20, 2003 -> The Turkish Riviera: Week I
Once we cleared the mountain pass separating
Anatolian plateau from the coastal region, the
temperature began to rise. Soon we were speeding past
fields brimming with the produce of the sun: lemons,
persimmons, pomegranates, oranges and olives. The
stony hillsides had a dry, bleached look that
announced the Mediterranean long before we beheld it.
In two weeks we covered much of Turkey's Mediterranean
(southern) and Aegean (western) coasts, starting from
Mersin, a sprawling city only a few hundred kilometers
from the Syrian border, and ending at Efes, one of
Turkey's most famous archaeological sites. Along the
way, we visited Roman and Lycian ruins, Seljuk and
Crusader castles, a bizarre hillside of 'eternal'
flames, and seaside resorts that ranged from
sophisticated to garish.
THE EASTERN MED: Mersin to Alanya
We had hoped to find small, uncrowded beaches
the less-visited eastern Mediterranean coast, but much
of it was either industrial or very rocky. Mersin
itself seemed to stretch for hundreds of kilometers, a
concrete veil of apartment blocks drawn across the
sea. The downtown area was more souk than business
district: thousands of pedestrians milled about on an
uneven grid of one-way streets. Our original
motivation for coming to Mersin had been to catch a
high-speed ferry to Turkish (northern) Cyprus, but the
cost was prohibitive, and we had no desire to spend a
night in the chaotic city.
We drove on to Tashuju, a second port offering
services to Cyprus, but the prices were just as high,
and no ferry left that evening. I had wanted to press
on, but was beginning to feel very sick, so we found a
cheap hotel near the coast and attempted to get some
rest. Unfortunately, kamikaze mosquitoes, the
freezing cold, and a midnight Muslim call to prayer
that seemed to last for hours conspired to keep us up
all night. The next morning, I felt and looked
horrible; Nori couldn't stop laughing every time she
looked over at me slouching in the passenger seat.
Between Tashuju and the resort town of Alanya
amazing, but treacherous, stretch of highway. Here,
the mountains plunged straight into the water, forcing
the road to switchback through forests of twisted pine
trees. The views of the Mediterranean far below us
were breathtaking - when we could take our eyes off
the road. The only other vehicles on the road were
large trucks, who had the dangerous habit of cutting
corners. Had we been in a sports car (instead of a
clunky Fiat), it could have been one of best drives in
THE WESTERN MED: Alanya to Antalya
After two days of driving and rarely seeing
travelers, we were shocked when the road debouched
from the mountains into Alanya. The Costa De Los
Turistos had begun; there were Germans everywhere.
Middle-aged women in inappropriately sized bikinis
waddled beside the highway. Mustached men in Speedos
sat at cafes with names like "Berlin" and "The
Underground." Though the harbor was pretty enough,
with its colorful fishing boats and gulets (wooden
Turkish sailboats), and the Seljuk castle on the
hilltop above the town picturesque, Alanya had long
lost its charm. There were Burger Kings and
McDonalds, tattoo parlors and cheesy nightclubs. It
was low-season, so hotels were half-occupied and many
restaurants were closed, but a suffocating tackiness
made us want to leave - quickly.
Even in winter, Germans choke the resort towns
coastal Turkey. Most restaurant owners and hoteliers
speak German; they appear shocked to hear English.
You are more likely to hear "guten haben" called
than the Turkish "merhaba" or "iyi akshamlar."
is not just about vacationing; many German retirees
have left the Motherland to live in warmer, cheaper
Turkey. It is karma, or perhaps revenge; for many
Germans complain about the huge numbers of Turks who
now live in Germany. It reminded me of a joke I
heard: "Q: What is the difference between an East
Germans and a Turk? A: The Turk has a job and speaks
better German." I remembered really liking the German
Turks, primarily because their roadside doner kebab
stalls allowed me to eat something besides sausage and
sveinbeine while in Berlin.
Mid-way between Alanya and Antalya, Side was
developed than either - with a long beach mostly free
of large hotels - but it seemed the exclusive domain
of older Germans (the younger ones were in Bodrum or
Antalya or Alanya). Restaurant touts failed to guess
my nationality: "Guten Haben! Hello! Swedish?
Norwegian? Danish? Polish? British? Canadian?
Russian?" Near Side was Aspendos, the best-preserved
Roman theater in Turkey. A very long, but beautiful
drive into the mountains of the hinterland took us to
the Seljuk ruins of Selge. Along the way we passed
through a large area of small, closely-packed
pinnacles, like the ruins of a colossal maze.
We did not want to repeat our Alanya experience,
when we saw that Antalya was many times larger, we
drove right past. In the mountains near the city was
the ancient Roman city of Termessos, with a beautiful
theater at the head of a steep, rocky valley. Beyond
the old agora (marketplace) and its subterranean
storage chambers was an extensive necropolis of large,
house-shaped sarcophagi. Many laid open, on their
sides, or had huge cracks - as if an undead army had
burst forth - and was creepy even in daytime.
While at Termessos, we met Rich, an American
traveling in Turkey for three months. He had taken a
sabbatical from consulting, and was hoping to publish
a collection of his photos. We stayed in the same
hostel that evening, and ended up traveling together
for the next week. It became quite comic. Because
Rich wanted a complete set of images, he would usually
stop to "shoot" archaeological sites that we decided
to pass on (we each had rental cars). When we met up
in the evening, he was usually frustrated: "[Insert
site here] sucked."
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