Sunday Times, 14th January 1996
Jeremy Seal takes to his heels and experiences the other side of Turkey.
The imam (priest) stood in the mosque doorway in the Turkish village of Semsi and peered excitedly into the eaves. He had spotted a nesting swallow. ‘See,’ he exulted. ‘Even Allah’s creatures come to rest in His House!’
Perhaps the swallow did not subscribe to this Islamic sophistry, but it could not quibble with the heaven-sent surroundings. Our walking group, Brits and Australians, looked up to the 10,000 foot, snow-flecked peak of Akdag (White Mountain) where long slopes fell away, greening as they unfurled around us into June fields of scented aniseed, stands of oak and pine, and fruit-laden cherry and mulberry trees.
The only sounds were of goatbells and the swish of scythes in the wheat fields, balm to brutalised eardrums after the thump of jackhammers and cement mixers in the booming coastal resort of Kas just 30 miles away. As holidaymaking transforms the former fishing villages along the Turkish Mediterrannean, the yayla (upland pastures) at the western extremes of the Taurus Mountains remain bastions of rural enchantment high above the tideline of tourism.
A few nights earlier, at Aka Pansiyon in Kas, the owner and former trekking guide Mike Belton had explained how he had first pioneered out-of-the-way walking itineraries in the hinterland back in 1989. ‘The locals were not surprised that we should wish to bring visitors to their villages,’ Belton had told us above the hubbub of construction. ‘But that wealthy tourists who could afford to travel in comfort should wish to arrive on foot, leave on foot, and only use their vehicles to transport their luggage almost struck them as perverse.’
As we set out from our first night’s lodgings in Gombe town – foregoing upholstered minibus comfort for aches and blisters, hotel accommodation for uncertain showers and sleeping bags under the stars, international cuisine for village food eaten cross-legged on the floor – the gathering of curious locals suggested a palpable concern for our plight which expensive sunglasses, boots and cameras did little to dispel. The driver of the dawn dairy tanker, pulling up to collect two slopping buckets of milk from a child waiting by the roadside, even offered all ten of us a generous, if quite impractical, lift in his cramped cab. Politely, we declined, explaining that we actually wanted to walk the old path to Semsi. ‘But you are not poor!’ the bemused driver reminded us.
We were not; it was just our spirits that needed a cash injection, and the promise of the morning landscape was already making us feel like lottery winners. Crystal springs welled up beside fields ablaze with poppies. Tortoises lumbered among the walnut and quince trees. Old women bustled out of their gardens to press fistfuls of cherries and strawberries and even broad beans upon us. In the afternoon, a farmer corralled us into his front room for tea. His children appeared before us in an orderly queue, shook our hands and gave each of us a rose. ‘Old Turkish hospitality is dying in the cities and down by the sea,’ explained the farmer, ‘but up here passers-by are few, the farming can always wait, and we have a great many roses.’ For the valedictory group photograph, the son of the family flourished a football club pennant while the girls proudly displayed end-of-term reports – along with the koala bear toys that one of our number had given them. ‘They like bears in Australia?’ whispered the farmer, remembering how less cuddly local ones, rare now, had terrorised his childhood.
We arrived at our lodgings in Semsi in the late afternoon to take showers in the family bathroom and play tiddlywinks with the children. Dinner – spicy stuffed peppers, bean stew, salads and rice – was taken in the company of a singular old man who appeared to have walked straight off the set of Waiting for Godot. ‘Oh, he is just the village widower,’ our host explained indulgently. ‘He often comes here to eat.’
The widower watched us exhausted aliens until we were safe in our sleeping bags, and was back for breakfast next morning to discover an Australian called Cliff taking an electric shave in the garden. When the old man’s turn came (as he insisted it did), the razor groaned across his formidable stubble like a flymo in wet grass before grinding to a premature halt. Not the least put out by his lopsided half-beard, the old man clasped Cliff to his breast in gratitude.
This was our first experience of male-to-male displays of affection; ambling along, we might suddenly find the calloused hands of passing shepherds nestling in ours. One evening, a villager approached me to pick bits of pink towel fluff from my stubble after my shower. More disconcerted than touched, I made a point of calling on the village barber in Sutlegen. So close was the cutthroat shave that it not only kept towel fluff at bay for several days, but it also came with a close-quarters encounter with a paraffin-dipped firebrand as the barber flambed my earhairs, all for 40p.
