It’s only June but the temperatures on Turkey’s Turquoise Coast have crossed the 40C line for each of the last three days. Even our pool, which last week sent a shiver through the body when you jumped in, is now like swimming in a bowl of soup. And I don’t mean cool, refreshing Spanish Gazpacho (cold vegetable soup) rather I’m talking about body warming Turkish Mercimek (spicy lentil soup). So we grasped at an offer of a friend to join a party heading up into the hills for a day.
In our part of Turkey, as I never tire of mentioning, the Taurus Mountains come right down to the sea. And these are no ordinary hills. As I write I’m looking at 1000 metre peaks directly above the town and in the nearby hinterland there is the highest peak of the western range, Akdağ, which rises to over 3000 metres. So it’s only a short drive to gain height and, crucially, to lose temperature.
One of the popular local restaurants is run by two men from the mountain country, Erol and Kadir. They run regular trips to Erol’s family home less than one hour’s drive inland and at about 1000 metres up the slopes of Akdağ. The house is well off the beaten track in a small community of similar dwellings. Today’s trip started from the Kaya restaurant at the civilised hour of 10am. There were about twenty five fellow heat refugees so it needed two minibuses. Already the temperature at town/sea level was in the high 30’s. It would only get worse. The sooner we were transported to the mountains the better.
After 20 minutes or so constantly climbing, we descended a short distance into the Bezirgan valley. This is a large flat area – I’m guessing about 4km by 1km – that was left behind after the ice age. It had been a lake but in Roman times a short and narrow tunnel was bored through the ridge at the seaward end and the lake was effectively drained. The resulting land proved to be very fertile and is an important farming area to this day.
The buses stopped at a large collection of A-shaped wooden huts. Kadir, in his inimitable fashion, proceeded to give us a potted history of the huts and a story about his own connection with these Government protected agricultural artefacts. The huts were, and are still to this day, used by the farmers of the valley to store their crops of wheat. In part the wheat was stored for local use but they were kept as goods to trade. As a young boy, Kadir was commandeered by his father to help carry barrels of honey from their own farm in another community to Bezirgan. The honey was heavy and had to be carried on horseback. It would take half a day, mostly uphill, to get to the storage huts. Once there the honey was traded for wheat which they had to carry back to their own home. An arduous job for a young boy. Kadir could clearly still feel the strains – or maybe he is just a very good actor.
Back in the buses, the journey re-joined the main road and started to climb further up into the hills till we reached the head of a valley and crossed over a ridge. Before us was the magnificent sight of Akdağ. The top section of the mountain is so white with natural rock that it looks as though it is covered in snow. In winter that would indeed be the case but today it was an optical illusion – I think. At this point we were still on the main road from the coast to the important inland city of Elmalı. Soon it was time to take a left turn and head into the forest. First we had to cross a dried up river bed. You could see how ferocious the waters would be by the amount of rock debris scattered across the valley floor. The bridge over the waterless river was a new concrete construction replacing a much older bridge that was swept away maybe three years ago.
As we were driving through the forest on ever narrowing roads the bus suddenly came to a halt. Ian, the indefatigable organiser of today’s trip, opened the front door and went round to the front of the bus. At first we couldn’t see what he was doing until he stood up holding a magnificent tortoise. Although common in the region it is always a delight to see these unique land animals in their wild habitat. The tortoise was gently placed in the nearby scrub then the bus continued. There has been a lot of logging going on in the area so some parts looked a bit barren but they will soon be replanted and will quickly become new forests. Also, as I learned later, some of the ground is being cleared to create a much needed water reservoir
After another short while our minibus turned off on to a stony track and pulled up at an old farm cottage, and there was Erol waiting to greet us at his family home. The ground floor of the cottage which was probably originally used to shelter animals, has now been converted into storage for food and drinks and a bar. Up a flight of outside stairs was the home of Erol’s parents. In the yard there was an imposing oven and open grill. And already working on food preparation was the professional chef from Kaya.
Next to the cottage was a large roofed area rather like an open-sided barn. It had lots of seating. There were a few metal chairs but, in the main, the seats were crude wooden constructions very in keeping with the place. And there was a traditional kösk, a raised platform with cushions where you could lounge on the floor. All very inviting and definitely time for a drink from the bar before deciding where to relax.
