After years of isolation, Turkish Lakeland has been discovered by birdwatchers, trekkers and skiers, and many tourists now stop off en route from Cappadocia and Konya to the south coast around Antalya or Fethiye. Facilities are quickly improving, especially in Eğirdir, but the area as a whole remains unspoiled by tourism, making it ideal for quiet, unhurried holidays away from the seething coastal resorts. As well as the eye-catching lakes themselves, it holds the remains of Pisidian cities (notably at Sagalassos and Antioch ad Pisidiam), and the provincial town of Afyon, a popular winter destination with its acclaimed thermal spa hotels.

Brief history

Despite Lakeland’s inhospitable nature, it has been populated as long as anywhere in Anatolia. In early Paleolithic times, the lakes provided a livelihood for primitive hunters and fishermen, and during the Bronze Age, the Hittites, a race who once rivalled the Egyptians, chose the plateau as their homeland.

By the early historical period, northern Lakeland had been settled by the Pisidians, mountain people who sold their services as mercenaries throughout the eastern Mediterranean. Their strategically situated settlements were difficult to subdue, and Xenophon described them as perennially obstinate troublemakers, who succeeded in keeping their towns independent despite the continuing encroachments of the Persian Empire.

Afyon

Dominated by an ancient citadel that’s built atop a tall, dark and imposing rock, AFYON certainly makes an impact, and it remains impressive on closer inspection. Clean and relaxed, it retains much interesting Ottoman architecture as well as some attractive mosques. Until recently, the city bore the resounding name of Afyon Karahisar, or “Opium Black Fortress”. First fortified by the Hittites, the towering rock was later occupied by the Romans. The Byzantines built most of the present-day fortress, which served as an imperial treasury for both Selçuks and Ottomans.

For three weeks leading up to August 26, 1922, Afyon was Atatürk’s headquarters, prior to the last, decisive battle of the independence war, fought against the Greeks at nearby Dumlupınar.

Afyon’s fortress (220m), scaled via some 700 steps on the southern face of the rock – the 20min hike is best avoided in the heat of the day – is thought to stand on the site of the Hittite fortress of Khapanouwa, built by king Mursil II during the second millennium BC. The rock was subsequently fortified by the Phrygians, the Byzantines and the Turks, but all that remain are a few crenellated walls and towers. On the way up look out for hoopoes among the varied birdlife, and at the top for votive rags, representing wishes, tied to trees. At prayer time as many as eighty minarets resound and echo off the rock to dramatic effect.

The Opium poppies of Afyon

A quarter of the world’s legal production of opium is harvested from the poppy fields surrounding Afyon. While the authorities are reluctant to tout the city’s eponymous enterprise as a tourist attraction, there are still tell-tale signs of civic pride in the traditional industry: a close look at the fountain in the town square reveals that it is a graceful bronze sculpture of poppy seed-pods.

If you want to take a look at the crop, in May/June head out of town for around 5km on the Sandıklı road, and the open fields of poppies are clearly visible from the road. Much more grows around Yalvaç and in the Toros mountains. The fields are regularly patrolled by officials, who check whether the seed heads have been illegally “bled” for heroin.

Thermal tourism

Thanks to its natural thermal waters, the Afyon region has become synonymous with thermal tourism. Hot springs, whose waters bubble up to temperatures of 50–80°C and have a high content of fluoride, bromide and calcium salts, are located in four different districts of the city. Marketed for their curative properties, the natural springs have given rise to assorted spa hotels and treatment centres providing hydrotherapy exercise pools, whirlpool massage and therapeutic mud baths, used to treat muscular disorders, injuries and even neurological issues, as well as for pain relief and rehabilitation. Even drinking the water supposedly reaps health benefits, and mineral water from this region is bottled and sold all over Turkey.

If you don’t fancy visiting one of the region’s spa hotels, the deep mineral mud baths at Hudai Kaplıcıları (48km south of Afyon, beyond Sandıklı off the Denizli road) are accessible for a TL4 cover charge.