A happy pattern was soon established as we learned to dress up for the villages (modest trousers or skirts) and change down into shorts for the countryside. An average ten miles walking every day was punctuated by lengthy breaks where we explored the exotic snacks we had stockpiled in Gombe; sunflower seeds and pistachio nuts, roast chickpeas and exquisite honeydew melons. Lunch was a long, shaded picnic of village eggs, bread, cucumbers and cheese followed by siestas among the pine needles. In the evenings, there were bouts of backgammon in village tea houses presided over by farmers exasperated at the laboriousness with which we made our moves.
From Turhan Akkaya’s home, a charming old mill outside the village of Arsakoy, we took an evening stroll along a track flanked by orange-flowering pomegranate trees and irrigation channels swollen by the last of the snowmelt to the ancient site of Arsa. Turhan’s daughter, Birgul, joined us as we wandered among the broken tombs and looked out over the Xanthos valley far below. Later that evening, Birgul proudly pointed out a 1993 calendar of the Cotswolds – quite another world to her – that a previous guest had left. Then came the bombshell. ‘I saw Arsa and the Xanthos valley for the first time this evening,’ she said. In these isolated villages, females are not encouraged to stray from home. Birgul was eighteen years old. I havent’ met Birgul since but I’ve been told that I misunderstood her; she was much better travelled than I represented her here.
As we descended the precipitous track from the yayla, harvesters and tractors replaced scythes and horse-drawn ploughs, and the modern world rushed up to meet us. Turhan, who was waiting with our luggage on the main road, fondly remembered how he had travelled the same track by donkey as a child when delivering grapes to the market at Fethiye with his father. Now, tour buses rushed past en route to the nearby river gorge at Saklikent, a bustling tourist trap hedged in by restaurants and icecream sellers. After the profound beauty of the unspoilt uplands we had just left, tourism’s tendrils were entangling us once again. Nevertheless, we were minded to remember that there was an eighteen-year-old girl up there who would give anything to see something of the world we were reluctantly returning to.
ST PAUL’S TRAIL
An unpublished piece for the Sunday Times
We smirked when the farmer mistook us for treasure hunters; who, after all, had ever heard of guided grave robbers in brightly coloured shorts, daysacks and sunhats? Factor-30 thieves? The truth was that walking groups were a little-known quantity in Haji Ahmetler. All that had ever attracted outsiders to this hamlet, set among the idyllic lower slopes of Turkey’s Taurus Mountains, was clandestine fossicking among the abundance of unexcavated archaeological sites.
All, that is, until recently when a new long-distance path called the St Paul Trail was waymarked through these verdant canyons, oak forests, orchards, pastures, pine-clad hillsides and mountain peaks. The new trail evokes in its name an illustrious former visitor even as it brings the first of what it is hoped will be a steady stream of new ones, both independent walkers and organized groups like ours, to this remote area far beyond Turkey’s established tourist littorals.
But back to Haji Ahmetler and its bemused farmer. We were not here to unearth illicit antiquities, our guide Kerem assured him, but merely to be enchanted by the excellent walking. That his humble patch could work such magic caused the farmer to double up in his chair, and sent a wobble coursing alarmingly through his rickety verandah. His guffaws reached us as we passed beyond the derelict barns at the hamlet’s edge, their rubble walls filleted with timbers to act as shock absorbers in case of earthquakes, and continued after the path began climbing through meadows of vetch towards the Roman ruins of Adada.
The farmer could laugh all he liked. From our pansiyon in the scruffy hillside town of Sutculer we looked out on captivating uplands far from the heat and hubbub of the Mediterranean coast which were rich, besides, with stirring historical resonances. It was through here that St Paul had passed in 46AD on his mission to carry the Christian message to the people of the interior; the beginnings, it might be said, of something very big indeed. Not that the trail, almost two millennia later, could be called rich with tangible evidence of Paul’s passing; the saint’s journeying in this part of Anatolia has left only a limited mark locally which centuries of Muslim predominance have further eroded. It takes, however, only a modicum of imagination to appreciate the wider influence of his journey on nothing less than the evolution of western civilization. This is a walk, then, capable of delivering seismic frissons.
The opening in 1999 of the coastal Lycian Way gave notice that Turkey was a country riddled with paved Roman roads, ancient droving trails and village paths. Routes once walked by goatherds and farmers as well as saints and emperors were just waiting to be restored to use. Much scrub-clearing and paint-daubing later, the new 500-kilometre St Paul Trail forms an inverted Y as it links ancient sites on Turkey’s Mediterranean coast – Perge and Aspendos – with the city ruins of Antioch in Pisidia which was Paul’s inland destination. The whole trail takes many weeks to cover and is often arduous, with sparse food and accommodation options; only experienced and hardy trekkers are likely to attempt extended sections unsupported. And so to the main difference; unlike us, Paul could not call on a minibus to transfer him to preferred sections of the trail or to ferry him and his luggage to overnight lodgings – simple but memorably hospitable, with showers and wholesome evening meals followed by impromptu outbreaks of Turkish dancing – once his sandals began playing up.
