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28 June 2021

A mythological gem of a city

Paphos – a coastal city on the southwestern tip of the island of Cyprus – is home to a tiny population of just 35,961 people. In contrast, the city is massive – the 4th largest in Cyprus, in fact, measuring a whopping 400 km²! With 340 days of sun in a year, and temperatures averaging around 24°C, we’re surprised the place isn’t overrun with tourists!

Though the city remains relatively undisturbed, Paphos is not without its accolades. The entire region has been recognised as a UNSECO World Heritage Site, and it’s no surprise why… This sun-soaked city was chosen by the Goddess Aphrodite herself, who is rumoured to have emerged from sea foam, sunning herself on what is now known as Aphrodite’s Rock. Today, this mythological gem of a city stands as a monument to Greek theology and, of course, Aphrodite. Whether you’re bathing in Adonis Baths, where she was said to have held her lover as he died; collecting blessings at her birthplace, or admiring mosaics which depict epic fables, the influence of Ancient Greek mythology is clear in Paphos’s every brick.

What makes Paphos, Paphos?

1. The birthplace of a Goddess

Long-known as the birthplace of Aphrodite, Goddess of Love and Fertility, this age-old city provides fascinating insight into Ancient Greek mythology. In fact, even the city’s origin story is a testament to the beauty of Greek theology! The story goes that long ago, before the city had even been named, a sculptor named Pygmalion carved a woman named Galatea out of ivory. He fell in love with his work and prayed, day after day, for the Goddess Aphrodite to bring her to life. When she granted his wish, Galatea and Pygmalion had a child – Paphos – who the city was named after. Talk about romantic…

Paphos is so intricately intertwined with Aphrodite’s story that her influence is seen everywhere. Aphrodite’s Rock – the Goddess’s birthplace – is set in the waters of the most beautiful beach Paphos has to offer. This stretch is among the most charming sights along the southwest side of Cyprus. The coastline meanders towards a backdrop of dramatic white cliffs, creating coves and points all along the pebbly seafront. If you’re feeling brave, go for a swim around Aphrodite’s Rock; locals say that swimming 3 laps around this legendary boulder will bless you with eternal youth and beauty…

Just 3 laps around Aphrodite's Rock will bless you with eternal youth and beauty

The vast archaeological site of Palaipaphos – or Old Paphos – is set on the hillside in Kouklia Village. Boasting amazing panoramic views down to the sea, this is one of the most important pilgrimage centres of the ancient world and home to the famous Sanctuary of Aphrodite. The sanctuary is one of the most revered temples in the world, earning Cyprus its first mention on the UNESCO World Heritage Site list back in 1980.

The famous Sanctuary of Aphrodite

Adonis Baths, where Aphrodite and her lover Adonis spent much of their time together, is one of the prettiest places in Cyprus. This is where Aphrodite gave birth to her children, and it is also the place where Adonis died in her arms, after a man disguised as a wild boar fatally wounded him in battle. Outside of the baths, statues of the two lovers stand with a sign that reads:

Ladies infertile who wish to become pregnant touch Adonis’s appendage and have many children thereafter.

A reference to the widely held superstition among locals that bathing in these waterfalls grants fertility. The waterfalls are also said to make women look younger and more beautiful, while it is rumoured to make men stronger.

Adonis Baths - they may, or may not, increase your fertility or strength

2. Landscapes galore

With 27 beaches in the city, Aphrodite’s Rock isn’t the only place you’ll find a magical beach in Paphos. The city has the longest coastline of any district in Cyprus, winding northwards from Aphrodite’s Rock to the Baths of Aphrodite and beyond. Coral Bay, located in the region’s north, boasts soft sand and shallow warm waters, while the Polis Latchi Argaka and Pomos beaches remain largely secluded.

The waters around Paphos have a lot to offer too… Jagged rocks jut out from the shoreline, revealing sea caves whose narrow pathways stretch along the coast, and though you might not expect it of a city, Paphos boasts some of the most impressive diving sites in the world. Colourful coral reefs, brimming with life, cover underwater rock formations worn down by the tide to look like amphitheatres; the Zenobia shipwreck – among the globe’s top ten shipwrecks – lies dormant on the sandy Mediterranean seabed, a grave historical monument now home to shoals of fish; it’s a whole new world below the Cypriot shores.