Antioch ad Pisidiam

The ancient city of Antioch ad Pisidiam is where the apostle St Paul first attempted to convert pagans to Christianity. Originally a Hellenistic foundation of the late third century BC, the city peaked as the capital of the Roman province of Pisidia, and remained important well into Byzantine times.

The most unusual surviving remains are of the sizeable temple, at the highest point of the city, built in a semicircular colonnaded precinct in honour of the Emperor Augustus. Below this is the toppled three-arched propylon (gateway) dedicated to Augustus, where the Tiberius and Augustus squares meet. Even more substantial are the remains of the baths fed by an aqueduct and surviving sections of a flagged Roman street.

At the lower end of the site, a few courses of monumental stone blocks belonging to the fourth-century Church of St Paul (on the site of the synagogue) still stand, but little else can be seen except for the ground plan and some small areas of mosaic floor.

Eğirdir

Few places can enjoy as idyllic a setting as EĞİRDİR, with its vast lake encircled by undulating mountains. Long heralded by locals as Anatolia’s best-kept secret, this humble lakeside town has a reputation for enticing travellers to stay a lot longer than they’d intended. That’s not surprising when you consider the plethora of hikes – Eğirdir is a major stop on the acclaimed long-distance St Paul Trail – bike routes and watersports in close proximity.

A kilometre-long causeway divides the town, separating the mainland market town, with its historical sites and harbour filled with colourful fishing boats, from Yeşilada, a tiny island reached by a sliver of land running out onto the lake, which is home to most of the local pensions and lakeside restaurants. Aside from its scenic vistas and outdoor activities, Eğirdir’s real charm lies in its endearing indifference to modern tourism. You’re more likely to find restaurant proprietors sipping tea on the terrace than rustling up business on the streets below, so take heed of the slower pace of life and relish lazy evenings relaxing by the lakeside. Just don’t forget your insect repellent; summer nights are swarming with mosquitoes.

Brief history

Founded by the Hittites, Eğirdir was taken by the Phrygians in 1200 BC. Not until Lydian times, however, when it straddled the so-called King’s Way from Ephesus to Babylon, did the town become famous for its recreational and accommodation facilities.

Egirdir Lake

Turkey’s second-largest freshwater lake, spreading for a vast 488 square kilometres at around 900m above sea level, Eğirdir Lake is an expanse of glistening blue framed by dramatic mountain peaks. With its cool clear waters, the lake offers some ideal swimming spots. Come summer, it plays host to watersports such as kayaking, windsurfing and catamarans, all on offer for around ¨25 per hour at the Eğirdir Outdoor Centre (see p.418). Alternatively, local fishermen are more than happy to take you out in their boats (¨50 per half-day), and know all the best swimming, fishing and barbecue spots. There’s even a growing trend for paragliding when the winds pick up, with tandem flights soaring up over the lake and affording some incredible views over the valley below.

Excursions from Eğirdir

Despite its comparatively small tourism industry, Eğirdir makes a great base from which to explore the region. The local pensions are now well organized, with tours, guides, maps and independent travel information all easily available.

Hiking trails

While the St Paul’s Trail is the region’s most famous long-distance walking trail, numerous trekking routes have been mapped out, and independent hiking is easy. These range from half- or full-day walks to multi-day trips such as the hike to Barla (25km), and the overnight trips to the summits of Mount Dedegöl and Mount Davraz. The Eğirdir Outdoor Centre (wegirdiroutdoorcenter.com) can tailor routes to your requirements and arrange transport (costing around TL1 per km), guides (around TL100 per day), camping equipment and packed lunches.

Cycling routes

Potential bike routes vary from easier circuits around the region’s many lakes, or the mostly flat terrain leading to Kovada National Park (54km round trip), to more challenging routes like the hilly climbs to Barla village (46km round trip) or the mountainous course to Zindan Cave (50km round trip).

