In Cyprus, this is where you can find Aphrodite

The pine-scented Troodos Mountains and turtle-nesting beaches of the Akamas Peninsula are a timeless antidote to the island’s sun-kissed resorts.

The ancient Greeks held that Cyprus was so beautiful, it was a playground of their gods and the birthplace of the fairest, Aphrodite, the goddess of love. While there’s little chance of bumping into any deities, travelers can find the Mediterranean island’s most timeless swaths on a drive through the Troodos Mountains and the sprawling Paphos Forest in the west of the country.

While tourism has altered its fringes, the interior of Cyprus suggests a time before cruise ships and resort holidays. To look out the car window here is to see life from another era, decades ago, perhaps, or maybe even centuries. By the roadside, a stooped woman with knees seemingly older than the hills climbs slowly toward the next village. Cats and dogs snooze in the sun. Behind them, buildings appear as though they’ve emerged from the mountains rather than been constructed.

My journey begins in Limassol, where I make my way to the Artemis Nature Trail, a four-hour hike named after the goddess of the wilderness that offers a satisfying route around Mount Olympos’ peak—the island’s highest mountain at 6,404 feet. Above, benevolent clouds seem to have snagged on the summit, offering a sort of parasol. Around me, a loose pine forest cloaks the mountainside, countless fallen cones lying at the feet of the trees, a billion pristine needles beside them.

I mostly have the trail to myself, which means I can appreciate the lichen hugging the tree trunks and spend what witnesses would likely describe as an embarrassing amount of time trying to photograph the local wildlife (mostly birds and butterflies). Defeated, I rest on a bench looking across Cyprus toward its contested north.

Following years of unrest, Turkey invaded this island just 62 miles west of Syria in July 1974, resulting in the loss of around 10,000 lives. Today Nicosia, invisible through the haze, is the world’s last divided capital city. Prior to the conflict, in the early 1950s the great British writer Lawrence Durrell chose a village in the now-seized territory to make his home, a bold decision that he detailed in his seminal, often hilarious novel, Bitter Lemons of Cyprus.

More than 60 years separate our time in Cyprus, and so much has changed that it’s perhaps futile to compare our experiences. But as I reach the end of the path and find my car the only one parked at the trailhead, I realize that we have at least one thing in common. Durrell was born in 1912 and would have been a boy during the 1918 flu outbreak, so he must have known something of the monumental devastation caused by pandemics. I wonder what he would have remembered about it. I wonder how he was able to move on.

Climbing into the car and thinking about this, I switch off the air-conditioning and roll down the windows, allowing Olympos’ warm, pine-scented breeze to drift in. In a year where I’ve found myself mistrusting the very air I breathe, these alpine conditions feel something like a miracle, so I savor a couple of extra lungfuls before heading back down the mountain.

Dinner and the devout

I let the car enjoy meandering downhill, stopping only to buy a bag of dried cherries from a farmer at the roadside. Nothing is too far away as the phoenix flies in the Troodos, but there’s rarely a chance to take a direct route. Tunnels are uncommon and roads tend to loop extravagantly around valleys like lines on a topographical map. As with village life, there seems no point in even attempting to rush; consequently, the driving is delightful, and scheduling must be flexible.

There are dozens of scenic mountain settlements in the island’s interior. “Such beauties as it had were in its hidden villages,” wrote Durrell of this region, “tucked into pockets and valleys among the foothills, some rich in apples and vines, some higher up smothered in bracken and pine.”

In recent years, small towns such as Kalopanagiotis have been developed and improved by the arrival of boutique hotels—new life has been breathed into old buildings that were crumbling into oblivion. Elsewhere, in Kakopetria, Cypriots like to escape the crushing heat of the coast and spend the evenings in the town square, drinking Keo beer on plastic chairs before shambling home to murder some karaoke late into the night.

I push on to the rose-scented village of Agros, where I pull up a chair outside Pezema Tavern and ask the waiter for some recommendations. He says he’ll bring me what he’d have. Not eating traditional halloumi cheese in Cyprus is proving to be something of an impossibility, so I’m a little relieved when I’m instead presented with a hearty salad and some village sausage.

“Nothing here comes from outside this valley,” says my new friend with the proud smile of a parent, before dropping off a glass of table wine. Is it too sweet? Right now, it hardly seems to matter. I fill my cheeks and eat slowly as the sun gently sinks behind the mountains. Around me, gangs of villainous cats skulk in the dark, drifting through alleys like wraiths, while in the night sky an eyelash of a new moon does little to illuminate the valley below.

Byzantine churches and monasteries dot the Cypriot interior; many are recognized by UNESCO and protected by locals. A site of worship since before Richard the Lionheart conquered Cyprus in the 12th century, today Kykkos Monastery is perhaps the finest and grandest religious institution anywhere on the island. As much a fortress as it is a church, it lies under a monolithic white cross that seems to challenge the rest of Cyprus to question its magnificence.

