It’s home, the sea, the wind and the heat of the Mediterranean. And it’s very much defined by what I know from the northern stretch between the Aegean and the pillars of Hercules. Looking at the map this is just about a third of the total coastline of the actual Mediterranean sea. The rest, bar Beirut and a little Morocco, was unknown territory to me. The Greek islands I knew reached just to the Turkish coast. I was curious to find out what lied further east. Driving from the far eastern part of Anatolia over the mountain range north of Iskenderun at night I didn’t see a lot of the landscape. When I left Mersin in the morning it felt like the many cities I had passed in the past week, extending along the main highway with plenty of new construction. The hotels were bigger, but for a long time little changed. It took 500km of stop and go from one village to the next with nothing to see except a handful of castles. The road was in mixed states from brand new motorway with tunnels to pothole-ridden single lane mountain roads. The latter would have been a lot of fun in the Mini, wouldn’t a constant flow of pre 1990s cars and trucks have blocked traffic pretty much all the time. Also, the Turks were no fans of roads circumventing cities, they rather preferred to lead the overland traffic straight through them. On the highways people came and went from both sides. Pedestrians suddenly crossed. And as soon as I reached cruising speed a red light would stop me again. Stop and go for days to come. Not fun, often dangerous and bad for fuel economy.
I reached the ruins of Phaselis at about 17:30. Happy to stop after a long day driving, I found a parking spot in a pine forest. The moment I opened the door, a wall of heat and humidity hit me. But what hit a lot harder, was to find the archeological site of this ancient seaside city was used as a beach resort. Tourists strolled around the ruins, mostly taking selfies. And the former ports were now used as beaches to picnic with the family. I had hoped to find a quieter place. Back on the road, I needed to find a place for the night. Close to Kas was a hotel in a small bay with a beach and a restaurant. Deal! I reached Kas as the sun was disappearing on the horizon. I followed Google maps through hills and valleys until the road got so bad I had to stop. Checking again, it turned out the place was only to be reached by boat! I had to first get out of the rock track and then find another alternative. Luckily I ran into a very basic camping site close to a beach. During the day that place must have been full of people, the plastic deck chairs lined up in several neat rows along the entire beach front. But in the darkness I didn’t see any of that. When the raki was on the table, the fish ordered and the stars shining on the deep blue sky, a feeling of vacation overcame me. And it felt good, very needed. I had passed through so many wonderful places where I’d have loved to spend some days and relax, take a bath in a river or lake or sea, have some fresh local food served in a decent setting like here on this beach, that was nothing special. But only here in Turkey this way of enjoying of life came back again.
The next morning I packed and left early. In Kas not a single coffee bar or shop was open, and so I hit the curvy seaside road. The sun was not hot yet, traffic light, and for less than an hour I kept gliding very slowly along a breathtaking Mediterranean landscape, passing turquoise bays, the first yachts starting to move for their day sailing on a still tranquil sea. It was a magic moment. Reaching Xanthos, I was the only visitor in the morning. The security guard sipped on his tea with the souvenir stand owner. Strolling around the ruins I tried to imagine ancient life in this beautiful setting. Like in Phaselis, the city featured a theater that was well preserved. The endless plastic of the greenhouses in the valley nearby stood in stark contrast, modernity v antiquity. It would be a common sight in Turkey, that is littered with ancient ruins, but also with massive agriculture, and a lot of trash everywhere on the roadsides.
I passed Fetihe, too touristy for my taste. I checked Göcek, a curated beach town around a marina, with that vibe of true and wannabe yachties on land. For a while I wondered if passing Marmaris would be wise, given I’m no fan of big tourist hotspots. It turned out Marmaris was in no way like Antalya, and before even noticing I had already passed it with no scare and was driving up a ridge on a rocky, arid, pinewood covered road, that brought up memories of Dalmatia and the Costa Brava Mini tours. Towards the end of the peninsula, at Datça, a ferry was supposed to take me to Bodrum. But it left only several hours later, and all car spots were booked. I decided to stay an afternoon in this small, clean seaside town with two beaches, lots of lovely restaurants. Here I found no jetskis, no loud tourist attractions, no massive hotels. It was a rather small scale, upscale place. Luckily I got one of the last rooms at a low key hotel right in the the heart of the old town, with a wine leaves covered courtyard, where breakfast the next morning felt good with a slight breeze.
As also the next day all ferries had their car spots booked, I had to drive back. Passing the same road twice is not cool. But in this case, with little traffic in what for Turkey seems to be very early morning, say 09:00, the 45min drive back to Marmaris was pure Mini adrenaline. All windows open, drum and bass shaking the speakers, and no curve left out. Behind every one of them a bay appeared below the rocks, the many yacht masts told me there must be tons of great little coves to stay with your boat for a night. The smell of pine trees, the turquoise water of the sea, the fresh morning wind – all this felt like vacation time.
