Black Sea Re-Route!

From Cappadocia our plan had been to ride north and check out Amasya, a fair sized city set deep in a river valley overlooked by enormous cliffs and mountains. From there we would strike the Black Sea at Ünye and then ride east, sampling the coastline to Trabzon and then decide how to tackle the rest of Turkey prior to our rescheduled visit to Iran. This plan was derailed by our GPS on the first morning…

The map suggested following a major carriageway northeast before swinging round northwest in what looked like the speediest way to reach Amasya. About 15 minutes after leaving Ürgüp, GPS said ‘turn left’, depositing us into a wilderness of rolling hill country populated by the odd small farming village. It was a tremendous ride as we allowed ourselves to get totally lost and disoriented with a big blue sky overhead, Anatolian grassland running to every horizon and ever-so-friendly farm folk waving us on our way from their toil in the fields. The road improved and we clipped along at a lively pace, the hills now blown by steroids into small mountains as we scratched around the fair sized town of Yozgat, hairpin bends yielding some impressive overviews of the city from the north.

By midday we had descended into the sleepy little town of Boğazkale, brown tourist signs proclaiming it as the site of Hattuşa, former hub and capitol of the mighty Hittite Empire. Over a decent lunch at the Hotel Asikoglu of ‘Hittite Kebab’, a sizzling little hot pot of stewed beef and potatoes, we sussed the guidebooks and decided that our GPS had directed us to a right little treasure. The owner, whom we dubbed ‘Mr Hittite’ due to the fact that he had been chosen to dress up as a Hittite warrior for a BBC Documentary filmed in the area (he had the garments framed and a big poster of himself in the role in reception), was keen to show us a lovely cool room for a decent price and within half an hour we had the bikes unloaded and were off hiking into the hills to see Hattuşa.

It was a fabulous setting in a natural amphitheatre of rock-strewn hills and the walk, an easy afternoon amble of a few kilometres round a circular perimeter road, took in all the pertinent points of interest; the reconstructed Lion Gate, the Sphinx Gate and a walk through the 70-metre long tunnel of Yer Kapi, which pierces a huge artificial mound. The place was mostly deserted apart from a few touts who had gained illegal entry and were trying to flog soapstone carvings. Hattuşa is surrounded by huge rocky crags and these provided a backdrop for the afternoon’s aerial entertainment in the form of the eagle colonies that live there. We found a high perch and settled in for a half-hour or so of ‘twitching’; watching the eagles perform mock combats in the thermals off the crags.

Hattuşa was another spectacular archaeological discovery. Found by a French traveller in 1834, it was quickly realised that these ruins were indeed ancient and special. Amazingly a full set of royal archives in the form of earthen tablets were unearthed at the site.  Written in ancient Assyrian (the diplomatic language of the time), they provided a vivid window into this most ancient world  of 2000BC. Prior to this the only references to the Hittites were a few passing mentions in the Bible and it is now known that they controlled a vast empire centred on Anatolia, extending down through the Holyland and on into Egypt where they clashed with the ancient Egyptians. One of the records details a peace treaty between the Hittites and Rameses II and a copy is on display at the UN building in New York as the earliest known international peace treaty.

Our afternoon at Hattuşa was made richer by an encounter with a lady with a black umbrella. Jo Wade, from Melbourne, Australia, was spending 6-months travelling alone around Turkey and we were soon comparing notes on where we’d all been. On learning of our intention to ride east into Iran she advised of recent events, which have led to most of the border crossings being closed in the past week. This was alarming news; an Iranian truck was hijacked and set on fire and there was a report of a minibus with 20 Turkish customs officials kidnapped, although we couldn’t find any supporting evidence for this story or indeed any news on what happened to the victims. This is of course on top of other recent bombings in the south east and indeed in Istanbul (July). We also learned that three of the four border crossings into Iran are now closed and all of this was food for thought as regards our own next steps and personal safety.

The problem lies with the fact that Shia Iran is supportive to the Assad regime in Syria (where you have a Shia ruling class overlording a majority Sunni population). The situation is compounded by the fact that there is no consolidated opposition party to the Assad regime, leaving a vacuum where ISIS can thrive. Throw into this mix the Kurdish question; an ethnic minority, sprawled across the areas where Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey all meet, looking for an independent homeland and taking sides with whoever is likely to grant them most support. In June elections in Turkey, the HDP (the political wing of the Turkish Kurds) managed to win sufficient margin to allow them representation in the government, causing problems for the current coalition such that a second election is now planned for November. Most Turks we spoke to (when the question was raised) were in favour of separation for the Kurds, as they don’t want to see their security forces dragged into a long terrorist war and already casualty lists are making front page news.