Many of its current buildings were constructed as late as the 18th century following a fire that devastated the originals. Nonetheless, even for this committed atheist, Kykkos today is an impressive place, polished but not sanitary, ostentatious but not obnoxious. Monks with knitted eyebrows and hurricane-proof beards look as though they could have been here for centuries, right up until they reach into their black robes to check their mobile phones.

While there are plenty of tourists with cameras, there’s no shortage of serious pilgrims, too. Inside the oldest, most ornate and sacred part of the complex, photography is banned, which seems right considering just how rapt many of the clergy become.

(France’s most famous pilgrimage site plans a new tourism future.)

Preserving a wild coast

For the first 10 minutes of the drive to Lara Beach, I believe that reports of the road’s notoriety have been greatly exaggerated. Then, for the next half an hour, my faithful and much abused Toyota must traverse an unsealed, pot-holed route that violently reminds me to trust local advice in the future. While four-wheel drive vehicles and quad bikes zip past, I nervously bump down the road, making painstakingly slow progress toward the famous beach, flanked by the rolling Mediterranean and dusty scrubland.

Lara Beach is in the southern reaches of what’s now called the Akamas Peninsula National Park, perhaps the last untamed part of the island. The designation only came about in the last five years, but the extra protection national park status affords should go some way to help prevent significant human encroachment.

“I’ve had the Akamas in my heart since I first started touring here with people back in 1996,” says Paphos naturalist Andreas Tsokkalides. “It’s got fascinating geology, the virgin beaches, the mythology and history, plus the arrival of the turtles every summer. But for me, what makes it special is the amazing flora. There’s a plethora of wildflowers, including many different types of wild orchids, and for a few weeks only, there are two areas where you can spot the endangered Cyprus tulip.”

(Learn how locals are protecting Italy’s famed wildflower bloom from overtourism.)

The Akamas is home to 35 of the 142 endemic Cypriot plant species and was left undeveloped for years, thanks in part to the occupying British conducting military exercises in the region. It seems strange to consider conservation through annihilation, but had they been asked, the rare flora and fauna in the region would likely have accepted the odd mortar going off or squaddie trampling over them for a better chance at long-term survival.

The isolation of Lara Beach means that it’s also one of Europe’s largest nesting sites for endangered green and hawksbill turtles. While their nests are clearly marked by volunteers and surrounded by signs too large to ignore, the creatures’ future is perilous enough that local conservation groups gather turtle eggs in June and July and transport them to a hatchery to give the babies a better chance of at least making it to the ocean.

Conservation pioneers Andreas Demetropoulos and Myroula Hadjichristophorou have spent almost 40 years trying to protect the reptiles from the ill-effects of tourism, first through work at the government’s Department of Fisheries, now through their own Turtle Conservation Project.

“The beaches of the Mediterranean are under so much pressure from tourism and everything that goes with it,” says Andreas of his motivation. “With this kind of project, thankfully, we’re able to try to save the species and save the valuable coastal zone at the same time.”

(Turtle-watching tours help conservation. Here’s how.)

When I arrive an hour before sunset, these interventions seem very prudent. Despite the harrowing condition of the road and the lack of even basic facilities, Lara’s raw, distant beauty has attracted dozens of visitors to its pristine shores. While I observe them from the back of the beach, I keep an eye out for Mediterranean monk seals in the surf. They’re severely endangered, with only around 700 thought to remain globally. But just north from here, in almost inaccessible caves away from prying eyes, a handful of survivors endure.

The following morning, I plan to head deeper into the peninsula, the westernmost part of Cyprus, but having learned hard lessons on the riotous road to Lara, I decide to leave the Toyota behind and instead follow Andreas’ advice. “The Aphrodite Nature Trail is by far the best route for seeing many of the wildflowers, and even though it’s quite steep, you’ll be rewarded with some of the greatest views of Cyprus,” he’d told me, before adding that he wouldn’t recommend it in the middle of July, when I was visiting.

The story goes that Aphrodite was born on Cyprus’ south coast, but that she traveled up here to bathe with nymphs in a cave at what’s now the start of a trail named in her honor. Rising from the dusty road, the craggy stone path may be brutally exposed to the sun, but it’s not long before it offers cascading views down the brilliant coast.

(This mythological river in Greece lures adventure travelers.)

Perhaps it’s my bad timing, perhaps it’s the lingering effects of the pandemic, but over the three hours I walk the astonishing trail, I find myself alone; just me and a few indignant lizards and itinerant goats listening to the hum of cicadas and the distant hush of the sea.

Under the boughs of an old carob tree, I find a weathered bench and gratefully get out of the sun for a rest. In the Troodos, the air carried the fragrance of toasting pine; here it’s wild oregano and ancient juniper. Retrieving my copy of Durrell’s book from my backpack, I’m disappointed to find that he made no mention of this part of the island, though that’s perhaps testament to just how distant the Akamas Peninsula has always felt, even to Cypriot residents.

Instead, my eye lands on another passage in his story, one with which I can heartily agree. Loading my bag back onto my shoulders and looking up the steep hill ahead of me, I repeat it out loud: “Nothing must be done in a hurry, for that would be hostile to the spirit of this place.”

A version of this story first published in the December 2021 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK).

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