The Mediterranean Coast: Turkey's Magical Hideaways

Part Five: Antalya and the Blue Voyage from Fethiye to Marmaris

By: - Sep 21, 2009

As we headed south from Beysehir, the chance to visit an elementary school, as well as the weekly market in Egridir, gave us further insight into the lives of the local people. The school, which catered to the children of farmers and herders in Budak, a small village near Lake Beysehir, surpassed our modest expectations.  Besides the customary bust of Ataturk outside and the Turkish flags at the entrance, the school had spacious classrooms with adequate supplies. In the joint first and second grade, which we visited, children learned script in grade one; their notebooks displayed impressive penmanship. As one student read to me from her notebook, I happily noted that rote learning was a thing of the past. The curriculum was set by the Ministry of Education in Ankara.  

The Egridir market was enchanting with its orderly displays: large platters of olives, sorted by color and size, stuffed toys grouped and stacked by kind, and brooms arranged in eye-catching patterns lined the sidewalks. Ready-made wear on hangers filled makeshift racks under white canopies; even station-wagons with open tailgates served as stalls for rugs or rose products. This region near Isparta, center of Turkey's cultivated roses, produces a variety of creams and lotions derived from roses, in addition to rose water, used for flavoring.

Our driver recommended an alternate southbound scenic route, which took us by a restaurant on Egridir Lake. Following an enjoyable lunch of Lake Bass, we continued on our way, crossing the Toros Mountains, and arrived in Antalya, the center of the country's citrus agriculture and a popular destination on the Mediterranean Coast. Our bus left us outside of the old quarter, since large vehicles can not negotiate its narrow streets. We walked to our hotel in Kaleici, the historical nucleus of Antalya.

Antalya, the ancient Greek city of Attaleia, is set on a wide bay with mountain views all round. The old district within the fortress is now restored and has become an attractive tourist center with small hotels, restaurants, taverns and shops. The streets lead down to the old harbor, which now is an international yachting marina. The coastline on either side of the marina is lined with resort hotels featuring modernized Turkish baths, boutiques and apartment buildings.

Perge is an ancient city 18 km northeast of Antalya. Dating back to 1000 BC, its surviving remains are Hellenic and Roman. St. Paul is said to have preached his first sermon here in 46 AD. We entered Perge through the grand Byzantine tower-gate and walked around its theater, stadium, agora, baths and the aqueduct. A little further out is Aspendos, a major port and commercial center in antiquity, now inland 48 km east of Antalya. It is known for its well-preserved 15,000-seat amphitheater with superb acoustics, built in 2nd century AD. During our visit preparations were underway for performances of Aida; concerts, which require sound systems, have been discontinued.

Our final visit in Antalya was to the archeological museum, which houses regional artifacts dating from the Stone Age to the present. The museum's impressive collection covers fourteen exhibition halls and an open-air gallery. A unique feature is recognition of all the archeologists, with their pictures and credits for the various digs.

On the way to Fethiye, our next destination, we stopped in Myra to see the Roman ruins and the house tombs of ancient Lycia. The large Roman theater is still intact with marble seats and mask friezes scattered around the elaborately decorated stage area. The Lycians, who practiced a type of ancestor worship, built the tombs in the 4th century BC. They are carved into the cliffs in ascending rows; the funerary bas-reliefs of the ornate facades fascinate viewers even from a distance.

The Lycians surrendered willingly to Alexander's army in 334 BC. Following a period of rule under Ptolemy, king of Egypt, and then Antioch, king of the Seleucids, Lycia fell to the Romans in 190 at the end of the Syrian War. While enjoying good relations with Rome, Lycia remained independent until annexed by Claudius in 42 AD. The most enduring legacy of the civic-minded Lycians is the model of government they provided; their federation established in 168 and known as the Lycian League, included twenty-three cities, each of which elected one, two or three representatives according to the size of its population, with the six largest cities casting three votes each at the federal assembly. A unique innovation in its own time, the Lycian League was a source of inspiration to the founders of democracy in the United States.

The most famous Lycian benefactor was Saint Nicholas of Myra, from whom the legend of Santa Claus was inspired. Saint Nicholas was bishop of the region in the 4th century AD. Born of wealthy parents, he used his inheritance to make anonymous donations. He is most remembered for having spared poor girls from prostitution by secretly dropping money for their dowries down their chimneys and thereby making them marriageable. We visited the Church of Saint Nicholas in Demre. Restoration work is underway on the church, which has fading frescoes and floor mosaics. A modern statue of Saint Nicholas adorns the entrance of the church as well as the town center.

