I’ve written a lot about Cyprus since visiting the island back in April. Although I was only there for a week, I feel like I crammed so much in to those seven days: the beautiful beaches, a visit to the tiny church of Profitis Ilias, oh, and not forgetting all the amazing Cypriot food I ate. That said, I know there’s so much more for me to see and do in Cyprus that I definitely have to go back at some point. Flicking through my Berlitz guidebook, I realise that I didn’t party in Aiya Napa, I didn’t explore Ancient Kourion in Lemesos, and I didn’t wander around the country’s capital, Nicosia, for example.
One place I’ve noticed that isn’t really mentioned in the Cyprus guidebooks or on the blogs I’ve read, is the town (or rather village, as it’s population is just 698 people) of Kouklia. It’s home to the better known Sanctuary of Aphrodite, and I originally went there just to visit that, so wasn’t expecting much else – but when I started to explore Kouklia a little more, I realised I’d found a village that oozed with Cypriot culture, charm and lots of cats…
Sanctuary of Aphrodite.
The sprawling archaeological site of Palaipafos (translated to ‘old Pafos’ in Greek) is set upon the hillside in Kouklia, boasting amazing panoramic views down to the sea. Palaipafos can be dated back as far as 12th Century BC, and is recognised as one of the most important pilgrimage sites of its time, due to the Sanctuary of Aphrodite, the goddess of love and fertility. The site and sanctuary are such an important and integral part of the country’s history and culture, that combined they earned Cyprus its first inclusion on UNESCO’s World Heritage Site list, back in 1980.
Today however, due to a myriad of earthquakes, intentional destruction by Christians, and scavenging for building materials that the site has suffered over the last few centuries, virtually all that remains are the ruins of the majestic temple that once stood there, and the holy ground itself. Because of this, it is probably one of the least visited, and arguably the least known about, historical site in Cyprus.
The Sanctuary of Aphrodite in Kouklia is the most famous place for the worship of the Ancient Greek goddess. It is believed that the Myceneans, who settled on the island at the beginning of the 12th Century, adopted Aphrodite as their goddess and erected the sanctuary in her honour. According to legend, the local king, Kinyras, was the founder and first High Priest of the sanctuary, though another legend mentions Agapenor – the king of Tegea in Arcadia, Greece – as the founder of the city and the sanctuary.
Though the exact origins of the sanctuary are unclear, the sanctuary remained a place of worship up until the 3rd or 4th centuries AD, when Christianity took over.
If you head over to Kouklia, I definitely think it’s worth the €4.50 ticket to get into the archaeological site. The area is huge, and as well as the main sanctuary ruins, you’ll be able to see a beautiful 12th Century conical stone that represented Aphordite until Roman times. There is also the ruins of a Roman temple, a second smaller sanctuary and the ruins of a Roman house, known as the “House of Leda”. Only the central dining room is preserved of the original building, but this room was covered with an amazing mosaic floor depicting the mythological scene of Leda and the Swan, and dates back to the 2nd Century AD. You can see the mosaic inside the Kouklia museum.
The entry ticket for the Sanctuary of Aphrodite also gives you access to the on-site Kouklia museum, housed in a Lusignan Manor building. There’s an extensive display of items discovered at the site and in the area, including some extraordinarily delicate white slip pottery dating from the late Bronze Age, as well as many artifacts that portray how the “Cult of the Goddess of Fertility” developed into the “Cult of Aphrodite”.
In a room off the central courtyard, I found a fun, educational 10-minute video playing (in Greek and English) which gives a brief historical overview of the site. I really enjoyed the video, and it meant I didn’t have to stand out in the blazing sun, reading all of the info that’s provided on the boards to understand why the area was so important.
If you want to continue your Aphrodite day, the famous Aphrodite Rock (believed to be where the goddess was “born”) is also only a short drive from Kouklia, but more on that in another post.
After spending a few hours wandering around the Aphrodite Sanctuary and its ruins, rather than jumping straight in the car and heading back to Paphos, I decided to have a mooch around the village.
When I’d driven through Kouklia earlier that morning, it seemed tiny and a bit rundown, with minimal signs of life. But with nowhere else to visit or any more plans for the day, I set off on my own impromptu adventure. I suppose that’s the great thing about travelling with no itinerary or any expectations: you’re never in a rush to get somewhere else, and you’re never left disappointed by what you find, because you weren’t looking for anything anyway. This is just one of the many things I’ve learnt while travelling over the last few years.
