Picturesque village amidst lakeside classical ruins
Amid the fumes and sprawl of bustling Bodrum or Kuşadası it’s a challenge to imagine that a place such as Bafa Lake could be accessed any way other than by the back of a magic wardrobe. This lovely and unearthly region, strictly protected by national park status, lies barely an hour’s drive away from the Turkish Aegean’s major resorts.
The road leaves the main highway at the town of Bafa, dwindling as it closes on the lake’s eastern shores. Immediately beyond it rise the strikingly boulder-strewn slopes of the Beşparmak (Five Finger) Range which the ancients knew as holy Mount Latmos. The road, now a lane, ends at what passes as the area’s main settlement; the lakeside village of Kapıkırı which squats in casually rustic fashion amid the extensive ruins of Hellenistic Heraclea.
Heraclea, built in the third century BC, was once a sea port; only when the swirling silt deposits of the nearby Meander River blocked off its narrow mouth did this Aegean gulf become a lake. The city’s exceptional historic walls, with their surviving posterns and watchtowers, now enclose a community of fishermen and farmers whose humble homes abut Apollonian temples and ancient arcades. In this delightful and dramatic fusion of the archaeological and the domestic, fluted column drums serve as garden tables. There are no hotels here; the pick of the pansiyons – the family guesthouses which some Turks tend to run brilliantly – are the Agora (you’ll find it by the ancient agora, now the village football pitch), and the gimcrack but heartfelt Kaya, with views over the village’s lovely beach.
These places, with their shaded hammock-slung gardens, make for charming bases from which to explore the region. Days out are down to the lake where the local fishermen will take you out to islands topped by ruined Byzantine monasteries and heron roosts or drop you on a deserted beach like Ikizada to swim in the clear, slightly salted waters. Then there are the slopes of Mount Latmos whose giant brown boulders have been eroded at their bases into caverns decorated by prehistoric cave paintings. These are deceptively confusing landscapes, however, and it would be wise to arrange a guide at your pansiyon; he can lead you through the meadows to the frescoed ruins of mountain monasteries such as Yediler. If you’re not one for company or keen to avoid the guide’s daily fee – whose services should cost about £60 and up depending on group size – then the safe bet is to follow the extraordinary Kral Yolu, or Imperial Way, an ancient track of giant cobbles, intact over long stretches, which winds up the mountain through stands of hayit, as the Turks know the sweet-smelling verbena called monks’ pepper.
This is a magical and undiscovered place, with beaches of white powdered shell where you’ll see nothing but the odd sun-bleached fishing kayık (caique) and locals loading donkeys with firewood.
If there’s a drawback, it’s that the lake’s otherwise pristine waters can begin to pong, even turn putrid, on account of oxygen starvation during the summer; April through June, when the birds and wild flowers are most profuse, are the best months to visit.
You should also be aware that the local women can be pushy when it comes to the baskets of bead-fringed scarves and jars of local honey which they tout around the agora. If the selling bothers you, take comfort from the fact that female insistence is something of an honoured tradition around these parts; it was on Mount Latmos, after all, that the broody moon goddess Selene, captivated by the beauty of Endymion, slipped him some divine Rohypnol before subjecting the stupefied shepherd to some protracted procreation. Endymion was duly installed as the local fertility deity; his temple, built into a natural rocky bowl just above the lake, is among the most resonant of Heraclea’s many ruins.