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The Lycian Shore, the classical sites on the south-western coast of Turkey

The ruins of Tlos stand high up, on the edge of the fertile Esen Cayi valley, right in the heart of ancient Lycia. Everywhere we went in the valley we saw groups of women bent double in the small patchwork fields of cotton, their white headscarves matching the unpicked buds. Every now and then there would be a man, looking slightly lost amongst such female industry but now and then carrying a full bag to the edge of the field and bringing back empty sacks to be filled. At dusk we watched the filled sacks being carefully weighed in the field whilst the roads were gradually filled by cheerful looking, rosy tinted bundles of pickers being taken home on the back of tractors and trailers. Then in the gathering gloom you could see trucks and tractor hauled wagons stopping to pick up the sacks until they had accumulated a vast load ready for the dealers in Fethiye.

Tlos was totally lovely. We saw a red squirrel and jays flitting through trees outside the massive bulk of the ruined baths. Inside it echoed with the a murmorous haunt of bees working their way through the flowering ivy that cascaded down the high walls. The largest hall ended in a vast projecting bay which framed an Olympian view of the valley through its five portals. Beneath us hidden streams gurgled and on the way to the theatre we plucked at wild blackberries from the hedgerow and later picked at pomegranate seeds from a broken orb amongst the piles of carved stone from the scenae. Later we climbed up to the Acropolis, amongst the crumbling walls of the Ottoman fort where the first travel writers describe taking tea with the local Bey. Having arranged for a bed in a local pension we stayed late, watching the gathering darkness close in over village and ruin while we drunk cold beers beneath the illuminated plane tree in the local bar and nibbled at fresh slices of melon. I was given a massage by the young bar-boy on the instructions of the amiable but roguish proprietor.

In the morning we walked back to explore the other, the east flank of the Acropolis, amongst the sounds of slowly waking households with their tethered goats and cows. There were no discernible buildings to be made out, amongst the narrow fields of grey soil, laboriously contour ploughed between belts of wood. These grey fields held no stones except that had once been worked by the hand of man: miscalleneous pottery sherds, flat bricks, odd pieces of finely worked stone and recognizable fragments of terracotta handles. In the corner of one field a simple wooden platform had been raised over a boundary wall, shaded by an old oak with a babbling brook chuckling under the short stilts. It was approached up a short stairway of antique blocks but there was nothing accidental about the view whcih had been carefully chosen to afford a prospect back over the Acropolis as well as over the well watered valley to the distant horizon of hills. Sitting briefly on this platform the Turkish countryside, which we would leave tomorrow, appeared almost painfully idyllic. The short walk back to breakfast was no longer so tranquil, for the unpaved dusty village road was filled with vans packed full of women and young men going down into the valley to pick cotton. There was no mistaking the fatigue and tiredness etched into the faces in the cold light of morning. My romantic haze lifted as I imagined the relaity of back breaking labour form dawn to dusk, dawn to dusk. One forlorn girl in particular caught my eye and as I picked up Molly’s tiny hand to manipulate a wave and fetch a smile. It was as if I was one of those cheery privilieged scholars from Thomas Hardy passing Tess D’Urberville as she went off to gather flints from a turnip field. She smiled anyway.

We had planned to arrive at Letoon in the magical hour of dusk in order to see the triple sanctuary of Apollo, Artemis and their mother Leto bathed in a suitably romantic light. Instead we arrived in the heat of the day, both of us exhausted and with a hot and querolous baby in need of love and shade. The triple temple, the nymptheum even the theatre of the Lycian league were totally spurned while we established ourselves in the lee of a friendly postcard salesmen. Later we took turns in carrying Molly around the low, partly flooded ruins while the other dozed thankfully beside the car. You need time at Letoon, even without a baby, for though it is a small site, it requires careful examination that revealed amongst the mud and stones two pairs of kingfishers flirting amongst the reeds as well as terrapins taking their ease on some of Leto’s partly submerged entablature. When I returned from a lone exploration of the theatre the site was at last bathed in the red-gold of dusk and I noticed that we had been joined by another vehicle. It contained a pair of friends armed with a baby boy dressed like Molly who had been born in the same hospital and in the very same week as she had been. It was difficult not to think that amongst the lengthening shadows of their sanctuary that the power of the heavenly twins was not tangibly apparent in this coincidence. As I looked at Dave I recalled dancing at his wedding, that he was near neighbour and that he was clutching the same book as I. There the coincidences ended abruptly, for he was a world famous rock-musician, the sort of person who has to be careful of the envy of Apollo, I thought nervously as I tried to blot out the image of skin less Marsyas and counted by blessings that we were not characters in a Simon Raven novel.