We had dropped in on Perge before transferring to Sutculer. It was here at this great city of the plain, with the impressive remains of its stadium and colonnaded street, that Paul had preached before heading north. It was only in the 20th century that much of the site’s remarkable statuary, roughly contemporary with Paul, was removed to become a highlight of the collection at nearby Antalya’s Archaeological Museum.
We caught up with Paul the following morning at the beginning of our five-day walk. A Roman road, lined by ancient Greek inscriptions which had been cut into the rock, led up the boulder-strewn river bank of the Yazili Canyon.
‘At the time of Paul,’ explained Kerem of Middle Earth Travel, ‘this was the only route inland. Here, we are literally following in the saint’s footsteps.’ But not for long; the Roman road had collapsed further up the canyon, leaving the waymarks with no choice but to lead us via a steep zig-zag through pine forest to a terrain of limestone boulders interspersed with holly oak and brambles. We finally emerged exhausted from the canyon at Curuk village to pluck the sweet mulberries which hung like fat white slugs from the trees; these, along with the dried apricots, hazelnuts and walnuts, pumpkin and sunflowers seeds which are staples of even the smallest village store make Turkey the undisputed mecca for ramblers’ nibbles. We refilled our water bottles at a roadside marble fountain.
‘Providing a fountain or building a school are ways of being a good Muslim, like going on the haj [pilgrimage to Mecca],’ explained Kerem before turning cynical – ‘especially if you make sure everybody knows what you have done.’ The fountain was prominently engraved to the memory of the holy man who had provided it and also ‘to his wives’; a reminder how deeply tradition ran just 80 miles from the bars of Antalya. We ended the day at a welcome river pool. Lazing frogs scattered as we jumped in; a growing crowd of curious goatherds gathered to watch.
The landscape softened the following day. We walked farm tracks covered with fallen oak leaves and fringed with wild flowers where bees bobbed. An impressive Roman road fringed the side of the hill that rose towards Adada. Great limestone slabs formed a wide thoroughfare which was gradually engulfed in evergreen oak and wild pistachio, junipers and pines. From this thick scrub rose tottering ashlar blocks and columns. Among the classical temples and amphitheatre stood the remains of later Christian basilicas; visible testament at last to the influence of St Paul, or Bavlu as the city was latterly known to the Christian pilgrims who followed him here in subsequent centuries.
The most memorable names belonged, however, to the settlements we passed, each more charmingly improbable than the last. Sutculer merely meant Milkmakers – it must once have been known for them – and Haji Ahmetler translated as People of the Pilgrimage-Maker Ahmet. But could little Muezzinler (Muezzins) really have specialized in supplying the area’s mosques with their callers to prayer? Or one-horse Sipahiler (Cavalry Officers) really have provided the Ottoman military with their equestrians? All sadly in the past, as an old man explained, stopping to rest the load of oats and grasses freshly cut for winter forage that he carried on his back.
‘All the young have gone to Istanbul,’ he moaned. It was then that he seemed to register all the energy we were wasting and brightened, a one-man development agency blossoming beneath a dream of tended crops and mended barns. ‘It’s a wonderful place. We could find homes for all of you,’ he pleaded.
We did not stay, but set off the next day into the Kasnak Forest. We passed through groves of volcanic oak, elms and juniper before climbing past the cedars and out on the wild pasturelands which skirted the slopes of Mount Davraz. We passed nomadic shepherds’ encampments guarded by ferocious dogs and soon came to shadowed slopes where snow slabs had survived the June sun. We filled our hats with smashed ice to cool our broiling heads. The sun was sinking as we began to descend through meadows of wild flowers towards our rendezvous with the minibus. Another day had proved that the truly precious stuff in these parts, for all the talk of treasure hunters, decidedly lay above the ground.
NEW TRACKS IN OLD HILLS
Sunday Times, 10th March 2002
Jeremy Seal finds a classic Turkey of limestone and lion’s milk on the Lycian Way.
‘See you in camp,’ says Kate Clow, issuing last-stretch directions. ‘And make sure you pick some wild oregano on the way.’ It is October among the limestone crags of Southern Turkey’s Bey Mountains. And we are approaching the end of another magical day’s walking on the Lykia Yolu, or Lycian Way, which runs 500 kilometres between Fethiye and Antalya. Kate is very much the guide of choice to Turkey’s first long-distance walking trail and not only because she can suggest the herbs to accompany that evening’s campsite dinner. She is also the trail’s creator.
