5 Mar

We arrived at Antalya airport at midnight ( Turkish time) after a 4.5 hour flight from the UK. By the time we had queued for visas, queued for passport control, waited for our luggage to appear on the carousel, lined up to be ticked off and processed by our travel company rep., waited around in our allocated coach ( in a line of about 20), been driven to an unknown hotel on the far side of the city, queued at reception to sign in and get our keys, and finally got into our room, it was 2am! We were very tired. However, we had already been informed that we would get a wake-up call at 6am and would be on the road by 7-30am. We had no choice about this. We would have less than 4 hours sleep before a full day of sight seeing and travelling! Even these precious few hours were disturbed by a cock crowing at dawn and the early morning call to prayer from an uncomfortably close minaret!
This was not what we imagined when we first spotted an enticing ad for an incredibly cheap cultural tour of South West Turkey ( Lycia.). We had just looked at the price and the list of interesting-looking destinations and not thought too much about the tiring schedule we would have to follow to do all that in a week. Neither did we think too much about our lack of freedom. From now on, until we got back to England, we would have no say about: when we got up in the morning, where we would visit, how long we could stay at each place, how far we would drive, where and when we would eat and where we slept at night. So half the time it felt that we were on holiday but in the other half, it felt like we had been kidnapped! We had allowed ourselves to be taken prisoner by the Turkish Tourist Board, which had subsidised our low price, out of season trip — “In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great.”
I can see why they did it. They wanted to fill some of those hundreds of hotels, built for the summer sunworshippers but laying mostly empty in the winter off-season. They also wanted to try to diversify the type of tourist coming to Turkey. By advertising in middle class publications like “Homes and Antiques”, and the National Trust magazine they were aiming to attract visitors who were interested in visiting Turkey’s rich array of historical, classical sites rather than those just wishing to relax on a sun lounge or sip drinks by a pool. They spread this campaign all over Europe. In our whistle stop tour, we met groups of Danes, Swedes and Germans doing exactly the same thing. The whole operation seemed to be masterminded with military precision to avoid us swamping any one place at any one time. For instance, we had to leave Kusadasi at the early hour of 7-30 one morning.( rising at 6am!), not because we had an incredibly long drive, but because our group had been allocated an 8-30am slot at the local carpet cooperative. If we had had a much needed lie-in and a more leisurely breakfast we would have had to queue behind several other coach parties or missed our turn. Of course, we couldn’t just miss out the carpet making demonstration and the salesmen’s gentle hard-sell because when in Turkey, it’s compulsory to visit one of their most important traditional industries. At least it is when you’re being chaperoned around in a group. This particular establishment had helped to subsidise our trip so in return we were obliged to go and look at their wares. Groups of prospective customers were delivered to them by the coachload, but all in strict, pre-arranged order. Some people even bought carpets and rugs. ( They are delivered to your door in the UK within 6 weeks and all taxes and post and packaging costs are paid for by the Turkish Government.) We were also taken, on another day, to gold- jewellery, and leather workshops/showrooms. It was at these places that I realized that our guide and the tourist board did not regard a holiday as just a time when tourists could relax and enjoy themselves. Rather they regarded it as providing tourists with the opportunity to contribute to the Turkish economy, support Turkish craftsmen and women, and provide employment for local people. Our guide, who was very good by the way, gave the game away by constantly referring to us as being part of the tourist sector. We were contributors to the national coffers and so were encouraged to cough up at every opportunity. It was part of the deal.
Being on a package tour is not all bad though. Far from it. Everything is arranged for you so you don’t have to worry. In that sense it is stress free. So there are no concerns about getting lost, no language problems and no transport issues. Everything is worked out by local experts in advance and all that is left for you is to enjoy the sights and experiences that are being presented to you on a plate. So we didn’t experience that awful feeling of stress and disorientation when one arrives at a foreign airport and has to somehow figure how to get to the hotel somewhere out there in a strange town. That’s why so many people readily agree to being packaged. Whether one enjoys such a “holiday” or not is all a question of attitude. If you know you are going to be shepherded around in a group but realize that this is an easy way to see some fascinating places then the experience will be fine. If you resent and resist such an arrangement and yearn for some freedom, then you’re in for a frustrating time. Our group was a very good one, our guide and driver were excellent and the itinerary had numerous highlights, so in the end there were more pluses than minuses for me.
One of the first pluses was the wonderful scenery of Lycia on Turkey’s so-called “Turquoise Coast.” Pine and cedar clad mountains sweep down to the blue sea. The highest peaks were snow covered when we went in February. The coast is adorned with long white beaches, coves, islands and turquoise bays. Everywhere we went, we saw colourful orange and lemon groves and pomegranate plantations. Freshly squeezed juice was a readily available treat. As we drove west along the coast- hugging road on our first morning out of Antalya, mist still hung in the valleys and the bright sun in the vivid, blue sky made the Mediterranean sparkle.
However, it was the classical, archaeological sites that we had really come to see. Ancient Lycian rock -cut tombs ( 4th century BC) honeycombed a cliff face next to the extensive remains of a Roman Theatre at Myra. This Lycian necropolis has had temple- like tombs carved directly into the cliff face. Stone Roman reliefs of masks and faces lay strewn around after falling off the theatre during an earthquake. It’s an amazing historical site and all set amongst orchards of citrus fruits backed by overlapping hills. Later that day, after visiting the medieval church of St Nicholas in Demre, we found ourselves on a boat tour of beautiful Kekova bay, with more Lycian stone tombs littering the shore like upturned boats, a crusader’s castle dominating a hill, and long-haired goats scampering around. Wooded islands, distant mountains, remnants of a sunken city and the setting sun completed the idyllic scene. We viewed more lovely temple tombs the next day on a river trip from Dalyan past ancient Kaunos. The river was fringed by tall, swaying reeds and punctuated by rocky outcrops. Cormorants, egrets and heron fished in its waters and overhead a mysterious bird of prey soared on the thermals. That trip deposited us on an attractive beach which in the summer is roped off as this is where endangered loggerhead turtles come to lay their eggs. Apparently, there were plans to build a large hotel here to attract more tourists but this plan was stopped by an international environmental campaign on behalf of the turtles led by a brave British woman who still lives there, in her 90’s. When they hatch, the baby turtles are guided to the sea by the light of the moon. If the hotel had been erected, they would have been attracted to its electric lights instead, thus spelling disaster.
