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Venus in a Half Shell

Find Romance in Paphos, Cyprus - The Birthplace of Love

By Amanda Castleman

Golden rocks jut from the bay, where turquoise and jade waters mix in a spray of foam. Surf polishes the bright cobblestones. The beach is pristine, a sublime curve of coast. Small wonder the ancient Greeks believed Aphrodite sprang from the sea here.

The goddess of love emerged naked from the waves, according to legend. Her dramatic birth has inspired artists and poets for millennia, including Botticelli's masterpiece, irreverently nicknamed "Venus on a half shell".

She continues to entice visitors to the south-western coast of Cyprus, the third largest island in the Mediterranean . Offerings shroud the bushes: strips of gaudy fabric, small stuffed animals, toilet paper, bus tickets and expired phone cards. It's the thought that counts, a native explained: "Leave something of yourself for the goddess, no matter how small."

Petra tou Romiou
You can channel the spirit of Aphrodite here at the spot where the goddess of love and beauty emerged from the sea. (Cyprus Tourism Organization)

Aphrodite, being a big-hearted girl, shares the lime-light. Her birthplace is formally known as Petra tou Romiou, the Rocks of the Greek, to honour strong-man Digenis Akritas. Folklore claims the frontier guard threw boulders at a Saracen ship.

Romantics soon put their own spin on the three beige sea stacks: Bold swimmers who successfully circle the cluster three times will dream of their future spouse.

Landlubbers may prefer to pay homage at the deity's ancient shrine, four miles away at Old Paphos (now called Kouklia). The sanctuary thrived for over 1500 years, flames flickering on an "altar fragrant with incense," according to the poet Homer.

Surprisingly, mighty Aphrodite doesn't sport her usual dangerous curves here (perhaps she dresses down at home, like so many mortal women). Ancients worshipped an abstract image of a smooth black rock because art coudn't capture perfect beauty.

Roman emperor Theodosius shut down the party when he banned pagan religions in 391 AD. The ruins, forgotten for five centuries, werel uncovered by the British Cyprus Exploration Fund in 1888.

Fertility cults have a way of blossoming again, though. Lawrence Durrell hinted at pagan practices in his classic travelogue, Bitter Lemons of Cyprus (1957, Faber and Faber). "The youths of Paphos still anoint the stones of the temple with oil and almond-water on a certain night of the year, while women leave their rings and fragments of their petticoats as ex votos against barrenness."

Today, no offerings brighten the shattered ruins. The site and its two-room museum are mainly for hard-core archaeology buffs.

Paphos, on the other hand, is a guaranteed crowd-pleaser. Cheap and cheerful bars line the palm-fringed bay. The Aquarium will charm visitors too immature - or mature - for disco clubs. And the rest of us can bounce happily between the beautiful beaches, riveting ruins and over-burdened tables in traditional tavernas.

Tomb of the Kings
The Tomb of Kings, Paphos
(Cyprus Tourism Organization)

The resort town boasts not one, but two, World Heritage sites, which verges on gluttony. The Tomb of Kings — a sprawling graveyard complex located a mile north of downtown — is more famous, but somehow less satisfying. The fault lies partly with the bewildering orientation pamphlet. Ignore the pamphlet and explore the ledge over the turquoise sea for yourself.

Clover and flowers bloom among the ornate tombs, hewn from rock between the 3rd century BC and the 3rd century AD. The nickname is misleading: no royalty rested there, just officials and rich citizens. The elaborate carvings, Doric pillars and wall-paintings seemed fit for kings, though. Persecuted Christians and squatters later sheltered in the underground chambers.

The Paphos Mosaics, nestled in the crook of the harbour, are easier to enjoy. Brave the souvenir gauntlet to reach the 2nd century AD masterpieces scattered in a meadow. Allow at least two hours to explore the site.

The more spectacular art is under cover: the House of Dionysus, House of Aion and House of Orpheus, tucked under a tent. A handsome guidebook eliminates the guesswork, explaining the mythology behind the mosaics. Just in case you're short a few bucks, RTM provides a cheeky recap of the romantic highlights.

Paphos Mosaics
The Paphos Mosaics
(Cyprus Tourism Organization)

By all means, linger over the intricate designs. Stroll along the coast to the lighthouse, ancient market (Agora) and healing centre (the Asklepion). Even catch a boat tour during high season. Then abandon the concrete shopping centres and head up the hill to Ano Paphos, the upper city.

It's possible to wander curving evocative alleys here, to lose yourself among the park's frothing flowers and then stumble upon a tiny white church framed against an azure sky. Break bread with the locals, far from the fish n' chips and golden arches. Venture beyond the pre-fab "Tourist Area" and discover the genteel side of Paphos, where you are a person first, a fat foreign wallet second.

Avoid the temptation of staggeringly-cheap package deals, which herd visitors into the seaside strip and abandon them to sunny, drunken revelry. Panama City, Florida, offers the same charms much closer to home ... with proper margaritas to boot.

Only an independent traveller can truly appreciate the isle of Aphrodite. Planning is a breeze: Most Cypriots speak flawless English and are famous for their friendliness. The modern road system is easy to navigate, though traffic flows on the left. And the unexpected adventures, the hidden gems, will warm your heart for years to come. Believe me, the flexibility is worth every penny.

As the saying goes, money can't buy you love, but it can buy the freedom to explore Love's Island.

Sidebar: Romantic Tales Behind the Paphos Mosaics

If You Go...

Cyprus Tourism Organization
13 East 40th Street
New York, NY 10016
Phone: +121.268.352.80