After Marmaris traffic came up, and things changed. I checked Bodrum, but tourism alert made me turn around very soon. Some small backroads took me to Ephesus, another wonderful ancient city in ruins. This one was bigger, had two theaters, one of them enormous, a spectacular library, and many more buildings, forums, roads – and tons of tour groups, whose only purpose seemed to be to shoot the best selfies in the most obvious spots, with everybody crowding around the same places.
Avoiding highways I made my way to the sea again, and over a hilly landscape with bumpy narrow roads I reached Urla, where I spent a night at a very chic winery. Their industry has a lot of issues to face in Turkey. Their wines were surprisingly good. I had no idea about Turkish wine before this trip, it has been one of the unexpected discoveries. Enotourism seemed to be an alternative to promote a product that is facing advertising restrictions in a country governed by pious muslims. In a tiny village nearby I got a restaurant in a beautiful courtyard recommended, another gem in the area. Fine food, a good wine selection, a meticulously well kept garden. Only the occasional cloud of smell from the cattle next door reminded me I was in a rural area, but also how close the table was to the field. I had missed this so much during the past years living in the US.
Touring the peninsula next to Urla in the morning, Çesme turned out to be a nice beach town and Alaçati a very Disneyland place, with tourist shops and restaurants along the main road of the old town, while all around the new one is being built, especially in the marina area. Huge restaurants stood empty at lunch time. The bay in front of the marina was not crowded, and had bright turquoise water. I tried to find a non touristy place with people for lunch, but had no luck.
Passing Izmir the first heavy traffic of this trip hit me. More stop and go followed as I tried to leave the area fast. At Bergama, I drove up to the acropolis of Pergamon late in the afternoon as the sun was already on its way down. During my student times in Berlin the Pergamon museum had often been a refuge during those grey weather days. Watching the facade of the altar my thoughts would wander to a sunnier place in the Mediterranean. Now I finally had a chance to see the place this building came from. Another impressive theater, more big city walls, temples, ruins, and a view over the new city below. Here I was lucky to find few tourists, and mostly of the more civilized sort, actually admiring the place.
An hour’s drive away, I had been recommended to see Ayvalik. I reached the waterfront with no idea where to stay for the night. While cruising evening traffic I checked Google maps and found a hotel icon on a small road just beside where I was driving. Mentally I pressed the “I feel lucky” button and left the main road for a narrow alley. Around a corner an old stone house covered in a plant with a lot of green leaves and pink flowers turned out to be the hotel. As I walked in, across the corridor an open door led to a small wooden pier straight to the sea. The sun was about to go down on the hills on the other side of the bay, a boat moored in front of the terrace. Jackpot! The panorama for dinner, as the sun went down, competed strongly with the one at breakfast, with morning calm and few people around. This formerly Greek town, famous for its olive oil, had a lot of natural, laid back charm.
Since my childhood, the Greek mythology had always captured my imagination, Homer’s Iliad ranking on top if the list. Two hours drive from the peninsula in front of Ayvalik, where I hot lost among olive trees with no roads in the morning, the ruins of Troy were my next stop. Entering the parking lot, many big buses warned me if the company I would have to face. On this 5.000 year old site, with over 10 layers of cities on top of each other, I had a hard time to recognize the different buildings in the layers of stone walls on top of each other, partially still covered by the ground. Reading the well written boards describing various places was a challenge, as hordes of tourists clustered around them. The city had been destroyed and rebuilt over and over, and already before Roman times was mostly a tourist attraction. An architecturally very interesting museum nearby gave context to the excavations and the finds on the site. Troy stood at the entrance of the Dardanelles, that lead to the sea of Marmara and the Bosphorus. Here Asia meets Europe, the Mediterranean nears the Black sea, Turkey borders the Greek islands of the Aegean on the Asian side and Macedonia and Bulgaria a bit further to the north. While Troy was a testament of war thousands of years ago, reaching Çanakkale the memorials to WWI stood as a reminder to a much more recent and brutal war.
Reading through this post, that I’ve been writing over several days, I notice a certain negativity in some parts. While Turkey is by far the most pleasant, civilized, and probably free country (with the exception of Georgia) I’ve travelled through during the past weeks, where roads are normal again and food is fresh and varied everywhere, I feel I’m complaining a lot more while writing and observing during the day. I thought about why this is the case. On the one hand, Central Asia has a more “remote” feel for me coming from Europe, and with that comes a lot of tolerance for differences, while Turkey is a lot closer mentally and culturally, and I’ve been there many more times. I guess that’s why I expect things to work there a lot more like home. And then get sad, or sometimes outright angry when they don’t. Restrictions on alcohol, the headscarved women, Booking.com or Wikipedia sometimes being unavailable trigger negative reactions as much as “crazy” traffic rules. If I think back to Uzbekistan’s drivers and roads, Turkey is a cradle of civilization and safety. Yet it doesn’t feel that way while I drive through. The more I get west, the more Turkey feels mediterranean and like home, the more the little things mentioned above bother me. And I realize it is not home, yet. But it is a beautiful, varied, culture-rich place, that I will come back to for more discoveries.