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Turkey - Gulets and ghost towns

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5 September 2012 by Alex Stewart

Alex Stewart sails down the Turquoise Coast in Turkey, an idyllic stretch of Mediterranean shore where an archipelago of islands lie close by, concealing historic sites, secluded bays and brilliantly coloured waters best explored by boat or traditional Turkish gulet.

The Muslim morning call to prayer shattered the silence and rippled across the mercury-still surface of the bay to break over the bows of the boat. From the mattress laid out in the yacht's cockpit I could see a huddle of houses below a series of tombs cut into the cliff face on the outskirts of Fethiye, our haven having run from a storm breaking across the gin-clear strait between the Turkish mainland and the islands offshore.

Rock tombs Fethiye, Turkey

The very names associated with the Turquoise Coast we had been languidly exploring - Ragged Bay, 22 Fathom Cove, Wall Bay, Ruin Bay, Tomb Bay - gave a clear idea of what to expect: waters of varied shades of brilliant blue and a succession of ruin-strewn, mountain-backed bays, islands and inlets, whose forested fingers steepled down to the shore.

We had steered from one to another, looking to escape the gulets, the signature coasting craft of southwest Turkey. These twin-masted ketches with their high windowed galleon sterns and prominent bowsprits once carried cargoes of lemons and mandarins to Izmir or Antalya but now sail a beat out of the main ports carrying landlubbers looking to explore the bays.

Turquoise Coast Turkey

Mooring in the traditional fashion with an anchor from the bow and a long stern landline looped around a rock to stabilise us, we would put ashore to explore the atmospheric, unimproved Byzantine, Roman and Lycian ruins that lay scattered across the region.

We'd eat at one of the ramshackle temporary cafes that seasonally sprung up on the islands and inaccessible coves. These simple places had the stamp of impermanence: shabby, weathered furniture, rough outdoor ovens and geraniums growing in rusted olive oil cans. Here we'd buy freshly prepared biber dolma (stuffed peppers), patlican salata (aubergine salad) and meat or fish grilled over open coals, all washed down with cold Efes beer. Later we'd return to the boat for backgammon and raki sun-downers before sleeping to the sound of cicadas.

Turquoise Coast Turkey

Nosing our way into the bay at Soäÿuk Su, we spied a café squatted above the sheltered anchorage. At the tables sat a handful of local men, talking occasionally but otherwise heedless to everything but the suck and surge of the swell. We breakfasted on yoghurt sweetened with honey, freshly picked figs and loaves of unleavened bread, washed down with tea served in tulip-shaped glasses. The proprietor, a heavy-set, sea-burned man with formidable eyebrows, described an historic town hidden from sight behind the ridge that backed the bay. "They built it there, entirely invisible to the sea so the pirates that terrorised this coast couldn't find it", he explained.

Following his directions, we climbed away from the sea along a rocky slope covered in a tangle of cactus flowers, scrub juniper, silver-needled cypresses and summer-baked herbs, our nostrils full of the fragrance of oregano, thyme and pine - the scents of pot-pourri or someone's spice rack.

Turquoise Coast Turkey

Cresting a ridge close to a small white chapel, we entered a valley sat snug in a cluster of hills clad in pines and oleander. Below, a substantial town sprawled amidst overgrown olive groves and orchards. The crumbling settlement, laid out like a hand of cards so no one building obstructed another, was entirely deserted. "Kayaköyü has been empty for almost 100 years", the café host had declared.

Christened Levissi in the eighteenth century by settlers from the Dodecanese islands offshore, Kaya was forcibly emptied at the time its Greek-speaking Christian inhabitants were deported from Turkey in the population exchanges of the 1920s designed to conclude the brutal Greco-Turkish war. The crumbling homes and buildings remain as a moving memorial to the ethnic reshuffle which saw hundreds of thousands of people uprooted and which marked the end of the Christian presence in Anatolia after almost 2000 years.

After a rough shepherd's salad of onions, parsley, tomato and lemon and some sigara borek (crumbly white cheese and herbs in filo pastry), we descended towards the town; grasshoppers disturbed by our passage were sent flickering through the brushwood like electric green sparks. A buzzard drifted overhead in lazy circles, while lizards flaked out on sun-warmed slabs of earth and a couple of curious goats sheltered beneath an old almond tree. Otherwise we had the place to ourselves.

Kayakoyu Turkey church

We wandered amongst the dome-roofed churches and chapels, following the cobbled lanes between the hundreds of houses, their interiors choked with pine trees and their walls faded to a faint blue. Cracked cisterns for collecting rain water and the vestiges of fire-pits and kleftiko's used for cooking lay exposed to the sky, the wooden roofs having long since decayed and fallen in.

The mournful ruins were heavy with the sense of a people vanished, a poignant reminder of the troubled times. Once they were so clearly part of a bustling, prosperous town but the elements have since erased any traces of life and the ruins are now the redoubt of ghosts. Where once merchants bartered, bought and badgered each other, there is now a square with broken mosaics and faded frescoes. The shops have long since been looted and the churches stripped of iconography so that only pieces of bowed angels or winged saints remain. In the charnel house a stack of leg bones is all that's left, the departing Greek inhabitants having exhumed and removed the skulls of their ancestors.

Kayakoyu Turkey church

An expectant silence hangs over the empty houses. "I feel as if Kaya is waiting for someone to sing or call out and it'll come back to life again", the man in the café had suggested. "It won't though", he had concluded, "the Macedonian Muslims transferred here to live in the empty buildings abandoned the place because this rocky, hilly area is so different to the fields of their homeland." Many of the Greeks exiled from their homes now live in Athens, in a small, poor suburb. "No-one comes back and no-one remembers", he mourned.

Clambering back up the stepped path to the ridge, we paused to look out across the town and felt the absence of the people who once lived here as a physical weight. The houses stood out against the hillside like large tombstones in an oversized graveyard. The silence was almost palpable yet different from that at the historic ruins or rock and cliff tombs we'd visited elsewhere; the voices of the departed were not so distant.

Traveller magazine cover

Article originally published in

Traveller magazine

Vol 40, No 2, 2010

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