Cyprus – In search of Aphrodite

To the ends of the earth with Nick Smith

The stuff of legend: the Rock of Aphrodite is located on the remote northern coast of Cyprus, with the Akamas National Park in the background

Often overlooked in the eastern reaches of the Mediterranean Sea, Cyprus is one of those destinations with a reputation for being cheap and cheerful. But if you can get past the grisly image of lager louts and all-inclusive package fiascos, Cyprus one of the region’s great beauty spots. Bay’s Nick Smith travels to the ‘Kingdom of Aphrodite’ to find out more.

You can tell when a place has lost favour with the more discerning traveller when there are more newspaper offers printed than there are books published about the destination. And it’s been like that with Cyprus for decades now, ever since the last of the great travel writers to pen anything of note on Cyprus, Colin Thubron, made way for red-top tabloids offering coupons for bargain basement getaways. While there’s nothing wrong with any of that – you can see why cash-strapped coastal resorts in the Mediterranean go low-rent to compete for the last few disposable pounds sterling – it’s also a little sad that somewhere as stunningly beautiful as Cyprus should have fallen off the cultural map. After all, with its olive groves, turquoise seas and bucolic wilderness, it’s easy to see why Cyprus was once home to the gods of antiquity, where Aphrodite bathed in a fountain by a fig tree.

Top: The 20m lighthouse at Paphos was built in the 19th century when Cyprus was under British rule to act as a landfall marker for shipping destined for Paphos harbour from Britain Bottom: The 16th century Paphos Castle in the background with a modern bronze statue inspired by the Aphrodite myth

As enticing as this image may be, chasing down the deities of times past was not my main reason for backpacking to Cyprus one summer almost on a whim. I’d been eating with friends in a Formica-table Greek restaurant in Soho in advance of an evening at Ronnie Scott’s famous jazz club, when our waiter dropped into a context I can’t quite remember the casual remark that Cyprus had the ‘best peninsula in the world’. Having spent most of my childhood roaming the moors and commons, sands and saltmarshes of Gower, I found this claim both interesting and open to obvious challenge. I halted the waiter in his tracks and enquired of which peninsula he spoke so highly. To which he informed me that the westernmost tip of Cyprus – the Akamas peninsula – has it all. Furthermore, it was ‘a fool’ who didn’t go there to drink in the beauty of “the last unspoilt part of the Mediterranean coast”. Sensing a mild insult of sorts buried somewhere in Christos’ statement, and emboldened by a few beakers of a liquid that smelled vaguely of turpentine but which the restaurateur believed to be ‘wine’, I accepted the imputed challenge and told all present that I’d be conducting a scientific experiment at the earliest opportunity to lay to rest the unspoken question of which was better: Gower or Akamas. As the evening wore on and I listened to the old-fashioned smoky jazz that seemed as obsolete as fountain pens, I forgot all about my announcement that I was going to Cyprus. That is until I awoke the next day to a phone call from a friend asking: “have you booked your flight yet?” Three weeks later I found myself standing on a beach at sunset, staring at the famous Paphos lighthouse wondering what on earth I’d let myself in for.

Top: A typical rural land- scape in the region surrounding the town of Polis, close to the Mediterranean Sea on the northern shores of Cyprus Below: Polis is strewn with ruined farm buildings, deserted by farmers who switched to running restaurants and cafés. Ancient olive trees are everywhere

Paphos is the sort of place that could deter even the stout-hearted from visiting Cyprus. Those of you fortunate enough to have followed the soap-drama Benidorm will easily leap to an accurate impression of a promenade that, despite the best efforts of ancient castles and well-intentioned public art, is a marketplace for hucksters flogging dodgy time shares and the stomping ground of hordes of hungover Britishers in replica football shirts looking for a greasy full English breakfast. While this might be a holiday pleasure to many, I make no apology for appearing downright snobbish when I say that the first order of my day was rapidly becoming to get the hell out of there. Sniffing downfall, I progressed swiftly to the next part of my journey: a bus ride across the island to the sleepy town of Polis on the northern shore, which with its attractive market square of fish restaurants, coffee houses and pretty churches was to be my base from which I’d explore Akamas. Before long I’d found a jetty, unpacked the telescopic travel rod, and was happily fishing for shiny sardines and unsurprisingly surrounded by a dozen stray cats. The only fly in the ointment was that after an hour I’d accidently landed an enormous red scorpionfish. This caused a kerfuffle on the quay, with lots of locals offering me the (somewhat unnecessary) advice not to touch it because it was extremely poisonous.

Pine trees go right to the shoreline in the Akamas National Park

The outcome of this drama was that I fell into talking with a middle-aged man in a white vest, smoking a roll-up, who spoke to me in an uncannily authentic East London accent. His name was Charalambos – “but you can call me Charley-boy” – proprietor of the local minicab company, who uninvited would take it upon himself to be my personal guide for my stay in Cyprus. If you’ve ever read Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals, the scene closely resembled the moment when the impoverished British immigrant family is taken under the wing of Spiro, only that story took place in Corfu and not Cyprus. Bowing to the inevitable, I quickly saw the advantages of having a local to show me the Akamas peninsula. After all, as he was at great pains to point out, apart from a few years driving a hackney carriage in Bethnal Green, he’d spent his entire life here. While in the East End he’d picked up the extremely irritating habit of lacing his speech with phrases such as ‘I should cocoa’ and ‘do what, guvnor’. When he told me that he disliked London life on account of it raining ‘cats and dogs’ all the time, I seized my chance for linguistic revenge by telling him that the expression came from his native Greek tongue, derived from cata doxa, meaning ‘contrary to belief’. Unimpressed and clearly not trusting a word I’d said, he flatly informed me that we’d start our tour tomorrow with the Baths of Aphrodite. Then he left, warning me against catching any more scorpionfish.

