“If you swim around the rock three times under a full moon at midnight, you will be blessed with eternal beauty!”
Our guide Tatiana was spinning the legend of Aphrodite’s Rock as we drove along the southern coast of Cyprus. The birthplace of the ancient Greek goddess of love and beauty was the first stop on our full-day tour of the island that would be taking us to the ancient archaeological sites of Paphos and Kourion.
The Republic of Cyprus is the third largest island in the Mediterranean and is considered one of the oldest civilizations in the world. Settled by Mycenaean Greeks around 2,000 B.C., the island was occupied by a host of empires throughout the centuries. In 1878 it was placed under the UK’s administration and became an independent republic in 1960. A separate self-declared Turkish Cypriot state in the northern part of the island was established in 1983.
“Culturally and ethnically we are Greeks,” Tatiana emphasized, “even though we are an independent republic.”
The legendary rock, also known as Petra tou Romiou, is about a half-hour drive from Limassol, Cyprus’ second largest city and the port where the Regent Voyager was docked. It’s a rugged-looking coast, with sloping white rocky terrain and brushy green vegetation. A variety of sea stacks appear near the shoreline like stone towers floating in the Mediterranean. Without a guide to point out Aphrodite’s Rock, it would be difficult to determine the specific spot where the ancient goddess rose from the foam of the sea.
Paphos Archaeological Park
Our next stop was Paphos Archaeological Park, ruins of an ancient Greek and Roman city with monuments and artifacts dating from prehistoric times through the Middle Ages. Our main focus was the House of Dionysos, one of four excavated Roman villas and the first house with mosaic floors to be discovered in Paphos. The site is worthy of more time than we had – with kings’ tombs, a forum, theater, lighthouse and other villas to explore – but the exquisite mosaics are clearly a standout.
The House of Dionysos was built during the Hellenistic Roman period, around the end of the second century A.D. A courtyard serves as the center of the structure, with rooms spinning out like spokes on a wheel. It is believed the house was destroyed in an earthquake in the fourth century. Walking inside reminded me of the ancient terrace houses we had visited in Ephesus, Turkey, which also had been buried by an earthquake and discovered with their mosaic floors in extraordinary condition.
As we walked along wooden platforms constructed above the mosaic floors, Tatiana offered insight into the mythology behind the designs. Dionysos was the Greek god of wine, she explained, and the villa’s owner included references to wine and the harvest in every mosaic scene. Each room was numbered and included signage that described the story depicted on the floors. I was struck by the sophistication of the designs and how some of the scenes looked as if they could have been paintings rather than tiles.
After the tour, Tatiana gave us some time on our own to explore Paphos Harbour, a short walk from the archaeological park. With its idyllic setting, palm trees and boardwalk, the area exudes a summery vacation vibe. “Try the ice cream.” Tatiana suggested. “You can’t miss it!”
It turned out that there were several beachfront ice cream shops along Paphos Harbour as well as a Mr. Whippy ice cream truck in a nearby parking lot. We weren’t exactly sure what Tatiana had in mind, but we opted for mint chocolate chip cones at one of the shops and wandered along the boardwalk until it was time to leave for Kourion.
Kourion Archaeological Park
After a lunch stop at the aptly named Sunshine Tavern, we were ready for our final visit of the day to Kourion Archaeological Park. The ancient city-state dates to the 12th century B.C., but its oldest architectural discoveries – like those in Paphos – are from the Hellenistic period, around 325 B.C.
Our first stop in Kourion was another mosaic overload for the senses: The House of Eustolius. But unlike the House of Dionysos, this was a villa with a view. A curved wooden covering cleverly protects Eustolius’ mosaic floors while allowing the house to feel open to the sea. I found myself wandering away from the group on this tour, as if the wooden staircases along the mosaics were leading the way to the expansive views beyond.
The jewel in Kourion’s archaeological crown is surely the Greco-Roman Amphitheatre. Perched on a hillside overlooking the Mediterranean, the Amphitheatre seats 3,500 and boasts magnificent acoustics all the way to the back row. The original structure was constructed in the late second century B.C. and was later modified during the second century A.D. Musical performances and theatrical events are still held here today.
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It was late afternoon when we left Kourion. The sun, ablaze all day in a bright azure sky, was now hanging low, ready to disappear along the Cyprus coast. There would be no time for granting requests at Aphrodite’s magical wishing rock. No possibility for eternal beauty on this visit. We had a ship to catch, and soon we would be bound for Israel.