Patara should be perfect, a vast and completely undeveloped dune-fringed beach which is backed by the tangled ruins of an unexcavated city overlooked by pine clad hills and distant mountains. Inland, along the approaching valley, stretch a jumble of small hotels. Somehow Patara has always fallen short of expectations, perhaps it is the mosquitoes, the threat of snakes amongst the reeds or that helpless miasma that surrounds all cities that have been drowned in silt and mud. Miletus has a similar strangled feel which hints at that horrid future sketched out by geographers when all our mountains have run into the sea and the earth has been turned into a dismal tidal swamp.

Apart from returning for a swim at dusk we had not intended to stop long, but as we passed Mehmet’s hilltop Hotel, it looked especially inviting in the gathering dusk. It was an impulsive but lucky choice. The mother of the house enthusiastically put together a cot for Molly while her son comprehensively fumigated our room. When Rose joined me for dinner I was in a flurry of guilty excitement for I believed I had just ordered kestrel-stew for two. To my relief we were later served a perfectly conventional Casserole-stew that was also eaten by the four other dinners; a pair of buxom English girls who were vigorously flirting with a couple of entranced Turkish boys and two American women who, apparently oblivious to the escalating sexual tension, sat earnestly discussing the possible maximisation of their incomes. Before dawn I took Molly off for a walk in the surrounding woods but the entire hotelier family had already been long up and were busily erecting an enormous plastic sheeted green house from the profit of a summer crop of rooms. It seemed likely that the two youngest and still startled looking boys had been ravished in the night. We were soon joined by a young black dog that led us expertly through the narrowing forest paths, while all around us we could hear the tinkling sound of bells as goat herds were being walked up into the hills from the valley. As we left the odiferous and dawn-bright woods we were greeted by a continuous crashing boom, not unlike the sound of distant gunfire or the roar of a motorway but it was only the surf relentlessly hammering the empty beach. The dog led us across two harvested fields directly past a tomb bright red with drying peppers. Not far away stood one upright column while in the nearby terrace were half a dozen fluted Doric columns pushed to the side of the field like so many inconvenient boulders. In the warm clear light I stood quivering with certainty that I had found the lost oracle of Lycian Apollo, in its day an equal to the shrines at Delphi, Delos and Didyma. Here the prophetess would have watched and waited all night for the inspiration that came with dawn. Patara’s sand filled theatre, the hilltop rock cut cistern, even the too familiar triple arch surrounded by its litter of Lycian tombs never looked so beautiful. The dog took us back by the road but slunk away as we approached the hotel.

