Travel: Paphos, Cyprus

This year's City of Culture could be a focus for reconciliation for Greek and Turkish Cypriots
Beach Cinema in Paphos, the 2017 European Capital of CultureBeach Cinema in Paphos, the 2017 European Capital of Culture
Beach Cinema in Paphos, the 2017 European Capital of Culture

“The aim is to bring people back to the centre of the city and build up the infrastructure, for everyone, not just tourists, and for the years to come, not just for 2017,” says Galatia Georgious, international relations officer for 
Pafos 17.

“We have put special emphasis on the refurbishment of the centre which was the Turkish Cypriot quarter before the 1974 invasion and want it to be a centre for reunification. We believe that culture can bring the two communities together again and show people that they have more similarities than differences.”

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What better to unite people than a year-long programme of dance, drama, art, music, food and interactive events served up with a daily dose of sunshine? The wonderful climate means the whole city becomes a stage, both indoors and out, with open air cinema on the beach and Greek tragedy in the Roman amphitheatre near the bay.

Paphos Harbour, CyprusPaphos Harbour, Cyprus
Paphos Harbour, Cyprus

Although this is a bumper year for culture vultures with more than 150 projects and 300 activities, Paphos doesn’t need the official title to attract visitors every year with its combination of climate, history and location.

Floating in the Mediterranean, with Greece to the west, Turkey to the north, Syria and Lebanon to the east and Israel and Egypt to the south, Paphos has long been a melting pot of migration, with Turkish and Greek Cypriots, British and more recently Russians, Chinese and eastern Europeans all making their home here. And with the broader issue of migration on everyone’s minds, it’s easy to see why it was the theme of one of this summer’s highlights, Uniting The Mediterranean Sea, a play by Marios Ioannou, director, writer and actor.

Using the sea caves of Pegeia and a shipwreck off the shore as backdrops, the play is the story of migrants risking their lives on the waters of the Mediterranean, marooned on raft and in search of a better life. Uniting actors from Alexandria, Barcelona, Izmir, Marseille, Paphos and Tangier – all of which share a Mediterranean shore – the play explores the meanings of homeland.

“When I was a child the Turk was my greatest fear,” says Ioannou. “Now I’m working with him. Five men from five Mediterranean cities sharing stories and trying to survive on a piece of wood. Different cultures, but all belonging to the same sea, performed in Paphos in the heart of so many cultures. Theatre gives a catharsis, a solution, vibrates feelings that there’s a way out of this mess. The sea is unifying – it’s not about a little flag.”

Paphos Harbour, CyprusPaphos Harbour, Cyprus
Paphos Harbour, Cyprus

This is a message that will find resonance with visitors to Paphos this summer whether they’re in town to enjoy the cultural highlights or enjoy the luxury of simply being able to enjoy the island’s wonderful beaches and splash about in the warm waters of the Med. We were well placed to do both, staying at the Almyra Hotel, a family-owned five star haven of pampering right on the waterfront. Almyra means salt of the sea, and our Kyma suite, one of 188 bedrooms, had a private terrace facing directly on to the waves and a picture postcard view of horizon framed by palm trees. With owners who are patrons of the arts, its vast lobby area is being used as a gallery and exhibition space giving guests a cultural fix on their way to the pool or spa.

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A stroll along the shoreline from the Almyra past Paphos’s main strip of restaurants and bars will lead you to the Byzantine fort standing proud at one end of the bay. Built to protect the harbour, it’s been destroyed, dismantled and rebuilt by successive waves of invaders, including the Venetians and the Ottomans after they captured the island in the 16th century, living up to the motto carved into the entrance – “this castle is so strong it never falls”, despite its being bombed in 1974. This summer it makes an impressive backdrop to the various events, but it’s not alone in attracting tourists with a passion for the past.

History is everywhere in Paphos, so much so that at times it feels like an open air museum, and nowhere is this more so than at the Tombs of the Kings, a Unesco World Heritage Site. A large necropolis two kilometres north of the harbour, it’s full of grand underground crypts, being a popular final resting place with local aristos up to the third century AD and a top selfie spot among today’s tourists.

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Also a must-see are the Roman remains at the House of Dionysus, a villa and bath house dating from the third century AD. Only unearthed in the 1960s by a farmer ploughing his fields, the endless mosaics are amazingly well preserved and range from the mythical, with the Minotaur in the labyrinth, to the domestic, with mouflons (Cypriot wild sheep) being chased by dogs.

Still to come in culture-wise this year are the Travelling Stage events, from concerts to street shows, including contemporary art from war zones in On Target and the Many Faces of Venus exhibition, featuring artefacts linked to the goddess of love, said to originate from the island.

And finally, with the Pafos 17 aim of building common ground for the future through art, there’s a focus on the Mouttalos area of the city, abandoned by Turkish Cypriots in 1974 and home to Greek refugees who lived there after the invasion. Stories from both communities will be told as the backyards and streets are filled with drama, song and food vendors and the newly renovated Open Khan marketplace becomes the heart of interactive performances and hopefully of Paphos itself in the years ahead, a symbol of the desire for the two communities to heal a divided past.