Turkey is vast, varied and magnificent, full of adventure from exotic Istanbul in the west to the plains and wild, snow-clad mountains in the interior that keep on marching all the way to the Himalayas in the east.
Great! But not what I wanted. Turquoise-colored warm waters, boats, bays, coves and uncrowded small towns and villages with cozy cafés and restaurants was my goal.
Landing at the Dalaman airport on the Turquoise Coast in southwestern Turkey, it was only a 25 minutes’ drive to the tranquil village of Gocek. The village is sheltered by pine-clad surrounding hills and from Mediterranean storms by 12 islands full of little coves and bays ideal for swimming, snorkeling, fishing. Further out is the lovely Gulf of Fethiye.
Now a boating center, Gocek has been spared the ravages of mass tourism. Practically unchanged since I first came here some ten years ago, it was a great pleasure to again stroll down the main street with its little shops and cafés. The pace of the village had hardly changed in all this time. Nobody is in a hurry. Bargaining in shops selling fine Turkish handicrafts or more junky goods is gentle or non-existent. And the local people are genuinely friendly and helpful.
Gocek’s relationship with the sea goes back thousands of years to when the Lycian town of Kalimche stood here. Today no less than three marinas offer all kinds of services to modern sailors and the whole water front is full of the traditional wooden gulets for hire or for ferrying day-trippers to other villages, islands and beaches. Or, at the other end of the scale, you can rent a sailing yacht with a professional crew.
As a result, the people you find in the streets, restaurants, cafés and bars are a colorful and agreeable mixture of the local people, yachtsmen and other visitors from all over the globe looking for a special experience. The near-by town of Fethiye is larger and more touristy but in many ways it is a bigger version of Gocek.
I had the good fortune of sharing the chartering of the magnificent, fully rigged schooner Amazon Solo with nine people – all laid-back good-humored British and Scots who were ready to try anything.
We all met up at one of the region’s favorite watering-holes – Gocek’s The Alternative Restaurant and Bar – which with great flare and good taste serves an amazing variety of vegetable mezes and meat, pasta and seafood dishes at shaded tables outdoors.
Soon it was time to sail. Boarding the schooner Amazon Solo was easy, being moored right out in front of the restaurant. And appearing as if by magic the jolliest, most helpful crew I have ever come across lugged our suitcases to the ship.
Skipper Safak Karabiyikli, second mate Sadi Karabiyikli (his brother), chef Yusuf Gundyz and deckhand Serkan from this moment on never flagged in their enthusiastic and cheerful service – without being servile. Which is the very best kind of service.
An inspection of the good ship followed and dedicated owner/operator Serhan also came on board to welcome us and to introduce us to the Amazon Solo, the flag-ship of his Vela Dare fleet of boats.
Representing fine Turkish craftsmanship, she was built on the Turkish Black Sea coast from local chestnut and oak, with decking and superstructures in iroko, and the interiors in cedar and Indian walnut. Measuring 27.5 meters (not counting bowsprit) the Amazon Solo is powered by a 542 HP Caterpillar diesel engine. And occasionally by the sails.
As for the name Amazon Solo, Serhan tells us a fascinating tale:
“Legend says that the Amazons, the warrior tribe dominated by females, used to live in the central Turkish Black Sea area, not on the coast but inland, and the boat was built not far from there in a small village called Tekkeonu, where people have built boats for generations.
“Homer mentions the Amazons as fighting women, equivalent tomen in fighting ability, but he reveals very little else about them. Henever comes out and says where the Amazons lived, but since they fought two wars in Asia Minor, it’s natural to assume they lived there or nearby.”
Below the boat’s deck are seven spacious, air-conditioned cabins with toilets and showers as well as a large saloon and bar. But naturally the point of being here is to enjoy the outdoors and except for diving down below to escape a couple of tremendous downpours or to sleep, everyone spent the whole time on deck. Drinks and meals are served on the aft-deck.
We never traveled far without a stop at some little cove, bay, village or beach. The first evening was no exception. Chugging out into the blue waters of the Bay of Gocek our skipper soon found a little cove with a beach surrounded by pine-tree covered hills and rocks.
We anchored and had our first swim in warm, crystalline waters. After that drinks were served, then dinner accompanied by very acceptable Turkish wines, red or white.
The Turkish crew whose language skills were fairly limited – but limited in several languages – had developed a way of asking the passengers what their choice of wine was: “ redwineorwhitewine ” in one word. From some of the very British passengers they had also adopted the overused word: “ LOVELY !!!”
Chef Yusuf Gunduz’s first dinner was scrumptious and an enormous success. He, like most good Turkish chefs, performed tasty miracles with all kinds of fresh vegetables. Meat and fish, delicious as they were, in my mind were almost secondary to the vegetables. Yusuf never let us down.