The central mosque of the town was made by converting an old Orthodox church, which retains in its vaults slight traces of its original baroque Ottoman decoration. It was one of the few buildings untouched by the 1957 earthquake that rocked the town. On the east side of the stream bed which now forms the edge of town a dozen flat roofed Greek houses rot slowly. We hid from the afternoon heat on the wooden platform of a pancake house where the towns Blind lottery salesmen hung out. We watched him make his slow familiar way round the pots and sinks of the pancake houses lean to kitchen to find the lavatory. If we were to have any pretensions of keeping up with the travel writers at the bottom of our bag it was essential to have a Turkish driver experience. All the writers seemed to have very intense relations with their Turkish drivers. They would behave badly, either refusing to endanger their vehicles at the authors whim or alternatively endangering the author at their own whim. Our first driver drove very carefully, so that as he said the view through the windows would not be blurred. He shared his sweets with us and tactfully took me off to admire a distant oak tree when Rose wished to breast feed Molly in the back of the car. Our second driver was Berra, a slim elegant college girl from Izmir who wore dark glasses and let her long hair be blown by the passing breeze from the window. She loved driving and so worked as a chauffeur during the long summer holiday between college terms. Rose sat in the front with her and they talked about music and politics and even discovered an Istanbul friend in common while I tried to pacify Molly in the back. The village women looked very amused at these role reversals whilst the men had more of an expression of interested concern. Berra drove us to many places without once worrying about the effects of rocks on the bottom of her big white car. She took us to a trout restaurant that was shaded by poplars and balanced on a wooden platform just a few inches above a roaring torrent of water that surged through a towering canyon of pale rock. It was a cool, beautiful and serene place that seemed just as popular with Turks as tourists, who would both spend a lot of time carefully posing photographs that made the best use of the dancing reflections of dappled sunlight. On the way back we fell asleep as Berra drove through the night.

Arrivals are important and our entry into Kas was entirely propitious. We came to a halt beside a harbour restaurant. Rose selected a secluded table to feed Molly before moving, baby on shoulder, to choose from the fish tray and then make sure of a table with the right mixture of shade and boat view. Meanwhile I went for a short walk uphill and luckily found a near perfectly proportioned Turkish room with bare boards, a big bed, a killim underfoot and linen curtains flapping from two windows. True the pension appeared to be right bang in the centre of half a dozen music-bars but that would surely drown out any nocturnal noise Molly might be tempted to create. I paid quickly for several days in advance, not that the girl running the pension seemed to doubt my intentions but in case I fell tempted to move too quickly on. We were immediately adopted by the neighbouring bar and the local dog. Every morning Molly was whisked off our laps to be played with in some secluded courtyard while we took a leisurely breakfast on the terrace and watched the bars being swept clean. In the early mornings I took Molly off to explore the deserted town and hunt out all its reclusive tombs, urged on by the passionate advice of a Notting Hill etcher who had found and drawn a beautiful but neglected lion tomb ‘somewhere on the edge of Kas surrounded by thorns’. We never found the lions but became friendly with an ever growing number of dogs who escorted us on these pre dawn tours. On the last day we watched the first rays of sun heat up the rows of stone seats of the theatre while a philosophic grandfather watched the fishing boats go out towards the Greek island of Kastelorizzo from the highest seat.

Later that day we stopped for lunch at a table set in the vast forecourt of a deserted petrol station which would only serve diesel to local tractor drivers. Through the flickering, twirling, twisting leaves of a double avenue of poplars we could look up at dark regular spots set into the mountain, the rock cut tombs of Cyaneae. Any thought of climbing up through Yavu village was ruined by the dismal lunch, later accompanied by a tiny handwritten slip of paper, a bill for a million lira with beautifully drawn noughts. It was presented with great aplomb by two boys, the sole occupants of the restaurant, who after hearing out our indignation halved their prices. It was still a lot, but it was by far the worse meal we had ever eaten in Turkey so we paid.

It was at times a precipitous scramble through shrubs, at times almost a flight (if a 15 stone 35 year old can ever be considered to have left the ground long enough) that took me bouncing from boulder to bolder before I reached the valley of the Fish Oracle of Apollo at the foot of this particluar Lycian-tomb girt Acropolis. At the valley floor I met a goat track that meandered expertly through the thorn thickets to bring me to the silent ruins of a crumbling stone Byzantine church. The well in the old paved courtyard obviously remained in frequent use to water the goatherd though now the nave was only occupied by Carob trees that cast their long curling black beanpods on rubble. The apse and a side aisle stood high and firm neatly framing through their windows the oracular temple of Apollo which stood just another 50 yards downhill. The sacred spring still bubbled healthily away at the corner of the valley, flowing through its antique masonry basin to wind its way past what would have been the steps of the temple, now marked by fallen columns half buried in the mud. The priests of Apollo of this sanctuary used to toss sizzling kebabs into the water and read a future from the order of fish that rose to take the meat. I had no meat but found an old packet of sesame biscuit in my pocket, the label claimed that it was good for the skin and sex. I had not realised that sesame biscuit will not float enticingly on the surface like a mayfly. My offering sank without a fish rising or even moving amongst the gentle swaying weed and high reeds. I waited, nothing moved, a frog croaked, a butterfly fluttered by and a pair of dragonflies made love.

