‘Anthony was so keen to impress Cleopatra that he gave Cyprus to her as a gift,’ says Ioula.
Her husband Kostas groans. ‘Don’t expect an island for your next birthday,’ he says.
We are ploughing merrily through carafes of home-made wine, slithers of local cheese and apple, and addictive honey and walnut fritters in a cosy taverna in the upper town of Paphos. It’s only a couple of kilometres from the touristy harbour of Kato Paphos but it feels like another world.
A young nation with a small population, Cyprus is a curious mix of the self-consciously modern and fiercely traditional. When your guide introduces himself as Neoptolemus, you know you’re in a land obsessed with its ancient history. Most people speak English and Brits account for more than half the annual tourist quota, but it’s the Greek influence that dominates the language, culture and cuisine of Cyprus.
The latest tourism campaign – ‘Love Cyprus’ – capitalises on the island’s claim to fame as the birthplace of Aphrodite, goddess of love. The Greek poet Hesiod may be less famous than his contemporary, Homer, but his epic Theogony is a rip-roaring account of the origins of the Greek gods, describing a primordial world ruled by Chaos, where the only creatures were Gaia, the Earth, and Uranus, the Sky.
Their love-making produced some real monsters: the Hundred-handed Ones, who each had 50 heads, and the Cyclopes, crazed, one-eyed giants. Repelled by his hideous offspring, Greek god Uranus promptly despatched them to the Underworld. Seeking vengeance for his siblings, their brother Kronos took a sickle to his father’s genitals, which plummeted into the sea.
The frothy mix of saltwater and sperm gave birth to Aphrodite, who was washed ashore on Cyprus. According to Hesiod, ‘Wherever she stepped, green foliage sprang up.’
In spring, the hills behind Petra tou Romiou – birthplace of Aphrodite and gateway to the province of Paphos – are indeed lush.
Allegedly, Aphrodite arises from the waves by this rocky outcrop every 9 January – so if you happen to be in the vicinity, you can try your luck. Failing that, you can admire the remains of the goddess of love's 12BC sanctuary nearby. Most of the temple was destroyed in an earthquake in 15BC and the rest was used by locals as building materials or plundered by wilier foreigners, who sold their souvenirs to museums such as the Louvre.
Among the treasures still in situ are a 3,000-year-old bathtub, inscriptions carved in a syllabic script that has yet to be deciphered, and a colossal amphora with Arabic inscriptions – an apt emblem of this cultural melting pot.
Neoptolemus is undeterred by the scarcity of artefacts. ‘When you visit ancient sites, the trick is to use your imagination,’ he tells me, before launching into a graphic account of the scantily clad virgins who partook in a fertility cult. The altar, a conical black stone, was rubbed with oil by worshippers.
Women left jewellery so the goddess would protect their marriage and beauty. (I’d recommend a facial at one of Paphos’s luxury spas instead.)
Although Aphrodite was squeamish about bloody sacrifices – she preferred offerings of perfume, flowers and pancakes – ritual ceremonies concluded with a sacrifice of pigs, in remembrance of her favourite lover, the Greek god Adonis, who was killed by a wild boar.
Later, Neoptolemus shows me the spot where Adonis and Aphrodite first met: an enchanting rock pool on the Akamas peninsula, a nature reserve in the western corner of Cyprus. Adonis was hunting in the forest when he stumbled upon Aphrodite bathing naked beneath the waterfall.
‘This is where she had a shower before and after,’ Neoptolemus quips. Although legend has it that whoever drinks the water will feel younger and more desirable, a sign warns: 'Beware. The water is not potable.'
As we stroll along one of the walking trails that crisscross Akamas, Neoptolemus points out pale pink anemones (‘Aphrodite’s tears’) and scarlet poppies (‘Adonis’s blood’). Afterwards, we drink in the sea views at Aphrodite’s Bath, a municipal café with unbroken views across Chrysochou Bay, as flirtatious sparrows swoop in and out of the eucalyptus trees.
Lunch is an ice-cold Keo beer, green olives and grilled octopus on the waterfront of Latsi, famous among Cypriots for having the island’s freshest fish. It’s also home to some enormously fat cats, evidently regulars at the many seafood restaurants.
Go to the next page for Dionysian feasts and chocolate substitutes.
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