The drive west along the Akamas peninsula coast is one of the great scenic routes of the region, and even if the actual grotto where the Greek goddess of love is said to have bathed is underwhelming, the coastal geological feature named in her honour is not. Legend has it that the eponymous rock is the birthplace of Aphrodite who somehow ended up being bundled up (scholars call it ‘syncretised’) with the equivalent Roman goddess Venus, and who in more modern western culture was once for most schoolboys their first encounter with the nude female form. The most famous painting on the subject is by the early Renaissance Italian artist Sandro Botticelli, whose The Birth of Venus routinely takes its place on lists of the best paintings, for which read that it’s probably one of the best-selling Athena block posters, which (to my mind at least) is something of an irony as Athena was the Greek goddess of war. As we pulled up to the landmark I asked Charley-boy if he could tell me why here of all places should be associated with the Aphrodite’s ablutions, and why Adonis (who was Aphrodite’s lover) had a waterfall else-where in Cyprus where, according to the myth, they would meet in secret. His answer – “search me guvnor” – satisfied the taxi driver at least, and so we left it at that, returned to the vehicle and went for coffee in a dilapidated café that sold souvenirs of Aphrodite in the form of fridge magnets and plastic figurines.

The Akamas peninsula is a favourite beauty spot for hikers

As the days passed, Charley-boy and I settled into a routine where, in the soft golden Mediterranean sunshine, we’d drive off in the early morning through either the coastal olive groves with their abandoned farmhouses or the coniferous forests of the island’s mountainous interior. We explored the Akamas National Park, which at 230 square kilometres is of comparable size to Gower (which comes in at 180 square kilometres). And, I was to discover, the two peninsulas have much in common in that they’re largely unspoilt, with both protected by laws that

Top left: The Akamas National Park has plenty of awe-inspiring geological features such as this narrow canyon Top right: The Rock of Aphrodite in the distance looking east from the Akamas National Park Below: Geological structures such as this natural arch formation can be found all along the coast of Cyprus

 

Olive groves and coniferous woodlands make up most of the landscape

limit the encroachment of the modern world onto the natural one. You can walk on yellow sands, hike along woodland and hillside trails, go bird-watching, discover ruins of early churches, get a glimpse of rare butterflies and marvel at the clear blue seas. If I had doubted the waiter’s word in the restaurant back in Soho, there had been little need to, for his claim that Akamas was one of the best places on earth was a solid one. Perhaps, I suggested to my driver, it was the beauty of the scenery that had suggested to the ancients that this part of the world might have been the playground of the deities. He looked at me through a cloud of cigarette smoke and told me a long and complex tale of how when he was a kid the people of the northern coast of Cyprus were poor peasants scratching a living off the land, growing olives or rearing goats to make salty white cheese. But then the tourism authorities decided to use classical mythology as a marketing gimmick for this deserted section of rugged coastline. What followed was an influx of “people like you” he said (looking at me), “who decided that because it was good enough for the gods, that made it good enough for them too. So, our parents stopped work-ing the land, and opened cafés and pizzerias, rented out boats and established small hotels. For the first time they had money. Maybe Aphrodite was a great goddess in modern times too”.

The Troodos range, seen from the top of Mount Olympus (1,952 metres / 6,404 ft), the highest point in Cyprus

If all this discussion of Greek gods was getting a little confusing, this was as nothing compared with our trip into the Troodos Mountains to visit the summit of Mount Olympus. It was a bit late in the day, I thought, for Charley-boy to come up with a reliable fact about anything to do with Cyprus, but as we drove down through the serial hairpins from the British long-range radar station – ‘the golf ball’ – perched on the summit, he turned to me and said: “well, of course that’s not the Mount Olympus you were expecting. You wanted the one that was the home to the gods, right? Well that one’s in Greece. This one’s just a place to go skiing in winter and hiking in summer.” I expressed my view that he could have told me that before we’d spent the morning giving ourselves vertigo. But his only reply was: “there would have been no gods up there then either.”

Above left: A monk at Kykkos Monastery filling an old oil-burning lamp Above right: Entrance to Kykkos monastery that is famous for housing a 900-year- old icon of the virgin Mary Above: One of the many devotional mosaics to be found at Kykkos

To make amends for his failure to deliver the deities on demand, he offered to take me to the Kykkos monastery. I agreed because chance to visit an 11th century monastery seemed too good to pass up. And yet when we got there, to my admittedly untutored architectural eye, it all looked a bit modern. This was because, my guide explained, during its colourful history, the monastery had been burned down many times. The main attraction of the place today was an icon of the Virgin Mary that’s been protected on the site for more than 900 years. We didn’t get to see it because it rarely goes on display. In fact, the last person to have set eyes on it was Saint Gerasimos in 1669. To compensate for my disappointment, I bought an icon of St Michael painted by one of the monks that lives there. Having arrived at the airport later that day I gave Charley-boy a wedge of US dollars and we said goodbye. Or rather I did, while he chirruped ‘toodle-pip’. As I slung the backpack over the shoulder, I heard him shout: “See you later, squire. I’ll come to Gower, and you can drive me around your peninsula. I’ll give you some quids for your troubles, guvnor”.

 

 

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