Kovada National Park

The lake, marshland and forests of Kovada Gölü form a carefully tended and hardly visited national park. Its animal population includes wolves, bears and wild boars, and the lake itself, teeming with fish, receives the outflow of Eğirdir Gölü. The limestone shore is harsh and the lake itself tinted green by its sediment, so it’s not a particularly enticing swimming spot, but the largely untouched wildlife makes for some great walking and birdwatching opportunities.

Çandir/canyons/King’s way

Many tours of Kovada National Park continue 30km south on the main road through a gorge towards Çandır (signed Yazılı Kanyonu), passing a series of icy but scenic pools and waterfalls, crisscrossed by bridges, and best sampled in high summer. Well-preserved stretches still survive of the ancient Kral Yolu, or “King’s Way”, a road that threaded through Pisidia.

Skiing

Between December and the end of March, the northern slopes of the 2635m Mount Davraz (30min drive from Eğirdir) offer decent downhill skiing and snowboarding, and the views from the slopes down to Lake Eğirdir are superb. Conditions are fairly reliable, though the limited runs won’t satisfy everyone. The Eğirdir Outdoor Centre (wegirdiroutdoorcenter.com) and the Davraz Ski Centre (wdavraz.com) rent skis (from TL30) and snowboards (from TL35), and a weekday lift pass costs TL30.

The St Paul Trail

Opened in 2004, the rugged St Paul Trail offers over 500km of trekking in the spectacularly beautiful Toros Mountains. Waymarked to international standards, with red and white flashes on rocks and trees, it allows relatively easy exploration of a remote, unspoiled area of Turkey. A detailed guidebook (which includes a map), written by Kate Clow, covers the trail.

The twin starting points of the route are the ancient cities of Perge and Aspendos, on the Mediterranean coastal plain. It was from Perge that St Paul set out, in 46 AD, on his first proselytizing journey. His destination was the Roman colonial town of Antioch ad Pisidiam, where he first preached Christ’s message to non-Jews. En route from the Mediterranean to the Anatolian plateau, the trail crosses tumbling mountain rivers, climbs passes between limestone peaks that soar to almost 3000m, dips into deeply scored canyons, and weaves beneath shady pine and cedar forest. It even includes a boat ride across the glimmering expanse of Lake Eğirdir.

Hikers interested in archeology can discover remote, little-known Roman sites and walk along original sections of Roman road. The irrevocably active can raft the Köprülü River, scale 2635m Mount Davraz and 2799m Mount Barla (ascents of both appear in the trail guidebook; for more information check wtrekkinginturkey.com), or even tackle the mighty Dedegül (2992m).

Isparta

The largely modern town of ISPARTA is set on a flat plain that’s dominated by 2635m Mount Davraz to the south. Its only hint of romantic appeal lies in its chief industries: rosewater and oil, distilled here for over a century, and carpets, manufactured in industrial quantities. While the lakeside town of Eğirdir, 12km east, makes a more appealing base from which to explore the region, Isparta’s surrounds blossom with colour come the annual rose harvest.

Until the 1923 exchange of populations many Greeks lived in Isparta, and their old residential quarter is a fifteen-minute walk southwest from the town centre, near the Devlet Hastanesi (State Hospital). The once handsome lath-and-plaster houses are now crumbling, but there are a couple of restored nineteenth-century churches to admire.

Isparta’s Archeological Museum (Arkeoloji Müzesi) holds a reasonable collection of local finds, including some fine Roman grave stelae, plus assorted items from a nearby Bronze Age burial site. The ethnography section includes a wonderful felt-and-reed yurt, which, along with some fine old carpets and kilims, attests to the region’s bygone nomadic culture.

