Turkey: A sentimental journey

By Ewan McDonald

Kahve, aka Turkish coffee, is black and strong and bitter. Photo / Thinkstock.
Kahve, aka Turkish coffee, is black and strong and bitter. Photo / Thinkstock.

The best chips in the world come from the little white café at the end of the jetty. You sit on the terrace and eat them with a simple salad. Lettuce, tomato, cucumber. The chips are great because they're made from huge, yellow potatoes, cooked in the local olive oil. Long, thick, straight. Not shoestring. Or crinkle-cut.

To get there you fly 36 hours from Auckland, probably through Rome, to Istanbul, then another hour to Antalya on Turkey's southern, Mediterranean coast. You take a bus, then a minibus, to a village beside sea-filled craters and green volcanic islands, then a boat - or a kayak - that floats above a sunken city, drowned 1850 years ago. From there it's simple: the café is right where you step off the launch. Or kayak.

Four of us - six if you count Turgay, the boatman, and his 13-year-old nephew, who is actually commanding the vessel - have come for more than lunch. First, we must hike about 30 minutes across a red-rock goat track (honestly: they have right of way) to the other side of the island to Aperlai.

Here, ghostly tombs lie in the shallows. Columns, temples, houses, city walls run down to the shore... and into it. Two and more thousand years ago, this was a metropolis of the Lycian Federation, prototype of the democratic state: 12 cities which governed themselves yet worked together in trade, war, religion, arts.

Giant sea-snails were harvested for the secret inside their shells - crushed, they yielded a paste to dye cloth. The town became, literally, a household word. Aperlai is the home of the colour purple.

Or was. Some 2500 people lived here, and around the bay, until one night in 142AD, when the last and largest earthquake dropped the land - or raised the water - by 150m, creating the Kekova Islands. A civilisation drowned.

Snoozing on the deck later that afternoon (the chips came with mugs of Efes, the national suds, to my palate more a detergent taste), it was time to backtrack.

Turkey was a sentimental journey - Jude had lived, loved, laboured here 30 years ago; somewhere new - I'd never been to one of the oldest nations, and destinations; and a spring break for Sam, Jude's son, working in Rome, and Debbie, her friend, in England.

The family had flown to Istanbul for a week, met the friend at Antalya. Once a sleepy port and beach, now one of the concrete coastal cities this adolescent, wanna-EU democracy has spawned. If it's near the sea, they've paved paradise and put up an apartment block, built a wee airport for easyJet and Ryanair, are sitting back and relieving Poms of their pounds and Germans of their euros.

Tourism, Turkey is growing with the flow. Istanbul is one of this year's European Capitals of Culture, adding special events to its unique attractions. Last year more than 2.5 million Brits travelled to its cities and beaches, 12 per cent up on the previous year. They're counting on another 12 per cent jump this year.

It's a currency event. The EU is tiptoeing around admitting one of the largest Muslim populations, balancing a country that's bigger than France and the UK combined, in a strategic location, against 73 million folk who'd get the right to work across the continent, with the possible addition of those who'd take advantage of its centuries-long role as a free and easy meeting-point for Asia and Europe.

For tourists, the Turkish lira looks a bargain after the euro-zone. The cost of holidaying is low. Rock-bottom: meals for $10, or less. Bed and breakfast in a pansiyon (yes, pension, family-run hotel) for $20 a head - though the unchanging Turkish breakfast (cold, hard-boiled egg, leaves, tomato, cucumber and white bread) can pall after four weeks. Getting around is cheap and easy, too.

Few trains, but what appears a haphazard ramble of elderly minibuses (dolmus, said doll-mush) is a surprisingly efficient, co-ordinated network that will take you anywhere you want to go. And where you didn't. And other places you'll be hugely grateful you didn't miss.

Turks have a culture of welcoming visitors. Especially Kiwis. The nation's godfather, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, proclaimed after Gallipoli, "There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets where they lie side by side here in this country of ours... having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well." His grandchildren don't forget.

