Right at the eastern extremity of the Mediterranean Sea, Turkey is often seen as a cheap and cheerful package tourism destination. But if you steer clear of the cities and resorts, and head for the more tranquil rural and coastal parts, you’ll find that Turkey is a great place in which to discover the past and leave the modern world behind. Bay’s Nick Smith finds out more.
Whenever two or more people gather together to talk about their travel experiences you can guarantee that before long you’ll discover that you haven’t really been to somewhere in general unless you’ve been to somewhere quite specific within that territory. And, as irritating as this might be, there are times when such advice seems to make some sort of sense. And when that advice comes from an expert, in this case the distinguished travel writer and expert on Turkey Jeremy Seal it probably pays to listen. For it was Jeremy that told me that if I wanted to see Turkey at its best, I could do worse than take a trip along its Mediterranean shore. Although he didn’t actually use the words that I hadn’t really been to Turkey unless I’d sailed along the Lycian Coast (now called the ‘Turquoise Coast’ for some reason), his lyrical description of untended olive groves, ruined watermills, abandoned chapels and goats nibbling at the low-hanging branches of carob and acacia trees was irresistible. My only experience of Turkey had until this point been the noisy traffic jams, stray cats and foul stench of Istanbul which, for all its glittering mosques, is a thoroughly unpleasant, unwholesome and unnerving experience.
If you’ve ever been to Turkey on holiday and come home disappointed then you’re not alone, especially if you ventured no further afield than resort towns such as Marmaris. This is where football-shirted, lager-swilling tribalism spills onto the streets in pitched battles between the British, German and Russian package tourists that flock there by the thousand. I single out Marmaris because it was the midpoint on my three-hour drive from the international airport at Dalaman and my destination of Datça, a little-visited seaside town to the west that was to be my base for a few weeks. Driving through the main street at Marmaris in the early hours of the morning I started to ponder the imponderable: a mental state of confusion that had me trying to work out how hurling glass bottles across the street while chanting abuse at people simply because they came from another country constituted a holiday. When the traffic lights turned red, my guide Yusuf simply ignored them, telling me later that to stop your car here was to invite trouble, and that if we were pulled up by the police he’d rather explain to them why we ran a red light than why the doors were missing from his taxicab. Leaving the mayhem of Marmaris, our car forged ahead in the pitch black, rumbling along a steep, narrow coastal road that, in the beam of the headlights, either went terrifyingly up or horrifyingly down along countless hairpins, each one threatening to pitch us into the sea. An hour later Yusuf stopped the car, informed me that I was ‘here’ and told me he’d see me in the morning.
The sun rose to reveal the land that had been described to me by Jeremy Seal. From the porch of my small villa that had a tiny garden running down to the beach, I could drink in my tranquil surroundings here in the outskirts of the long slim Datça Peninsular that points like a finger westward into the Aegean Sea. The water that gently lapped the beach really was turquoise and all around me was the uncomplicated Mediterranean colour scheme of gold, green and blue, occasionally shot through with a dash of red or orange from the oleanders and hibiscus that grow like weeds. There were olive groves, peach orchards, apple trees. There were goats, lizards and donkeys. There were the dark outlines of the islands of the Dodecanese archipelago in the morning haze. There were men drinking tea and playing back-gammon. The muffled clang of an old church bell. Sailing and fishing boats. After the previous evening’s vision of hell, it was nothing short of glorious to see the famous Turquoise Coast.
True to his word, Yusuf eventually pitched up. We walked for an hour or so to help me to get my bearings. The most important thing of all, he told me, was to become friends with his cousin Miraç who owned the beachfront café and knew everything there was to know and everyone worth knowing. Having once been a medical student in London, Miraç spoke English fluently and was keen to display his knowledge of British culture by extending to me a line of credit at his café so I’d have no need to worry about the local currency. Yusuf claimed that his café served the best food in Turkey and, as we munched our way through dishes of hummus, stuffed vine leaves, fried aubergines, tomato salads and spicy lahmacun, I found it difficult to disbelieve him. Once the distinctly western-style coffee was served (“we don’t often drink ‘Turkish coffee’ here”), we spread out the map and plotted our route along a coast so densely packed with ruins of classical antiquity that you can’t help feeling that the region’s past significantly upstages its present. We decided to visit a handful of ancient ruins, from the famous Ephesus to the lesser known Aphrodisias, Priene, Knydos and Didyma. To break up the routine, we’d spend time sailing along the Turquoise Coast in a gulet or traditional wooden schooner. We’d also visit the nearby Turgutköy Hali Carpet Weavers Association, where another cousin by the name of Eymen would give me the best possible ‘discount’ price.
