Am I in Greece? It’s a question that may flicker through your mind as you drive around Cyprus, where the signs are in Greek and the crumbling, sun-baked ruins evoke the land of Zeus and Zorba. The briny jolt of feta tastes Greek; so does the cool, mineral-scented wine.
But there’s something a little bit off. It starts with the crowd — a polyglot mix of tourists, fishermen, taverna owners, street hustlers and immigrants. Some people fit all those categories at once. You hear Russian, Hebrew, Turkish, Bulgarian.
Cyprus, like other islands in the well-traveled Mediterranean, has been a crossroads of cultures for thousands of years, which gives the country a feel distinct from mainland Greece. Civilization here dates back 12 millennia — yes, you read that right — including 5,000 years of Jewish life, currently undergoing a revival.
The rocky coast of Paphos is believed to be the birthplace of the goddess Aphrodite, whose likeness, along with that of the popular wine god Dionysus, is celebrated in local mosaics. Now, Paphos, a UNESCO World Heritage port town on the island’s southwest coast, is hoping to show off that legacy of wine and beauty as a 2017 European Capital of Culture.
With a program of concerts, culinary events, art exhibitions, architectural tours and performances scheduled — including the star-studded International Festival of Dance in June — this year is the ideal time to explore Cyprus, with Paphos as a home base.
Cyprus lies off the coast of Turkey, closer to the Middle East than to most of Europe; while the Greek-speaking Republic of Cyprus is a peaceful, well-run E.U. member, the island’s northern third is unofficially occupied by Turkey in a decades-old stalemate. Despite proximity to both Turkish unrest and the ongoing migrant flow, tourists are unlikely to encounter problems in Cyprus (though as we have learned lately, no place is immune).
As a resort, Paphos offers some practical advantages. Unlike a lot of Mediterranean towns, Paphos is relatively flat and therefore easily navigable on foot or bike, with broad, palm-lined promenades along a well-kept waterfront. The picturesque coastline offers plenty of sandy beaches and secluded coves for swimming.
Paphos’ modern city is pleasant, with attractively forgettable low-rise buildings, plenty of tavernas with sea views, and tiny shops selling local leather goods and handcrafted lace.
But what makes Paphos memorable is the stunning array of ruins that define its landscape. At every turn, you stumble upon fortress walls and bronzed columns, crumbling arches and domed monasteries, all with views over the blue Mediterranean.
Set aside a whole afternoon (and plenty of sunscreen) for the Kato Paphos Archaeological Park, the excavated foundations of an ancient city that is the crown jewel of Paphos’ many historical sites. Many of the most impressive elements are from the Roman era: amphitheater, columns and original mosaic floors. But the earliest relicts date back many centuries earlier, to the Stone Age, long before Jews, Christians, Zeus-worshipping pagans or any other modern cultures put their imprint on this island.
Contemplating such a timeline gives me chills: Here in this ancient region, our collective human heritage, the vestiges of our common ancestors, is on display. By the time you reach the Tomb of the Kings, a classical vault where monumental underground arcades are flanked by columns, the weight of history is practically tangible.
The best-preserved sites, naturally, are slightly more recent. Dotted around the city are at least a half-dozen Byzantine-era temples and monasteries — ancient, graceful structures with complicated histories: Many were built on classical foundations, spent centuries as mosques or otherwise reflect the region’s cultural palimpsest.
Down by the half-moon harbor, the Paphos Castle is typical of these relics, having served variously as a Byzantine fortress, a Venetian outpost and an Ottoman palace during its 1,000-year presence.
For Jews, the ports of Cyprus are resonant for their more recent history. As readers of “Exodus” will recall, these harbors famously served as a transit point for Holocaust refugees and Israel-bound survivors after World War II. Cyprus has, in fact, been a destination for Eastern European Jews since the late 19th century, and it remains popular with Russians and Israelis today.
Sephardic Jewish communities flourished under the Ottoman Empire. Today, a growing network of Chabad-sponsored Jewish centers (four at last count) are helping to revive Jewish life around the island, which — as you’re bound to see in some picturesque photography — is a popular destination for Israeli weddings.
Against the backdrop of a nightly sunset, the golden ruins and sprawling beaches of Paphos certainly invite romance. And as Europe turns its spotlight on 10,000 years of culture, a Cyprus sojourn is a date with history.