Schoolchildren learn English, but try to pick up some Turkish. It appears daunting, there aren't enough vowels and many of the consonants have those funny little dots above or tails below. Old-generation words are harder: "Thanks" is "tesekkür ederim", spoken "tesha-cure ed-err-um". New-generation are neighbourly borrowings: carpark is "otopark", hotel is "otel", toilet is "tuvalet".

You'll bargain in markets, for spices and trinkets and clothes and cloth and ceramics, but it's good-natured; more a conversation. Yes, the merchants will take no for an answer - so long as you haven't given the clear impression that you are going to buy.

Food can be familiar - New Zealand has embraced the kebab - but push the boundaries. We tried out-of-the-tourist-belt eateries, for Turkish or more correctly Ottoman cooking is one of the world's great cuisines. These guys ruled from the gates of Vienna across the Balkans, North Africa, Arabia, much of India, those states that end in -stan, and China. Brought the foods back and stewed them into a tastebud-tingling melting-pot.

The national drink of Turkey is... not coffee. Tea. "Cay", pronounced "chy" and drunk from glasses. Any time of day or night. All times of day and night. Without milk but lashed with sugar. A particular favourite is warm, tooth-rattling sweet apple tea (ask for elma chy).

Kahve, aka Turkish coffee, is black and strong and bitter, brewed and served from a little brass jug by... no, I didn't find out the Turkish word for barista.

Beer is cheap and freely available, though there are only two flavours (not so good and not quite so good). Wine isn't any of the above.

The amplified chant of the muezzin from the mosque minaret at 4.30am is a daily reminder that this is a Moslem culture. Only 20 per cent of people drink alcohol, and virtually all those drink beer. Wine carries 30 per cent sales tax and... let's say it strips more than your wallet.

Big questions are where to go, what to see - and where to leave out. Turkey isn't a big country; it's a bloody big country. It hasn't got history; it's got ages of history. Under any of its previous names, this place was old when Britain or France or most nations were young. It hasn't got beaches, it's got coasts.

On the Mediterranean, or Akdeniz as it's known hereabouts. On the Aegean. On the Sea of Marmaris. On the Black Sea. On the... And then there's inland, beside which Australia is just a Little Brother. You want cities? You don't want cities? Wildlife? Wild nightlife? Hey, that takes us back to the cities.

After Istanbul, our choices were driven by geography. We'd planned to train across Italy, ferry to the Greek islands, into Turkey at Bodrum or Izmir. But we dropped into Naples, and Pompeii, and the Amalfi Coast and the Greek islands went west. Or east. Antalya - I was unkind a few paragraphs ago - was a good springboard.

Avoid the suburbs and stay in Kaleici, the pimped-up ancient centre (for "ancient" read 300BC). Streets are narrow and pedestrian-only - apart from residents' cars and buzzing yellow taxis; lined with wooden houses, most now trading as hotels, bars, restaurants and shops, but with the feel of Ottoman days.

Originally a port, willed to the Romans in 133BC, St Paul was an early tourist and the surrounding bays and mountains have seen more history than you can shake a Leki stick at.

Clamber around ruined Termessos, nicknamed "Turkey's Macchu Picchu"; or Perge, settled in the Bronze Age, then by Greeks 12 centuries before Christ, conquered by Alexander the Great, the Romans (Paul and his mate Barnabas preached here too). It was once thought to be beer's birthplace; a pleasant thought while strolling among dry fountains, canals and a near-perfect stadium in 40-plus sun.

Less than two hours' dolmus ride from Antalya - although it felt like a lifetime soundtracked to Turkish pop through a tinny minibus speaker - is Olympos.

Along a beach where enormous loggerhead turtles come to lay eggs lies a curvy cove where a canny council decreed all new buildings must be constructed from wood. Not an early protection leaky-homes saga: pansiyon here are treehouses, a haven for backpackers.

They walk past the inevitable 2000-year-old ruined city to chill out, volleyball, swim, rock-climb, water-ski before each night's party. Or so Sam said: the rest of us stayed at Cirali, the more mature village boasts beach restaurants and sun-loungers 2km up the bay.

