Our circuit of western Turkey was coming to an end. Over the next three days the plan was to drive south down the Aegean Coast, turn the corner at Izmir and head east along the Mediterranean back to Kalkan. On the way we were planning to stop at a number of important archaeological sites, visit a significant geographical feature, stay one overnight in the delightful little harbour village of Assos looking across to the Greek island of Lesbos and the second in the brash, over-grown, cruise ship capital of Kuşadası. What a contrast.
And just to add to the fun, we were to experience high winds, rain and near freezing temperatures in every possible combination. It was nearly the middle of April.
After a long, and in parts harrowing, visit to Gallipoli, we crossed the Dardanelles by car ferry to the Asian shore. The terminal is right in the centre of the small city of Çanakkale and our hotel for the night was very close by. We settled in quickly and hastened to the bar. It was time for a beer or two.
At school I was one of those kids – I guess we would now say nerds – who loved Latin. It did help that we had an excellent teacher. To this day I have found a knowledge of Latin, albeit a little rusty now, to be very useful. During the last year of study the set books included The Aeneid by Virgil and The Illiad by Homer, which tell the story of the siege of Troy and its eventual downfall. Tomorrow we were going to see Troy for ourselves.
The journey started with a small diversion along the Çanakkale seafront to look at the Hollywood model of a wooden horse that had been presented to the town. This horse was used in the film “Troy” starring Brad Pitt as Achilles. It was rather tacky but still quite impressive standing maybe 10 metres (~30 feet) high.
A 30km ride took us to the site. We had visited Troy before and were prepared to be under-whelmed. Since our last visit a state-of-the-art ticket desk and automatic barrier system has been installed. But true to the Turkish tradition, each “automatic” barrier was manned and you had to hand over your ticket so that an attendant actually put it on the scanner. Once through we were confronted by another, larger-than-life model of the wooden horse, this time built by a local carpenter. If you wanted to a bit of verisimilitude, there were people on hand to kit you out with tunics, helmets and shields. We declined.
Moving onto the site proper, there is remarkably little to see. There are plenty of signs telling you what you are looking at but that is just as well as nothing is very obvious. The site occupies high ground but, unlike in the film, it is a long way from the sea which can just about be seen in the distance. Maybe things will improve but for the meantime there is no sense of the great historic events that took place here. There is definitely no WOW!! factor such as you get at many other Turkish archaeological sites.
Back onto the bus, we travelled south and westwards through the rain and wind to a much more interesting feature. The bus stopped at a couple of small sites along the way but the weather was not conducive to spending much time at either. Then we reached our goal, the most westerly point on the mainland of Continental Asia. This important place is in the small fishing port of Babakale. Most of us braved the weather to climb on the ruins of a large fortress that had protected this strategic cape on the Aegean. From the lookouts there were great views out over the stormy sea. A few ships could be seen battling against the winds and the heavy waves. For a keen (but amateur) geographer like myself, standing on this point did generate the WOW!! factor that was missing at Troy.
Lunch was booked at a small restaurant in Babakale. The restaurant had two rooms and as soon as we arrived, the locals who were dining there all moved into one room and left us with the other to ourselves. The menu was very simple and so it was easy to choose between soups, pide and kebabs. Once replete, it was back onto the bus for a short journey to Assos where we were to spend the night. The road that winds down from the hill above is very steep and narrow. Our 17-seater bus was about the largest vehicle that could be accommodated by it.
The harbour at Assos is one of the most picturesque that I have seen in Turkey. No doubt this was once a small commercial harbour but nowadays it is only used by small private boats. There is only room for one row of stone buildings below the cliff and their frontages are straight onto the harbour. The biggest building is now a hotel where we had stayed on a previous visit. Next to it is a Jandarma station. The reason why is obvious when you look out to sea. About 10km away, across the water, is the Greek island of Lesbos. This is an international frontier and it needs to be protected.
The hotel gave all the appearance of being closed but by dint of trying all the doors we eventually gained entry to the deserted interior. And then a member of the staff arrived and soon a big open fire was poked into action and the bar was ready for service. We ordered an assortment of drinks, mostly wine, and spent a pleasant half hour or so getting warm.
Then it was time to go. The bus took us back up the cliff-side passing an amphitheatre on the way. A few of us braved the wind and rain to take a brief look at close quarters. Then the bus continued to the top of the hill and drove into the small and ancient village that lead up the hill towards an archaeological site on the top. The houses of the village are now all dedicated to selling tourist gifts or converted into cafes. The wind was blowing and the rain was falling so there was no sales pressure as we walked up between the businesses. At the top there was an official kiosk selling tickets to see round the ruins. The weather was not conducive to a serious look around, only suitable for a whistle-stop tour. The most interesting feature was the Temple of Athena. It sits on a rocky outcrop looking out across the Aegean to Lesbos. Not much of the temple has survived but there is enough to get a good impression of how it might have looked more than 2,000 years ago. It is in the Doric style with tall columns topped by stone lintels. There are still some columns but the roof has completely gone.
