A comfortable base, the food, wine, and culture of this beautiful island enchant Liz Gill
A short drive from the city of Paphos is a lovely, curved bay with a huge rock marking the spot where the Greek Goddess of Love Aphrodite is said to have emerged from the foam of the sea. Legend has it that anyone who swims around it three times will be granted eternal beauty.
We did not put the claim to the test, contenting ourselves with photographs taken through the large metal ‘frames’ installation before driving on to a wine tasting. We reckoned the antioxidant effects of a fine red would probably give us as good a shot at youthful looks as the swim.
This intertwining of legend and real life, of fact and fiction, is one of the attractions of Cyprus and particularly of Paphos which is perhaps unsurprising, given its 11,000 year history. That began with the discovery of copper the equivalent guarantee of wealth and power then, our guide Miriam tells us, as oil is today.
It brought in traders – and conquerors, including Alexander the Great in the fourth century BC and Richard the Lionheart 1400 years later. The English king who had stopped off en route to the Third Crusade only held the island for a couple of years before selling it to the French but he did manage to get married there to his beloved Berengaria of Navarre.
Other occupiers have been the Romans, the Venetians, the Ottomans and most recently the British who ruled it from 1878 to 1960 when the island became independent. Some aspects of our time there remain: most Cypriots speak some English, they drive on the left, they even use the same electrical plugs and sockets.
This sense of familiarity can make the place feel easier both for tourists – a majority of the pre-Covid four million visitors a year were British – and for ex-pats. There are lots of holiday homeowners and retirees; there are even four quality golf courses around Paphos to cater for them all.
There are plenty of other things to see and do and with Paphos airport only a four or four and a half hour flight from the UK it is possible to pack several into a long weekend.
The city has a still working harbour and a promenade lined with restaurants, shops, and cafes. There’s the British influence again in the bars showing football on tv but none of the boozy rowdiness you might get in, say, some Spanish resorts. Fishing boats sit alongside private pleasure boats and those which can take you to dive sites including genuine shipwrecks and new ones created by sinking no longer useable vessels as well as glass-bottomed ones for those who prefer to see marine life without getting wet.
At the end of the prom is a castle which has been used as a fortification, a prison and a salt store but which is now a visitor attraction and the setting for events like the big opera production every September. A short climb onto the battlements gives views along the coastal path.
Green turtles are a big attraction here – and a protected one. Nothing, not even a sunshade, is allowed on the beach where they lay their ping pong ball sized eggs and the nests are covered with cages to ward off predators until the babies hatch and make their dash to the sea. The tiny turtles locate the sea by the glimmering water so any lights which might confuse them are banned although visitors are welcome to watch the event.
The biggest man-made attraction is the Archaeological Park. From being the island’s first capital Paphos had declined over the years – a decline accelerated by a catastrophic earthquake –and was largely ignored until in the 1960s a farmer unearthed some coloured stones while working on his land. The discovery that they were part of an extraordinary collection of mosaic floors from an important Roman villa in the second and third centuries A.D. set the city on the road to renewal. Today the Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Every picture tells a story, of course, and Miriam regales us with tales of gods and goddesses, love affairs, conflicts, scandals, triumph and tragedy, the sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll of their day. In one nice, modern-sounding little footnote she says the mosaic makers would come along with a book of designs from which the owners would choose which ones they wanted.
She also tells us another fascinating fact about the carob trees scattered around the site. All the seeds weigh the same, so they were used as weights and measures, particularly for gold giving us the word carat.
We later sample the tree’s main product carob syrup during a cookery demonstration at our Asimina suites hotel when chef Panagiotou pours it over the local Anari cheese for us to try. A dried version of the cheese, rather like parmesan but cheaper, is going to be sprinkled between the layers of his moussaka. Not only is it delicious but the layers are perfectly formed. I tell him my moussakas always collapse in a messy heap but now after his careful tuition I think I might be able to make them stay in a neat stack.
Later that day we have the hotel’s weekly gin tasting where bar manager George talks us through their range of world quality award winners including gins from Japan, Scotland, France, Spain, Germany, and the Netherlands as well as England. At the end we’re invited to choose one to try. I go for Germany’s Elephant with its baobab tree botanical and laudable policy of donating 15 per cent of its profits to help save the African elephant.
I’m also intrigued by George’s additions to different brands as he thinks fit: cucumber, apple slices, berries, star anise, slivers of raw ginger, even rosemary and tomatoes.
The following day we have a wine tasting at the Ktima Gerolemo winery nearly 3000 ft up in the Troodos mountains. (The range’s highest point is 6,400 ft meaning that some days in early spring visitors can ski in the morning and bathe in the sea in the afternoon). We sample six including the area’s speciality commandaria, a dessert wine made by leaving the grapes longer on the vine and then spreading them in the sun to maximise their sweetness. It is the colour of brandy and for me less cloying than many dessert wines.
Afterwards we go down the hill to the village of Omodos for a splendid mezze lunch which starts with dips – my favourite was the pea and mint – and culminates in crackling covered roast pork. Afterwards we walk off some of it by wandering the labyrinthine streets to buy shell jewellery and regional delicacies like coated nuts.
Our journey ends at the Church of the Holy Cross with its beautiful interior and relic given by St Helena who said its few strands of rope were from the one with which Jesus was bound before the Crucifixion.
St. Helena, who converted her son the Roman emperor Constantine to Christianity (who in turn made it the official religion of the Roman Empire), had stopped in Cyprus on her way back from Jerusalem, following in the footsteps of St. Paul and St Barnabas who arrived in the first century A.D.
The saint was so appalled by the number of snakes on the island that on her return home she sent a ship full of cats. They were gratefully received – the spot where the ship landed is known as Cape Cat and there is also a monastery there called St. Nicholas of the Cats – and are still valued today with the result that although many are wild, they are still well fed and in fine fettle. Even at our five-star hotel the shop sells tins of Whiskas for those who want to indulge them.
The Asimina Suites Hotel, a few minutes drive or a half hour stroll alongside the sea from Paphos, is a good base for exploring the area and for relaxing afterwards.
The sea view rooms are spacious with sitting areas as well as bedrooms and a balcony from which to watch the sun go down before taking in a cocktail and dinner in the beach side restaurant Kymata. The fact that the hotel only takes guests over 16 adds to the tranquillity.
Prices from £999 for 7 night departures in May 2023 in a Junior Suite land view room on B&B with flights from Gatwick including private transfers.
Early booking discount save 20% for all bookings until 28th February 2023.
For further information please call the Constantinou Bros Hotels UK Sales office on 01924 380 160