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Blue Voyage on Turquoise Seas

Published January 2010 in The Epoch Times.

As we pull away from Buried Treasure Cove, we leave behind the pure turquoise shallows, and sail into an ultramarine Mediterranean Sea. The reason why this area of southwest Turkey is called the Turquoise Coast is as clear as these crystal waters. We arrived in Göcek marina yesterday, from America, Australia, Canada and the UK, for a Peter Sommer Travels eight-day sailing holiday and archaeological tour.

Our gulet Almira, is cruising eastwards, on a “Blue Voyage” route, to the village of Üçagız, where it will stop, turn, and head back to Fethiye and journey’s end. This stretch of coast is also called the Lycian Coast, after the proud, ancient civilisation that once flourished here. Persian, Greek, Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman civilisations have since come and gone, but the natural beauty of the mountains, forests, coves and beaches has survived it all. Home to many myths and legends, the area is associated with historical characters like Alexander the Great, Mark Anthony, Cleopatra, and St Paul.

Rock formations resemble gigantic barnacles, and this spread-out string of islets could be the Loch Ness monster. Geological forces manipulated the earth like Play-Doh and erosion continues to sculpt interesting formations. Approaching Gemiler or St Nicholas Island, the submerged quays show how earthquakes and, to a lesser extent, time have rearranged the shoreline, causing subsidence in many places, and upheaval in others. St Nicholas (aka Santa Claus), to whom the island is dedicated, was born in Lycia where he later became Bishop of Myra in the fourth century.

Ruins of buildings and churches show how prosperous this pilgrimage site once was. A climb up the steep, rocky slope leads to a fifth century basilica at the top. Dr Nigel Spivey, our tour guide, is a Professor of Classical Art and Archaeology from Cambridge University. He helps us to picture the church as it was originally: walls and roof intact; fine mosaic floors. Walking back downhill, after admiring the views, raucous cicadas screech their evening chorus. The setting sun floods the eastern sky with colour, painting limestone hills multiple shades of orange.

Our days settle into a pattern of a pre-breakfast swim, before moving on to the next bay or cove. Otherwise, it is reading, painting, or simply sunbathing on deck and enjoying the beautiful surroundings. As aromas waft up from the kitchen announcing that the chef is preparing lunch, there is time for more swimming, snorkelling, or kayaking. Appetising meals are prepared from local ingredients: colourful and flavoursome fruit and vegetables, olives, yoghurt, succulent chicken, and fresh fish.

Late afternoons are cooler, a good time to visit archaeological sites in places, all with two names – one ancient, the other modern. In Kaş, whitewashed houses punctuated by masses of magenta bougainvillea, cascade down the hillside to the harbour. Uphill, past a wall decorated with murals, a beautiful sea view greets the audience in the 4,000-seat Hellenistic theatre of ancient Antiphellos. It is obvious the minute we sit on the hard stone seats, why in ancient times, it was necessary to bring cushions along with the picnic, for a day out at the theatre.

Lycians left behind different tomb types, dotted about the town. A determined little old lady, wearing baggy floral trousers, insists on showing us a shortcut to “The Bellydancers Tomb”, with an unusual frieze of dancing figures carved around the top of the chamber. A road lined with carpet and jewellery shops leads to another impressive monument: the “Lion’s Tomb”. A couple sits at the base, watching their child having fun exploring inside.

As you walk around the curved harbour, the Almira is visible from different angles – a handsome, traditional Turkish wooden boat, or gulet, with a broad beam and wide deck, built locally from pine and mahogany. Green and white striped cushions add a stylish air. She has a large sunbathing deck at the front, seating and dining area to the rear, and accommodates a maximum of 16 people in eight comfortable cabins below.

Arriving in Üçagız, old Teimiussa, some of the monumental 2,500-year-old sarcophagi by the harbour look as if they were only built 50 years ago. Sunken tombs line the shoreline; many more climb prominently uphill. Nigel explains why: “Wealthy Lycians invested far more in their tombs than in their homes.” Possibly this can be attributed to the fact that one of their national deities, Leto, was worshipped as the “Guardian of the Tomb”.

