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November 20, 2003 -> The Turkish Riviera: Week I

Once we cleared the mountain pass separating the 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 along 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 ferry 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 was an 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 world.

THE WESTERN MED: Alanya to Antalya

After two days of driving and rarely seeing other 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 London 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 of coastal Turkey. Most restaurant owners and hoteliers speak German; they appear shocked to hear English. You are more likely to hear "guten haben" called out than the Turkish "merhaba" or "iyi akshamlar." And it 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 less 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, so 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 who was 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."