Middle East: Cyprus


Stunning coastline near Aphrodite Rock.

In the Footsteps of the Gods
Visitors to Cyprus are swept into the legendary intrigues of the ancient Greeks.
Text and photos by Joanna Ebbutt

Almost three thousand years ago, Homer wrote that Aphrodite, goddess of love and beauty, stepped ashore in Cyprus after her birth in the gentle waves of the sparkling Mediterranean Sea. To this day, visitors often find that even if their explorations are minimal, it's difficult not to be swept into the legendary battles and intrigues of those mysterious divinities created by the Ancient Greeks.

However, it's pretty seaside villages, dazzling resorts and a lush mountainous interior that offers a welcome respite from the summer's heat that draw vacationers to the Mediterranean's third largest island. And the notable friendliness of the Greek Cypriots - whether you're browsing in a local market or relaxing in a taverna's ambience, you'll likely be engaged in conversation, or even invited to join an impromptu party. Due to their British connections, many speak English very well.

For art lovers and history buffs, Cyprus is an open textbook, with one site after another revealing abundant evidence of long gone eras. The island is a rich repository of stone age tools dating back to 9000 BC, luxurious Roman villas with their rich mosaic floors, towering tombs and hundreds of masterpieces of Byzantine art.

A historical synopsis
Situated halfway between Turkey and Egypt, Cyprus has been strategically desirable since at least 1600 BC, which has led to a turbulent history. First colonized by the Mycenaeans, subsequent rulers include Persians, Greeks again, Egyptians, Romans, the Byzantines, through to the Turks, and finally the British, who annexed Cyprus from Turkey in 1914 and ruled until independence was granted to the Republic of Cyprus in 1960.

During the 1960s, conflicts between Greek and Turkish Cypriots led to a United Nations peacekeeping force settling in Cyprus. In 1974, a coup - supported by Greece - was launched against the Cypriot president, Archbishop Makarios, which encouraged Turkey to invade the north of the island. To this day, the "Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus" is only recognized by Turkey.

The Green Line, first drawn by the British, divides the two parts of the island and is guarded by a UN force. Yet the island is remarkably peaceful. Well over two million vacationers descend upon the Greek side of Cyprus every year, undaunted by its politics.

Some island highlights
In the west, historic Pafos presides over a region that utterly captivates most visitors. A tiny fishing village until 1974, Pafos' population swelled to around 25,000 with the arrival of Greek Cypriot refugees from the north. Fishing boats and cruise boats line the harbour, where the old customs house has been converted into cafés and souvenir stalls. The well-preserved medieval Castle hosts the annual Aphrodite Festival every September, when artists from companies such as the Bolshoi Opera, the Parisian Opera and New York's Metropolitan Opera stage dramatic harbourside performances.

Nearby, a farmer discovered the remains of the old Roman town of New Pafos in 1962, while ploughing his fields. Proclaimed a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, it comprises various old villas whose intricately designed mosaic floors are made from tiny multi-coloured stones that probably came from Alexandria some 1,600 years ago.

Fishing boats pass by Coral Beach Hotel, Pafos

The House of Dionysos is around 2,000 square metres, apparently an average size for those times. Dionysos, the god of wine, is prominently presented on the mosaics but you'll also find the lovesick Narcissus, the sea monster Scylla, and Zeus, the most powerful of the Olympian gods. The vivid illustrations of their stories were largely done, archaeologists believe, by ordinary labourers under the supervision of a mosaic artist. Other villas here are the House of Theseus, the House of Orpheus, the House of Aion and the House of the Four Seasons. Unless you've boned up on Greek mythology, hire a local guide to get the most out of your visit.

Old Pafos was formed around 1200 BC. Known as Kouklia, it has the remains of the Temple of Aphrodite, parts of which date back to the Bronze Age. During the Roman era, pilgrims came from all over Europe to this sacred temple - perhaps drawn by the legendary erotic exploits of the priestesses and other young women. As Aphrodite is the goddess of love, who knows where the truth lies?

