Explore The central and southern Aegean
South of the main Ionian sites the southern Aegean begins with reminders of another ancient civilization, the Carians, a purportedly barbarous people indigenous to the area (a rarity in Anatolia) who spoke a language distantly related to Greek. Bafa Gölü (or Lake Bafa) and ancient Heracleia ad Latmos on its northeast shore make a suitably dramatic introduction to this once isolated and mysterious region. The nearest substantial town is Milas, from where the ancient sites of Euromos, Labranda, and Iassos provide tempting excursions.
South of Milas, on the Gulf of Gökova, Ören is a rare treat: an attractive coastal resort that has not yet been steamrollered by modern tourism. Most visitors bypass Ören in favour of Bodrum and its peninsula, very much the big tourist event on this coast. Here the tentacles of development creep over almost every available parcel of surrounding land – though what attracted outsiders to the area in the first place still shines through on occasion.
Moving on, Muğla makes for a pleasant stopover if you’re passing through. Further south, Marmaris is another big – and rather overblown – resort, from which the Loryma (Hisarönü) peninsula beyond, bereft of a sandy shoreline but blessed with magnificent scenery, offers the closest escape. As a compromise, Datça and its surroundings might fit the bill, with some remote beaches nearby more rewarding than the much-touted ruins of ancient Knidos.Read More
Bafa Gölü (Lake Bafa), one of the most entrancing spectacles in southwestern Turkey, was created when silt deposited by the Büyük Menderes River sealed off the Latmos Gulf from the sea. The barren, weirdly sculpted pinnacles of ancient Mount Latmos (Beşparmak Dağı) still loom over the northeast shore, visible from a great distance west. Numerous islets dot the 100-square-kilometre lake, most of them sporting some sort of fortified Byzantine religious establishment, dating from the lake’s days as an important monastic centre between the seventh and fourteenth centuries.
Bafa’s west end was previously connected to the sea via canals and the Büyük Menderes (now permanently severed). As a result, the water is faintly brackish and fish species include levrek (bass), kefal (grey mullet), yayın (catfish) and yılan balığı (eel). Although locals track their depleting levels, stocks are still high enough to support the arrival throughout the year of more than two hundred species of migratory wildfowl, including the endangered crested pelican, of which there are believed to be less than two thousand left in the world.
Across Lake Bafa is a patch of irregular shoreline with a modern village, Kapıkırı, whose lights twinkle at the base of Mount Latmos by night. This is the site of Heracleia ad Latmos (Heraklia in Turkish) one of Turkey’s most evocatively situated ancient cities.
A settlement of Carian origin had existed here long before the arrival of the Ionians, and Carian habits died hard, though Latmos – as it was then known – had far better geographical communication with Ionia than with the rest of Caria. Late in the Hellenistic period the city’s location was moved a kilometre or so west, and the name changed to Heracleia, but despite adornment with numerous monuments and an enormous wall it was never a place of great importance. Miletus, at the head of the gulf, monopolized most trade and already the inlet was beginning to close up.
Heracleia owes its fame, and an enduring hold on the romantic imagination, to a legend associated not with the town itself but with Mount Latmos behind. Endymion was a handsome shepherd who, while asleep in a cave on the mountain, was noticed by Selene, the moon goddess. She made love with him as he slept and in time, so the story goes, bore Endymion fifty daughters without their sire ever waking once. Endymion was reluctant for all this to stop and begged Zeus, who was also fond of him, to be allowed to dream forever; his wish was granted and, as a character in Mary Lee Settle’s Blood Ties flippantly observed, thus became the only known demigod of the wet dream.
Euromos and Labranda
Euromos and Labranda
A short distance northwest of Milas – a small, initially nondescript town of some 35,000 people – lie two impressive Carian ruins: Euromos and isolated Labranda, for which you’ll really need your own vehicle to visit. A treat for dedicated ruin enthusiasts, the former boasts a Corinthian Temple of Zeus, while the latter’s sanctuary of Zeus is arguably the most beautifully set, and least visited, archeological zone of ancient Caria.