This has all wrecked the tourist industry; as previously commented, Turkey is empty. Outside the traditional resorts, the foreign visitors are just staying away, the Lira has devalued by over 20% and the southern provinces swell with Syrian refugees. I have to say that at no time in our travels in Turkey did we ever feel threatened or in any kind of danger. On the contrary folk are just getting along with their lives, dismayed at what is going on and the longer-term impacts on the country. They have been splendid hosts and we will always remember our time here with fondness. But as to the impact of these events on our trip? Already, following our need to return home, we had rescheduled Iran, slipping our arrival date by a full month. A solution presented itself over breakfast with Jo, who has travelled a lot in all of these countries; head north-east and then enter Iran via Georgia and Armenia.

Amasya, our next stop, is probably the loveliest city in all of Turkey and we spent a pleasant afternoon here ambling the streets, admiring the unique Ottoman architecture and strolling the riverbank promenade. Then it was on over the mountains to the Black Sea. We stopped for lunch at a little place called Akkus where we had the most delicious Kofte (meatballs) at a roadside halt on the way onto town. The young lad who ran the place was a fantastic waiter and made every effort to explain his non-english menu. They also served delicious Ayran, a refreshing drink made from yoghurt, salt and water. The place was very remote with few other customers. After lunch we paid and Mags disappeared to the loo while I went over the get ready at the bikes. You can imagine her surprise when she returned to find me surrounded by a vociferous crowd of six-foot plus young men, all of them pointing and asking questions about the bikes. She relaxed when she discovered that they were a Turkish volleyball team, come to train in the high mountains and dine at the best lunch-stop for miles…

Most coastal roads in the world are a pleasure to ride but ultimately this Black Sea road would disappoint. The road itself is mostly 4-lane highway constructed right along the coast such that it severs local access to the sea. At times you feel you are indeed on a major highway but then it runs directly through a busy city like Ordu or Trabzon, instead of bypassing it, so you hit inevitable congestion and traffic lights. Finally the road is a conduit to coastal landfill sites that pollute both water and air. Twice we stopped for a break only to move on when the pungent odour of decaying waste assailed our nostrils; the coast is becoming a huge rubbish dump and that leads me to one of our few dislikes about Turkey; littering.

All across Turkey littering is endemic. Sites like Pergamon and Pammukale are full of day-tripper rubbish all through the simple habit of people just discarding their trash as they go along. Everyone does it; we watched a little tot in Amasya walk past a litter-bin to throw a crisp-packet into the river. Everything from tissues and food-wrappings to plastic bottles are dropped by the wayside, leaving a toxic trail of glittering detritus in the sun at every site. In the mountains north of Trabzon Mags remonstrated with a family of five after they ditched a sizeable bag of trash out of their car onto the road while parked up to look at an ancient Ottoman bridge. They were a little embarrassed so the father picked it up off the road and tossed it into the bushes!

Our first stop on the coast road, Ordu, was a rambling little city with a rare, decent promenade. We took a 2.5km cable car ride to the summit of 550-metre high Boztepe for impressive views of the city, sea and surrounding mountains but had a moment of major panic when the whole contraption stalled about two thirds of the way up, leaving us dangling silently in the wind for a few scary minutes.

For all the disappointment, the Black Sea coast road does string together a series of little jewels once you head inland away from the coast.  North of Trabzon we spent some time in the mountains near Rize, centre of Turkish Tea production. The Turks call it çay (pronounced chai) and a little glass of çay became one of our staples. Çay is made by brewing the tea and then removing the leaves to stop it getting too bitter. The pot is then kept warm and a cuppa is then made by taking some of the brew and topping it up with hot water. We were offered complimentary cups of çay at gas stations and even once while waiting in a bank. In Çamlıhemşin the tea harvest was in full swing and from the balcony of our little hotel room we watched sprightly but ancient ladies work all day long at the backbreaking job of picking the tender leaves from knee-high tea plants. Their task is made even more arduous by the fact that the tea bushes grow all up the sides of the lush green, vertiginous valley walls requiring an extreme effort to even attain the upper plants.

