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Sun, sand and centuries of history in Pafos

 The majority of travellers to Pafos today are lured by sea, sand and sun, and Cyprus certainly gets a lot of sun – 326 sparkling, sunshiny days per year, on average. But on this island you can’t walk more than a few paces in any direction without tripping over an ancient ruin or real-life setting for a Hellenic myth. And Pafos is no Agia Napa or Protaras – this is a proper Mediterranean city, down to the veg-stacked grocers’ shops and courtyards full of potted geraniums.

Cultured Pafos

With more than 3000 years of uninterrupted history, Pafos was an obvious candidate for the European City of Culture 2017. Performers have been gathering on the stage of its ancient odeon (amphitheatre) since at least the 2nd century BC, and the cult of fertility worship has been active in these thyme-scented hills since Neolithic times. It was no accident that the ancient Greeks chose this stretch of coast as the birthplace of Aphrodite, goddess of love.

Every July and August, dramas by Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes and others get the full amphitheatre treatment in the Pafos odeon for the International Festival of Ancient Greek Drama (greekdramafest.com), while opera takes centre stage in Pafos castle every September during the Aphrodite Festival (pafc.com.cy). In 2017, the culture goes into overdrive, with art exhibitions, public performances and classical concerts amidst the ancient stones of the city’s myriad archaeological sites. Visit the Pafos 2017 (pafos2017.eu) website for a full programme of events.

A tale of two cities

The Greek tradition of splitting towns in two dates back to at least 500 BC, when Herodotus and Plato wrote of cities divided into parallel communities – a kato (‘below’) part on the coast, and an ano (‘upper’) part inland. In an ancient Mediterranean teeming with the battleships of squabbling empires, it made sense to have somewhere to flee to in the hills, and in Cyprus the tradition is still very much alive.

When most visitors talk about Pafos, what they actually mean is Kato Pafos, sprawling around a sandstone harbour guarded by a Byzantine castle, beside a string of beaches that have become a favourite spot for British sun-seekers. Ano Pafos, or Ktima, 16km inland, is where locals prefer to live, enjoying the cooler climate at this higher elevation, and the peace and quiet away from the beach bars and touristy tavernas.

At beach level, Kato Pafos is the classic Med, complete with sun umbrellas and all-day breakfast cafes, but you don’t have to wander far to find ancient history. The rocky headland to the north of the harbour is one big historical adventure playground. The ruins scattered across the Pafos Archaeological Site were once the capital of Cyprus, before an earthquake toppled the columns and cracked the arches in the 4th century.

Myriad magnificent mosaics

Pafos’ archaeological ruins serve up a full hand of Greco-Roman treasures – arcades of columns, thermal baths, an ancient amphitheatre – but the main attraction here is underfoot. The undisputed highlight of the site is the House of Dionysus, a Roman villa whose lavish mosaics could have graced the front cover of the AD 200 edition of Ideal Home. The elaborate floor decorations cover everything from the changing seasons to depictions of Dionysus, rambunctious god of wine, and neighbouring villas have mosaics of Poseidon, Achilles and Theseus and the Minotaur.

A short wander east from the archaeological zone, the Hrysopolitissa Basilica was constructed at the height of the city’s power, before tremors and Arab pirates reduced ancient Pafos to rubble. The current church sits on just a tiny part of the vast area covered by the original basilica which, like many churches in Cyprus, has Bible credentials. One of the columns in the grounds was allegedly used for the torture of the apostle Paul, whose resilience to persecution inspired the Roman governor to convert to Christianity.

If the rulers of ancient Pafos lived well, they died in luxury. Around 2km north of the Kato Pafos archaeological site, the Tombs of the Kingswere hollowed out over six centuries to accommodate the highfliers of the ancient city on their final journey to the afterlife. Carved into a rocky outcrop, these handsome mausoleums followed the Egyptian tradition of making tombs as grand as the homes of the living, with vast atriums ringed by colonnades and carved niches that could accommodate whole families. Warm, dry winds rustle across the site, which is charmingly overgrown and often overlooked by the package tour groups.

Meeting Aphrodite

Since time immemorial, visitors to Cyprus have been obsessed with Aphrodite, and the ancient Greek goddess of love is eternally associated with Pafos. According to which Greek scribe you believe, this mighty madam was born either from the union of Zeus and Dione, or from foam on the sea after Uranus, the god of the sky, lost his manhood to the scythe of Cronus. The location of this miraculous conception has been mapped to the shoreline east of Pafos at Petra tou Romiou, where a marble sea stack rises dramatically from the sea beside a lonely pebble beach.

It’s an undeniably pretty spot, but you may get a better feel for the cult of Aphrodite at Kouklia, site of the original Greek settlement at Pafos. Set in a handsome Lusignan mansion, the Palaipafos Museum (mcw.gov.cy) marks the site of the original Sanctuary of Aphrodite, one of the most important pilgrimage centres in the ancient world. It takes a bit of imagination to make sense of the scattered ruins, but the displays inside are a good primer on the cult of Aphrodite.