BANANA BOATS? THIS IS A CRUISE THROUGH HISTORY
Times, 6th June 2009
Turkey’s coast may conjure images of foam parties and nightclubs, but a gulet trip can take you – slowly – into ancient sites and cultural firsts, says Jeremy Seal
I’m not quite sure how we’ve got onto Zeno’s Dichotomy Paradox – the one about never arriving if your every stride is half the length of your previous one – but Westminster Classic Tours’ Richard Stoneman is using a handful of Turkish nuts to help explain it. Late morning off Turkey’s remote and lovely Dilek Peninsula, and Richard, resident lecturer on our small-group archaeology and ancient history cruise, illustrates his point by arranging pistachios across the rear-deck table (among the glasses of chilled local Doluca wine) of our 25-metre gulet.
Romantic gulets, with their over-sized bowsprits and high galleon sterns, have long been the signature craft of the Turkish Riviera. The difference is that where they once freighted the local citrus crop to the great markets at Izmir and Antalya, today’s fleets have been adapted for leisure cruising, successfully combining all manner of holiday functions, from floating villa (fully staffed, with sunbeds and swimming), offshore transportation and restaurant to, in this particular case, al fresco lecture hall.
Southwest Turkey tends to conjure visions of bars and nightclubs, banana boats and foam parties, but this deeply indented, mountain-backed coast’s extraordinary classical heritage – Homer, St Nicholas and Alexander, three of the Seven Wonders, a dizzying wealth of other ancient sites, claims to cultural firsts from town planning to pornography – has long drawn another kind of visitor. It’s typical that Richard’s pre-lunch talk should be taking place at ancient Mycale, where the Greeks in 479BC followed up triumphs at Marathon and Salamis to finally send the Persian packing, and so confirm the survival of western civilisation.
On-hand lecturers such as Richard, Greek-speaking Classics Fellow and Alexander the Great expert, serve this erudite, often senior breed by giving daily talks and enriching gulet-based itineraries with their insights and knowledge. Which brings us back to Zeno, near contemporary of the very earliest philosophers, the so-called Pre-Socratics, who first flourished at Miletos and elsewhere along this coast in the sixth century BC. It’s not hyperbole, then, when our hosts label this two-week itinerary – taking in the early classical mindset at sites like Miletos, the Wonders at Ephesus, Bodrum and Rhodes and a very great deal besides – as ‘The Origins of Western Thought’.
We are ten guests when we arrive at the port of Kudadasi. Our stately vessel awaits us, complete with wood-panelled cabins, ensuite bathrooms, spacious decks and a courteous, approachable three-man crew. We dine on deck; the ship’s cook serves freshly prepared meze starters – salads of aubergine and chilli, stuffed peppers, filo pastry boreks filled with feta cheese – followed by chicken kebabs and salad. With all this and the abundant wine, it’s no time before we discover just how like-minded we are. A convivial atmosphere descends, settled as the warm September skies.
A minibus arrives after breakfast; a reminder that the gulet cannot deliver us to every site on the itinerary. We’re heading for Ephesus, its harbour long since silted, after a visit to the site’s museum at nearby Selcuk. It’s here that local guides take over, as the regulations insist; Richard, who remembers how St Paul nearly got lynched when addressing the crowds at Ephesus’ nearby theatre, is happy to play second fiddle. The museum’s remarkable statues are straight out of Dr Who; they in fact represent Ephesian Artemis, an Anatolian fertility goddess covered in what are generally taken for rudimentary breasts or eggs. Richard is not so sure; bees figure prominently in Ephesian fertility symbolism and he wonders whether we might actually be looking at queen bee cocoons.
At Turkey’s best preserved ancient site we follow a raised, transparent walkway, newly opened this year, through the recently excavated hillside homes of what was surely a favoured Ephesus post code. Here, the astonishingly intact interiors, with magnificent floor mosaics and wall frescoes set among ornate marble panels, provide an exquisite glimpse of privileged domesticity in the ancient world. We return to the gulet after a brief visit to the Temple of Artemis, where a few column stubs sticking out of a marsh constitutes a widely acknowledged let-down. The truth is we have seen enough wonders not to let this one, for all its upper-case credentials, disappoint us.
We cast off the following morning and head south, sometimes under sail, sometimes motor, through the dramatically narrow strait which separates Turkey from the island birthplace of Pythagoras, Greek Samos. There’s time now not only for talk, of oracles and triremes, but also for sunbathing, snoozing and for dusting down that essential gulet item, the backgammon board. The local wind, the meltem, gets up in the afternoon, so we’re pleased to finally anchor in a sheltered bay near Altinkum. Some of us swim, others snorkel, from the boat. I saddle up the gulet’s kayak and mosey round the bay in the late light. Over dinner, all sorts of accomplishments begin to emerge; American Jo Ann demonstrates an impressive knowledge of the night sky.