They say there is no such thing as a stranger, only an old friend you’ve yet to meet. With our time in Turkey coming to an end, what better way to mark this than spending the last few days in some fine company. Back at Motocamp, Bulgaria, we spent a pleasant evening with a Turkish rider, a lovely guy with a gentle smile, Ahmet Bengöz who like us was in the early days of a big journey, only in his case he was headed North through Europe and Scandinavia to reach the Arctic Circle (see Ahmet recommended we pay a visit to a friend of his, Sedat Bozkurt, at his hotel the Bintepe just outside Trabzon. A fellow overlander, with an amazing ride on his R80GS from Turkey to South Korea under his belt, we were welcomed with open arms and a massive grin by Sedat at the hotel which housed his three old but immaculate R80 / 100GS’s in the foyer. We spent a grand Friday night on the tiles in downtown Trabzon and then a hungover Saturday exchanging tales from the road and absorbing his recommendations for our way forward through to Iran. Sedat, you are an absolute gentleman and our only regret is that we don’t live closer to share more great times like this!

A few days later we rode the last section of the Turkish Black Sea coast road. It ended in a tunnel that deposited us right at the Georgian border crossing at Sarp. We were about to enter a country that, up until about a week ago, wasn’t even on our itinerary and we knew very little about. We were in for a right surprise!

The photogallery for this blog post cane accessed by clicking here: ‘BlackSea Re-Route’ 






Returning to Turkey, we flew all day starting with an 11am flight from Dublin to Istanbul and then on in the early evening to Kayseri, the minibus dropping us off at the Özsoy Apartment at 1:20am the following morning. Fikret had stayed up all night to warmly greet us and had our room ready and waiting. We spent a somewhat jet-lagged day re-packing everything, having taken advantage of the return home to abandon the last of our camping gear and lighten our load (the tent was left at Motocamp in Bulgaria as we simply were not using it).

For the next week we marveled at the breathtaking otherworld that is Cappadocia. Its name is a derivative of the Persian “Katpatukya – Land of Beautiful Horses” but as noted in the previous blog, the most striking features are the geography and geology of this alien landscape. The terra-forming is utterly bewildering, leaving one wondering if this is a view of an ancient landscape sculpted by weather and time or is it some hole-in-time glimpse into a future fusion based landscape molded for a post-apocalyptic world.

The landscape was created eons ago when three huge volcanoes surrounding the region slathered and smeared deposits of volcanic ash, lava and basalt and generally made a right untidy mess of the place. Earthquakes, wind and rain have rearranged this such that today it looks like a crazy artists palette splattered across hundreds of square miles with whippy meringue points and peaks in a profusion of pastel colours from pinks and purples through sulphurous oranges and yellows to warm and cold blues and greys. The net effect is a creation unlike anything you’ll see anywhere else on this planet.

The area has been settled by man way back as far as the Paleolithic era. It has been a jewel for several empires, a kingdom in its own right, is mentioned several times in the bible and as with the rest of Turkey was fought over and conquered by invader upon invader, sometimes coming from the west at other times from the east. And this is where history and geology combine; the soft substrates that make up the labyrinth of the Cappadocian landscape have lent themselves to caving and tunneling even to the extent of creating underground cities for those in need of a good hidey-hole.

Like early Christians who hid and worshipped here, converting some of the caves into exquisitely decorated churches and the best examples of these were on show at Göreme, the Grand Central of the attractions with its Open-Air Museum. We tried getting there early in the morning to avoid the crowds but it was useless as busloads of Japanese and Spanish tourists soon thronged the pathways making it feel more like a trip to the sales than a visit to a national park. All of the churches we visited had been vandalized, especially any depictions of saints, prophets or other holy people, where the faces have been savagely hacked. Here, at least in the Open Air Museum, many of these are undergoing restoration.

Abandoning the museum after an hour, we wandered down into the little town of Göreme itself, straying off the road to investigate interesting looking features along the way; cave houses, holes in the rocks and a natural arrangement of rock and stone that looked huge bunny rabbit, all of it bewilderingly beautiful. In the town many caves are still used as dwellings and some of the bigger complexes have been turned into very trendy boutique hotels.

