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…
In places, mountains of limestone drop sheer into the sea, elsewhere pine forested peninsulas stretch out like sinuous fingers hiding a cornucopia of golden beaches, deep gulfs, and tiny offshore islands. With such a stunning everchanging backdrop, I can’t think of a better way to see Turkey, to explore its culture, discover such rich ruins, and drink in the landscape, than to set sail on a gulet. Spared the need to constantly pack, unpack, and change hotels, instead one travels in luxurious style. Perhaps the key thing for me is that it’s travel the way the ancients usually did. It makes thinking about the past altogether easier. Out on the waves, time can literally dissolve in the water, two millennia can disappear from the mind.
A mad keen sailor, Peter Ustinov once wrote:
“The sea not only sharpens a sense of beauty and of alarm, but also a sense of history. You are confronted with precisely the sight which met Caesar’s eyes, and Hannibal’s, without having to strain the imagination by subtracting television aerials from the skyline and filling in the gaps in the Colosseum…off the magical coast of Turkey you rediscover what the world was like when it was empty…and when pleasures were as simple as getting up in the morning…and every day is a journey of discovery.”
Gulets are really the vessel of choice for exploring the Turkish coast. Handbuilt from wood, usually pine from local forests, they’re often as much as 80 feet long and sleep between six and 16 guests in attractive double or twin cabins. They tend to have three or four capable and helpful crew members, captain, cook, and one or two mates, who do all the work allowing passengers to relax. Most gulets have a spacious main saloon, a large rear deck where meals are served, and sun loungers on the roof at the front. The majority operate for the most part under motor, but some are also designed for proper sailing. When the sails go up, and the engine turns silent, you have the same soundtrack as Odysseus on Homer’s “wine dark sea”, the slapping of water on the side of the ship, and the wind rushing through the canopy.
Aboard a gulet, one travels in the footsteps of ancient Greek pilgrims en route to an oracular temple like Didyma, or in the wake of Byzantine merchants carrying a cargo of glass, like the Serce Limani shipwreck now in Bodrum museum, or like Roman tourists on their way to see the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, one of the seven ancient wonders of the world.
I remember the first time I visited the ancient city of Knidos, a sensational site for maritime trade perched at the very tip of the Datca peninsula, between Bodrum and Marmaris. We sailed and moored up in the city’s old commercial harbour, just as merchants from Athens, Rhodes, and cities right across the Mediterranean would have done over 2,000 years ago. My fellow travellers and I gawped in wonder, as we eased into the ancient port, and its monuments took shape: the small theatre, the rows of houses, the miles of fortifications climbing up a steep ridge. We anchored where countless vessels had previously – large cargo ships, local fishing boats, perhaps even some fighting triremes. Even today the ancient mooring stones where they tied up are still visible, projecting out from the harbour walls.
One of the defining characteristics of a gulet trip is the back to nature appreciation of the simple things: the clean fresh air, the canopy of stars at night, the time to lounge about and read. Swimming in the crystal waters of the celebrated turquoise coast is of course one of the frequent highlights, and there are usually windsurfers, kayaks, and snorkelling gear available for the slightly more adventurous.
Alongside the archaeology and the relaxed atmosphere, one of the greatest delights of a gulet cruise is the food. Turkish food is justly famed, often ranked as one of the three pre-eminent cuisines in the world alongside French and Chinese. The focus is all about simple but incredibly fresh local ingredients, often grown organically or raised free range. You only have to taste a tomato in Turkey to see the difference.
It’s surprising how even on the smallest gulets, out of the tiniest of galleys, the boat’s cook can produce such a variety of fresh local delicacies. A Turkish breakfast typically consists of bread, tomatoes, cucumbers, olives, cheese, eggs, yoghurt and honey. Lunch and dinner are usually one or two main courses, accompanied by salads and mezes, Turkey’s speciality starters, including cacik (a garlic and cucumber yoghurt), biber dolma (stuffed peppers), and sigara borek (white cheese and herbs in a cigarette shaped filo pastry wrap). Fruit is a mainstay item, and ranges through the seasons from cherries and strawberries, to melon and figs.
