The region between Alanya and Adana formed ancient Cilicia, and was settled by refugees from Troy at the same time as Pamphylia further west. Its remoteness and rugged, densely wooded coastline made it a haven for pirates, which eventually spurred the Romans into absorbing Cilicia into the empire in the first century BC. Today, the region retains a wild appearance, and travel involves frighteningly daring drives along winding mountain roads that hug the craggy coastline. All this is to the good if you’re trying to escape the crowds further west, as far fewer people make it here.
Immediately east of Alanya, roads scallop the coastal cliffs, occasionally dipping inland through verdant banana plantations and passing little wayside restaurants, sheltered but hard-to-reach sandy bays, and the odd camping ground. Decent stretches of beach around Anamur are overlooked by an Armenian castle and a partially excavated Greek site, while in the mountains above Silifke the abandoned city of Uzuncaburç is perhaps the most extensive of the region’s ancient remains. The up-and-coming seaside resort of Kızkalesi is intent on earning its stripes as a summer holiday destination, with its impressive castles breaking up the shoreline and a mixed bag of historical sites and day hikes on its doorstep.
A miscellany of marginally interesting ruins and lesser-frequented beaches runs down the coast until the outskirts of Mersin, where ferries run to Northern Cyprus. A little further on, Tarsus, birthplace of St Paul, plays host to some significant Christian sites, although its modern aspect does little to betray its former historical importance. Adana, Turkey’s fourth-largest city, contains few remains of any era despite its venerable history, but does have excellent market shopping.
Hotel possibilities are limited, but there are some great budget options close to the otogar. For eating, there are plenty of basic food stalls and teahouses, but most close after dark, leaving you with very few options for an evening meal – try to arrange dinner at your hotel if possible.
ADANA, Turkey’s fifth-largest city, with more than 1.5 million inhabitants, sprawls 40km east of Tarsus. A modern place, which has grown rapidly since the 1990s, Adana continues to owe much of its wealth to the surrounding fertile countryside of the Çukurova. Its textile industry has grown up on the back of the local cotton fields.
The city itself is divided by the E5 highway into the swanky north, with its cinemas and designer malls, and the more traditional bustling south, with the markets, mosques and hotels of the old town. As there are few pedestrian bridges and underpasses, you have to negotiate mind-blowing traffic to reach many of the local sights.
Adana’s small Archeological Museum (Arkeolji Müzesi) is in a prime location right next to the impressive Sabancı Merkez Camii. The small courtyard at the back enjoys beautiful views across the mosque gardens. Inside, two floors showcase predominantly Hellenistic and Roman statuary, plus some fine sarcophagi and Hittite statues. Unfortunately many of the upstairs exhibition rooms are now closed or empty, and aside from the Turkish nameplates there’s very little information to guide visitors.
Despite its contemporary, metropolitan feel, Adana has historical roots going back to 1000 BC. The arrival of the Greeks precipitated an on-off power struggle with the powerful Persian Empire that was to last for a thousand years, ending only when the Romans arrived during the first century BC. Under the Romans, the city became an important trading centre, afterwards passing through various hands before falling to the Ottomans during the sixteenth century.
The many small cafés lining the marina offer a scenic pit stop, but the real draw card in Taşucu is the seafood, with fresh local catches coming in daily.
İskele has several simple restaurants, all of which seem incredibly cheap after the overpricing so prevalent further west. Make sure you pick up some of the region’s famed miniature bananas too, as featured on one of the town’s principal statues. Market stalls abound with the yellow fruits, and restaurants offer creative banana-centred desserts.
Midway between Silifke and Mersin, KIZKALESİ (“Maiden’s Castle”) is the longest-established resort along the Eastern Mediterranean coastline, with its lively beaches burrowed between a pair of looming Byzantine castles. While Turkish families have been descending en masse for years, international tourists are still a relatively new phenomenon, and the genuine, unobtrusive hospitality of the locals makes a welcome relief from the tourist-packed haunts further up the coast. Fine sandy beaches, shallow waters and seaside camel rides make the resort an excellent choice for children, and there’s everything from jet skiing to paragliding on hand to keep the rest of the family entertained.
With its improved transport links and tour possibilities, Kızkalesi also makes a great base for exploring the surrounding area, like the popular Cennet ve Cehennem (caves of heaven and hell), the dramatic chasm of Kanlidıvane, or the mosaic-floored Bath of Poimenius in Narlıkuyu. If you have a special interest in exploring off-the-beaten-track ruins, buy Celal Taşkiran’s Silifke and Environs, an exhaustive guide to all the sites between Anamur and Mersin, available for €10 from Rain Tour & Travel Agency.