As I exited the car park and headed down the dusty road, the first thing I came across was a cemetery. It wasn’t hard to miss, as I could see so many vibrant pops of colour poking over the top of the grey stone wall.
It may sound a bit strange, but I have this “thing” for graveyards. I find them really fascinating, full of history and stories. From the Jewish cemetery in Prague to the Merenid tombs in Fez, I’ve spent ages wandering around graveyards around the world, taking photos of beautiful headstones carved with inspiring epitaphs and carefully placed wreaths laid out on the mounds.
The cemetery in Kouklia did not disappoint – in fact, I’ll go as far as saying it’s the most beautiful cemetery I’ve ever seen. The white marble headstones were so bright and clean, and most of the graves were tended to, with beautiful fresh flowers, ornaments and gifts lovingly given by friends and relatives who dearly miss the deceased who are buried there.
Many of the graves were also decorated with photos of the deceased. I’ve never seen graves like this before, but I found it very human – it made the graves feel so much more than just graves. Lying in the graves are people’s mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, aunts and uncles, even – sadly – children. Putting the face to a body that lay in a grave made the whole cemetery feel more personal.
This cemetery was not eerie or spooky, nor full of the stuff of people’s nightmares (unless perhaps you have nightmares about flowers?). It was not dark or dreary, grim or ghoulish. It was a place to celebrate the lives of those that are no longer with the village of Kouklia, rather than mourn their deaths.
I could have spent ages in that cemetery, photographing the palpable displays of love these villagers have for their friends and relatives. The backdrop to the cemetery was simply stunning too – like something painted by John Constable. Just look at all those beautiful pink flowers in the foreground:
Though I didn’t find this out until I was back in the UK, the village of Kouklia has an interesting origin.
It is believed to have been founded in the Byzantine period, and owned by a Byzantine officer, known as “Kouvikoulariou”. The word “kouvouklion” meant deadly chamber in ancient Greek, and was where the Byzantine emperors slept at night. The bodyguards of the emperors were called “kouvikoularioi” and were usually given pieces of land for their services. It is possible that one of these men, kouvikoularios was given this land, which was then named “Kouvouklia”. The village was still called Kouvouklia until the ruling of the Franks, and was later named Kouklia.
Nowadays it’s a peaceful, sleepy little village, with a few tavernas and a small shop at its centre. It was at one of these tavernas that I stopped and spent a couple of hours in the shade, munching on some pitta bread and dips, and sipping an ice cold Keo beer.
While taking my pit-stop, I noticed a few cats casually strolling passed. Then I spotted a few more: some lay out basking in the sun, while others were seeking shade in the 30c heat. The really daring ones decided to entwine themselves around the table and chair legs, meowing for scraps of food. Of course I gave in to their feline cries, anyone who knows me knows I’m a huge cat fan (I even recently wrote a post about all the cats around the world that I’ve photographed). I can’t help it, I hear hungry cats and just want to feed the all – then take them all home for baths and kitty cuddles.
Getting to Kouklia.
If you fancy a day out in Kouklia, it’s just a 20 minute drive from Paphos where I stayed at the Kissos Hotel (a hotel I can’t recommend highly enough for the price). You will need to hire a car or get a taxi from Paphos though, as public transport doesn’t stop in Kouklia.
Alternatively, you could hire a villa for your holiday in Cyprus – there are some gorgeous villas situated up in the Aphrodite Hills resort, which boast amazing grounds and beautiful scenery. Getting to Kouklia, the Sanctuary of Aphrodite and Aphrodite’s Rock would be really easy from there. The resort also has tennis courts, spas, horse-riding, cafes, restaurants and shops, so could be the perfect base for your Cyprus holiday.
Or if a villa doesn’t suit you (maybe you’re a solo traveller like me), there’s always the option of Airbnb. I’ve seen some beautiful apartments in and around Kouklia, all at reasonable prices – and if you haven’t used Airbnb before, you can get £30 off your first booking by clicking here.
Have you ever visited Kouklia? Would you like to? Let me know in the comments below, I’d love to hear from you.