‘It’s the time of year for meteor showers in Perseus,’ she says. This sort of knowledge is one of the great benefits of learned company, and I cash in during the early hours, dragging myself on deck to see shooting stars cause brief rips, white on black, above the masthead.
A big day awaits us, beginning with Didyma where a magnificent oracular temple stands, at once tumbledown but unfinished. It’s partly ruin, partly late-stage building site, with the vertical scores where the round columns were to have been fluted only highlighting the sense of achievement. Then there is the silt-stranded city site of Miletos, the place where the first philosophers, Thales among them, first sensed natural processes, not merely capricious gods, at work around them. And at lovely Priene, set among pine-clad hills above the Meander Valley, a gleeful Richard falls upon ancient signs inscribed in the walls.
‘Temple Street,’ he translates, and for a moment we are in the fourth century BC, around the time Alexander visited the city en route to conquering the East.
The days pass, the crew busy scrubbing decks, shelling borlotti beans or fixing us drinks, while we laze and learn, journeying south and east into ancient Caria. There is Bodrum, where the great tomb of Mausolos was once accounted a Wonder, and Knydos, with its lovely waterside theatre, where vast crowds once gathered to admire, even lust over, Praxiteles’ famous nude statue of Aphrodite. We dig out our passports to take in Rhodes before returning to Turkey at Kaunos, the gorgeously sited city on the banks of the bird-rich Dalyan River. There have been moments, of course; passing bouts of seasickness, tummy complaints, a briefly flooded cabin, sites so extensive as to deter some heat-weakened group members. The overall view of this beautiful coast, however, as rich in Turkish hospitality as in history, is of enchantment. In fact, the time passes too fast for our liking. Which brings us back to Zeno, he of the halving strides, and hopes that our journey’s end may never arrive.
FULL BEAM AHEAD
Sunday Times, 20th May 2007
Why confine yourself to just one beach when you can have the whole Turkish coast at your disposal? Jeremy Seal sets sail on a traditional gulet
We awoke to screams. It was the children flinging themselves lemming-like into the bracing waters of an Eastern Mediterranean dawn. Deep water and kids was a combination designed to spring us parents, the sort to issue arm-bands at bath-time, from our cabin bunks, gibbering ‘Man Overboard’ and going for the ship’s klaxon. What was it about life onboard a Turkish gulet – looks like a large yacht; feels like a floating villa, fully staffed at that – that had us smiling to ourselves and slipping back into sea-rocked slumbers?
Except for cross-channel ferries, canal boats, ocean liners and pedalos on the Serpentine, most parents don’t much trust their youngsters on things that float. Yet here were three couples taking their kids to sea for a week. When the combined brood numbered an unruly eight, aged from three to ten. And when the youngest in each family couldn’t even swim.
Enter the gulet, the signature craft of southwest Turkey. Forget the flotilla yachts which also frequent the sheltered waters between Bodrum and Antalya; it is the romantic timbered lines of the gulet (like ‘goulette’, French for sailing coaster), with its high windowed galleon stern, twin masts and prominent bowsprit which is the defining summer refrain along this mazy mountain-backed coastline, home to the fire-breathing Chimaera and to St Nicholas, to ancient oracles and Byzantine hermits. Originally built to ship mandarins and lemons, the anchor-anywhere gulet has since built a deservedly devoted following among fair-weather yachting types, ruin nuts and discerning indolents – lift so much as a finger on these beamy ketches and a helpful soul will instantly be at your side – as well as Turkey enthusiasts looking to improve on the packaged resort experience. Mix informal measures of the above on spacious decks and at generous al fresco dining tables along a coast brimming with hidden coves, bays, ruin-strewn islets and beaches and you’ve one of the best – and best-value – barefoot luxury holidays ever invented. Even, extraordinarily enough, for children.
We had assumed that rule one of parenthood’s Total Holiday Rethink – no steep drops, especially into water – ruled high-sided gulets out of any young-family holiday thinking. Imagine our surprise, then, when rumours reached us that gulets actually worked brilliantly with young children.
‘If you don’t mind the odd drowning,’ said a planning-stage sceptic amongst us. ‘But, hey,’ he added, already sold on column-strewn hillsides scented with thyme, and sunset beers at anchor in deserted Lycian coves, ‘count us in.’