Kızkalesi’s most compelling feature, the twelfth-century sea castle known as the Kızkalesi or Maiden’s Castle, makes an imposing sight floating on the horizon out to sea. According to a story also found elsewhere in Turkey, a medieval Armenian king had a beautiful daughter. After it was prophesied that she would die from a snak ebite, the king had the castle built and moved the girl out to it for safety there. One day, however, an adviser sent a basket of fruit out to the island for the girl, out of which slid a snake that killed her. Locals say the snake still lives there, so the only people who venture out to the island are tourists, for whose benefit boat services operate; you can also hire a pedalo and go it alone. The unadorned walls and sturdy towers still stand, but apart from masonry fragments and weeds there’s currently little to see within. Plans are currently under way, however, to develop the attraction into a museum (presumably with an entrance fee) and restaurant.
Known as Corycus in ancient times, Kızkalesi changed hands frequently until the arrival of the Romans in 72 BC. It then prospered to become one of the most important ports along the coast. Roman-era relics still survive in the area, notably a series of mysterious rock reliefs north of town and the carvings at the chasm at Kanlıdivane to the east. Kızkalesi continued to thrive during the Byzantine era despite occasional Arab attacks – against which its defences were strengthened by the construction of two castles during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries – before falling to the Ottomans in 1482.
From the flower-filled parks and palm-tree-lined walkways that stretch along its waterfront to the spirited bustle of its daily fish bazaar, MERSİN is a model example of contemporary Turkish urban planning, and living proof that modernization can flow alongside tradition. Turkey’s largest Mediterranean port, home to 1.5 million people, Mersin has thanks to rapid industrial growth and its role as an international free-trade zone become an important trade and transport hub.
Despite being inhabited since Hittite times, however, the city retains little of historical interest, and aside from its regular ferries to Cyprus there’s little to appeal to travellers. That said, the harbour city makes a pleasant stop-off along the coast, and the opening of an impressive new marina has opened up a new area of development, complete with hip bars and restaurants.
TARSUS, the birthplace of St Paul and the city where Cleopatra met Mark Antony and turned him into a “strumpet’s fool”, lies about 30km east of Mersin, across the factory-dotted cotton fields of the Çukurova. St Paul was born as Saul in Tarsus about 46 years after the meeting between Cleopatra and Antony. He returned after his conversion on the road to Damascus, fleeing persecution in Palestine. Proud of his roots, he is described as having told the Roman commandant of Jerusalem “I am a Jew, a Tarsian from Cilicia, a citizen of no mean city.”
Nowadays, the Antik Şehir or “old city” has been exposed by excavations, but although there remains a good section of black-basalt main street and some underground stoas and temples, only a few reminders of the town’s illustrious past survive.
The ancient city ruins at Uzuncaburç (Olba and Diocaesarea), a spectacular one-hour drive from Silifke through a jagged gorge, make a worthwhile day-trip. A small, rural village has sprung up in haphazard fashion around the ruins, with makeshift stalls flogging leather bags and handmade rugs (known as çul), and local teahouses where you can try local specialities like kenger kahvesi (coffee made from acanthus) and pekmez (grape molasses).
While the main site of Uzuncaburç lacks the size and scale of Perge and Aspendos, it’s atmospheric enough in its own way, if only because of its relatively neglected state. Although the area was first settled by the Hittites, they left little behind; the most impressive ruins that survive date from Hellenistic times.
The best place to start exploring Uzuncaburç is the overgrown Roman theatre, overlooked by a couple of beautiful houses whose walls are choc-a-bloc with Classical masonry. From here, pass through an enormous five-columned monumental gateway to reach a colonnaded street, once the city’s main thoroughfare. Keep your eyes open for what look like small stone shelves on the columns, which once supported statues and busts.
The Göksu delta and its Kuşcenneti bird reservation are of outstanding environmental importance, boasting a tremendous variety of flora and fauna. The best place to start an exploration is Akgöl, the westerly lagoon, where pygmy cormorants, Dalmatian pelicans, marbled and white-headed ducks and even the practically extinct black francolin and purple gallinule feed. The sand spit is a nesting ground for loggerhead and green turtles as well as a home to sea daffodils and Audouin’s gulls. East of this, reached by an access road halfway between Taşucu and Silifke, are extensive ditches where you’ll see kingfishers (including the rare chestnut brown and white Smyrna variety), coots, wagtails, spoonbills, egrets and grey, purple and squacco herons. Still further east, the huge natural fishpond of Paradeniz lagoon and the flats beyond it harbour waders, ospreys and terns.
Nesting and migration seasons are in the spring (with a peak between late March and early April), and in October. Information leaflets and maps of the delta are available from the Lades Motel or Özel Çevre Koruma Kurumu (Special Environmental Areas Protection Agency; t 0324 714 9508), 5km west of Silifke, who can also arrange an English-speaking guide for group trips. Alternatively, hire a taxi from your hotel to the Göksu delta bird-watching tower (daily 5am–9pm, free entry). Make sure you take your own water and supplies, as no cafés or facilities are available.