ÖREN is an endangered Turkish species – a coastal resort that’s not completely overdeveloped. It’s one of the few sizable villages on the north coast of the Gulf of Gökova, and owes its pre-tourism history to the narrow, fertile, alluvial plain adjacent, and the lignite deposits in the mountains behind. The upper village, on the east bank of a canyon mouth exiting the hills, is an appealingly homogenous settlement, scattered among the ruins of ancient Keramos. You can easily make out sections of wall, arches and a boat slip, dating from the time when the sea (now 1km distant) lapped the edge of town. The resort area down on the coast has little in the way of relics, save for sections of column carted off from the main site by pansiyon owners for use as decoration. The beach is a more than acceptable kilometre of coarse sand, gravel and pebbles, backed by handsome pine-tufted cliffs; in clear weather you can spy the Datça peninsula opposite. Once there was a working harbour at the east end of the town, but what’s left of the jetty now serves a few fishing boats and the occasional wandering yacht.
In the eyes of its devotees, BODRUM, with its low-rise whitewashed houses and subtropical gardens, is the longest established, most attractive and most versatile Turkish resort – a quality outfit in comparison to its Aegean rivals, Marmaris and Kuşadası. However, the town’s recent attempts to be all things to all tourists have made it more difficult to tell the difference, while the controlled development within the municipality – height limits and a preservation code are in force – has resulted in exploitation of the nearby peninsula, until recently little disturbed. The airport at Milas enables easy access for both tourists and İstanbul-based weekenders, the latter’s fondness for the peninsula inflating prices in general.
The Bodrum area has long attracted large numbers of Britons, both the moneyed yacht set and the charter-flight trade, and most of the big UK package-tour operators are active here. If you want waterborne distractions laid on by day and some of the most sophisticated nightlife in Turkey (complete with imported DJs), then Bodrum town, and Gümbet in particular, will probably suit. If you’re after a coastal tranquillity with plenty of local character, then peninsular outposts such as Gümüşlük and Akyarlar more closely answer to the description.
Sitting on a promontory splitting the inner and outer harbours, Bodrum’s main landmark is the Castle of St Peter, now home to the town’s cultural centrepiece, the Museum of Underwater Archaeology. Despite the commercialization of the grounds, the museum is well worth visiting, with its array of towers, courtyards and dungeons, as well as separate museums displaying underwater finds from various wrecks.
The castle was built by the Knights of St John in 1406, over a small Selçuk fortress. More walls and moats were added over succeeding decades along with water cisterns to guarantee self-sufficiency in the event of siege. The finishing touches had just been applied in 1522 when Süleyman’s capture of the Knights’ headquarters on Rhodes made their position here untenable. Bodrum’s castle was subsequently neglected until the nineteenth century, when the chapel was converted to a mosque, the keep to a prison, and a hamam installed. The castle was damaged by shells during World War I and was not properly refurbished until the 1960s, when it was converted into a museum.
Bodrum, originally known as Halikarnassos, was colonized by Dorians from the Peloponnese during the eleventh century BC. They mingled with the existing Carian population, settling on the small island of Zephysia, which in later ages became a peninsula and the location of the medieval castle. During the fifth century BC, Halikarnassos’ most famous son Herodotus chronicled the city’s fortunes in his acclaimed Histories.
Mausolus (377–353 BC), leader of the Hecatomnid satraps dynasty, soon increased the power and wealth of what had already become a semi-independent principality. An admirer of Greek civilization, Mausolus spared no effort to Hellenize his cities, and was working on a suitably self-aggrandizing tomb at the time of his death – thereby giving us the word “mausoleum”. Artemisia II, his sister and wife, completed the massive structure, which came to be regarded as one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Like her ancestor Artemisia I, she distinguished herself in warfare, inflicting a humiliating defeat on the Rhodians, who were tricked into allowing her entire fleet into their port.
