Skirting the Shores of Lycia
A road-trip through the Turquoise Coast of Turkey, where legends of lost civilizations abound.
The morning sun crept upon the cliffs of Antalya, bathing the port town in golden light.
Antalya is refreshingly beautiful despite its large size, the gateway to the Turquoise Coast, or the Turkish Riviera. Deep, blue waters meet limestone cliffs, green peaks, and Lycian Ruins along the Mediterranean, said to be one of the most stunning adventures in Turkey. Once we returned our gaze from the morning enchantment back to our duty, we meandered the back streets of town to a simple storefront with a few parked vehicles out front. The site where yesterday we agreed to rent a small car for four days, and also a tent. We know the general direction of our journey, but the beauty in the tent is that there is no itinerary. We will go as the wind sweeps us - or more realistically where beauty binds us.
And not to know “exactly” where we are going seems like an adventure worth having.
Leaving the jam-packed streets of Antalya made me break a sweat, but it also made the views once out of town and into wild landscapes where the sea meets mountains that much sweeter. Welcome to the Turquoise Coast. Nearly 600 miles of rugged coastline along a peninsula in southeastern Turkey, with innumerable coves and islands filled with remains of lost civilizations.
To fully grasp the extent and historical significance of this region, we set off on our rented wheels and let the landscape dictate where to go. To say we are following the footsteps of legends is also an understatement. Herodotus, the “Father of History” was born in Bodrum along the coast. Saint Nicholas, also known as Santa Claus, was in fact born in the warm Mediterranean sun of Patara. Paul frequented these waters on his missionary journeys. And two of the seven ancient wonders of the world were constructed in the area.
One of the most unique civilizations of history also found its home here - Lycia.
Lycia flourished from the 15th to 4th centuries B.C., where it’s great wealth was evidenced by its numerous and splendid cities of opulent architecture and stunning views of the Mediterranean. These remnants are still scattered by the thousands along the peninsula we are traversing. The civilization dwindled when a not-so-great man (to the Lycians) named Alexander caused trouble. Under the Romans, Lycia enjoyed freedom as an autonomous region of Rome. However, like all civilizations, it slowly tuned to ruins. But for a group of men in Philadelphia nearly 2,000 years later, it was not forgotten, as Lycia’s democratic government drew inspiration for what later became known as the United States of America.
Our first stop led us to a forested peninsula surrounded by three bays. Known in antiquity as Phaselis, this settlement saw the rise and fall of many nations, often in contention for its favorable location. The Olympus Mountains of Lycia dominate the background, where we immediately noticed the large trees and lush forested slopes, a testament to the fact that lumber was an important trading asset of the city. Walking amongst the ruins was pleasant under the trees and with various viewpoints of the harbors on both sides. In fact, most visitors now come to this peninsula of three sandy bays for the beaches. We did not partake in the sun bathers, but we did observe how much has changed in the region. In what was formerly a commercial trading center, the ruins are now an afterthought compared the the sandy shores of the waters, where tourists come from near and far to relax.
Phaselis felt a worthwhile stop, but we sensed the scene will escalate the further we venture west.
The journey continued west-ward as the road zig-zagged between the Olympus Mountains and the Mediterranean Coast as vantages opened up by the minute of cliffs and sea.
88 km by road from Phaselis led us to a small, and at first appearance, insignificant town called Demre. Upon closer inspection though, it was anything but that. As the afternoon already approached, we found ourselves hungry. Luckily, small supermarkets packed with delicious snacks are found aplenty in Turkey. With content stomachs, we headed to the ruins of Myra, tucked away into the cliffs north of town. Myra, as it was known for most of its history, was one of the most important cities of the Lycian League. A splendid theatrer, once holding 13,000 eager spectators, rests at the foot of steep and rocky cliffs. A 4th century B.C. necrópolis of dozens of tombs rests on the cliff face, once painted in vibrant colors and motifs. Myra felt like stepping back in time into the Lycian culture.
Following a quick stroll through ancient Myra, we maneuvered the streets of Demre to a small stone church standing near the town square - the 5th century AD church of St. Nicholas. Standing at the remains of an earlier church also dedicated to this saint, the former structure experienced heavy damage during an earthquake, in which the Roman Emperor of the time ordered its reconstruction - as seen today.