A day later and we are wandering amongst even more marvelous rock in Red Valley. Leaving the bikes in the car-park, we got pleasantly lost in the myriad of pathways through the enormous pink pointy cones, remnants of what are known in the area as ‘Fairy-Chimneys’. Later this blended to a landscape of dove-grey and snow-white mushroom headed features, all of it so easy on the eye and calming on the soul. It was one of those places where we didn’t speak much but just wandered along lost in the beauty of the place.

In the afternoon we rode to Pigeon Valley, so called because many of the caves here had been used as dovecotes and this led us to the fabulous castle of Uçhisar. The castle itself is another monstrous Mad-Max rock formation, this time a huge block arising and dominating the area for miles, all cut through with weird chambers and windows. The reward for the strenuous hike to the top was unparalleled ‘King of the Castle’ panoramic views over Cappadocia in every direction.

From Uçhisar we rode back through Göreme and took another little breathtaking backroad that dumped us in the midst of a phallic phalanx of ‘Fairy Chimneys’ leaving every guy there in a depressive state of penis envy. These impressive rock formations are formed when there is a hard material thinly deposited over a thick softer underlying substrate. Over time, cracks in the upper layer allow the much softer rock beneath to be eroded and washed away to leave some fairly impressive columns, in some cases up to 45-metres tall. ‘Fairy Chimneys’ are created when a small cap of the upper hard layer remains, protecting what eventually becomes a stem of the underlying softer layer from erosion. With their capped heads they look like mushrooms, but here in Cappadocia they are so long and slender they look like something else and we both agreed that ‘Fairy Chimney was probably a Turkish euphemism… Ultimately, further erosion of the soft layer causes the cap to eventually fall off, and the stem is then quickly eroded into the cone shapes abundant across the rest of Cappadocia.

We caught the Fairy Chimneys at that magical hour of dusk as the sun was settling low in the sky, its light diffused by dust in the atmosphere, the horizon orange and red and flaring the grey rocks of the stone columns to peachy pinks. The crowds had gone home and we had the place mostly to ourselves for peaceful contemplation over recent events.

Cappadocia held one last surprise in the form of a longer ride out to visit Ihlara Valley, a superb walk along a canyon cut deep by the Melendiz river that runs for 10-miles in south west Cappadocia. The valley, with its obvious and natural water supply, was a natural hide-away for early Christians and contains more than four thousand cave-dwellings and around one hundred cave churches decorated with frescoes. It is thought that up to eighty thousand people once lived here, mostly Greeks who indeed populated most of Cappadocia up until 1923 when they were forcibly evicted in the fore-mentioned population exchange between Greece and Turkey (see previous blog).

Before leaving Cappadocia I must also mention Ürgüp, our base throughout our stay here. It is another ‘cave-town’ overlooked by another Mad-Max citadel and a place where we felt quite at home and so well looked after by our host, Fikret, at the Özsoy Apartment. But it was time to leave Cappadocia and take the road north to the Black Sea and from there continue ever east.

The related photogallery for his blog is at Cappadocia

Dark Days in Cappadocia

From Pamukkale we followed roads east with our eye set on what would eventually prove to be the jewel in the Turkish crown of dreamy destinations, Cappadocia: that unique place where geography, geology and history all collide to create what must surely be one of the most stunning travel locales on the entire planet. Along the way, we stumbled upon another little treasure in the form of the Turkish Lake District. Up until Pamukkale, Turkey had seemed relatively cluttered, the coast road a mish-mash of tourist resorts and industrial cities interspersed with the fabulous ruins as previously related. Now the country was opening up to us with sweeping vistas over sun-scorched grasslands as we penetrated the Anatolian hinterlands.

Our destination was the beautiful town of Eğirdir, resting peacefully at the foot of Mount Sivri on the shores of a crystal clear lake the size of a small ocean. Both town and lake were formerly called Eğridir, a Turkish take on the town’s old Greek name ‘Akrotiri’  meaning simply the peninsula. As we were finding all over Turkey, delving back into the local history was like peeling back the layers of an onion of ancient empires and civilizations. Founded by the Hittites, the town was conquered by Phrygians in around 1200 BC, then by a succession of Lydians, Persians, Macedonians (Alexander the Great), Romans, Byzantines, Seljuks and finally the Ottomans in 1417. Since then the population had remained essentially Orthodox Greek up until the 1920’s, when they were forcibly repatriated to Greece as a dark consequence of the recent Greco-Turkish War (1919–1922). Through this compulsory population exchange, 1.5 million Anatolian Greeks moved West while around half a million Greek Muslims moved East, all ratified under the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne. To give the exchange some idea of proportion, in 1906, nearly 20 percent of the population of present-day Turkey was non-Muslim; by 1927 this had reduced to a mere 2.6 percent.