A new road has been pushed on the north bank of the Androkos stream whose bright clear waters meander through a valley of grey marsh. If we had come earlier in the season we might have witnessed Tourist coaches from Antalya kicking up clouds of grey dust, though now storks and herons pick their way undisturbed through the marsh. We are given coffee and cake in a cavernous cafe by its lone but hospitable chef, who comes from eastern Turkey and seemed happy to have Molly plumped on his lap whilst we attempted to talk to him in Arabic. From his wind lashed terrace we watch the boats that all summer ply day-trips to Kekova being washed down for the winter. On the other side of the Androkos stream the marshy reed beds and scrub successfully hide the great Roman harbour buildings of Andriake. The massive Hadrianic granary is magnificently austere with its grey stones so perfectly laid that it is still impossible to push a coin into the joints. Beneath the town market I descended into a subterranean cistern which supported the solid flagstone pavement above on a grid of arches sprung from square pillars. It looked so vast, gloomy and seldom visited that I thought it would serve as a perfect dungeon for any terrorist determined to kidnap an entire coach tour.

Just before dusk I entered Olympos from the beach at the same time that a group of elderly English, came ashore on the speed boat tender of a smart yacht. They looked interesting with their bright blue eyes and worn red trousers but they seemed annoyed that they would not be alone in the ruins as they remembered from a previous trip. They also seemed particularly irritated at the work of the Antalya Museum service which had recently excavated a pair of harbour tombs just above the beach to reveal the poetic epitath of an old sea dog; “The ship sailed into the last harbour and anchored to leave no more, as there was no longer any hope from the wind or daylight:, After the light carried by dawn had left Captain Eudemos, There buried the ship with a life as short as a day, like a brocken wave.” I thought it would be just the sort of thing to interest a yachtsmen but they marched swiftly on and then began to spot litter.

Olympos seemed more romantic than ever. On the shore a wave eroded fluted marble column was deeply embedded in the the pebble and sand. The theatre was still filled by that same audience of trees whose roots had dug deep into the rubble foundations from which the surface layer of stone seats had been pillaged centuries ago. Granite columns lay where they first fell but were now wrapped in the delciate grasp of creepers, rotting branches and squelching black mud. A line of ancestral rock cut tombs all stood with their grooved stone doors forlornly open, the portals where once their descendants had cast dice to secure the advice of the dead, looked temptingly ready for use. On the heights above the valley medieval walls were draped lightly, like a garland, which seemed to delight in arches that lept a cleft to make imaginative use of a pinacle of rock for a look out tower. The archaic defences of the classical period marched by contrast with a steadier, surer tread but made up for its straight lines with much finer masonry work. Then as I stumbled for the third time into the same low half clearing of bog surrounded by brambles and rickety stone walls I realised that I was lost, with a three month old baby strapped to my chest and her mother waiting at a cafe. Dusk was now rapidly falling, the frogs suddenly went silent just as I noticed that rats and birds had began to move in the branches above while the tangle of foot-tripping roots below began to all look ominously like serpents. Having always wished to have been a Mayan explorer I fervently wished to be a tourist on a sign-posted path.

Olympos, has for the moment, struck the perfect balance for visitors. Backpackers sleep in their own wooded valley (in the National Park at the landward entrance to Olympos) on stilt platforms draped with mosquito nets or in traditional wooden huts. Along the shore, the well healed either sleep afloat or tucked into the minimalist luxury of the Olympos Lodge while a dozen simpler pensions can be found among the orange groves further down the pebble beach from Olympos. By day there are no divisions for everybody eats at one of the half dozen beach restaurants made from rush mats, drift wood and brightly painted timbers. One of them was run by three women, modestly dressed in headscarfs.