The Santa Claus legend took root from this St. Nicholas, known as a protector for children, seamen and those in poverty.
Nicholas was born in 270 AD in Patara, a small village west of here (where we plan visiting tomorrow), into wealthy parents. They however passed away when he was young, leaving them with their inheritance. Nicholas ended up living in this small town of Myra upon becoming bishop, where he gained a reputation for his exceeding generosity. Legend tells a story where there were daughters born to a poor man who could not pay their dowry, likely forcing them into slavery or prostitution. Nicholas secretly dropped gold coins down the chimney for three consecutive nights. The story tells that some of the coins dropped into a pair of socks - the first Christmas stocking.
We were battling the last light of day when visiting the church, but darkness eventually overcame this Mediterranean port.
My maps indicated a campsite next to the sea port, just 3 km to the south. We were warmly greeted at this spot from the owners, and half a dozen dogs, whom gave us a patch of dirt to pitch our tent. A small communal kitchen lies in the center, where we made some instant noodles and engaged in conversation with other travelers who made their way out here. Upon time for shuteye, the night was cool and the air calm, perfect conditions for a fine sleep. However, we were interrupted by a great commotion outside of tent. Our sleeping space suddenly shrunk in size as the furry friends of the campground laid right next to the tent on all sides. And dogs being dogs, they came and went throughout the night. We just smiled inside our shelter, and finally put to rest day 1 of our Turquoise Coast road trip.
The second morning we awoke to a peaceful scene with not a dog in sight or a bark in earshot.
Although, honestly, I do somewhat miss the furry company. We hurriedly pack our tent as we have a lot of ground to cover on Day 2. 11 km to the west as the bird flies - though 26 km by car and a hike over a ridge - lies a site, half-sunken, we are particularly looking forward to. Before we head there though, we are caught in our tracks at the stunning glassy sea and still boats of the Mediterranean harbor of Myra at dawn. I couldn’t help but imagine being Paul on one of his missionary journey’s stopping here for a quick transfer of vessels, or even a rest in a tent (after all, his trade was a tent-maker). Even St. Nicolas frequented this harbor as he lived in the town. In one instance legend has that he calmed a deadly storm, and forever gained the hearts of sailors. So much history can be envisioned in nearly every corner of Anatolia, and if we fancy to, I don’t imagine we will travel far.
A winding road west led us past several tiny villages, from where the road looped back until stopping at a dirt lot. A small hill looked ahead, waiting for us to ascent and descend to the village of Kekova, almost exclusively visited on maritime tours. As we clambered the rocky terrain, ancient sarcophagi came in focus until we were surrounded by them. Of Lycian origin by the looks, each holding unknown secrets. It is also evident these ones have fared much favorably compared to the tombs in town, now entirely engulfed by the Mediterranean. In the second century, records indicate a large earthquake wiped out the Lycian city, submerging its now ruins in the shallows of the sea.
When we peaked the ridge, a dramatic view of Kekova opened before us - Turquoise water, white rocky outcrops, and the remains of the sunken city.
A large castle built on the hillside also jumps before us, overlooking the tiny village of Kalekoy at the base of the ride we are now descending. Every stop really delivers a new vantage point and window into the past. The castle invited exploration, and was void of life save some birds perched above. Since the Middle Ages, the Simena Castle has watched over this stretch of Mediterranean, and probably has seen a pirate or two pass by. But of course, being in Turkey, this castle was found to be built on the foundations of an earlier, Lycian structure.
The layers of history can be hard to keep track of.
Explore Kekova Ruins
Once inside the village’s cobbled streets, we walk towards the farthest end where it ends. Some modest rock scrambling brought us to a shallow section of water, fortified by rocks all around. We took a cool dip in the water, and sat under the warm sun as the morning waned and noon neared. Such a simple and relaxing moment. A refueling for a mind overwhelmed by the multifaceted history and in awe of the beautiful creation. A reflection on the spiral staircase of time - where Lycians ruled, Romans lived, pirates retreated, and us resting.