Driving across Kekova peninsula, we arrived in Kas, a small town known for its cold underwater springs and crystal-clear waters. Its fame for underwater visibility attracts many divers, whose private boats filled the picturesque marina. After a brief walk about town, and watching fishermen mend nets and feed pelicans, we were on our way to Fethiye to begin our four-day cruise on the Turkish Riviera. The city of Fethiye, called Telmessos (Lycian for "land of lights") in ancient times, sits at the border of Lycia and its neighboring civilization, Caria. Once a center of prophecy dedicated to the god Apollo, with a history dating back to the 5th century BC, it is set against cliffs adorned by Lycian rock tombs; a sarcophagus lies in the town center.

At the harbor, we boarded our Turkish gulet yacht. The first gulet yachts (from the French goelette, meaning "schooner") evolved from seafaring vessels used by the ancient Carians, early inhabitants of the southwest coast of Turkey. The yachts were both fast and easy to maneuver -- ideal for eluding pirates. Today the gulet is outfitted with a powerful engine; it can rely on motor power or sails. Our gulet was a teak and oak beauty with an outdoor eating area and two observation decks with cushions, fore and aft. Its eight cabins, with showers, determined our group's size of fourteen plus guide. To keep the boat clean we changed into flip-flops or slippers on board.

Our captain, a jolly Kurdish man from Malatya, and his crew of three young men from nomadic families took care of every detail on the boat. Our cook provided us with three delicious meals a day with bountiful fresh vegetables and never repeated the menu. As one of two native speakers of Turkish in the group, I was able to chat with the crew during off times. The captain had come to Antalya from eastern Turkey as a young boy to find a job. He had worked his way up as cook and then as captain, passing the required tests. He liked the seasonal nature of his job, as it allowed him to be with his family the rest of the year. The captain volunteered to tell me that he had no intention to leave this "paradise" and to live in another land, like some Kurds who "want their own country" do.

Out of Turkey's population of 72 million, some15 million are Kurds. Fifty percent of them live in the southeast; the rest have settled throughout the country, and many have intermarried. To accommodate the modified Latin alphabet used to write Kurdish (an Indo-European language) in Turkey, legislators are at work on a bill that would lift the present ban on use of letters not in the Turkish alphabet, such as q, w and x and the government is considering changing the names of some towns in the southeast back to their original Kurdish names. With Turkey's increasing prosperity, including the southeast, it is hoped that those who are fighting in the mountains for separation, will soon have reason to settle as content citizens.

During the cruise our first landing was in the Gemiler Bay, from where we hiked to Kayakoy (Karmylassos), a ghost town once occupied by about six hundred households of Anatolian Greeks. During the population exchange in the aftermath of the Turkish War of Independence, Turks relocated here from Salonica could not adjust to the rocky terrain and vacated the houses for farmlands below. The town is on an eerie hillside, with empty building shells amidst spreading bay, thyme, and fig and walnut trees, doomed to succumb to merciless vegetation.

Our daily schedule consisted of morning and afternoon hikes to see ancient sites, interspersed with swimming, reading and resting. Our excursions took us to old churches and monasteries, as well as to Greco-Roman sites, such as Lydea, to which we hiked from Aga Limani. Near Lydea, down a pine-shaded trail, we visited a shepherd's family to break up our three-hour hike to Cleopatra's Cove, which shelters the sunken baths of the Egyptian queen, built for her by Mark Anthony. Legend says that he gave the entire Turquoise Coast to his Egyptian bride as a wedding gift. Our gulet sailed around to meet us; the highlight of this walk was the visit to shepherd Mutlu's house. He, his wife and five-year-old daughter treated us to sage tea, homemade honey and bread. As soon as I dunked my bread in the honey and tasted it, I knew I had to buy a jar, which I did. 

On the final day of our cruise, a small boat met us at Ekincik Cove and took us on a side trip up the Dalyan River, which snakes inland from the Mediterranean amid reeds and cattails. Named after the Turkish word dalyan, which refers to a large fish trap, the river provides striking views of Lycian temple tombs on steep cliffs high above the banks. The Lycians were highly-skilled stonemasons and used the soft limestone found along the Turquoise Coast. They believed that the dead would be transported to the afterworld by bird-like creatures. Walking around the remains of ancient Caunus provided insight into Lycian life; our visit included the Terrace Temple, the Roman bath, the theater, the agora, the fountain and the sacred precinct of Apollo. The inhabitants of this city certainly had spectacular views. 

The highlight of the Dalyan River boat trip was the sighting of the rare caretta carretta, or loggerhead sea turtles, which have existed for 95 million years. Each year the females return to the place of their birth near the Lycian ruins of Caunus to lay their eggs. The reddish-brown turtles grow up to 300 pounds and can live for 200 years. International conservationists have been helping to preserve their Turkish nesting grounds. The village of Dalyan, named after the river, is proud to be Turkey's "Turtle Paradise" and is well stocked with tee-shirts and souvenirs.

Bidding a fond farewell to our captain and crew, we ended our Blue Voyage in Marmaris, where we met our minibus for the last leg of our trip, northward to the Aegean Coast.