We had been repeatedly warned not to be dissapointed by the Chimaera; that it was best to come at night armed with a ceremonial cigarette to be lit by the flames or observed at a distance from the nocturnal deck of a boat. Armed with an already wide awake baby we set off before dawn with very hazy directions, following a track that lead up the valley, through new groves of freshly planted oranges and then up along a riverine plateau of rounded pebbles, burnt grass and the twisted resilient trunks of distorted pine. The track stopped at a spring where we found a pair of Australians sound asleep, tip toeing by them we climbed up a dusty twisting path for a kilometre, which was here and there crossed by a sacred way whose level pavement of stones once led smoothly upto the temple of Hephaestus. A few overturned inscriptions, some massive doorways, a cistern and brocken carving are all that now remains to the Smith God, husband of Aphrodite, full child to Zeus and Juno, master of fire and material transmutation and chief deity to the city of Olympos. Just above the sanctuary ruins stands the remains of a Byzantine church whose apse remembers the once gaily painted interior. Just up again from this second ruin stretches a grey seam of shale like rock, quite bare of vegetation and pock marked with eyes of roasted white rock with dusty black pupil holes at there centre. Perhaps the Chimaera was in especially good health or the morning climb through still-air was unexpectedly exhilirating for we sat around in awe at the flickering flames that burst up from at least a dozen cracks in the rock while one substantial three foot flame blazed away to one side. It was immediately apparent that the Chimaera is role model to thousands of eternal flames, nominally lit for war dead and international atheletics but normally all ablaze with nationalism, draped ensigns and polished bronze. No story ever explains quite why the dead Chimeara ( the famous fire breathing monster who was part lion, part goat, part serpent but all woman), slain by Bellerophon on the instructions of a Lycian King, continues to belch fire here. At the same time I knew that there was something oddly familiar about the Chimeara. It was the smell, a familiar mixture of burnt and unignited gas, which took me back to the excitement of watching my great aunt make tea in her London flat.

Phaselis is on the eastern-most edge of Lycia, perched on a sea-washed promontry where two shark bite shaped coves form an opposing pair of harbours. Historically it was a wealthy trading power, of a determinedly seperatist and self assertive cast, which was only lumped together with the rest of Lycia by the Romans. I had longed to visit Phaselis for years, for a number of its customs seemed to suggest a strong Phoenician influence. We were perhaps fortunate to visit the ruins when they were reanimated with human life; the big western harbour was thronged with boats from Antalya’s hotel lined shore which poured ashore a continuous stream of colourfull day trippers who yawned themselves along the main street. If you squinted hard enough the bright nylon day-glo colours could be seen as gorgeous Levantine silks, though it was only partly convincing. At the shore, we bought cold Ayran and chilled fruit from a fisherman after which I tried to sing a lullaby to Molly in the shade while I watched Rose swim with her magnificent and powerful crawl out of the old eastern harbour into the deep sea.

We had been given the address of the Park restaurant by a Turcophile London friend. The moment we saw the dappled shade and heard the sound of cascading water that echoed around the restaurant we knew we had returned to that other tranquil Turkey, which whatever it is tempted to do with its shoreline, never seems tempted to muck around with its springs or ancient plane trees. We eat from an innovative menu beside a mill stream full of a school of lazily content pet trout. As we left a swift cavalcade of dark cars swept up, disgorging a glittering party of Russians and not the expected delegation of local fat cats. It is of course nothing new, Russians, due to the presence of their patron saint St Nicholas, have always felt at home here. A new Russian restaurant has just opened in central Antalya. We hoped that already there might be plans afoot to repeat the failed experiment of a Russain Princess who had at the turn of century attempted to turn Myra into a centre for Orthodox pilgrims. Perhaps the Moscow Mafia could make Bari an offer that it couldn’t refuse, and return the bones of St Nicholas to their rightful resting place in Myra?

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