Isparta: the Rose City

Endearingly nicknamed the Rose City, Isparta ranks among the world’s biggest growers of the renowned Damascena rose, and exports rose oil all around the globe. Eco-friendly British brand Lush are buyers, and the rosewater is shipped out to the grand mosque at Mecca. With a 200-year history of rose oil distillation, harvest time, in May/June, in Isparta is more than just a boost to the economy (a mere 1kg of rose oil retails for around €8000, making it a profitable venture). It’s also a time of celebration for the villagers’ featuring a two-day Isparta Rose Festival, and a plethora of home-made rose marmalades, ice creams and cosmetics hit the markets.

Alia (wessentialtravel.nl), a collective founded by Dutch rose specialist Joanne Klein Wolterink in conjunction with Isparta’s Sebat Rose factory and Dutch eco-cosmetic brand, Natucos, run small-group rose harvest tours (from €20 for a half-day tour, with lunch; local homestays can also be arranged). The tours include the chance to help villagers with the morning rose harvest; explore the factory, including a demonstration of a traditional distillation kettle; sample organic rosewater cosmetics; and, most entertainingly, frolic on a 30cm-thick “bed” of roses.

Tours are also available for the lavender harvest (July/Aug) and the chamomile harvest (April/May). As this book went to press, a luxury wellness centre, set amid the factory’s acres of plantations, was expected to open shortly.

Konya

KONYA, the medieval Selçuk capital, is a place of pilgrimage for the whole Muslim world, and a city that holds pride of place in the hearts of all pious Turks. This was the adopted home of Celaleddin Rumi, better known as the Mevlâna (Our Master), the Sufic mystic who founded the whirling dervish sect, the Mevlevî; his writings helped reshape Islamic thought and modified the popular Islamic culture of Turkey.

Konya has a reputation as one of the country’s most religious and thus conservative cities (while simultaneously holding the title as the single greatest consumer of raki in the nation). That said, most visitors are surprised by its modern and bustling city centre, with monumental landmarks sandwiched between trendy fashion stores and towering flat blocks.

Turkey’s seventh-largest city is surrounded by some exceptionally fertile countryside; the region is known locally as “the breadbasket of Turkey”. Its many parks – in particular, the central hillock of Alâeddin Parkı – add a splash of green to the ubiquitous light-coloured stone.

Brief history

Konya’s history is as long and spectacular as that of any Turkish city. The earliest remains discovered date from the seventh millennium BC, and the acropolis was inhabited successively by Hittites, Phrygians, Romans and Greeks. St Paul and St Barnabas both delivered sermons here after they had been expelled from Antioch, and in 235 AD, one of the earliest Church councils was convened in the city – known then, under the Byzantines, as Iconium.

It also took a central role during the era of the western Selçuks, becoming the seat of the Sultanate of Rum. After they had defeated the Byzantine army at the Battle of Manzikert in 1071, the Selçuks attempted to set up a court in İznik, just across the Sea of Marmara from İstanbul. They were expelled from there by the combined Byzantine and Crusader armies, but still ruled most of eastern and central Asia Minor until the early fourteenth century.

While the concept of a fixed capital was initially somewhat alien to the Selçuks, Konya became the home of their sultans from the time of Süleyman Ibn Kutulmuz, successor to Alparslan, the victor at Manzikert. Alâeddin Keykubad, the most distinguished of all Selçuk sultans, established a court of artists and scholars in Konya early in the thirteenth century, and his patronage was highly beneficial to the development of the arts and philosophy. Many of the buildings constructed at this time are still standing, and examples of their highly distinctive tile-work, woodcarving, carpet making and masonry are on display in local museums.

Konya’s dervish festival and dances

Since Konya is the spiritual and temporal home of the whirling dervishes, the city plays host to the annual dervish festival, held between December 7 and December 17, during the week prior to the anniversary of the Mevlâna’s death. Unfortunately, with sub-zero temperatures, doubled hotel rates and shops full of whirling dervish kitsch, this is not the best time to witness a dervish rite. In fact the most authentic place to watch a ceremony is in the restored semahane in İstanbul, the Galata Mevlevîhane. Unlike the dancers in Konya, its members are also practising dervishes who live according to the teachings of the Mevlâna. Alternatively, in July and August, official sema performances are staged in the gardens of Konya’s Mevlâna complex, priced at TL20, while free shows at the Mevlâna Culture Centre, 500m up the road from the Mevlâna Museum, take place every Sat night year-round, except during the festival period (May–Oct Sat 9pm, Nov–April Sat 8pm).

