PAPHOS, Cyprus: Myth has it that Aphrodite emerged, fully formed, from the sea foam near Paphos. She drifted to the beach on a shell.
If she were to float ashore today, more likely bringing her loveliness on a jetski, what would the goddess of lustful love make of the place that once played home to her faithful?
The answer rather depends on whether the deity would be willing to venture a bit off the beaten path, and whether she enjoyed two-for-one drink specials.
Since 1975, when the Republic of Cyprus was officially split into two de facto zones – only Turkey recognizes the independence of Turkish north – tourism on the southern and western coastlines has become a major source of economic revenue.
Paphos was a relative latecomer to the game; Larnaca, Nicosia and Limassol were popularized first. The city has a newish airport with direct and relatively inexpensive charter flights from Beirut. It can also be accessed overland from the Larnaca airport.
At first glance, Paphos appears to be much like the tourist destinations on the water – a great place to get a tan, have some fruity cocktails, and eat English food.
Indeed, Cyprus’ history as a British base and colony – it gained independence in 1960 – has made it an easy haven for British holidaymakers. Increasingly though, with the European economic crisis, quite a few Russians are making their way here, too.
Still, many restaurants serve fry-ups and fish and chips. They also have beer on tap, a welcome change from bottled Almaza.
Much of this eating and drinking takes place in what is called “Lower Paphos.” This area has its charms, including a curious bar scene where, on a recent Friday night, an Elvis impersonator was performing steps away from two young women in Barbarella boots singing Abba.
There are also luxurious resorts including some that are adults-only, a seaside promenade, and relatively clean public beaches where pink British grandmas play paddle ball with their grandchildren next to local teenage boys roughhousing.
But in Upper Paphos, travelers can find a slightly less frenetic city. Near the bus station is a covered market selling the usual tourist tat, plus traditional Cypriot lace. Outside is a charming vegetable market where homemade pickled goods look delicious.
It’s easy to explore the older streets here, and getting lost usually leads to a beautiful garden, some ruins or a friendly woodworker.
The police station is a 19th century colonial remnant, and many of the municipal buildings nearby were built to mimic Hellenic architecture. The architecture is a reminder that even in this seaside town, politics are never far from the surface. Even maps from “Greek” Cyprus label “Turkish” Cyprus as occupied.
At the edge of the municipal gardens is a statue of Evagoras Pallikarides, a young member of an anti-British nationalist group. In his imposing statue, he holds a book in one hand and a gun in the other. He was hanged by the British in 1957, aged 19.
One has to either read Greek or ask a passing Cypriot to find all this out. Behind Pallikarides is a sundial with engravings from authors of various nationalities about the weather – it’s a pleasant surprise to find Rilke behind the book-toting revolutionary.
Not to be missed in Upper Paphos is the eclectic and charming Ethnographic Museum. Visitors are greeted by Chryso Eliades, who gamely offers “my husband turned my house into a museum.” According to a booklet authored by said husband, archeologist George Eliades, he began accumulating what would become the museum’s collection in 1939.
The house, which Chryso Eliades says is 300 years old, is dedicated to Cypriot heritage, craft and everything in between. There is a room full of Cypriot pottery, an olive oil mill and examples of bright traditional weaving.
The museum is informative, but the highlight is the presentation: The carefully hung explanations, the arrangement of the pieces and the booklet itself show that the place was a true labor of love.
Chryso Eliades can point you to one of the nearby domed churches, modest from the outside and opulent from within. She can’t recommend a place that serves good traditional food though; most restaurants are meant for tourists. Although you really can’t go wrong with fried Halloumi, the best food is to be had in the suburbs.
She also explains her husband’s part in the excavation of what is a highlight of Lower Paphos, the mosaics from the remains of Roman villas. Also ready to explore are tombs carved from solid rock in an archeological park. It is these spots that make the city a UNESCO World Heritage Center.
Happily, Upper and Lower Pafos are easily navigated by an efficient bus system, and wannabe Aphrodites can wander Upper Pafos by morning and hit SkyBar by night – yes, there is a SkyBar in Paphos, and no one is telling whether it was Beirut’s or Paphos’ that came first.
Although touts at most bars offer absurdly cheap drink specials, there are upscale clubs too.
For a bit of quiet – although it is pretty calm in Upper Paphos – rent a car and head the beaches near Polis, check out the wine country, or visit what Paphos is meant to be all about – the birthplace of Aphrodite. Petra Tou Romiou is a big rock – Cyprus’ version of the Pigeon Rocks, a well-deserved tourist attraction, and a lovely place to get your feet wet.