Both demographics find time to hike up nearby Mt Olympos, glowering behind the resort, to marvel at the Chimaera - two dozen vents breathing gas flames out of the mountainside, said to be the remains of a three-headed lion-goat-snake thing killed by Pegasus. I'm not making this up. Homer did, in the Iliad.

Over the hills and not too far away - this time, not too far away means another hair-raising, hairpin ride past beaches, cliffs, and mountain passes - lies Ucagiz, its dusty olde-world boat-harbour the base for our voyage to the city at the bottom of the sea.

By now we were perilously close to the coast that has replaced the Costa del Sol as setting for Monty Python's Travel Agent: Brits (and Germans) being carted around in buses complaining about the tea and pining for Watney's Red Barrel. The little port of Kas, while touristy, has so far managed to keep the excesses of package holidaying at bay.

We were done with ruins, splendidly preserved amphitheatres, tombs floating in the sea or carved into mountainsides. Sam saw a sign for adventure tours. Sold: next day we rode an ancient, and ruined, Land-Rover to the Salkikent Canyon, stripped to togs, and trekked for a couple of hours through the icy-streamed, marble-cliffed guts of a mountain; Sam and Jude blew out of the valley on the force of the foaming river (Debbie and I opted for lounging on divans in one of the restaurants ringing the river basin).

On our next-to-last afternoon, we rode donkeys high in the hills along dusty paths and forest, past sheep and goats and tortoises and foxes, to drink ayran (buttermilk) and eat gozelme (pancakes) with predictably ancient farmers in their summer home. Guess the winter one had windows and fewer gaps in the walls.

"Did we miss anything?" Jude asked back in Kas that evening, strolling through the square. "Only the Greek Islands," I replied, and not in a piqued way at all. "Well... " said Debbie. We detoured into a travel agency, paid a few lire, handed over our passports, and were on the dock at 10 next morning. Lined up with 30 or so other tourists, we answered a roll call, and boarded the ferry for the 30-minute harbour crossing to - Greece.

As represented by a tiny island 1300m off the Turkish shore. Think of Rangitoto as a state of Australia. Variously known as Meis (to the Turks), Megisti (to the Greeks), Castelrosso (to the Italians) and Kastellorizo (to the Germans), it's a hotbed of geo-, socio-, religio- and culturo-confusion.

It's been governed by Rhodes, Egypt, the Venetian Doge, the Templars and the Ottoman Turks. That's before we get to the 20th century, when it passed through French, Italian and British hands on its way to the Greek republic. Less than 2000 live here, fishing and farming and fleecing the tourists; it was not always so.

More than 10,000 people called Megisti, or Meis, or Castelrosso home before World War II, when its strategic position made it a sitting duck, bombed all but out of existence (see 1991 Best Foreign Oscar-winner, Mediteraneo). What munitions didn't manage, an earthquake did its best to finish off, five years ago.

What's left? Little more than a charming boat-harbour, a lire-to-euro money machine to oil the souvenir shops and restaurants. Tourists from Turkey aren't allowed to linger overnight.

We walked from one end of the marina to the other, and swum, and thought of lunch. A café-owner sliced a just-caught kingfish and threw the entrails into the tide. We, and other tourists, watched and snapped as two loggerheads swam in, gobbling the innards metres from our table.

It was the best - well, the only - show in town. There was nothing else to do but eat. The others had swordfish. I was in Greece: I wanted lamb. Spiced, minted, lemoned and roasted. Bliss. Owner: "You enjoyed?" "Nai," I smiled. "Good," he said, proudly. "It's the best," and pointing to the hilltop airfield, "We get it flown in from New Zealand."

A half-hour later, back on Turkish soil. Another half-hour and the travel agent brought our passports to the bar. With four new stamps: in and out of Turkey, in and out of Greece.

And that was Turkey. Next day, back on the dolmus to Antalya, Istanbul and home. The radio was broken. I kind of missed the music. And the chips.

• This feature won the 2011 Cathay Pacific Travcom Award for Best Newspaper Travel Article. It originally appeared in the New Zealand Herald's My Generation magazine in October 2010.

- NZ Herald

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production bpcf05 at 23 Dec 2014 17:05:49 Processing Time: 801ms