Under the new regime, Greek Akrotiri became corrupted to Turkish Eğridir. Unfortunately the new name means “it is crooked” in Turkish. To dispel such negative connotations, in the 1980s the “i” and the “r” were transposed to create Eğirdir meaning ‘she who spins’.  And the town does indeed spin a magical serene beauty. The famous 14th century Moroccan traveller Ibn Battuta described it as “a great and populous city with fine bazaars and running streams, fruit trees and orchards”… situated beside “a lake of sweet water”.

A small peninsula does indeed strike out into the lake from the town and here the Romans built a Kale (fortress). We passed its ruins on our way out to the tip of the peninsula, where the delightful Hotel Merci furnished us with a cozy bed for a few days. The beauty and tranquility of the place was enhanced by the fact that it was almost deserted. Whilst the lakes are shunned by many tourists, due to their reputation for being rainy, we were starting to notice the disastrous impact of the current events on Turkeys borders on the tourist trade. Outside the major attractions there is no one here, even though the terrible events are happening hundreds of miles away. It has heightened our own visit to Turkey yet we feel sorry for those engaged in the tourist trade as their customers are staying away, hotels remain nearly empty and sightseeing tours are unfilled.

Replenished from a few peaceful, sunny days on the lake we rode on taking terrific empty roads, straight as a rifle barrel, across vast expanses of grass extending way beyond impossibly blue-skied horizons.   All of a sudden the flat ended and the landscape crumbled and crumpled, the road now jinking through a sci-fi landscape of salmon serrations, canyons and gorges. A magical place of rocky outcrops and fairy chimneys revealed itself, all cut through by some race of Flintstones to create sometimes primitive, sometimes majestic cave dwellings… We had arrived in Cappadocia.

We found a fine apartment at the Özsoy Apart Hotel located in the cave-town of Ürgüp and looked forward to a spell of making, mending and cooking our own food. We had just unpacked when a dreaded email to call home arrived; my younger sister Jackie’s six-year struggle against Breast Cancer was about to end.

Departing on this trip had been a tough call. We had been considering it for several years, all the while with cancer casting its dark shadow over this and everything else that happened in our family. In the end, factoring in commitments with work, our own age, health and condition, we decided to simply go and deal with events as they transpired. It mattered little if we were at home and work in England or Europe or on the road some place; at some time we would have to return to Belfast for all the wrong reasons.

Fikret, the manager at the Özsoy, was simply brilliant. We broke the news to him and he agreed to take care of the two bikes and our luggage while we were away. He even returned with some soup to our room to cheer us up and then organised a mini-bus pick up for the flights back to Ireland.

We landed in Dublin about 5pm and a few hours later were at the hospice with Jackie. She passed away peacefully that night. Once again life had shown us how quickly one can be cast from very high to very low. The funeral, black clothes, grey skies, deep and dark grief… always questioning why? The few weeks at home passed in a blur of sadness made easier simply by being with and around family… My little sister has passed on, her struggle has ended. Her smile and cheery disposition will remain with us always and is a real comfort as we once again return to the road.

Turkey in Ruins!

There is something special about roaming around old graveyards and contemplating the who’s, why’s and wherefores of the interred. Not so much the war graves like Gallipoli with their cargo of mown-down youth, a stark reminder of lives unlived, potentials unfulfilled; so tragic and wrong. A few weeks later and we are roaming a blasted necropolis that has been turned over by Mother Earth through successions of earthquakes over the centuries. Hefty tombs stand at odd angles all broken and collapsed, strewn across acres of landscape like a carelessly tossed box of granite Lego blocks…

Whilst our visit to Gallipoli gave us pause for sad reflection, our next few locations in Turkey left us totally awestruck… Leaving Çanakkale, we plodded along the coast on a road that would deliver us in turn to Pergamon, on to Altincum for a family reunion, then back to Selçuk and nearby Ephesus and finally a ride inland to Pamukkale with its world famous calcite travertines. These sites all lie within Anatolia in the lower southwest corner of Turkey and gateway to the Asia Minor coastline, facing off against Greece and Europe. The area has been a conduit for colonists and invaders with Ancient Greeks building cities along the coast and opening trade with the interior, in turn inviting eastern invaders such as Persians and Seljuk Turks to go the other way. The Romans too used Anatolia as a staging point for further eastern escapades and conquests and ultimately it would host the capital of the Eastern Roman (or Byzantine) Empire right on its doorstep at Constantinople that would finally fall to the rising power of the Ottoman Empire.

