There’s more to Pafos than the beach. The ancient Greeks certainly knew that, which is why they founded their sacred city well inland, overlooking the sparkling Med from the headland at Kouklia. Modern Pafos, sitting pretty beside the sea, is a relative newcomer, dating back a measly 2400 years.
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.
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.
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.