In 334 BC the rampaging Alexander’s arrival coincided with a bitter succession feud between Artemisia’s heirs. The Macedonian armies wreaked such havoc that the city never fully recovered. After a period of little importance under the Roman and Byzantine empires, and brief shuffling among Selçuk, Menteşe and Ottoman occupiers, the Knights of St John slipped over from Rhodes in 1402 and erected the castle that is now Bodrum’s most prominent landmark. Urgently needing to replace the fortress at Smyrna destroyed by the Mongols, the Knights engaged the best military engineers of the era to construct their new stronghold on the promontory. The name bodrum, meaning “cellar” or “dungeon” in Turkish, probably pays tribute to the stronghold’s subterranean defences. After Süleyman the Magnificent compelled the Knights to depart in 1523, the castle’s history was virtually synonymous with that of the town until the twentieth century.
There is more of interest and beauty in the rest of the Bodrum peninsula, and no matter how long or short your stay, time spent exploring it is well worthwhile. The north side of the peninsula tends to be greener, with patches of pine forest; the south, studded with tall crags, is more arid, with a sandier coast.
The population was largely Greek Orthodox before 1923 and villages often still have a vaguely Hellenic feel, with ruined churches, windmills and old stone houses. In recent years, waves of new villas have smothered much of the coast; though, having run out of cash, many of the building projects remain eerily abandoned. An exotic touch is lent by the ubiquitous, white-domed gümbets (cisterns) and by the camel caravans – not mere tourist photo ops, but working draught animals, especially during the off season.
There is also a relatively high concentration of serviceable beaches, with Bitez, Ortakent, Yalıkavak and Türkbükü, among others, currently holding Blue Flag status for cleanliness. Virtually every resort of any importance is served by dolmuş from Bodrum’s otogar.
Roughly 2km west of Bodrum on the peninsula’s south shore, GÜMBET is the closest proper resort to the town – indeed, almost a suburb – and its 600-metre, tamarisk-lined, gritty beach is usually packed, with parasailing, ringo-ing and waterskiing taking place offshore. Development here is exclusively package-oriented with large hotels and pansiyons – a hundred of them on the gradual slope behind, with more springing up – catering for the rowdy, mainly English, 18 to 30 crowd that has effectively claimed this bay. The nightlife is as transient as its clientele and rivals Bodrum in the number of bars and clubs, if not in the quality of its clientele.
BİTEZ (Ağaçlı), the next cove west, 10km from Bodrum, is a little more upmarket, and (along with Farilya) seems to have adopted Gümbet’s former role as a watersport and windsurfing centre. There are a number of reasonable watering holes for the yachties sailing or cruising through, but the beach is tiny, even after artificial supplementing.
MUĞLA, capital of the province and containing several of the biggest resorts on the Aegean, is something of a showcase town and an exception to the Turkish rule of blocky urban architecture. It’s also the closest town to Akyaka, the first coastal settlement you encounter at the bottom of the winding grade descending south from Muğla’s plateau.
Muğla’s well-planned modern quarter incorporates spacious tree-lined boulevards and accommodates some hillside Ottoman neighbourhoods that are among the finest in Turkey. The bazaar, encompassing a grid of neat alleys nestling at the base of the old residential slope to the north, is divided roughly by trade. South of the bazaar is the Ulu Cami, built in the fourteenth century by the Menteşeoğlu emir, İbrahim Bey. The serene Yağcılar Hanı, a restored kervansaray located on Kursunlu Caddesi, contains carpet shops and çay stalls, while a second restored kervansaray, Konakaltı Hanı, on General Mustafa Muğlali Caddesi, is in use as an art gallery. Meanwhile, the town’s museum, on Yatağan Eskiser Caddesi, houses a collection of locally found dinosaur fossils, including prehistoric rhino, giraffe, horse and elephant.
