Patara was the principal port of Lycia, famed for its oracle of Apollo, and as the birthplace in the fourth century AD of St Nicholas, Bishop of Myra (aka Santa Claus). Today, however, the area is better known for its huge sandy beach, a turtle-nesting area in summer that’s off-limits after dark (May–Oct), while in winter the lagoon behind attracts considerable birdlife. Conservationists backed by the Ministry of the Environment have managed to exclude villas from the cape at the southeast end of the strand, while the area’s protected archeological status has halted most new building at Gelemiş.
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A gate and ticket booth controls vehicle access to both the beach at Patara and the archeological site beyond. Although the ruins are unfenced, visitors are not allowed in outside the official opening times.
Despite ongoing digs, much of Patara remains unexcavated, and only a few paths link the individual ruins. There are no facilities or shade – bring water, stout shoes and a head covering during summer.
The city’s entrance is marked by a triple-arched, first-century AD Roman gateway, almost completely intact. A head of Apollo has been found on a little hill just west, prompting speculation that his temple was nearby. Outside the gate, a necropolis is being excavated by a team from Antalya’s Akdeniz University.
Patara’s fine white-sand beach ranks as one of the longest continuous strands in the Mediterranean: it measures 9km from the access road to the mouth of the Eşen Çayı, and then another 6km to the end. Rather than making the hot, half-hour stroll out from the centre of Gelemiş in summer, most visitors take a beach dolmuş or transport laid on by the hotels. Parking (free) at the road’s end is limited, as the archeological authorities have refused permission to expand the space. The sole café is run by the owner (and local mayor) of the Golden Lighthouse and Golden Pension and is no more expensive than the places in the village. Local youth are employed and all proceeds go into the village community chest.
In season the immediate vicinity of the beach entrance gets crowded, but walking northwest past the dunes brings you to plenty of solitary spots – and a few unharassed colonies of nudists. Spring and autumn swimming is delightful, but in summer the exposed shoreline can be battered by body-surfable waves.
St Nicholas – the original Santa Claus
Myra’s prestige was greatly enhanced by the reputation of one of its citizens, namely St Nicholas, born in Patara in 270 AD and later appointed local bishop. The Orthodox patron saint of sailors, merchants, students, prisoners, virgins and children, his Western identity as a genial old present-giver is perhaps more familiar, based on the story of the three daughters of a poor man who were left without dowries. Nicholas is credited with throwing three purses of gold coins into the house by night, enabling them to find husbands instead of prostituting themselves. Many posthumous miracles were attributed to the saint, but little is actually known about the man. However, after his death he was probably buried in the church in Demre that’s now dedicated to him, and it is also widely believed that in 1087 his bones were carried off to Italy by a group of devout raiders from Bari.
Demre still banks heavily on its connection with St Nicholas (Noel Baba or “Father Christmas” in Turkish); a special Mass is held here on his main feast day, December 6, attracting Orthodox and Catholic pilgrims, while others take place on random Sundays throughout the year.