The first record of Pergamon was by Xenophon around 400 BC. The Romans later enlarged the city to a thriving metropolis of around 200,000 souls and by the second century AD it had become a major Christian city. Earthquake and invasion reduced it to the ruins we see today, with the modern city of Bergama sprung up at its feet. Pergamon delighted from the start as we rode up a meandering draw that delivered us to a most beautiful accommodation in the form of the Akropolis Hotel with its shady rooms up on a veranda overlooking a little courtyard complete with swimming pool. With the bikes cooling off inside the gates we wandered off for what turned out to be a gourmet lunch of local Mezze at the Aristonicus Boutique Hotel in their garden full of art and sculpture; beautiful food in beautiful surroundings, probably the best accolade for any eatery. All of this was within an easy walk of the cable car that would take us to the Acropolis (upper city).

On exiting the cable car we ran the gauntlet of souvenir hawkers to pay the entry fee (25TL) that gave us access to the site. Initially it seemed unimpressive, a large football-field sized area full of tumbled blocks and scattered columns, with the odd outline of a ruined dwelling here and there. We wandered over to the far side of the ruins where the land dropped away to reveal a stunning Hellenistic Amphitheatre carved straight out of the hillside. Arriving rather late in the day, the ruins seemed empty as we further explored the interior delights of the Sanctuary of Trajan with polo-mint white marble columns, a photographer’s delight against cornflower blue skies.

Treading the marble paving downhill, we imagined Pergamon as it would have been in ancient times with its commanding views over the River Caicus until disturbed from our daydreams by the three-foot form of a lithe black viper darting across the path before us. It stopped for a split second to look at us, offering a glimpse of a scarily human visage on its olive green head, before turning to disappear under some tumbled blocks. Visits to subsequent ruins now have us treading carefully and watching where we put our hands and feet.

Pergamon was beautiful but our next halt, Altincum, was certainly not. A sprawling resort aimed at ‘Brits-Abroad’, we were suddenly dumped out of Turkey into an ersatz Blackpool only this one had real sunshine. In spite of the location, we had a lovely time with my sister Gina and celebrated her husband Robert’s 50th in fine style. It was great too to spend a little time with Ryan and Becky, leaving off our motorcycling mantle to become plain aunty and uncle for a few days. We would dearly loved to have brought them with us for what came next…

When researching our trip through Turkey the big three seemed to be: the ruins at Ephesus, the calcite pools at Pamukkale and the fairytale landscape of Cappadocia. A short hop took us to the little town of Selçuk, our base for exploring the first of the big three: Ephesus. Selçuk itself proved to be a little jewel of a town where we spent an afternoon wandering more ruins, Christian this time.

One of the things I love about travel is when you suddenly find yourself stood at a location where historical characters actually roamed. We have crossed paths with characters as diverse as Caesar, Napoleon and Churchill. Here, at Selçuk, for the first time we were literally treading biblical footsteps, the town having provided refuge for both the apostle John and the Virgin Mary as they fled persecution following the death of Christ. John is alleged to have settled here, indeed written his Gospel and then died of old age in his nineties. The Emperor Justinian built a huge Basilica over the tomb of St John and, like many ancient sites in Turkey, this was later tumbled by an earthquake.   The Basilica would actually be the 7th largest cathedral in the world were it reconstructed today and remains an impressive site, especially against the backdrop of the Ayasuluk Fortress that dominates the whole town.

Of course the star attraction was a day in Ephesus, reached by a 10-minute Dolmus (little mini-bus) from the town centre. Our day started under a haze of cloud that initially made Ephesus seem a dull shambles of grey and off-white slabs, just so much rubble against a drear backdrop of khaki foliage. We climbed the vast amphitheatre to gain views over the ancient paved highway that led to the harbour. It was our first glimpse of the scale of Ephesus, the largest classical site in Turkey. Built at the mouth of a river this once thriving seaport, one of the largest on the Anatolian coast, was doomed when the harbour silted up and the trade moved on to easier access ports. Like Pergamon, earthquakes and invaders did the rest and the walls came tumbling down.

