The Turquoise Coast Travel Guide
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Noted for its fine beaches and stunning mountainous scenery, Turkey’s southwesternmost shore has long been dubbed “the Turquoise Coast”, thanks to the hues of its horizons and the sea. It’s dominated by the Baba, Akdağ and Bey mountains, which drop precipitously to the main coastal highway that often skims just above the water. In ancient times, known as Lycia, the region was home to an independent people whose most obvious legacy is the distinctive rock tombs that litter the landscape. Despite much recent development, many attractive coves and islets remain inaccessible to vehicles, so yachting and gulet trips are popular. As the impact of ever-increasing visitor numbers has, moreover, been minimized by restrictions on construction height, and special protection for archeological sites and wildlife habitats, much of the region has remained relatively unspoiled.
The usually excellent Highway 400 between Marmaris and Antalya offers intermittent views, and connects several major sites along the way. The coast is best approached via Dalaman airport, busy with direct international flights most of the year, as well as domestic flights from İstanbul.
At the far west of the region, Dalyan is an attractive small resort that’s also noted for its languid river, sandy beach – a sea-turtle nesting ground – and the ruins of Kaunos. East of here, Fethiye, despite its paucity of beaches, is the Turquoise Coast’s oldest resort and largest town; along with Ölüdeniz lagoon, it’s handy for spectacularly sited Lycian ruins such as Oenoanda,Kadyanda and Tlos, in dramatic mountainous locations. Further southeast, Patara abuts one of Turkey’s best beaches, making it easy to combine sea and sun with cultural forays to the Letoön sanctuary, Pınara,Sidymaand Xanthos. Other convenient bases include the nearby resorts of Kalkan and Kaş, smaller than Fethiye and pitched at rather different clienteles.
The spectacular mountainous hinterland is also well worth exploring, especially with your own wheels, with dramatic ancient Arykanda the most obvious target. Also worth considering is the stunning drive from Kaş or Kalkan to Gömbe, in the shadow of a 3000m-plus peak.
Beyond the yacht-harbour-dominated town of Finike, east of Demre, the scenery becomes increasingly impressive as you enter conifer forests on the slopes of Tahtalı Dağ, officially designated a national park, before passing ancient Olympos – plus more good beaches at Adrasan and Çıralı – and ancient Phaselis. Thereafter a string of characterless purpose-built resorts dominated by German and Russian holiday-makers lines the approach to Antalya.
Mountainous, rugged Lycia (Likya in Turkish) lies south of a line drawn roughly between Antalya and Köyceğiz Gölü. At the core of the territory, the Bey Dağları and Akdağ, each exceeding 3000m elevation, isolate it from the rest of Anatolia. Relatively secure in their mountain fastness, the fiercely independent ancient Lycians – probably an indigenous, pre-Hittite people – organized their main cities and conurbations of smaller towns as the democratic Lycian Federation, with 23 voting units. This elected municipal and federal officials and, until imperial Rome assumed control, made decisions of state. Homer’s Iliad mentions the Lycians as allies of the Trojans; later, in the sixth century BC, the region was subdued by the Persian general Harpagos, but then largely left to govern itself.
From 454 BC, after the Athenian general Kimon had expelled the Persians from the Mediterranean coast, the Lycians became members of the Athens-dominated Delian League. The League ceased to exist after the Peloponnesian War and Lycia again fell under Persian domination. Alexander the Great arrived in 333 BC and, after conquering Halikarnassos, easily secured the region’s surrender; following his death, Lycia was ruled by his general, Ptolemy, also king of Egypt. During the third century BC, under Ptolemaic rule, Greek displaced the native Lycian language and Lycian cities adopted Greek constitutions. The Ptolemies were defeated by Antiokhos III in 197 BC, himself bested in 189 BC by the Romans, who handed the kingdom over to the Rhodians. The Lycians bitterly resented Rhodian control and succeeded in 167 BC in having this administrative relegation revoked.
Thereafter, the Lycians enjoyed over two centuries of semi-independence under a revived federation. After they resisted the Pontic king Mithridates in 88 BC, they were rewarded by Rome for their loyalty. During the Roman civil wars, Lycian reluctance to assist Brutus caused the destruction of Xanthos, and in 43 AD it was joined to Pamphylia in a larger Roman province. Roman imperial rule saw Lycia reach its maximum ancient population of 200,000, a figure not again equalled until the twentieth century, and the cities were graced by the Roman civic architecture that constitutes most of the ruins on view today.