Zenobia is one of the best shipwreck diving sites in the world

It’s no surprise, then, that Paphos is home to one of the few nesting beaches for green and loggerhead turtles in Europe. The Lara-Toxeftra Marine Reserve nurses turtles caught in fishing nets back to health, as well as taking care of turtle nests until the babies are ready to make their mad dash to the sea. With both turtle species now endangered (there are less than 500 female nesting green turtles left in the Mediterranean), the sanctuary this Cypriot city provides is more important than ever.

If you’re prepared to pull an all-nighter for the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, you can actually watch the turtles from a distance. For the best chance at survival, baby turtles embark on their dangerous journey after sundown, to avoid predators such as seagulls – so don’t expect to leave before the early hours of the morning if you want to catch sight of them!

Paphos is home to one of the few nesting beaches for green and loggerhead turtles in Europe

Paphos has some of the most amazingly diverse landscapes you’ll see in the country. This beautiful destination is a place where mountains meet sea – and you know what that means? More stunning views than you could possibly imagine. Admire sprawling vineyards that stretch off into the distance or listen to the sound of the waves as you wander along meandering coastal trails. Hike through gorges and over cliff paths to take in the city from its highest viewpoints. Trek to traditional mountain villages to indulge in the local culture as you discover each one’s unique practices and ways of life.

3. A rich history and a bitter divide

Cyprus is a crucial player in “The Great Game” of The Eastern Mediterranean, with its position at the crossroads of the surrounding countries making it of unrivalled strategic, economic and historic importance. The country has long been the focus of some of the world’s most powerful regions – from the Romans to the Byzantines; the French to the Brits – and their numerous occupations have left an indelible mark on Cypriot politics and culture. Around Paphos, the rich legacy of this city – once Cyprus’s capital – is clearly seen in intricate mosaics, frescoed tombs and hauntingly beautiful crumbling theatres.

The 16th century Agia Kyriaki Chyrsopolitissa Church, built among the ruins of a Byzantine Church that once stood in the same place, stands as a reminder of the city’s occupation by the Roman and Byzantine Empires. Remnants of the city’s occupations are everywhere you look – from the Old Town where Venetian-style neoclassical architecture exists alongside 19th century facades to Paphos Castle, whose walls have been built and rebuilt with each new settlement. It’s no wonder this melting pot of nations was named as one of Europe’s Capitals of Culture in 2017!

The Agia Kyriaki Chyrsopolitissa Church stands as a reminder of Roman and Byzantine occupation

But the history of Cyprus is not quite as romantic as the monuments of Paphos make it seem… In fact, the love triangle between Greece, Turkey and Cyprus is about as complicated as that of Aphrodite, Adonis and King Cinyras. Cyprus is split down the middle by the 180km Green Line – a symbol of the country’s deep division. This is a land of contrasts, and nowhere is that clearer than in the fiery debates surrounding the North/South divide.

As with so many places in the world, British colonialism in particular has soured relations in Cyprus. At the time of their occupation, Greek and Turkish communities coexisted peacefully on the island. The British, worried that the two groups might join forces to overthrow their colonial oppressors, played a perfect game of ‘divide and conquer’. By the time Cyprus finally regained its independence in 1960, the two communities were in a bitter conflict over who Cyprus belonged to. While Greek Cypriots thought that Cyprus would become part of Greece, Turkish Cypriots favoured partition. Divisions between these once harmonious communities were deeper than they had ever been, with increasing resentment, protests and violence on both sides.

Ironically, it was actually the Brits who mediated a ceasefire between the two sides, drawing a green line on a map in 1964 – the very line that divides the country today. But it wasn’t long before the ceasefire, well… ceased, with the predominantly Greek National Guard carrying out a coup d’état to replace the Cypriot President with a Greek Nationalist. The Turkish Cypriots retaliated by invading Cyprus, and civil war ensued. Greek Cypriots living north of the Green Line were forced to move south, and the Turkish troops who had invaded the region declared independence in 1983 as the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. Though this was rejected by the UN and the Republic of Cyprus, the Turkish troops remained there.