The whirling ceremony – the sema – for which the Mevlevî dervishes are renowned, is a means of freedom from earthly bondage and abandonment to God’s love. The clothes worn by the Mevlevîs during the observance have symbolic significance. The camel-hair hat represents a tombstone, the black cloak is the tomb itself, and the white skirt the funerary shroud. During the ceremony the cloak is cast aside, denoting that the dervishes have escaped from their tombs and from all other earthly ties. The music reproduces that of the spheres, and the turning dervishes represent the heavenly bodies themselves. Every movement and sound made during the ceremony has an additional significance – for example, the right arms of the dancers extend up to heaven while their left arms point to the floor, denoting that grace is received from God and distributed to humanity.

The life and teachings of the Mevlâna

Celaleddin Rumi, later known as the Mevlâna, was born in the central Asian city of Balkh, in 1207. At the age of twenty, having received a warning vision, the young man convinced his father to flee with him for western Asia, which they did just in time to avoid being massacred with the rest of Balkh by marauding Mongols. They settled in Konya, where the reigning sultan Alâeddin Keykubad received them cordially. The city had a cosmopolitan population, whose beliefs were not lost on the young man, and it was here that he emerged as a leading heterodox mystic or Sufi.

During the 1250s, Rumi completed a masterpiece of Persian devotional poetry, the Mathnawi. A massive work covering several volumes, it concerns the soul’s separation from God – characterized as the Friend – as a consequence of earthly existence, and the power of a mutual yearning to bring about a reunion, either before or after bodily death. The Mevlâna – as Rumi was by now widely known – himself died on December 17, 1273.

On a practical level, the Mevlâna instructed his disciples to pursue all manifestations of truth and beauty, while avoiding ostentation, and to practise infinite tolerance, love and charity. He condemned slavery, and advocated monogamy and a greater prominence for women in religious and public life. The Mevlâna did not advocate complete monastic seclusion – the Mevlevîs held jobs in normal society and could marry – but believed that the contemplative and mystical practices of the dervish would free them from worldly anxieties. Although his ideas have never been fully accepted as Islamic orthodoxy, they still attract Westerners and liberal Muslims alike.

Sagalassos

The site of Sagalassos is well labelled, with illustrations that show the buildings in their original state. The 96m-wide theatre, right of the entrance, remains much as the 244 AD earthquake left it, with seating mostly in place, but the stage building rather more wrecked. Two restored nymphaea (fountain-houses) here have retained their floor mosaic almost intact, along with the alcoves and a major inscription. Walking west you come to the upper agora, of which the second, huge nymphaeum formed one side. Two ceremonial arches opened off, and a pagoda-like monument stood in the centre.

Just above, north of the upper agora, a Doric temple of the second century BC is incorporated into the city walls. As you walk down from the upper agora, you’ll see fragments of beautiful Roman friezes laid out like a giant jigsaw. Below the main track is the lower agora and adjacent baths; earthenware pipes and hypocausts reveal how water was distributed and heated. A temple with Corinthian columns dedicated to Antonius Pius stands beyond this area, while straight ahead down the steps are the necropolis and a hill that locals say is the site of an Alexander monument – they believe a gold statue dedicated to Alexander is waiting to be discovered.

The Rough Guide to Turkey and related travel guides

In-depth, easy-to-use travel guides filled with expert advice.

Find even more inspiration for Turkey here

Planning on your own? Prepare for your trip

Use Rough Guides' trusted partners for great rates

author photo
Rough Guides Editors
8/29/2020
Ready to travel and discover Turkey?
Get support from our local experts for
stress-free planning & worry-free travels