The sun came out, the sky turned blue and the morning cloud collected into little flak-ball puffs carpeting the canopy above for an hour before transforming into thin wisps that drifted off towards the distant mountains. This all led to some fantastic illumination for Ephesus, now revealed in all its grandeur and a delightful day for us exploring the ancient city and fantastic marvels such as the reconstructed Library of Celsus.

You could spend months exploring the multitude of ancient sites in this area so steeped in history but we had to be moving on. A short Sunday hop took us to Pamukkale, which on approach looked like a huge white spoil heap in the midst of the rolling hill country. The small town itself was a cluster of tacky tourist shops and mostly mediocre restaurants nestled up close to the foot of this natural wonder.   The centrepiece was ‘Aqualand’, an incongruous piece of town planning with crappy multi-coloured water shutes that offended the eye and blaring Turkish pop music relayed over a tannoy-system that was even more offensive to the ear. Unsurprisingly, there was hardly anyone in it. We wandered up to the south (lower) gate to obtain information for our visit tomorrow and were horrified to see what looked like a queue of zombies trudging along the trail up the side of the white mountain, relayed here in droves by the packs of air-conditioned buses from near and far. Maybe it was just like this at the weekend?

Next morning we were at the lower entrance gate at 8am sharp, paid our way in and, with only a few others, had the place to ourselves. Pamukkale means ‘Cotton-Castle’ in Turkish, a reference to the stacked terraces that cascade down the mountain in ‘travertines’, large shallow bowls that fill up with mineral rich water from underground thermal springs. As the water first cools, calcium carbonate is precipitated and then, as the water evaporates under the hot sun, the pools shrink leaving a hard rim. Over the eons these rims have built up to create a series of natural cascades that then overrun with calcite organ pipes to create a natural wonderland.

A short gravel path deposited us at the start of the trail. From here on all footwear must be removed to avoid damaging the calcite underfoot. The main path is mostly underwater and looked like slippery marble but it is crisscrossed by millions of little channels that give surprisingly good grip. We hobbled like constipated penguins, slowly up the mountain, alternating between huge smiles and slack-jawed awe at these most serene surroundings. We found one of the bigger travertines and had it all to ourselves for a while, plunging into the cool waters and scrubbing down with the soft loam. Peering over the rim of our infinite perspective spa-pool we took in the view of distant mountains and all was well in the world… at least for a while.

By 10:30 more penguins had arrived, busloads of day-trippers, dropped off at the top-gate so they could waddle downhill a bit and dip their feet. By lunchtime it was mayhem and the upper courses were literally jam-packed with people waiving selfie-sticks, all vying to get to the edge for a partially unobstructed photo-shot. Having gained the top, we retreated under the shade of some trees and became voyeurs of the throng. I found it strange that folk would bring a camera to this place of unique natural beauty and then decide that the most important image is not their surroundings, but to capture themselves with a smart-phone selfie-stick; the wand of hedonism. The Japanese seemed particularly afflicted but this offered some great photo opportunities to ‘shoot the vain’. Some women had even dolled up… This left us even more bewildered; why would you don make-up, party dress and glitzy high-heels to visit a national park?

The entrance ticket to Pamukkale also permits access to the ruins of Hieropolis, another ancient city at the top of the travertines. We’d initially dismissed this as just another ruin but in the afternoon it offered welcome refuge from the crowds. It proved to be quite spectacular in its own right, especially the reconstructed theatre. Hieropolis grew around the travertines (which are of course ancient in their own right) as a health spa town for wealthy Romans. They claimed that the treatments here would heal all ailments and success was maintained by screening prospective clients; anyone who looked too ill was turned away to maintain the 100% record.

It was here at Hieropolis that we found ourselves wandering that quake-scattered necropolis all alone in an ancient landscape amidst the ruins of a city from another time. Turkey is proving to be a fantastic travel experience and now we must leave these ruins to continue our journey across the Anatolian plateau to wonders anew…

Thanks for reading this post…  the associated Photo-galleries are: