The coach slows to a halt and pulls over onto the dusty hard shoulder at the top of the hill. We pile out of the vehicle and look southwards over the beach below, at a shoreline that – gorgeous as it is – is no different to the rest of the beautiful seaside all around us. Or, so you might think. For those in the know, we are surveying something a lot more significant – and a lot more romantic. In fact, this could be the most romantic shoreline in the entire world, for this is the birthplace of love. Quite literally.
If you believe the legend, Petra tou Romiou near Paphos is where Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love and beauty, was born and came ashore in a scallop shell. Known among the locals as Aphrodite’s Rock, the fragmented cliffs jut abruptly out of foaming Mediterranean waters below, just as the goddess herself did, hence the translation of the goddess’ name – ‘foam-arisen’. Of course, this foam represents something else too: danger. The choppy waters around the rocky outcrop mean that swimming isn’t recommended, although many try as local legend has it that swimming around the fabled rock will gift the swimmer with eternal youth.
Fortunately, we’re off to go swimming somewhere a lot less dangerous, although no less romantic. The ruins of ancient Amathunta port, now underwater and swallowed up by reeds, make for an atmospheric snorkelling session: the unnerving, irregular movement of the plantlife adding a new moody character to the watersport. Later, we travel the short journey from underwater ruins to an ancient hilltop civilisation at Kourion near Episkopi. The ancient citadel dates from the days of Ptolemy and Pliny the Elder and remained a thriving hub well into the Middle Ages. The Greco-Roman theatre has been fully restored to its beautiful former glory and is used for musical and theatre shows throughout the summer, with an expansive stretch of cobalt-blue Mediterranean serving as a gobsmacking backdrop. I take a seat at the theatre and wonder just how difficult it must have been to feign sadness during a tragedy, with such an idyllic landscape just behind.
I look out over this same endless stretch of sea the next day, except this time the horizon oscillates gently in front of me. We sip cocktails from the prow of our very own catamaran as the shore bobs slowly closer and I strain my eyes to scan the scene. Despite having been assured that the beach we’ll be stopping at is actually part of the UK army base for Cyprus, the landscape approaching me is one of the most peaceful places I’ve ever seen. The boat drops anchor about 100 metres away for the shoreline, in a sort of ‘boat park’ – like a car park for boats, where a handful of sparkling white crafts have also moored up for the afternoon. Our captain removes the covering from the front of the catamaran to reveal a series of steps down into the crystal liquid below but I can’t resist the urge to jump straight in.
The water is less than two metres deep, despite being so far out from the shore; the rounded zigzags of the sea bed creating a dynamic changing shadow below me. Refracted light from the sky is lain out below me in a patchwork of rings, so the seabed looks like an enormous tortoise shell. ‘This is supposed to be an army base’, I think to myself as I wade up on to the vast, sweeping sandy beach. It seems that, in Cyprus, even accommodation for soldiers could be the setting for a sunny love story.
Once back on board, the team from Relax Cruises in Limassol have conjured up a full cooked meal apparently from nowhere. We tuck into fish, chicken, salad and potatoes – and take full advantage of the open bar – as the Mediterranean sun beams down. I can’t help thinking that this wouldn’t be a bad place to be stationed as a soldier. No wonder there’s a waiting list. Our boat returns to shore and docks up in the old port. Unusually for large port towns, especially one that is so significant for the Mediterranean transit and tourist trade – this is Cyprus’s busiest harbour – the port is right in the centre of town.
Limassol Castle is only ten minutes’ walk away, as are many bars and restaurants. In Limassol, even a building traditionally associated with conflict has a significant romantic theme. The castle, originally Byzantine and then rebuilt by the Ottomans, is where Richard the Lionheart married Berengaria of Navarre – and is, fact fans, the only occasion on which a British royal wedding has occurred outside of the UK. Clearly, the charm of Cyprus is enough to inspire love even in a warrior king – it was he who laid waste to Amathunta. Perhaps Aphrodite had a role to play in all this, after all, Richard’s queen was actually en route to the Middle East when a storm forced her ashore at Limassol (although sadly not in a scallop shell). But, if the birthplace of love couldn’t melt the heart of the Lionheart, I wouldn’t know what could.
For those wondering what was served at the Lionheart’s nuptial meal, take a five-minute walk from the castle. Stop wondering and start sampling: the Sykaminia tavern serves traditional and simple Cypriot food including kolokasi – a delicious stew-like dish with pork and a vegetable called taro root in tomato sauce, which was allegedly served at the wedding reception. The kolokasi was the last dish to arrive at our table after an already-endless number of plates had come and gone, each one more tempting than the previous. I’m certain this is on purpose; despite getting fuller with each morsel, you feel you have to try the newest most appetising thing on the table.
For a more modern – but no less authentic – take on Cypriot food, stop off at the Karatello restaurant, which serves local cuisine in a vast, almost exhibition centre-like space. Be sure to sample the amazing souvlaki – kebabs of chicken, beef or pork served on the skewer and suspended on a metal rack over the plate. The curiousness of the presentation is more than matched by the tastiness of the food.
NEED TO KNOW…
Cyprus Airways flies from Heathrow to Larnaca from £221 return, including tax. See cyprusair.com for more information. RIH stayed at the St Raphael Resort (raphael.com.cy) which offers sea view rooms for €200 per room, including bed and breakfast. Relax Cruises (relax-cruises.net) do day-long catamaran cruises from Limassol, including lunch and open bar, from €49pp (children €25).