Sailing through History
Rain was smacking against the window. It was icy cold. Sitting in the dark depths of Birmingham University’s library in 1994, I was gazing out dreaming of somewhere warm and exotic. Turkey was the place that lit up my imagination.
Three great things embody this country. Just fours hours flight away from the UK, it has a culture which is profoundly different, distinctly unfamiliar. A land on the very cusp of Europe and Asia, with two heads simultaneously facing both east and west, it embodies the magic and mysticism of the orient. Once nomads from Central Asia, the Turks were for centuries the middlemen of the world, famed merchants uniting three continents - Europe, Africa, and Asia, as far east as China. Today, its people are famed for their warmth and hospitality, a gift of their nomadic ancestry and Islam’s code of respect for strangers in a strange land.
The second great thing about Turkey is its age. The place is steeped in history. It’s the site of some of the very earliest cities, like Çatal Hoyuk, stretching back 10,000 years. Ever after it was a veritable crossroads of civilisations. When archaeologists dig in Turkey they are confronted by layers upon layers of peoples and cultures, from Hittite fortifications to Byzantine churches. Before I’d even set foot there, Turkey conjured up images of all the things that I longed to see, great sun-burnt plains on which ancient battles were fought, theatres where Greek philosophers declaimed, and the marble clad ruins of Rome’s imperial ambitions.
It’s widely said that Turkey has more and better preserved Greek and Roman archaeological sites than Greece and Italy combined. The landscape is simply riddled with ruins, many of which are virtually untouched. You can literally stroll through an olive grove and stumble upon a Greek temple still standing proud, and have the place all to yourself. Many people say part of Turkey’s charm is that it is like Greece was thirty years ago.
The third fantastic thing about Turkey is the landscape. About three and a half times the size of Britain, it has almost the same population, leaving vast areas wide, empty, and free of the urban sprawl we see at home. Add to that soaring mountain ranges, brillant white sunlight, and a vast coastline stretching along three seas, the Black Sea, the Aegean, and the Mediterranean, and you have a truly marvellous holiday destination.
I first went to Turkey in 1994, on a 2,000 mile walking adventure, to retrace Alexander the Great’s footsteps from Troy to the battlefield of Issus, where the epic warrior defeated the Persians for a second time. A five month journey took me down the western Aegean coast past some of the giant cities of classical history, like Ephesus, Priene, and Miletus; deep into the interior through tiny farming villages where I was feted as an honoured guest; and south through the peaks and valleys of the Taurus mountains, where donkeys are still a favoured mode of transport.
Many years later and my love affair with Turkey still beats strong. While it was walking that brought me to Turkey, today I prefer a very different way of travelling: sailing aboard a luxurious gulet. With some 5,178 miles of coastline, Turkey is a paradise for cruising. Its south and west coasts offer perhaps the most spectacular sailing in the Mediterranean, full of craggy coves and sleepy fishing villages, bustling harbours and deserted bays shaped like giant theatres with breathtaking vistas. Littered with antiquities, protected by law, large sections of it have remained undeveloped, still lapped by the clear waters on which the giants of ancient history sailed: Achilles, Cleopatra, Julius Caesar…