Suffice to say that the mental baggage weighed a bit as we approached our private gulet charter, the 28-metre Randa, at the end of a quiet jetty in Marmaris Bay. What if the children got seasick? Sunburned? Dehydrated? What if they got upset stomachs? Or found the food funny? Or if a week confined on a boat all felt too much like a game of sardines that they soon bored of? If they narked each other, or the crew? Not to mention the major dread of falling overboard unnoticed? What odds could be got against all 14 of us returning home unaided, or at all?
‘Careful!’ yelled several anxious parents as the children swarmed up the Randa’s gangplank. ‘Cool!’ replied the children as they took possession of their holiday home to discover how shamelessly spacious these vessels have become in the course of their conversion from freight to pleasure. Randa’s widened waist accommodated eight wood-panelled double cabins with ensuite bathrooms, the doors with neatly typed labels (these even had our mini-pirates of the Eastern Mediterranean, much to their amusement, down as Ms or Master). The main cabin-galley backed onto an extended stern deck, the outdoor living and dining area, with an apparent acreage of cabin roof given over to sun mattresses. With a windsurfer, canoe and snorkeling gear, hot showers, music system, board games, a chest-sized cold box for drinks and fully-staffed service, we were as long on facilities as we were on space.
Which left the biggest of issues; safety. Captain Tuncay’s detailed drill – the whereabouts of lifejackets, no running onboard, swimming only with permission, children to stay on the rear deck when the Randa was on the move – soon had parental fears subsiding. There was more good news in the solid wooden bulwarks which rose from the boat’s sides to the shoulders of the non-swimmers, three-year Esme and four-year Lizzie and Zak. Barely half an hour had passed before the holiday had settled into its established pattern; the Randa anchored in a deserted cove, the calm sea turning choppy with happy flailing children, and the parents being fixed drinks under a flaring sunset as Cetin, the cook, set about the first of many excellent Turkish meals. ‘Hey,’ said somebody, raising an Efes beer to his lips, ‘this might just work.’
In the morning, ballasted on a breakfast of eggs and olives, oil drizzled cheeses, tomatoes sprinkled with oregano, melons and cherries, rose-hip and apricot jams – and a much-mined jar of nutella for the children – we sailed east. We had chosen as our cruising grounds the stretch of coast from Dalyan to Fethiye Bay. Here were numerous anchorages. Short hops, never longer than three hours, kept the seasickness to a minimum and brought us to new stops by lunchtime. We moored – anchor forward; stern line tethered around an olive or cypress tree, rock or fallen column – in the sheltered bays of our choice; Aglimani, Boynuzbuku and among the waterside ruins at Hamam Bay where an old houseboat abloom with geraniums potted in rusting olive oil tins served as a ramshackle tea house. At Gemiler we snorkeled over starfish and ancient stone cisterns before putting ashore on St Nicholas Island, an overgrown monastic settlement dating from the early Byzantines. The adults sought out mosaics and fresco fragments among the fifth-century basilicas while the kids searched for lizards, spiders, crickets and tortoises. And kept an eye out for the ice cream boat, its fridge full of Magnums, as its owner circled the island’s landing stage, sensing easy prey.
Then there was the Dalyan River, where the Randa could not go, but with enough attractions – wildlife, ruins, swimming lakes and beaches, and even a smelly sulphur mud bath for face decorating – to make it tailor-made for the children. A local caique with a sun awning picked us up from our anchorage after breakfast and ferried us among the reedbeds of the twisting, turtle-dotted river to the ruins at Caunos. It was perhaps too much to expect that the children should have appreciated the history of this beguiling ancient city, with its hilltop citadel and long-silted harbour. But the girls recognized a stage when they saw the theatre, putting German visitors to flight and setting local stray dogs howling, with a rousing rendition of a Girls Aloud number. It was good to get out on mountain-ringed Koycegiz Lake, among the herons and beyond public censure, where the children tumbled overboard while the crew turned kebabs on the stern-mounted barbecue. And late in the afternoon we stopped at Iztuzu, one of the Mediterranean’s most panoramically unspoiled beaches, to swim in the surf and wash off the mud masks – cats, pirates, Father Christmas beards – the kids had adorned us with at the thermal mud bath. Six-year-old Olly pronounced it his best day ever.
As for trouble, well, the nearest thing to it was when Olly trod on a sea urchin while snorkeling in a bay near Ekincik. He was brave about it, especially when the crew told him that a little olive oil, applied every morning, would soften the skin and soon bring the spines to the surface. The spines came home with him, along with the rest of us – intact and perfectly enchanted.