Our hotel for the night was the Assos Park Hotel. This is a modern hotel with decent sized bedrooms comfortably appointed. Dinner was served in the dining room at long tables. Most of the food was available on a self-service basis from a buffet that was kept refreshed at regular intervals. The choice was fairly limited but perfectly adequate. The bar stayed open quite late so, after dinner, we sat in a lounge and sampled a few beers and wines.
In the morning there was a good choice of breakfast food. Soon we were packed and on our way. Today we were heading for two well-known sites, namely Pergamon and Ephesus. We set off in sunshine and thought maybe the weather had changed for the better. Our hopes were short-lived. Before long we were driving through rain and the wind looked a bit fierce. This didn’t bode well for our visit to Pergamon where a chairlift has been installed to get visitors up the mountain on which the ruins of the ancient city are perched.
By the time we arrived at Bergama, the modern town below the old town, the rain had ceased but the wind had got stronger. Our bus took us to the bottom station for the chairlift and it was immediately obvious that we would not be ascending through the sky. Fortunately our bus was small enough that it could go up the narrow road to the ticket barrier for the site.
And so a band of travellers kitted out in full winter gear – heavy shoes, trousers, jumpers, anoraks, hats and gloves – bought tickets and set off for the top. Pergamon is an extensive site and, although originally a Greek city, grew under Roman rule in the years 100-200 AD to support a population of 200,000. Under the Romans, many buildings were constructed including massive temples, a stadium, a theatre, a huge forum and an amphitheatre. The library at Pergamon was second only to the library at Alexandria.
The wind on the exposed mountain top plateau where the ancient Pergamon was sited, was not abating and soon we had all had enough. It was time to descend and visit the hospital, not a modern day building but more ruins from the Roman days. The entrance to Asklepion, at the foot of the mountain and on the edge of the modern city of Bergama, is not at all impressive. Indeed, the first time we came here our party were not enticed in. Fortunately, others in our party today had visited the site and assured us it was well worth a visit. And they were right.
The original Greek shrine to Asklepios (the god of healing) was expanded into a lavish spa. It was considered to be one of the most important therapeutic and healing centres of the Roman world. As well as treating all types of physical ailments, Asklepion became the first psychiatric hospital in the world. The hospital aimed to provide healing on a holistic basis so new arrivals would be assessed for physical and mental issues and then a treatment plan would be established. Patients often stayed for a long time so there was a temple, shops and even an odeon to provide entertainment.
All the wind and sunshine had made us hungry. Lunch today was in another of the grand lokanta that exist in abundance in Turkey. This one had long bench tables with seats for upwards of two hundred, lots of chrome and buffets laden with food. A Union Jack flag was placed on our table which was a sign to the staff that we were English speakers. The food was OK, most of us drank ayran or water and the cost per head was about 10TL (£2.50) – a bargain.
Somehow time had been speeding away and it was now clear that getting to Ephesus today may be problematical. It became impossible when the driver checked and found the site would be closing just about the time we would get there. Most of us had visited there on previous occasions but we would have loved another chance to see the remarkable ancient city.
We drove into Kuşadası and straight to our hotel. This was a large, modern hotel maybe 0.5KM from the cruise ship harbour and in a busy commercial area. It soon became clear that we were not the only guests expected. The whole of the dining room was set out for a wedding party complete with space for a small band. The good thing about Turkish weddings is that they don’t continue through the night so we would be getting our sleep. A separate dining area had been set up for the regular hotel guests, we had not been forgotten.
The next day, after breakfast, we set off on the last leg of our journey. The first stop was in the centre of the city of Muğla. This is a very busy place being both the capital of the eponymous province, a big shopping centre and a university town. It is well worth a visit of two or three days but today we had about an hour. The bus dropped us at the edge of the old Ottoman district which rises up a hillside to one side of the central area. The streets are narrow and winding, the buildings are all painted white except for the brown of the old wooden hanging balconies that are typical of the Ottoman period. Despite their age, the houses are still inhabited and it looks to be a place where the more prosperous live.
Then it really was the last leg home, with a break for köfte at a roadside café on the outskirts of Dalaman.
Apart from the weather and the disappointment of Troy, this had been a great trip. We’d visited Istanbul and the old Ottoman cities of Edirne, Bursa and Muğla. We’d crossed from East to West and back again and, in our case, had repeated that by riding the train under the Bosphorus. Then there was the day visiting Gallipoli with all its sadness. And I forgot to mention that south of Edirne we crossed the longest stone bridge in Turkey at Uzunköprü – literally “the long bridge” in Turkish. It was built in the 15th century, has 174 arches and is 1,392 m (4,567 ft) long, more than a kilometre and not far off a mile. Quite a sight.
Turkey is a land of fantastic variety, from the ancient to the modern. For the most part, Turks are little interested in the history. The view is that the history of modern Turkey began in 1923. The Lycians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Byzantines and even the Ottomans just happened to live in these lands in times gone by. The outcome is that outside the main tourist season the historical sites are little visited and there is plenty of space. Lucky for us.