During the fourth century the province was divided by Diocletian. A period of Byzantine-supervised decline followed, abetted by Arab raids in the seventh and eighth centuries. From then on, the area’s history resembled that of the rest of western Anatolia, where, after Selçuk Turk sovereignty during the eleventh and twelfth centuries, and an interlude of minor emirates, the Ottomans installed a more durable Anatolian Muslim state. They continued a pattern of moving nomadic Turkic tribes into the Lycian uplands, leaving the coast to pirates and local chieftains, until in the eighteenth century the sultan ordered its settlement by more tractable, productive Greek Orthodox colonists from the offshore islands.
Despite the overdevelopment that has taken place in the hills south of Fethiye, notably the mass-market British-orientated resorts of Ovacık and Hisarönü, there are still some notable attractions set in beautifully unspoiled locations. The best of these are the appealingly remote ancient city of Kadyanda, and the abandoned Greek village of Kaya Köyü, which is set in a pretty valley and holds plenty of accommodation options suited to those seeking a peaceful retreat.
The ruined mountain-top city of Kadyanda, less than an hour’s drive north of Fethiye, dates back at least 2500 years. The attractive village of Üzümlü, 16km north of Fethiye along a broad, well-marked road, makes little of its proximity to the site, other than a basic restaurant opposite the mosque and a low-key trade in its fine dastar cloth.
At the site itself, 9km further by road, an arrow points towards a self-guided loop walking trail. First bear south, past the vaulted tombs of the necropolis, then keep close to bits of the city wall on the left, followed by a climb to a false summit with a long, partly preserved agora, and views of Fethiye. The site’s highlight is at the true highest point: a long, narrow stadium, with seven rows of seats surviving. Steps in the seats climb to a huge jumble of masonry, all that’s left of a temple to an unknown deity. On the opposite side of the stadium stand substantial Roman baths, with their polygonal masonry and entry archway. At the northeast edge of the stadium, a flat expanse is pierced by the mouth of a deep cistern that supplied the city with water – one of many, so beware holes in the ground.
Finally the path angles south to the best-preserved stretch of city wall, punctuated by windows and affording fine views of distant ridges and forested valleys in between. Crossing the top of a square bastion, you look down into the theatre, which retains its rear-facing and stage wall, plus many of its seats – though like most of Kadyanda it’s only partly excavated. The descent to the road completes a leisurely 45-minute walk through superb mountain scenery – good reason enough for a visit.
The atmospheric ghost village of KAYA KÖYÜ, whose Greek Orthodox Christian inhabitants were forced to leave their homes in the compulsory exchange of populations between the newly created Republic of Turkey and Greece in 1923, stands roughly 9km southwest of Fethiye. The roofless remains of the six hundred or so houses that comprised this community of some three thousand souls are arrayed in tiers up a pine-scented hillside. They stand above a pastoral idyll of a valley which has, so far, escaped the excesses of tourist development that have swamped nearby Ovacık and Hisarönü.
While the population of Kaya Köyü, or Levissi as it was known to Greek inhabitants, was being shipped west, Macedonian Muslims were sent to occupy the abandoned buildings. Most choose to emigrate rather than stay, considering the land too poor. Today the local population lives in a couple of hamlets, Keçiler and Kınalı, set in the valley below the ruins.
Although this is fertile farming land, tourism has become increasingly important to the inhabitants of this tranquil spot, and there are a number of attractive places to stay and eat. Clearly the ghost village of Kaya Köyü is the main attraction for most visitors, but there’s plenty to keep you occupied for several days, including a superb half-day walk to Ölüdeniz, horseriding and kayaking. Or you could just relax and read Louis de Bernières’ epic novel Birds Without Wings, much of which is set in Eskibahçe, a thinly disguised Kaya Köyü. Beware, however, as a controversial plan to “restore” some of the village houses, and turn them into holiday homes, resurfaced in 2012.
If you visit Kaya Köyü in high season – July and August – it’s best to start your explorations of this unique place early, both because of the heat and to avoid the tour groups who arrive later in the day from nearby resorts. To get a flavour of the place, it’s enough simply to wander the lichen-crusted cobbled pathways that cut between the derelict houses – most still with their fireplaces, earth-closets and cisterns still intact – and try to imagine the place as it might have been a hundred years ago, with workers on their way home from the fields, or dressing up in their Sunday best, ready for church.
If you want more of a focus, a small, barrel-roofed and whitewashed chapel, clearly visible on a hilltop just above the town, affords splendid views back over the settlement and, in the opposite direction, over the sea.