Everything gets off to a slow start in the morning on the Datça Peninsula. Even the sun doesn’t fully show its face until about 10 o’clock, due to the soaring limestone crags that cast a shadow over the village. As Yusuf seldom turned up before midday, there was plenty of time to sit in the front garden drinking coffee, watching the bright white yachts come and go and waiting for the day to properly begin. It was on one such morning that I was politely interrupted by a softly-spoken American taking a stroll along the beach in front of my villa. After the exchange of a few pleasantries about the weather and the scenery, he wondered if I knew the best place to eat nearby. Without hesitation I told him of Miraç’s café a few hundred yards up the beach where, I informed him, he would get the very best of the best, and if he asked politely, Miraç would even set up a tab for him. The man thanked me warmly, shook me by the hand and left me wondering where I’d seen him before. The mystery was soon solved when I later bumped into Miraç himself, arms flailing, shouting ear-splitting orders to anyone that would listen to him.
It turned out that the man I’d been speaking to was Bill Gates, software multi-billionaire and one of the few people on the planet with a claim to be richer than Croesus. The Microsoft magnate was moored up, “in that yacht over there, the one that looks like a wedding cake. I’m cooking his family dinner on board tonight.”
It was to be several days before Miraç was capable of human speech again. When he was, I asked him what he’d cooked the richest man in the world. “Not what he asked for,” came the reply. “He wanted kebabs, kofta, pickled peppers and grub like that.” It turns out that Miraç took offence at being culturally stereotyped and had considered telling Gates that if he wanted food like that he’d be better off going to the Edgware Road where there was plenty of it. But his attitude softened when the quiet American pulled out of his satchel a wad of Turkish lira the size of a house brick. At this point Miraç, realising what a sophisticated choice Gates had actually made, started to rustle up yet more cousins before spiralling into a frenzy of culinary activity that seemed to involve everyone in the village. All agreed that nothing quite like it had ever happened in this part of the world.
I wasn’t so sure. This was because, if you look at these ruined palaces and temples that make up the world’s largest open-air museum, you don’t need to be much of a historian to draw the conclusion that there must have been a lavish feast or two in the region back in the day. After all, this coastal fringe between Knydos (at the end of the peninsula) and Ephesus (the northernmost extent of my excursions into ancient Turkey) is nothing less than the heartland of
ancient Ionia and Caria, a cradle of civilisation that, if its architecture is anything to go by, took wealth, commerce, entertainment, sports and religion extremely seriously. It is in this part of the world that the earliest coins were used as trading currency. New York’s urban grid system was invented at Priene, where the wondrous Temple of Athena was built. If you add early medicine and philosophy to two of the more tangible wonders of the world – The Temple of Artemis at Ephesus and the mausoleum at Halicarnassus (modern Bodrum) – along with the probability that it was somewhere hereabouts that Homer wrote both the Odyssey and the Iliad, you can’t help feeling that while Gates’s dinner might be big news now, it almost certainly wouldn’t have been that much to write home about a few millennia ago just as the modern world was being born here.
You can read about any of these ancient places in just about any guide book. You’ll read lists of dates along-side condescending blurb about how old everything is and how clever these ancient people must have been to do all this without computers. But what none of these books seems get to grips with is what all these ruins mean to us today. To discover that we need to go back nearly two millennia to listen to the words of Philo of Byzantium, who described Ephesus as above all other works of mankind. “I have seen the walls and hanging gardens of ancient Babylon, the statue of Olympian Zeus, the Colossus of Rhodes, the mighty work of the high Pyramids and the tomb of Mausolos,” he wrote. “But when I saw the temple at Ephesus rising to the clouds, all these other wonders were put in the shade.”
I was still meditating on Philo’s words as I boarded a small fishing boat along with Yusuf and Miraç. It tran-spires that our ambition to tour the Turquoise Coast aboard a gulet had been hopelessly ambitious. But we did have just about enough money (though not as much as Bill Gates) to hire a very pretty, sky-blue painted vessel with a Turkish flag red ensign at the prow. As we chugged around the necklace of islands, the engine belching out clouds of black exhaust into the salty air, the men lit cigarettes and swopped tales about their army national service days. Miraç reckoned if he hadn’t been conscripted, he’d be a fancy doctor in Kensington by now, instead of running a bar. Yusuf said he preferred driving his taxicab to a tank.
Besides, he had a moon-lighting side-job delivering carpets for Eymen. They asked me if I’d enjoyed going to see the ruins and I replied that I had: certainly, a lot more than I had the grotesque ‘bottle battle’ in Marmaris. At this, everybody laughed because to us, floating on the turquoise sea, the glare of the sunlight bouncing off our sunglasses, nothing seemed as important at that moment as messing about in a boat off the Datça Peninsula.