But with so many miles of coast where do you choose to sail?
Three areas are particular favourites of mine. First is the ancient region of Lycia, a giant bulge into the Mediterranean on Turkey’s underbelly. Situated between Fethiye and Antalya, it’s an area oozing with myths and brimming with archaeology. Here, behind the soaring Taurus mountains, an extraordinary culture and a fiercely independent people developed. Their funerary architecture, unlike anything else in the world, still litters their once prosperous ports.
This was the fabled land of the Chimaera, a dreaded monster from Greek mythology, described as early as Homer:
“She was of divine race, not of men, in the fore part a lion, at the rear a serpent, and in the middle a goat, breathing forth in terrible manner the force of blazing fire.”
The legend probably owes its origins to an extraordinary site high up in the hills. Sacred since time immemorial, it was the main sanctuary of the port city of Olympus. Here flames leap out of the ground, a phenomenon arising from a subterranean pocket of natural gas which spontaneously ignites on contact with the outside air.
Not only is a gulet cruise the best way to explore such an essentially maritime civilisation, sometimes it’s the only way. Even now, there are tiny coastal villages which are accessible only by sea. One favourite is the sleepy hamlet of Kale, on the southern tip of Lycia. Above a few piers where small fishing boats jostle, rises a ramshackle series of houses made from ancient stones. Dominating the entire scene is a mighty Ottoman fortress built 550 years ago to overpower the Christian knights of Rhodes and secure the all important sea lanes between Constantinople and Jerusalem. The castle, however, was a latecomer. 1,800 years before, a small town called Simena was perched here. Its small Greek style theatre sits slap in the middle of the Ottoman castle, and all through the village are tombs hewn into the rock, and sarcophagi standing ten feet tall.
A second great area for sailing is west of Lycia, the ancient region of Caria, between Bodrum and Fethiye. This was the ancient realm of Mausolus, a powerful dynast 2,400 years ago. A strategically vital region, densely pack in antiquity with rich cities, it was jealously guarded and sought after. Alexander the Great liberated it from Persia, Rhodes sought to annexe it into her own empire, and the legacy of Crusader castles still speaks of the epic battle that raged along this coast between rival religions, Christianity and Islam.
Today, there remains a wonderful blend of architectural and historic marvels. The exquisite temple tombs of Caunos, carved into a cliff face by masons dangling from ropes; the monumental city of Knidos, famed for Praxiteles’ infamous statue of Aphrodite, the first female nude in history; and Halicarnassus itself, site of the fabled mausoleum and the mighty fortress of St. Peter.
A third glorious area for gulet cruising, is ancient Ionia, to the north of Bodrum. Along this stretch of coast developed a civilisation of quite exceptional brilliance. In the centuries before Alexander the Great, the dynamic cities of Ionia helped lay the foundations of Greek literature, science, and philosophy, nevermind architecture. Under Rome, these cities became ever more rich, prosperous, and beautiful – full of the finest temples, theatres and markets that money could buy.
The highlights are plentiful: from the pretty little harbour of Myndos, where Cassius fled after murdering Julius Caesar; to the marvellously preserved Hellenistic city of Priene, where the houses, streets, and public buildings are laid out across a hillside in a perfect grid; and of course, Ephesus, capital of Roman Asia. This was one of the very first cities in the world to have street lighting. The site is magnificent, a cornucopia of colonnaded streets, agoras, baths, private villas, a theatre for 28,000, and an extraordinary library.
If you fancy exploring some of the world’s finest ancient wonders, spring or autumn is the best time to go. April and early May sees Turkey decked out with a stunning display of wild flowers. From the end of May through the start of June the sea becomes swimmable before the summer heat scorches, while September through October is perfect for leisurely bathing.
Why not enjoy your own private gulet charter.