Cyprus: In search of mighty Aphrodite
The Greek goddess of love was a beauty. Shame the same can't be said of her baths or templeor other sites where they celebrate her on Cyprus
Tuesday 28 August 2001
Aphrodite is mighty on Cyprus. Well, you can't blame them for trying. Any island that has to boast Isaac Comnenus, St Spyridon and good King Evagoras as national heroes will have a bit of an uphill struggle when it comes to pulling in the cultural tourist.
Aphrodite is mighty on Cyprus. Well, you can't blame them for trying. Any island that has to boast Isaac Comnenus, St Spyridon and good King Evagoras as national heroes will have a bit of an uphill struggle when it comes to pulling in the cultural tourist. Thank God for Aphrodite. According to both Ovid and Homer, the place she called home was Balmy Cypressus and that was my destination, too.
So which way to the goddess of love?
While speeding west down the A6 from Larnaca, it was heartening every so often to see large brown signs reminding me that this was the right direction if I wanted Aphrodite's Baths. Already my mind was racing with images of Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra in that sumptuous marble bubble bath which Hollywood campery constructed for her.
And were you seduced?
No, not exactly. The Baths of Aphrodite are tucked away in a cleft on the Akamas Peninsula. No Nubians guard the entrance, just a small postcard stand which calls itself the Information Centre. From here a pathway zig-zags gently up a limestone slope of eucalyptus and scrub grass until the amorous visitor descends into a little wooded dell in the hillside. Here, before a 20ft circular puddle, I found men and women standing in confusion. The famous "bath" turns out to be little more than a shallow pond, overhung by a fig tree and sporting a dead pigeon.
When in doubt the average tourist invariably turns to photographing his wife and this is what all the visitors were doing. There was little else for them to do. The Department of Forestry forbade us from bathing or even drinking where Aphrodite and her lover had once played. It was time to repair to the tourist pavilion for a bottle of Katerina Semillon, by far the best tourist attraction I'd encountered this day.
Surely there's more than that?
I decided to give the "Adonis Nature Trail" and "Aphrodite Beach Complex" a miss and headed back east to Petra tou Romeni where stands the Rock of Aphrodite. Here, according to Homer, was the very spot where the goddess was born from the sea.
I was just nearing Kouklia when a sign for The Sanctuary of Aphrodite distracted me. I turned inland to find a designated world heritage site atop a small dusty hill with views of the Med. The heritage site had an ice-cream kiosk which wasn't open, a sad museum inside the nearby Castle of Conuclia plus some rubble a little further inland. Not much had been made of the fort apart from two upstairs rooms which held broken pottery and photographs of archaeological finds.
Disappointed, I asked the ticket seller where the sanctuary itself was. Following her directions towards that ragged pile of rubble I found a series of razed perimeter walls. According to my guide book the few broken columns before me represented Aphrodite's temple. So this was mecca for all who worshipped Aphrodite, a new kind of goddess who eschewed blood sacrifice in favour of offering licensed prostitutes to ease the pilgrim's burden. No wonder the cult took off. Unfortunately, it is quite impossible to reconstruct any kind of image of the shrine from what little is left. All the ruins can tell us is that, for no discernible reason, many holes were drilled in the perimeter walls of Aphrodite's sanctuary. Intriguing, but not enlightening.
Any other tangible evidence?
I had higher hopes of the rock from which Aphrodite was born. I was wrong, of course. Aphrodite's rock is one of several that stand a few yards out to sea from a rather grotty beach that one lurches upon as the B6 briefly heads inland.
Here I found a tourist pavilion selling lewd postcards. A narrow tunnel led under the road to the beach where I found it impossible to work out which rock was the omphalos of this particular deity. A shaggy bush adjacent to the tunnel entrance said it all. For what looks like several generations, plastic ribbons have been tied to Aphrodite's Bush. All have lost their colour and most look like bleached plastic bags. I found mementoes tied by these ribbons, photos of children, letters and, curiously, empty vodka bottles. Obviously each man leaves the thing he loves.
Admit it. You didn't score with her
Nul points all round. To be honest, anyone who sets off to discover the legacy of Aphrodite on Cyprus will be bitterly disappointed. This island sits on what must be the most potent tourist trap in our hemisphere, and yet all it does is bung up a tourist pavilion and flog us Worship Me Quick postcards. The countryside was stunning, but it appears that the community doesn't know what to do with it.
How can I go goddess hunting?
I flew to Cyprus with Helios Airways. Return flights from Gatwick to Paphos cost £189 through Olympic Odyssey Holidays (020-8343 9090). The Anassa Hotel in Polis (00 357 6 888 000) has rooms from CYP115 (£130) per person per night, based on two sharing. Holiday Autos (0870 400 0011; www.holidayautos.co.uk) offers a week's car hire from £139. Cyprus tourism (020-7569 8800; www.cyprustourism.com).
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