When it comes to the great tourist traps of history, the ancient port of Knidos, in Turkey, deserves pride of place. On its rocky headland, surrounded by sparkling blue waters, a lavish temple was raised in the fourth century BC to Aphrodite, the winsome Greek goddess of beauty and love – and throughout the classical era, sightseers from around the Mediterranean world converged here to pay their respects. The eager throngs climbed the marble steps to enter a pagan entertainment complex where sunny-faced priestesses sold food, wine and erotic souvenirs to the faithful in shady, rose-filled gardens.
But its real attraction was a legendary sculpture, the so-called Aphrodite of Knidos – the first female nude in western history. It was said to be the loveliest depiction of a woman ever made, and its sensual power made men weak at the knees. The priestess-guides kept close control over their X-rated asset: they charged a fee to view the statue from the front, and extra for the “posterior view”. Today, the famous temple has disappeared, the Penthouse Pet of antiquity vanished without a trace. But myth and magic are resilient forces in the Mediterranean.
In the 1950s, a group of Turkish bohemians from Istanbul, led by a poet who called himself “the Fisherman of Halicarnassus”, sailed this forgotten coastline in a wooden fishing boat called a gulet. Drifting from cove to cove, they dis- covered that the ancient passion for beauty that Aphrodite had embodied was still a part of the coast’s fabric. In strings of poems and articles, they announced that the goddess’s soothing touch could still be felt in its warm, clear waters, while the liberating call of Dionysus (the god of wine, and thus a notorious “promoter of love”, who was always worshipped in partnership with Aphrodite) echoed from every glowing cliff face. The waterborne bohemians dubbed their idyllic sailing trip the Blue Cruise, and a new tradition was born.
Today, the ancient kingdom of Lycia is a fixture on the tourist map, as Turkey’s Turquoise Coast – and the Blue Cruise is one of those mythic travel experiences that everyone hopes to do once in their lives. Yet, despite its enormous popularity, European sailors still swear that a yacht trip here can reach closer to the spirit of Homeric myth than Greece itself. To test this proposition, I signed up for my own week-long Blue Cruise around the hidden crannies of this sacred coast. Where could a modern pagan gnaw on fresh figs, plunge from the deck of a fishing boat and glimpse the ancient dream? I quickly discovered that today’s Turkish sailors are no less hedonistic than their Greek forebears.
The Amazon Solo had barely eased its way out of Gocek marina when Serhan, the amiable owner, raised his glass of anise-flavoured raki and made a ritual toast: “For a safe journey: Pruvan neta olsun! Keep your prow clean.” THREE MORE toasts later, things were looking good all round. Across the bow of Serhan’s sleek, 107ft Black Sea schooner, the Turkish landscape was proving unexpectedly dramatic: the Twelve Islands of Gocek Bay were looming towards us through the pale heat mist. Jagged silhouettes rose from a sea of glistening silver, where a pair of dolphins were arching. The modern Blue Cruise is nothing if not cosmopolitan.
The passenger list included three Britons, one Turk and an unruly gaggle of retired Italians. It sounded as if there were 50 of them, especially when they all bellowed into their mobile phones at the same time, but when you counted there were only eight. The Italians were an extra- ordinary bunch. They had already shown their priorities by spending a whole morning in Gocek looking for fresh basil to make pesto sauce, which caused us to depart four hours late. Their leader was an urbane, frail, white-haired bachelor named Giorgio, who behaved like Louis XIV with hiscourt, at least with regards to the five Gucci-clad women in the group. Doctors back in Rome had stipulated that Giorgio should not smoke, drink coffee or wine – so he spent every moment of the day smoking and drinking coffee and wine, all solicitously supplied by his bevy of elegant beauties. Giorgio quickly proclaimed himself my tutor on the prin-ciples of the Blue Cruise according to Aphrodite and Dionysus: “Antonio!” “Giorgio?” “It is important to travel with a private harem”.
NEXT MORNING at daybreak, I dropped myself over the side of the Amazon Solo, swam a few strokes across the water to Gemile Island, then pulled myself up onto a stone landing that had been carved 17 centuries ago. The branches of Mediterranean pines dipped down to the water; a forest trail led up from the shore, past Byzantine apses and columns entwined in olive trees. Swarms of bees clustered in the broken hollows of a church – home, in the 4th century, to the Christian Saint Nicholas, the prototype for Father Christmas, or “Baba Noel” as the Turks call him. Baba’s island was as thick with flowers as Aphrodite’s temple. “Take a blind man … to Lycia,” wrote the Fisherman of Halicarnassus, “and he’ll immediately know from the smell of the air exactly where he is. The acrid perfume of lavender, the pungent fragrance of wild mint and thyme, will tell him.” Not to mention jasmine, honeysuckle, myrtle and orange blossom.