Further east stands Petra tou Romiou, or the Rock of Aphrodite, on one of the most spectacular sections of the Cyprus coast. Chalk white cliffs tower over the turquoise waters of the Mediterranean, and waves bash against the huge rocks below. This is where Aphrodite is said to have first set foot on Cyprus. Many people can't resist taking a dip here, but you should be a good swimmer as there's a strong current.

Kourion was founded around 500 BC, and its ruins are fabulous to explore. In the large Roman amphitheatre, built in the 2nd century BC, gladiators fought wild animals and classical dramas were performed. Restored in the 1960s, the 3,500-seat amphitheatre offers musical and dramatic performances in May, September and October. It's worth booking ahead - even when staged in Greek, the passion of their plays are easily understood. Elsewhere on the site is the 4th-century House of Eustolios with its superb mosaics, the Baths, and the outstanding Temple of Apollo, which over a 1,200-year span - till the 4th century AD - was one of the biggest temples on Cyprus.

North of Pafos
St. Neophytos Monastery and Enkleistra nestle high in the hills. Born in 1134, St. Neophytos was a humble peasant who taught himself to read and write, then travelled extensively in the Holy Land. After returning to Pafos, he settled in a wooded valley. Using simple tools, he carved a small cave (Enkleistra) in the hillside. Later, prompted by the arrival of would-be monastic students, the reclusive monk dug out a second cave, above the first one, and followed the services in the cave below, through a connecting shaft. Lovely frescoes adorn the cave walls, including in the tiny chapel, the saint's cell and tomb. Between these caves and the nearby monastery are some of the finest examples of Byzantine art in the Orthodox world.

Polis is a small, laid-back sort of town, with a few small hotels and villas to rent, and a spectacular campsite on the Akamas peninsula. This natural wilderness has breathtaking gorges, a spectacular coastline - including Lara Beach, where turtles nest - and hiking trails. One popular trail leads to the Baths of Aphrodite, where she used to meet her lover, Adonis. It's now a somewhat murky pool within a fig tree grove, but another trail leads from here to the clearer Fountain of Love. Take a picnic and drink in the views.

Into the hills
The Troodos Mountains are an easy day trip from many coastal resorts - although you may be tempted to stay for a day or two. Popular as a ski resort in winter and a cool retreat in summer, hikers have hundreds of trails to explore, through the various vegetation zones.

On your way to higher climes, stop in Omodos, a village renowned for its production of Krasochoria, one of Cyprus' best known wines, as well as for its traditional white-washed houses with their lush gardens. Elderly black-clad ladies sit outside, toiling over their embroidery or lace making. You can wander into old homes with their ancient wine presses, or inspect the Byzantine art in the Monastery of the Holy Cross.

The mountain villages of Kato (lower) and Pano (upper) Platres are both surrounded by thick pine-scented woodland and babbling streams. They're small, unspoilt resorts, where the surroundings are the star attraction. You may like to visit the sulphur springs spa at Kalopanayiotis or the 12th-century Kykko Monastery - despite its remote location in the pine forest, it's the most visited monastery in Cyprus.

The charm of Cyprus is that you can switch from delving into ancient history to hiking in the mountains, sunning by the beach, luxuriating in a spa or enjoying a sunset cruise. The main problem is simply deciding what to do each day.

Long a favourite with British and European vacationers, Cyprus has a wide range of hotels, villas and apartments to offer. For further information, check out www.cyprustourism.org or e-mail gocyprus@aol.com.

Prolific freelance writer and editor Joanna Ebbutt is a member of the Society of American Travel Writers. She contributes to The Toronto Star among other publications. She wrote the Insight Pocket Guide: Toronto and co-authored Off The Beaten Track: Western Canada. She is also Update Editor on Insight Guides Canada, Insight Guides Montreal and Insight Pocket Guide Quebec.




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