A resident of Antalya since 1989, the indefatigable Clow has organized teams of volunteers to clear the scrub from ancient routes including Roman roads and the mule tracks of pilgrims and miners, explorers and invaders, and the pathways of local shepherds and nomads droving their livestock between summer pastures in the mountains and their wintering quarters on the coastal plain. The Lycian Way switches alluringly between uplands and coast to include high pastures and shoreside villages, historical ruins, magnificent turtle-nesting beaches and even a mountain summit. It’s a testament to the sheer extent of the country’s walking potential; one which Clow has continued to tap with the opening of the St Paul’s Trail which heads inland along the saint’s missionary route from east of Antalya to the ruins at Antioch in Pisidia.
We are to tackle a stretch of the Lycian Way close to Antalya. Not far from Kemer, an unappealing resort town, we retreat into the hinterland through a rising forest of pine and smokebush, myrtle and wild pistachio. Pink cyclamen grow amongst the fallen pine needles, and the open slopes have been slow-basted all summer in sage and thyme while spearmint grows along the streams. A river steps down a steep gorge, gathering in chilly pools where we swim among egg-smooth boulders. We picnic on classic Turkish staples; bread and beyaz peynir (Turkish feta), beef tomatoes and black olives, followed by dried apricots and mulberries, and slabs of sesame-tasting helva.
We trail into camp, obediently clutching handfuls of wild oregano. The tents have been pitched on a bare plateau fringed by neglected fruit trees, abandoned stone and timber cottages and an incomplete house. The owner sits on his partially constructed verandah, drinking raki, the ferociously disabling liqueur that the Turks know as lion’s milk, and offering his shower to all-comers. It’s typically Turkish generosity as much as the wealth of scenery and culture which makes the country a walker’s paradise.
In the morning, we leave early and walk through abandoned landscapes. A farm building has fallen to its timber knees, spilling the gourds formerly used as water carriers from their attic storage space; the design-conscious among us nab a couple of them as lamp bases. The raised wooden platforms or divans, convivial al fresco meeting places, are now decrepit, and overgrown with scrub oak. We stop to swim with dayglo-green frogs in a convenient water tank, property of the forestry department, before descending to Gedelme, where a convoy of tourist jeeps roars past. But in the quiet of the village beyond the main road, where the air smells of hay and the swept track is given over to carpets of cracked wheat and sliced apples drying in the sun, unchanged rural Turkey is hunkering down for winter.
We are billeted that evening at Yayla Kuzdere, the last village before the mountain, in a farmstead surrounded by plots of maize and beans, tomatoes and marrows. The orchards are laden with apples, quinces and pomegranates, and only a makeshift barricade keeps the goats, sheep and chickens from our simple dormitory quarters. From the stone walls of the house an exquisite scrap of classical capitol featuring a palm frond motif casually protrudes. Elderly Ayse, her hands stained dark with the juice of a thousand walnuts, bustles about swatting moths as we fall upon her excellent taze fasulye, a stew of garden beans.
We breakfast on black tea and sigara borek, crumbly cheese and chives deep-fried in rolls of filo pastry, before climbing through stands of vedigris-coloured cedars where chaffinches flock. The following morning, after camping high on the slopes of 2300-metre Tahtali Mountain, also known as Mount Olympos, we reach the summit where the Turkish star and crescent flies and the world lies below us. Far inland to the northwest, the trees give way to dust as a green tideline on the Taurus Mountains, while the sea below us laps at the antique harbours of Phaselis.
We descend to Ulupinar, where we lunch on trout – farmed, but not that our altitude-stoked appetites have noticed – in a simple riverside restaurant. Then we yomp down the valley to the Chimaera. Vents of flaming gas issue from the hillside here as they have done since ancient times. Legend has it as the home of the fire-breathing dragon slain by Bellepheron. Then we continue to the soporific coastal village of Cirali where the treat of a night in a simple Turkish pansiyon awaits us.
We cool off in the Mediterranean. At the end of the beach a river leads inland, the path lit by azure flashes of kingfishers. The sun is obscured by a canopy of figs and laurels shedding brown leaves with a dry crackle, and I am soon among the ancient city of Olympos’ half-lit ruins of temples and theatres, tombs and aqueducts, classical Turkey’s most creepily evocative site. I come across trail markers which show the trail’s continued route westwards. I’m tired and it’s time to rest up. But I’m impatient to be off.