Travel Special: Aphrodite’s Rock
You can’t go far in Cyprus without being reminded of its Hellenistic heritage. The eastern Mediterranean island country is packed to the gills with ancient mosaics, temples and necropolises. Legend has it that it was the playground of some of the best-known ancient Greek deities themselves. Aphrodite—the goddess of love and beauty—was born in Cyprus, and the island is peppered with sites associated with her. This includes cave pools where she used to bathe and the deserted ruins of temples where she was once venerated through song, dance and sacred sexual rites.
Every third business, it seems, pays homage to Aphrodite. You can sip Keo Aphrodite wine made from the island’s signature xynisteri grapes or tee off at the golf course at Aphrodite Hills resort. Even the country’s most popular brand of loukoumi, the saccharine sweet most commonly known outside Cyprus as Turkish delight, is produced by a company called Aphrodite Delights.
Despite the goddess’ stronghold on local naming conventions and the ubiquity of mythological sites, a sizeable subset of the island’s masses of European tourists has little interest in the country’s historic and mythological riches. For them, Cyprus is all about beaches. And booze.
“In 100m, turn right on alpha gamma iota alpha sigma mu alpha upsilon rho pi sigma,” the narrator of Google Maps barks at me, opting to spell out every single street name, letter by letter, rather than taking a stab at the language. I’ve been on the island for a fortnight, doing site inspections at popular tourist hotels, most of which have been of the sprawling, multi-pool, all-inclusive variety. Though I’ve scrounged up a handful of minutes here and there to wander amidst the crumbling pre-Christian Tombs of the Kings and marvel at the intricate mosaic work in some of the island’s old churches and monasteries, I’ve seen far more tourists sunbathing poolside than I have wonders of the ancient world.
The final leg of my journey takes me to Ayia Napa, a famous resort community on the far-eastern side of the island. Ayia Napa gets its name from a 16th century monastery situated smack in the middle of the city centre, but these days it’s better known for nightclubs that stay open well past sunrise than it is for monastic life. Much of this beachfront town’s popularity followed the Turkish invasion of 1974, which effectively divided the island into north and south and displaced a couple of hundred thousand Cypriots of both Greek and Turkish extraction. The Turkish military took with it what was previously the hub of sea-and-sun tourism on Cyprus, the resort community of Varosha, just north of Ayia Napa. Today, Varosha is in ruins and closed to the public. Most tourists only witness its powdery white beaches and shells of high-rise resorts from a distant viewpoint, a stop-off on the popular “Red Bus Divided Line Tour” that ferries a couple of dozen foreign tourists through the UN Buffer Zone and into the foreboding Turkish North every day.
In Ayia Napa, most of my fellow foreigners seem oblivious to the fact that they are partying and tanning just a few miles south of an invaded ghost town. During the day, the turquoise waters of hot spots such as Nissi Beach are speckled with the bobbing heads of overseas sun-worshippers. Come sunset, the action moves to “the strip”, a neon-lit expanse of watering holes, American fast food restaurants, late night pharmacies, and olive oil dealers. Here, sozzled 20-somethings congregate on large outdoor terraces, puffing on flavoured sheesha and belting out unabashedly off-key karaoke renditions of Pretty Woman. Later, they’ll move the party over to one of the city’s world-famous nightspots, such as the multiroom Castle Club or the after-hours River Reggae. There’s no talk of occupied Cyprus, no mention of ancient Greek goddesses or history. People are here to party.
“Life is about having fun,” a British waiter at my hotel’s restaurant tells me that evening with a wink, before imploring me to join him and his friends on a late-night traipse around Ayia Napa’s nightlife hot spots. I decline. As much as I am tempted by promises of free-flowing booze and sunrise foam-parties, I’ve got a long drive to Paphos the next day, where I’ll board a plane back to the grisaille of London. And I have one spot left to visit before I leave.
Aphrodite’s Rock, as it’s called in English, sits just off a sandy beach on the old coastal highway, a convenient 15-minute drive east of Paphos Airport. I leave my car at a tourist complex across the road, complete with its own gift shop and pay showers. I don’t want to leave the island without paying my respects to the goddess, and where better to do it than the very place where she emerged from the sea, many moons before a succession of Egyptian, Knights Templar, Ottoman and British rulers (among many others) left their mark on the island?
I half expect the beach to be deserted and quiet…there are no bars or parasols for rent here, after all. Instead, I find myself immersed in a symphony of Greek, English, German, Italian, and something that sounds like Polish. Elderly couples tie pieces of cloth to a “wishing tree” believed to help bring prayers to fruition, while toddlers splash barefoot in the pebbly surf. In the distance, I see the silhouette of a young man who has climbed on to Aphrodite’s birthplace rock, appearing to prepare himself for a plunge into the waters below. Despite the mega resorts, nightclubs, and borders thick with military, the goddess of love is alive and well.
While Cyprus is best known for its delectable mezze, huge spreads featuring multiple small plates of Mediterranean specialities, the country’s myriad sweet dishes are worth trying too. Here are three sweet Cypriot specialities that you won’t want to miss.
This is an ubiquitous, jelly-like (but gelatin-free) dessert made of starch, sugar and, usually, some sort of flavouring, such as rose water or bergamot lemon, cut into cubes and dusted with powdered sugar. Loukoumi is known as “Turkish delight” in most parts of the world, but it’s better to just stick to the traditional name while in Cyprus.
Though the term ‘sujuk’ often refers to a type of spiced sausage, in Cyprus it’s more frequently used to describe a long cylindrical treat made of unfiltered grape juice, nuts, a little flour, and flavouring such as pomegranate or carob. There’s no added sugar, so it’s not overly sweet.
A popular dessert item at hotel buffets across the island, this is a sweet, baklava-like pastry consisting of ground nuts, sugary syrup spiced with cinnamon, and ‘kataifi’, a bird’s nest-style pastry dough with a consistency similar to ‘soan papdi’.