The two Roman highlights of our tour were world famous Ephesus and the lesser known Aphrodisias. Ephesus gets many more visiters because it is near the coastal, package- tour resort of Kusadasi and is close to an airport. Aphrodisias is inland, more remote and subsequently quieter. Ephesus used to be the third biggest Roman city in Turkey or Asia Minor as it was then called. It was originally a Greek city on the coast of what was then Ionia. It used to contain the Temple of Artemis, one of the 7 Wonders of the Ancient World. Only a single truncated pillar remains today. In Roman times between 30,000 and 55,000 people lived here. It was sacked by marauding Goths, suffered from earthquakes, fires and floods, and eventually fell into terminal decline after its river silted up. It is still a special place to visit if you’re a history buff as I am. The most spectacular remains are the enormous theatre and the Library of Celsus, a large, 2-storey building reconstructed from the original materials. There are also 2 long, cobbled streets which helps one to imagine what it must have looked like to be here 2,000 years ago. After Pompeii it is the second best preserved ancient Roman city around the Mediterranean. It’s certainly very popular, being the second most visited place in Turkey after the Sultan’s Palace in Istanbul. As soon as we got off the coach we were besieged by guide book hawkers telling us their books were “as cheap as chips.” This made us laugh as did the stalls selling “Genuine Fake Watches.” It must be hell in the summer when the crowds pour in for their day of culture and the hot sun is blazing down on what is quite an open, exposed site. For us though, it was fairly quiet and cool.
It gave me a thrill to think that I was in an ancient city not only visited by Alexander the Great but also lived in at a later time by St Paul, who wrote one of his Epistles here. Also it is thought that the Apostle John wrote his Gospel at Ephesus. He was buried in the nearby town of Seljuk until Italian grave robbers took his body to Bari. All of this helped to make the Bible come alive for me much more than sitting in a church back in England.
Aphrodisias, the other Roman town was also founded in Greek times. It became a centre for the cult of Aphrodite, the goddess of love. The remains of her temple were turned into an early Christian church which is also now in ruins. This is another area affected by earthquakes and subsequent floods. The site had a monumental Roman double gateway, a small theatre, an odeon or council chamber and a large stadium. This stadium was the highlight for me. It seated 30,000 spectators in 30 rows of seats that went round in a very large oval. It staged: chariot races, gladiatorial combat, wild animal fights and, after the theatre had flooded, plays and musical events. It’s one of the best preserved Roman stadiums in the Mediterranean area. Aphrodisias was also a renowned centre for sculpture because of the quality of the marble in a nearby quarry. We saw excellent statues, busts and reliefs in the museum. It was strangely moving to be looking into the anguished eyes of a Barbarian woman, kneeling in defeat at the feet of the triumphant Roman Emperor. One thing those Romans didn’t suffer from was modesty! Yes, Aphrodisias was a definite highlight, sitting on a high plateau surrounded by snow capped mountains. It was also very quiet — just us and a bunch of Danes.
The world famous Pamukkale, which I had so much been looking forward to, was a massive disappointment though. It’s a small hill covered in white travertine ( hard chalk) terraces. These are formed by hot thermal water running down the hill in streams, cooling and setting hard to form a sort of solidified waterfall. It’s supposed to be a beautiful, natural phenomenon but for me it looked just like a slightly dirty ski slope. Maybe if I had got to walk to the top of it I would have seen more to impress me but by the time we arrived, late in the afternoon, it was nearly dusk and the upper path had been closed. So we stared at this World Heritage Site ( World Heritage anti-climax) from below and its reality did not meet my high expectations. Below it, they have built a lake where people can go in pedal boats shaped as giant swans. The whole place was a bit tacky with souvenir stalls and ice cream sellers juggling their cones to entertain the crowds. We joined in the tourist “fun” by having our photo taken with a Bactrian camel bedecked in gold and red finery. It’s not every day one gets to meet a 2-humped camel! Apparently, up to 3 million Russians visit Pamukkale every summer. I cannot really understand why. Maybe if I had got up on that top path I would have appreciated it more. The area is strewn with luxury hotels. Many of them have thermal baths including the one we stayed at. We wallowed in warm, bubbling water and looked up at the moon and stars. This area has many geo-thermal plants producing energy for the country. Their pipes snake off across the plateau.
So, once I got used to, and accepted the limitations that package tourism imposed, I enjoyed being kidnapped and whisked around this rugged but beautiful corner of Turkey. We packed in many memorable sights and experiences. Yes. we were led from one tourist attraction to the next without getting much of a chance to see the “real” Turkey, whatever that means. Sometimes it felt as if we existed in an artificial, tourist bubble. Yet, as I glanced out of the coach window I did sometimes glimpse non- tourist sights — a young female goat-herd sheltering with her flock under the shade of a clump of trees, men performing their ablutions before going into a mosque, rows and rows of polythene tunnels growing tomatoes and peppers, the hissing, steaming geo-thermal power plants. I also saw the concrete jungles built for the summer hordes on the coast. It was a fascinating and often exhilarating experience made all the more enjoyable by knowing that I could have a long rest back in the UK, once I had regained my freedom!


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