As I swam back to the boat, the scent of fresh espresso assailed me – and, sure enough, Giorgio’s harem had laid out a morning repast, to the strains of Puccini’s Nessun Dorma.”Antonio!” “Giorgio?” “What did you see on the island?” He listened indulgently to my account of the ruined monastery before turning serious.”Interesting. But, Antonio, today we have the squid-ink pasta for lunch.”The next morning, when Serhan weighed anchor at 10am on the dot, Giorgio looked at his watch in deep concern: “What is this? Switzerland?”As the Amazon Solo headed into the open sea, past the wild Seven Capes, it became obvious that the name Turquoise Coast is inadequate: the Med-iterranean’s palette is never limited to just one colour. Close to shore, the water’s tone is emerald-green, bright and glassy as mouthwash; further out, its depths are almost burgundy, Homer’s “wine-dark sea”. The eastern Mediterranean has the same astonishing clarity it must have had for the wandering Odysseus: we could watch the floor of the sea passing 60ft below, as if the boat were floating on air. And no other sea is so blindingly reflective. It sparkles all about, as if a million broken mirrors are scattered on its surface, and you have to turn away and hide your eyes.
For the next few days, we drifted in and out of anchorages that could only be accessed by sea. Every headland was encrusted with relics of the Lycians, whose forgotten culture is, as the Turkish writer Azra Erhat put it, “an unsolvable riddle”. One thing is certain: the Lycians had a fine eye for real estate. Every one of their cities was built with a spectacular sea view. In Patara, above the glorious seven-mile beach, an amphitheatre lay filled with sand. At Myra and Dalyan, rock tombs like min- iature temples honeycombed imposing mountainsides. Stone sarcophaguses were littered across the rocky coastlines like orange mushrooms. One afternoon, I took the boat’s dinghy and skirted the shore around Kalkan – the Sunken City. It was actually a rather modest market town that has slowly slipped beneath the waves since ancient times, as Turkey’s coastline has crumbled like a biscuit dipped in tea. But hard facts are overlooked when one is dreaming of Atlantis. I thought I could still make out the foundations of buildings, a vague hint of a plaza, and what I took to be an ancient street.
Back on board, the Italians were fixing the espresso machine. “Antonio!” “Giorgio?” “Why are you so busy with old stones? It is not healthy.” AT LAST, we navigated the remoter straits to Gokkaya Bay, where the landscape became more unearthly by the hour. Until now, the dry Lycian mountains had seemed oddly familiar, even vaguely Cali- fornian. Now the coast became brittle and volcanic. Twisted claws of stone emerged from the water. Jagged islets rose and fell with thetides – no wonder Greek sailors regarded them as the barbs of Poseidon’s trident, raking the waves. It felt as though we had entered an ancient water maze, where every ship could find its own private cove to hide from the rest of the world. To my immeasurable relief – and the mortification of the Italians – even mobile phones couldn’t pick up signals here. It was in this lost world that I finally fell into the rhythm of the Blue Cruise. I would wake in the still of dawn and set off by kayak, listening to delirious birds as the sun rose through the salt mist. Flying fish leapt out of the placid water; the algae fringing underwater rocks was a startling shade of lavender. After a Homeric breakfast of honey and feta cheese, I would tackle a modest excursion – snorkelling on the wreck of a turn-of-the-century trader, say, or hiking to Hayitla, an unexcavated Lycian site where sarco-phaguses protruded from soil as white as flour. In pockets of the bay, visions would appear like Ottoman-era paintings: a quail-hunter wandering with his dog, a rusted antique carbine slung over his shoulder; a young Muslim man and his fiancée sitting in silence by the water, the girl’s mother perched on a rock higher up, watching them like a hawk.
The climax of each day was the Dionysian three-hour lunch. Although Giorgio insisted on his bowl of pasta, the cook laid out his Turkish specialities – a succulent aubergine dish called “The Holy Man Swoons”, lamb kofte, green beans in garlic, herbed yoghurt. Each course was accompanied with healthy infusions of cold white wine, the full glasses sparkling like great rock diamonds in the warm sun, their contents slowly but surely dissolving any afternoon plans. I would end up reclining on pillows like a pasha – feeling, in fact, like Dionysus himself.”Antonio!” “Giorgio.”It was the last meal on the last night, and we were standing on deck. The coast shone in silver moonlight. The Milky Way – the ancient Greek pathway to heaven, lined on either side by the palaces of the gods – swirled into eternity. I was expecting some more sage Italian advice, but for once Giorgio seemed lost for words.”Guarda che luna,” he finally sighed. “Guarda che mare.” Behold, what a moon. Behold, what a sea. I tipped my wineglass as a toast. Perhaps my course in Dionysian living was complete.