Erol announced that a meze table was being prepared and would be ready for us to help ourselves soon. So as we supped our refreshments we could see the chef efficiently putting the final touches to dishes and arranging them on a large circular table. In case we were bored, Kadir decided to entertain us with a few stories about the restorative qualities of the local herbs and most especially about the pain relieving and skin refreshing qualities of oil and soap made from juniper. For those of us with arthritic pains it sounded like the panacea we had been looking for. Rather naively I said, you should have brought some of the products for us to sample. Kadir virtually ignored my request. It became apparent why later in the day.
When we were told the meze was ready, we got our first proper look at the table and couldn’t believe the amount of food that had been produced. Enough to feed an army. There was every kind of salad you could imagine. Diced tomatoes, cucumber and onion; whole spring onions and halved tomatoes; creamed dished including beetroot, carrot, celeriac, onions, etc, etc; freshly made mücver (diced and battered courgette), cheeses borek (filo pastry rolled around crumbly white cheese) and vegetable samosa (small pastry triangles filled with finely diced vegetables). I’m sure I’ve missed out some of the dishes but sufficient to say they were all delicious.
That was a great lunch we all thought after being encouraged to help ourselves to refills. Oh no, Erol announced that there would now be a small intermission whilst the main dishes were prepared. Where were we going to put it all? The answer, at least for some of us, was to be found through the far end of the barn. Here was a large swimming pool with a net across the middle. Soon we were changed into swimmers and an impromptu game of volleyball got underway. The rule was that as you got into the water you went to the end with the fewer players. That way the sides were roughly evenly matched. I say “roughly” because there was another factor, the depth of the pool. Most of the players could stand on the bottom, at least on tiptoes. But for those of us who are, as they say, vertically challenged, most of our time in the pool was spent keeping the mouth above water with occasional reaches for the ball.
Most of us then indulged in a little sunbathing. Although the sun was just as bright as it had been down at the coast, it was nothing like as burning. You could lie back and relax with little fear of excessive sunburn. Then it was time for the main course.
This was served pre-plated. Apart from two long chicken kebab skewers, there were köfte, chicken wings, grilled liver and I’m sure other things I’ve forgotten. And just to add extra flavour there were grilled onions and chilli peppers. Sad to say more of us than not, could not finish our plates. We were stuffed. On a side note, at one point I went to the bar to refill our glasses and met Erol. His face was all puffed up and he was saying nothing other than a few groans. It soon became clear that he was suffering from chewing an excessively hot chilli. He continued to pull faces and grimace for what seemed like ages.
As we finished, or at least stopped eating, Kadir started another of his little entertainments. This time he was to tell us some jokes. He has an amazing grasp of English and was able to tell quite subtle jokes with plenty of double entendres. I won’t repeat any here as it would be like telling the secrets of a magician’s tricks. By the way Kadir is an accomplished magician and entertains the guests at Kaya every night. He is so good that he has been invited to attend magicians’ conventions around the world including many visits to Blackpool, England.
Whilst this was going on more was happening in the courtyard area. A table was being laid out with handicraft products made by the family and, you may have guessed it by now, another table was laden with little bottles of juniper oil and cakes of juniper soap. The latter were bought like hot cakes and soon oil was being massaged into aching joints. The affects were as miraculous as claimed as far as some of were concerned.
Also in the courtyard, on another table, were laid two guns. Not being an expert I assumed they were hunting rifles and wondered what we were going to be shooting – or missing – on a sunny afternoon. It turned out that they were air-rifles and the target for today was rows of plastic and glass bottles arranged on the ground across the public road. Whatever has happened to Health & Safety in this neck of the woods? Most of us had a go with varying degrees of success, but the prizes must go to Ian’s grandson and his girlfriend who were real sharp shooters.
It was now approaching 5pm and time to head back to the furnace. The drivers had been cooling down the minibuses so getting in was not too difficult. After all the food we had had the main sound during the journey back down from the hills was gentle snoring. Coming to as we approached Kalkan the first thing to hit you was the heat. What a contrast to the cool climes of the high countryside.
This had been a truly great day. Our superb hosts, Erol and Kadir with the help of the chef and members of Erol’s family, had done everything possible to gives us all a good time. From the food to the volleyball to rifle shooting, all was exceptional. And to get the regular doses of Kadir’s special brand of humour, made the day. Though, for me, the sight of Erol’s face suffused with chilli heat took some beating. Thanks Kaya for a day to remember.