It’s December 12 and we are sitting at the Istanbul airport waiting for our flight back to Seattle. Our mood is whistful as we ponder how to fit back into Seattle life. The last six weeks in Turkiye have been a revelation and the perfect ending to this phase of our travels.
It is hard to overstate how interesting this country is. How diverse, how complex, yet warm and hospitable, and how stunningly beautiful. As I walk the streets looking into the faces I pass, I see the descendants of every tribe, every race, and every conqueror that ever crossed this land. So many beautiful faces—portraits of the crossroads of civilization.
Our journey through time starts in Izmir, the gateway to Ephesus—the Ionian trade center of the ancient world—currently a UNESCO World Heritage site and major tourist destination. Izmir, Turkey’s third-largest city is situated on a large bay with extensive waterfront parks and promenades. In antiquity, it was known as Smyrna and was built by the Greeks. There is a lot of ancient history to uncover here not to mention the more recent tragedies after the Greeks won independence from the Ottomans in the 19th century. With a modern facade, the heart of the city is the Ottoman old town and bazaar area where deeper stories lurk.
On route, we make stops in the town of Selçuk. Among its features are: the 6th-century Basilica of St. John the Apostle, fragments from the Temple of Artemis, a Byzantine fortress, and the remains of a Roman aqueduct that runs right through the middle of town. Further down the Aegean coast, we stop in Kuşadasi (Bob was here 50 years ago!), Akyaka, and Fethiye—all lovely seaside towns—but decide to avoid the highly touristic resort towns of Bodrum and Marmaris.
Our destination is the village of Gelemiş, on the grounds of the ancient Lycian city of Patara. This is where we spend a month in a very charming, rustic cottage surrounded by olive, orange, lemon, and pomegranate trees. The sunsets from our terrace are spectacular. The Lavender House is comfortable, pleasantly decorated, and well-equipped by rural Turkish village standards. We have a washing machine, dishwasher, wifi, and sporadic satellite TV.
Gelemiş turns out to be a very small and not very interesting village in itself, but the archeological remains of Patara with its 12 miles of 50-meter wide beach (breeding ground for the endangered Loggerhead turtles) are spectacular. Given the archeological remains, no development is allowed and the beach remains pristine. The economy here runs on tourism and agriculture. Every bit of flat land in this region is filled with long plastic greenhouses filled with tomatoes, cucumbers, and peppers. There are literally seas of greenhouses. Rumor has it that Patara is the birthplace of St. Nicholas, something they might capitalize on in the future.
In Gelemiş, we hit the low point of our trip when we get Covid and spend our first 10 days there on our butts. Once back on our feet, we set out to explore the remains of some of the other Lycian cities in the vicinity: Tlos, one of the oldest and largest Lycian cities, Xanthos; a UNESCO World Heritage site; Letoon Sanctuary Place, an ancient religious center with the remains of three temples; and Sidyma, totally unexcavated ruins with the current village built around and on top of the remains of many stone structures.
We then journey further inland to visit the ancient city of Sagalassos, high above the village of Aglasun. It is the most stunning of all the ancient cities we visit. First settled by the Hittites in the 5th century and continually inhabited until the 13th century AD, Sagalassos, situated on the western slopes of the Taurus Mountain range was once a bustling Hellenistic and Roman city. The setting itself is breathtaking and we are agog at the engineering and construction skills it took to build such an elaborate and elegant city with such massive structures on such difficult terrain.
East of Gelemiş, the coastline is mountainous with rocky massifs that plunge into the sea. Our neighboring fishing village, Kalkan is a charming town that spills down the mountain to a little harbor and beach with many good seaside restaurants and other shops and amenities. Kaş, a slightly larger town is even more of a destination—after an hour’s drive along a windy seaside road.
We make it as far east as Antalya, Turkey’s fastest growing city with large-scale development on the outskirts that lead to a fantastic, walled old town. Remnants of the triumphal arch built in the name of Hadrian date to its time as a major Roman port. It is the only remaining gate to the walled city.
Turkiye is big—about the size of Texas and Louisiana combined. In our limited time, we only cover a thin layer along its Aegean and Mediterranean coasts. But we traveled in time as well as distance and having tasted the richness of this land, will be back for more of its stories.