Today, the topic of the North/South Divide in Cyprus is a bitter one – one that is best left alone, unless raised by Cypriots themselves… Even then, tread carefully, as this is an issue close to the hearts of many in Cyprus, and you might stir intense debate.

4. Food and wine

If there’s one thing that Cypriots – both Greek and Turkish – can agree on, though, it’s their food! Mediterranean food and wine is unmatched in general – but there’s something different about Cypriot cuisine. Not just in how aromatic and flavoursome it is; not just in how it draws on influences from the Middle East, Turkey and Greece, creating a beautiful marriage of cultures and flavours, but in how the Cypriot people like to eat.

Cypriot society revolves around family life, and nowhere is this clearer than in their eating habits; it is still common for families to eat together – not just at the same restaurant, not just at the same table, but from the same plate! Food sharing is common in Cyprus, and you’ll find many restaurants serving hot and cold mezze – platters of food made for sharing with friends and family. Here, it is common to share food from the same plate; it is a sign of closeness. Cypriot hospitality when it comes to food is unmatched – in fact, it is not uncommon for Cypriots to invite total strangers over to join them for a meal or a drink.

When your food is as good as it is in Cyprus, why wouldn’t you want to share it? Paphos is home to an abundance of tasty dishes. Find fresh seafood by the harbour, where restaurants will serve mezzes of swordfish, calamari, whitebait and prawns; taste Greek souvlaki – skewers of grilled meat served piping hot, or enjoy kleftiko – slow-cooked lamb that falls off the bone. As if the food wasn’t impressive enough, the Cypriot wine industry dates back nearly 5,000 years! Pair your meal with a local variety of wine like Xynisteri or Mavro, or try Commandaria – a toffee flavoured wine similar to Port that’s perfect with grilled Halloumi cheese.

In Cyprus, it's common to share food from the same plate

Good to know

  • Before heading to Cyprus, it’s important to consider that entering the North side of Cyprus is actually illegal – unless you enter at the legal entry points, using a special Visa that you should get when you arrive on the island, if you’ve successfully applied. Meanwhile, gaining access to the Southern side of Cyprus is pretty easy.

  • The political dispute between Greek and Turkey about the Cyprus territory is a very delicate subject to talk about with the locals. If you can, avoid it, but if you end up wrapped in that conversation, be very cautious.

  • There are three kinds of poisonous snakes in the countryside, so it’s recommended to wear thick boots and socks if you plan on hiking.

  • Cypriots are very lively conversationalists – they can be loud at times! What might seem like a furious argument to you, could just as easily be an amicable conversation between two friends.

  • Tick-borne diseases are common in Cyprus, make sure you pack repellent and every night check for ticks. If you feel weird after being bitten by a tick, seek medical assistance immediately!

  • If you’re planning to visit any religious establishments – churches, monasteries or mosques – you must dress extremely modestly. Think long trousers, no exposed shoulders, and even headcovers!

  • Unfortunately, Cyprus is not as forward thinking as we might like when it comes to gay people. In large towns, this is less apparent, but openly gay public displays of affection might attract unwanted attention.

  • Coffee is really black and strong, without sugar. If you want some, ask for “glyckos” when you order the coffee.

  • Tipping is appreciated at restaurants.

  • If you visit the turtle beaches, make sure to not interfere at all – do not make noise, do not use flashlights, and especially do not touch the turtles!

  • Sundays are resting days on Cyprus, you’ll probably find most places closed.

  • Cypriots have a very open culture – they will often take a genuine interest in your life and even your personal affairs such as family relationships, your profession and even your income. Though to the more reserved Brit, this might seem intrusive, in Cyprus it’s normal chit chat!

  • Though young people in Cyprus are just like those of any other country, the elderly in Cyprus still tend to be very socially conservative. Unless in a designated naturist area, topless sunbathing is an absolute no-go! While swimwear is fine on the beach, you might get some stares if you don’t cover up properly when you leave the area.

Make Paphos a must-do

For the traveller with a keen interest in history, archaeology and especially theology, Paphos is a haven. This sun-soaked city is home to some of the most beautiful beaches in the continent, but what really makes this place special is its ties to Ancient Greek mythology. Aphrodite’s life story is told in the magnificence of monuments that have stood the test of time, and in the people who are still devoted to passing on her fables.

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