A more sizeable church dating to 1888, that of Panayia Pyrgiotissa, stands a couple of hundred metres above the road in the west of the village. Its red roof tiles, like those of many other buildings here, were imported from Marseille, a testament to the prosperity of the place prior to the expulsion of its inhabitants. The Taksiarhis church, in the east of the village, was restored in 1910, with a pretty courtyard floored with a black-and-white pebble mosaic.
Set in a breathtaking location, high in the mountains on a steep, south-facing hillside that overlooks the main valley between the Akdağ and Bey mountain ranges, Arykanda is a fabulous ancient site that’s comparable with Delphi in Greece. Its individual monuments are scattered, often only partly excavated and unlabelled, but there are good site plans by the entrance and the acropolis. While finds date to the fifth century BC, the typically Lycian “anda” suffix suggests that the city was founded a millennium earlier. Arykanda was a member of the Lycian Federation from the second century BC, and remained inhabited until the eleventh century.
South of Kıdrak, the Yediburun (Seven Capes) headlands constitute some of the most beautiful and least exploited coastline in Turkey, with several isolated villages lying just inland. The mountains, which reach close to 2000m in height, plunge dramatically into the sea, making road construction, and therefore tourist development, extremely difficult. What tourism there is remains low-key, with the majority of visitors either hanging out in bohemian “Butterfly Valley” or Kabak, or making the very most of the wild and picturesque seafront by walking the waymarked Lycian Way trail.
Inaugurated in 2000, the Lycian Way is a long-distance trail that runs parallel to much of the Turquoise Coast, In theory, it takes five weeks to complete the entire trail, but most walkers sample it in stages rather than tackling it all in one go.
Starting above Ölüdeniz and ending just shy of Antalya, the trail takes in choice mountain landscapes and seascapes en route, with many optional detours to Roman or Byzantine ruins not found in conventional guidebooks. Some of the wildest sections lie between Kabak and Gavurağili, above the Yediburun coast, and between Kaş and Üçağız. Elevation en route varies from sea level to 1800m on the saddle of Tahtalı Dağ. The best walking seasons along most of the way are October (pleasantly warm) or April and May (when water is plentiful and the days long); except in the highest mountain stages, summer is out of the question.
The route itself ranges from rough boulder-strewn trails to brief stretches of asphalt, by way of forested paths, cobbled or revetted Byzantine/Ottoman roads and tractor tracks. While the entire distance is marked with the conventional red-and-white blazes used in Europe, plus occasional metal signs giving distances to the next key destination, waymarks can be absent when you need them most. Continual bulldozing of existing footpath stretches into jeep tracks is such a major problem that the notional initial section between Hisarönü and Kirme has now ceased to exist, with most hikers starting at Faralya, while periodic maintenance (and where necessary re-routing) barely keeps pace with fast-growing scrub and rockfalls.
An unofficial “add-on” route, the Likya Yolları, runs from Hisarönü to Fethiye via Kaya, while loop side trails and alternative routes are being marked in different colour schemes. Kate Clow, who marked the original Lycian Way, adapted the Turkish military’s ordnance survey 1:50,000 maps for her The Lycian Way, a guide-booklet-with-map, which indicates points for water, camping and (often obsoletely) overnighting indoors. The English-language version is sold at select bookshops, newsstands and travel agencies all along the coast as well as from online book retailers. Hard-wearing and waterproof, the map often saves the day, as trail descriptions can be frustratingly vague. It’s also important to be aware that timings in The Lycian Way apply to those carrying a full pack; deduct about a quarter when doing sections as day-hikes.
A website, wlycianway.com, offers updates on route conditions and a user forum.
When sea-level pleasures at Kaş pall, especially in broiling weather, there’s escape in the cool heights of the Akdağ range, which soars to over 3000m in the space of 20km. The standard starting point for excursions into the mountains, reachable by minibus, is GÖMBE, a small town 60km north of Kaş on the road to Elmalı. This provides access to Yeşil Göl, Lycia’s only alpine lake, and also serves as a staging point for anyone intending to climb to the summit of Akdağ, a 3000m-plus peak.
The ninety-minute ride up to Gömbe from Kaş is graced by extensive pine forests, yielding to apple orchards as you grow closer. Few commercial maps show the huge Çayboğazı reservoir, which has re-routed any approach from the south – drivers can avoid the circuitous bypass road by going right over the dam-top road. Gömbe is famous for a June festival of the local Tahtacıs, and a farmers’ fair in the latter half of August.
