow for some 8km as it runs along the ridge of the mountains, giving fine views to the south over the Nicosia plain. The track is rough and stony in parts, especially at the beginning. A healthy saloon car can just about manage it if driven slowly and carefully, though the quality of the surface is getting worse year by year and for how much longer this will be the case is anyone's guess.
From leaving the tarmac, it takes a maximum of 30 minutes to reach the point where the track ends, at an open space with a well under a shady olive tree. During the final 2km you will notice that the land immediately below you belongs to a military camp, and red signs proclaim it as military and forbidden. At one point the shooting range is uncomfortably close, but from your higher vantage point, it is perfectly clear whether or not it is in use. The road you are on is in no way forbidden territory, and as long as you stay on it and never venture downhill, you are perfectly safe. But pay attention. The Turkish army have created a number of paths across the mountainside and the turning for the final ascent towards the olive tree is easy to miss. Look for the easternmost right-hand track, a hairpin that sits at the junction of four tracks. The junction is marked with a yellow sign for the castle, but gives no indication of the correct direction.
On emerging from the car at the olive tree, the sheer silence of the place is striking. Above you on the summit are the distant crenellations which are your goal, and down below you are aware of the military presence in its incongruous headquarters, the Ayios Chrysostomos Monastery. The monastery itself is not actually visible until you have reached the first level of the castle. From that higher vantage point, you can see the yellow ochre painted walls peeping out from behind the hill which obscures it when viewed from lower down, and a tall old cypress tree stands by its door. According to local tradition, a queen who suffered from leprosy lived apart in the high castle, and her dog, her only companion, caught the disease from her. Slowly, however, he was cured, for he had discovered at the foot of the mountain, a mineral spring with miraculous healing powers. The queen followed him to the spring and was herself cured, whereupon she had the monastery built beside it in gratitude. Today, some of the oldest henna plants on the island are said to grow around the monastery.
Other traditions have the Empress Helena, mother of Constantine, as founder, but at any rate what remains of the monastery is now largely modern. The double church still has some frescoes of the 11th and 12th centuries which are among the most important on the island. It also retains a magnificent double door, built entirely without nails and set in a frame of carved marble, dated to the 16th century. The monastery is not accessible to visitors these days, but a North Cyprus television documentary revealed the inside to viewers. It showed the frescoes whitewashed up to a height of 1.7m; this was, according to the military, a deliberate act to protect them. The frescoes were restored in 1972 with great skill by the Durnbarton Oaks Byzantine Institute of Harvard University, and their condition under the whitewash is therefore likely to be good. Any faces of Apostles must be blinded. Also out of bounds is the 12th-century church, now heavily ruined, lower down the hill below Chrysostomos, on the road to Güngor (Koutsovendis), with its faded fresco of the Lamentation over the Body of Christ.
From leaving the car, the steep walk up to the first gateway takes 30 minutes. The path is loose and rocky, so appropriate footwear should be worn. Like St Hilarion, the castle is divided into an upper and a lower ward, though the ruins are far less complete here than at Hilarion. From the gateway, the climb up to the summit, mainly on steps and often wonderfully vertiginous, takes a further 15-20 minutes. The summit is 955m, and even the Chrysostomos Monastery at 620m is nearly three times higher than Bellapais. In the last century the ascent was distinctly trickier than it is on today's path, as witness the following description by a Spanish traveller:
“The peak itself is a rock nearly perpendicular on every side. There was no further trace of a path, so we climbed this natural wall, taking advantage of jutting rocks, projections, holes, anything to which our hands and feet would cling. Sometimes we had to help one another with a stick, or the guide would stop to see where he could get the best foothold, so as to get over the parapet in front of him; and to complete the picture, we had always beside us a horrible precipice.”
Disparaging comments are often made about the paltry nature of the ruins at Buffavento, along with jokes about its name “buffeted by the wind” meaning that everything on the summit has been blown away. Yet the ascent to Buffavento, because of the terrain and the stupendous location, makes if anything an even deeper impression than the other two Crusader castles, and the wonder is how anything was ever built up here at all. For a time in the early 1970s a guardian was posted up here, but he has since abandoned his lonely job.
You arrive now at the deserted first section of the castle, entered by a fine arched gateway. Inside is a cluster of chambers, one of which is built over a cistern. The red tiles used in the arches around the doorways are reminiscent of the Seljuk style of mainland Turkey.
Right on the summit are the remains of a chapel and a few other buildings, but most memorable are the staggering views, often through wisps of cloud, over the coast and back towards Lefko?a and the Trodos mountains beyond.
Like Hilarion and Kantara, Buffavento was constructed as part of a chain of defence against the Arab raids in Byzantine times. The Byzantine despot king of the island, Isaac Comnenus, fled here to escape the clutches of Richard the Lionheart at the time of the Third Crusade. Isaac's daughter surrendered it and herself to Richard in 1191, and the castle was thereafter fortified by the Lusignan Frankish knights and maintained as a prison called Chateau du Lion. The Venetians dismantled it fairly thoroughly in the 16th century to deny the islanders any chance of using the inland stronghold in any revolt against them. The Venetians' own interest was restricted to the coast, and they had no desire to maintain costly garrisons in these inland castles.