The Turkish breakfast was possibly my favorite meal of the day: Warm, fresh bread, fresh orange juice, tea or coffee, tomatoes, olives, olive oil, different exquisite local jams, pine honey, feta and other cheeses – and any kind of eggs or cereals for those who wanted a more northern European breakfast. During the following days we went cruising, swimming, snorkeling and exploring – in the end realizing that in order to do this properly months were needed rather than the one week we had booked.
Sailing east from Gocek into the Gulf of Fethiye we visited the town of Fethiye on a Tuesday, the big market day when everyone from near and far comes to buy and sell or just socialize. Bustling and picturesque, Fethiye is a small, attractive port tucked in between a broad bay and the cliff-face of Mount Crasus which represents the western end of the Taurus mountains.
Settled since the Lycians built Telmessos here 3000 years ago, most of the town we see now is brand new. It was flattened by earthquakes in 1856 and 1957. The fascinating aspect of these disasters was that a number of huge Lycian sarcophagi were left untouched – except one whose lid moved only a few centimeters. Any damage done to them has been inflicted by humans.
Besides the thousands of different items sold in the Fethiye market – from clothing to spice to the freshest of fruit and vegetables – the happy mixture of people was intriguing. Peasant women in traditional dress and baggy trousers rubbed shoulders with smartly dressed Turkish town folk.
A sprinkling of tourists, reasonably dressed or in stages of inappropriate undress marveled at all there was to see and buy. About “ inappropriate undress” – although officially a secular country, the tolerant Turks are after all mostly Muslim.
A short walk up-hill from the market several Lycian rock tombs loom up high, carved into the cliffs. They can be visited for a small fee. At the foot of these rocks is a little café remarkable for its huge glasses of fresh orange juice – and a magnificent panoramic view of Fethiye itself with the Gulf of Fethiye and its islands beyond.
Not far from Fethiye is a small island full of Byzantine ruins including a church with floor mosaics. Here I found out that Santa Claus came from Turkey. This little island with good anchorage bears his name: St. Nicholas Island – or Gemile Island in Turkish. It was a port of call for commercial and cruising vessels from Europe and Eastern Mediterranean, as well as a center of pilgrimage..
Born in Patara about 300 AD St. Nicholas later became a bishop known for his immense kindness. The Dutch corrupted his name to Sinterklaas which became further corrupted to Santa Claus. And, by the way, this jolly old chap with a big white beard and a red suit was the 20 th century invention of the Coca-Cola company – one of their most enduring and successful advertising campaigns. The drawings were done by a Swede by the name of Haddon Sunndbloom, starting in 1931.
And next is a warning: Near St. Nicholas Island there is a place called Õlüdeniz – or The Dead Sea. Don’t go there unless it is totally out of season. It was once one of the most beautiful beaches on the Mediterranean, a turquoise lagoon encircled by white sandy beaches with pines hanging over the water.
The actual beach is still beautiful but the land between the lagoon and the sandy beach is a vast car-park and a whole town of hotels and pensions have invaded what should have been a big national park. But – if you like mass-market holidayland with all that goes with it, this is for you! From the tall Babadag Mountain above you can paraglide into the lagoon.
Sailing west from Gocek we arrived at the Dalyan river estuary. For a reasonable price you can rent a riverboat and travel upriver to the town of Dalyan. Where you pass from the sea into the river is the remote and world famous Iztuzu – “turtle” Beach. World famous because naturalists and ecologists from Turkey and every corner of the globe saved it from the fate of big developers. This is one of the few beaches in the Mediterranean where the giant loggerhead turtles lay their eggs.
Chugging upriver past the beach through up to five-meters tall reeds we stopped and climbed a short distance to Kaunos where there is a Roman theater, a huge Byzantine basilica and a Roman fountain house. For those who remember seeing the classical Humphrey Bogart and Catherine Hepburn film African Queen , part of the film was shot in these spectacular reeds.
Most spectacular of all on this run up to Dalyan are a series of Lycian tombs looming way up in the rock-face on the left in a bend of the river. The largest one was never completed. The method of construction is clearly visible – starting at the top.
After a riverside fish and sea-food lunch at Dalyan a short trip up to the western shore of Köcegiz Lake is highly worthwhile for the spectacle to be seen at the mudbaths at Ilica.
Worthy of Fellini at his most grotesque, on a warm day you see hundreds, perhaps thousands of tourists wallowing in glorious mud. Said to improve male potency, solve gynecological problems and rheumatism, masses of people flock here. My boatman told me that now there wasn’t enough mud here for this many people so they trucked it in from somewhere else.
To truly get to know this region half a life-time is required. Everywhere you go there are ancient ruins of past civilizations, many completely unmarked. There are dozens more large and small towns and villages to visit, some charming and unspoiled, others on the coast very touristy.
At a notable farewell meal at Gocek’s The Alternative Restaurant Turkey’s entry – or not – into the European Union was discussed. I declared: “It should be the other way around: The EU should apply to join Turkey!”