Some of the most beautifully situated ruins on the Turquoise Coast are in the Kekova area, named for the eponymous offshore island. This stretch of rocky shore is littered with the remains of Lycian settlements, some now submerged under the translucent waters of the calm, shallow, almost landlocked gulf here. Land access – both by road and by the Lycian Way – has improved considerably, so the region is no longer the exclusive preserve of boat and yacht tours. Many monuments are easily visited by boat-tour from Üçağız on the inlet shore – the main activity at this beachless place – while inland lie the neglected remains of Apollonia, a dependency of coastal Aperlae, and the substantial ruins of Cyaneae.
Kayaking day-tours in the Kekova area make a wonderful, low-impact way to appreciate the eerie seascapes. They have the further advantage of allowing you to approach the shoreline, and the Batık Şehir in particular, much closer than the glass-bottomed cruise boats, and also to use narrow, shallow channels off-limits to larger craft. So long as your head is covered and you bring enough water, you’ll tolerate all but the hottest summer days, even wrapped inside a life vest.
The principal operators are BT Adventure and Dragoman in Kaş. Trips may begin with a motorized tow from Üçağız to the starting point of your choice, for example Tersane; outings can be as long or short as stamina allows. The typical cost, including a transfer from Kaş to Üçağız and a picnic lunch, is €30 per person.
Heading north from Olympos, there’s scant pretext to stop before Antalya. The overdeveloped, overpriced package resorts along this coast – Tekirova, Kemer, Göynük and Beldibi – leave much to be desired. Only ancient Phaselis, with its superb swimming opportunities, will tempt you off the main road.
The ruins of Phaselis flank three small bays, providing ample opportunity to contemplate antique monuments while lying on the beach. While they can’t compare with some sites east of Antalya, or nearby Arykanda, there’s certainly enough to see at Phaselis, where Jason and the Argonauts was filmed in 1999. The natural beauty and clear sea make for a rewarding half-day outing – bring a picnic if you don’t fancy the car-park snack-caravans.
The access road passes under a bluff that holds a fortified settlement enclosed by a Hellenistic wall, including a tower and three archery slits. The most obvious landmark, behind a helpful map placard and the first car park, is the substantial, elegant Roman aqueduct. Said to have been among the longest in the ancient world, it carried water from a spring inside the northern fortifications almost as far as the south harbour.
Arrayed around the promontory behind which most of the fan-shaped city stood, Phaselis’s three harbours are obvious, and ideal for orientation. The north harbour was too exposed to be used except in very favourable conditions, but traces of the ancient south quay remain. It made an easy landing point for aggressors, however, so was fortified with a 3m-wide wall – now submerged, but still intact. The middle harbour also had a strong sea wall, and its 18m-wide entrance could be closed off; today it’s a shallow cove wonderful for swimming (and snorkelling out to explore the Roman breakwater), with a small beach.
The largest, southwest port (with its own parking and ticket booth for boat arrivals) was protected by a 180m-long breakwater, now mostly submerged. It sheltered the largest trading vessels, and now sees numerous pleasure craft calling for the sake of its fine, large beach.
Between the harbours, the promontory acropolis is covered with overgrown ruins of dwellings and round cisterns. The city’s main axis is the paved avenue across the neck of the promontory, linking the south and middle harbours; a rectangular plaza partway along is thought to be the heart of the agora. At the southern-harbour end, only the foundations and tumbled marble masonry survive of the monumental gateway constructed to honour Hadrian’s visit.
The well-preserved theatre, dating from the second century AD, looks towards Tahtalı Dağ from between the acropolis and the main street, and held around 1500 people. Three large doors above what’s now ground level probably led to the stage; below these, five smaller doors would have opened into the orchestra, and may have been used to admit wild animals.
Founded by Rhodian colonists in 690 BC, Phaselis, almost in Pamphylia, was not always Lycian. The Phaselitans were great traders, sailing as far as Egypt, and their coins were decorated with ships. Along with most of Asia Minor, Phaselis was overrun by the Persians in the sixth century, and not freed until 469 BC, when Athenian general Kimon “liberated” them with some difficulty, enrolling the reluctant city in the Athenian maritime confederacy along with Olympos. A century later, Phaselis helped Mausolus, satrap of Caria, attempt to subdue Lycia, while in 333 BC Phaselitan sycophancy continued: not content with merely surrendering to Alexander the Great, the city also proffered a golden crown.
Phaselis finally became part of the Lycian Federation during the second century BC, but was soon, like Olympos, occupied by Zeniketes’ pirates. Although it rejoined the federation afterwards, the pirates had devastated the city. Under imperial Rome, Phaselis distinguished itself with yet more obsequiousness: when touring Emperor Hadrian visited in 129 AD, statues were erected, and a gateway dedicated to him.