Looking upwards from the jetty at Kale (castle), the fortified walls of ancient Simena, reused in Roman and Byzantine times, are silhouetted against the evening sky. Climbing up to the acropolis, and the smallest amphitheatre in Lycia, with only 400 seats, we pass the ruins of Roman baths, a gift from the Emperor Titus.

Tonight, we dress up for a romantic dinner on shore at the Lykia Restaurant. The owners’ little grandson proudly brings bread to the tables, right at the water’s edge. Starters are a delicious selection of meze, followed by individual grilled fish, ending with segments of sweet watermelon.

Later, back on the gently swaying boat, we sit on deck, chatting into the night.  The stars are out and a half moon casts its silvery light on a dark, rippling sea. Waves lap against the sides, sounding like a lullaby; this is what babies must feel like, being rocked in a cradle.

Next morning, as we sail slowly past the ruined, sunken city of Kekova, roofless walls and staircases rise out of the water. We dock in Kalkan after lunch, and are whisked up to Xanthus, capital of the Lycian federation of independent city states. It is a huge archaeological site – with a Lycian and a Roman acropolis, churches, and a necropolis outside the walls.

“From distant Lycia and the whirling Xanthus came the Lycians led by Sarpedon …” Homer also tells us in the Iliad that the brave warrior died fighting for Troy, during the Trojan War in the 12th century BC. Archaeologists believe they have found an area here, dedicated to Sarpedon’s cult. Looking down from the Acropolis today, the river still flows between fertile green riverbanks, though in Sarpedon’s day, of course, polytunnels did not exist.

After our final swim on the last day, we reluctantly leave the incredibly blue, buoyant sea. We dock at Fethiye, where Amyntas’ Tomb is the most impressive of the rock tombs, built into the hill overlooking the town. Just time for a quick tour of the bazaar downtown before returning to the Almira for the goodbye feast on board.

I arranged a trip extension, so after the departure of the rest of the group, I continue my travels to Kano Otel, a hotel in the small town of Dalyan, on Lycia’s western border. Iztuzu Beach, a short boat ride away, is famous for its natural beauty and for being a protected nesting site for Loggerhead Turtles, (Caretta caretta).

On the front page, the Dalyan Times reports, “Caretta caretta turtle lays its eggs in daytime!” A photograph shows the turtle digging its nest on the beach in broad daylight. This is very unusual, as the turtles are known to only nest at night. Dalyan is mad about Carettas, with turtle souvenirs on sale everywhere.

Mrs Yalman serves cute little turtle-shaped homemade biscuits at the hotel. A substantial breakfast is served on the terrace by the waterfront, but it cannot compete for attention with the superb views, directly across the tall reed beds in the Dalyan River, of the magnificent temple tombs cut into the rock face at Kaunos. At night the tombs look magical, illuminated and reflected in the water.

Next morning, a duck comes up to the waterfront with her brood of six ducklings for bits of bread. For a scary moment, it looks as if a crocodile is emerging from the water, but it is only the first of two freshwater Nile Turtles arriving to breakfast on cheese.

Archaeologist and tour leader Serdar Akerdem has been excavating at Kaunos for many years. He points out various interesting facts and features as he shows me around the archaeological site. On the acropolis, the well-preserved amphitheatre has the only surviving example of a special, swivelling system for changing stage backdrops.

He also explains that this was a large port with two harbours in classical times, until they gradually silted up and the reeds took over. Credit crunches are nothing new here. Records exist showing that during an ancient credit crunch, port taxes had to be lowered. Iztuzu or Turtle Beach is special. One side of the long wide strip of sand faces the Mediterranean and the other, the Dalyan River.

Standing there, looking out to sea, contemplating everything learned and enjoyed on this journey – far in the distance, a gulet is on its way. Could it be the gulet Almira on her next “Blue Voyage”?

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