The Hisarönü (Rhodian) peninsula
The Hisarönü (Rhodian) peninsula
In ancient times the peninsula extending from the head of the Gulf of Gökova to a promontory between the Greek islands of Sími and Rhodes was known as the Rhodian Peraea – the mainland territory of the three united city-states of Rhodes, which controlled the area for eight centuries. Despite this, there is little evidence of the long tenure. The peninsula was (and still is) something of a backwater, today known as the Hisarönü peninsula. Up to now, yachts have been the principal means of getting around this irregular landmass and, although a proper road was completed in 1989, the difficulty of access has so far kept development to a minimum.
The pristine shores of the Gulf of Gökova are tailor-made for exploration by yacht or by boat tour. In Marmaris you’ll notice signs pitching an excursion to “Cleopatra’s Isle”. This is actually Sedir Adası (Cedar Island), an islet near the head of the Gulf of Gökova, which still sports extensive fortifications and a theatre from its time as Cedreae, a city of the Peraea. More evocative, however, is its alleged role as a trysting place of Cleopatra and Mark Antony, and the legend concerning the island’s beach – the main goal of the day-trips; the sand was supposedly brought from Africa at Mark Antony’s behest, and indeed analysis has shown that the grains are not from local strata.
The Datça peninsula
The Datça peninsula
Once past the turning for Bozburun, the main highway west of Marmaris ventures out onto the elongated, narrow Datça (Reşadiye) peninsula. There are glimpses through pine gullies of the sea on both sides, and the road is fairly narrow and twisting and it’s inadvisable to use it at night.
Too built-up and commercialized to be the backpackers’ haven it once was, DATÇA is still much calmer than either Bodrum or Marmaris. It’s essentially the shore annexe of inland Reşadiye village, but under the ministrations of visiting yachtspeople and tour operators it has outgrown its parent. Partly due to the basic accommodation on offer, as well as the difficulty of access, prices are noticeably lower than in Bodrum or Marmaris.
Life in and around Datça mostly boils down to a matter of picking your swimming or sunbathing spot. The east beach of hard-packed sand, known locally as Kumluk, is oversubscribed but has some shade. The less crowded west beach, mixed pebble and sand and called Taşlık, is acceptable and gets better the further you get from the anchored yachts.
Beyond Datça the peninsula broadens considerably, and the scenery – almond or olive groves around somnolent, back-of-beyond villages at the base of pine-speckled mountains – is quite unlike that which came before. Towards ancient Knidos, the ancient site on the western cape, of the 32km of road beyond Reşadiye village the 24km to Yazıköy are paved, but the last 4km are rough and ready.
Coastal charters and boat excursions
Coastal charters and boat excursions
Chartering either a motor schooner (gulet) or a smaller yacht out of Marmaris will allow you to explore the convoluted coast from Bodrum as far as Kaş. Especially out of high season, the daily cost isn’t necessarily prohibitive – no more than renting a medium-sized car, for example – and in the case of a gulet, a knowledgeable crew will be included.
You can pre-book a yacht charter through specialist holiday operators, or you can make arrangements on the spot. `the best option for individual travellers or small groups is a cabin charter. Several companies set aside one schooner whose berths are let out individually. The craft departs on a particular day of the week with a fixed itinerary of three to seven days.
If you can assemble a large group, and have more time at your disposal, consider a standard charter of a twenty-metre motor schooner. ACompanies often offer to supply food, though you’d spend about the same eating two meals a day on shore. Probably the best strategy is to dine in restaurants at your evening mooring and to keep the galley stocked for breakfast and snacks. If you tip the crew appropriately they’re usually happy to shop for you.
For the greatest degree of independence, so-called “bareboat yacht” charter is the answer. This assumes that at least one of your party is a certified skipper.
Those looking for a tamer taste of the sea can opt for a day excursion aboard a gület. Trips usually visit highlights of the inner bay, heading to a fish farm on the north side of Cennet Adası, caves on its south shore, then completing the day with a visit to Kumlubükü or Turunç coves.