Lycian Way

Mediterranean, Lycia, Turkey

William Mackesy’s account of this walk


Journey-excitement, poor sleep and a 3am get-up made for dopey travel and a very early bed last night. We are now up, hugely breakfasted and ready to march on the porch of our ”atmospheric” if dimly lit hotel on a high ridge back from the Lycian Mediterranean. Bright sunlight and huge views down a gorge to the distant sea heighten our anticipation.

We will be winding southward along the eastern coast of the Tekke “peninsula” – actually three sides of a square – the heart of ancient Lycia. Dappled pine forest, coastal views from cliff and ridge, beaches and classical ruins await us. Lycia was a culturally distinct region, influenced by the Persians, Greeks, Romans and Byzantines and prosperous for centuries through maritime trade, before slipping into depopulated backwaterhood as piracy and malaria took their toll. We have been waiting for this for months and set off like greyhounds out of traps.

We know that our first day is going to be relatively firework-free, although it is lovely nonetheless. A descent of a busy dirt road gets us onto a very minor tarmacked lane which winds delightfully down a lightly wooded hillside. We can see the sea down two great gaps in the dry hillsides: thrilling-looking walking, but we are going to turn away and traverse across the broken hillsides to a late lunch today: a new group on a new route: start gently.

Our walk for the next few hours crosses scrubby, thorny slopes: hot, sometimes a bit short of shade (the areas of pine are commensurately welcome); often rough limestone requiring sharp eyes.  We pass a goatherdess with her noisy dogs, cross an odd, flat, parched meadow – it is early October and feels like it hasn’t rained for months – between craggy hillsides (snake central, we all feel, for no good reason) and climb to a ridge with grand views through pines across our village in its bowl, mountains all around and the sea sparkling through a gap. We join and leave a road – but only after I, today’s wayfinder, have overshot our turn.

Our village is nondescript – drearily developed – but the restaurant, under its vines, is a delight. We are getting on for two hours early, so enjoy our first Turkish lunch at some leisure – many of the usual dishes, but beautifully fresh – and congratulate ourselves on our good walking. A minibus arrives on the dot (we get blasé pretty quickly about how dependable everyone is) and whisks us down through a spectacular gorge, complete with the delicate Roman bridge we could have walked to, to our Birke (by name and nature) Ranch hotel, complete with sheriff’s office and hangman’s noose.

Second day:  today can only be described as marvellous walking. Kate Clow, literally the creator of the 500+km Lycian Way – she painted most of its waymarks herself ­– is with us for the day, and we set off from our irritating hotel into hot morning sun.

An unremarkable dirt road winds us through scrub littered with concrete homesteads, until we strike off through an orange grove and up a hillside on an old path through thin, scrubby pine forest, which soon develops into finer trees with interesting shrubby undergrowth – little grass about, generally. Views open up back to the pale cliffs and bare white ridges of the region’s high mountain, Olympos (yes, another one) dominating all around it. We gain the ridge we have been approaching, and are rewarded with a longish view between rough red slopes (this is volcanic rock, here, much of it looking like lava flows littered with yellow-green pines, down toward the sea and a large concrete hotel.

Walking with Kate is as it should be: she knows a lot and shares it willingly but not didactically. She chose this well as the day to come with us – it is varied walking, so a chance to share a lot of good stuff. To paraphrase Mrs Thatcher, everyone should have a Kate.

We wind along the increasingly dramatic ridge-top, tucking under a sharp little spine after a water break on a shady platform looking straight up at Mt Olympos. Somewhere, we join a bigger ridge that runs down to the sea, along which are the remains (invisible to the untrained eye) of an aqueduct that supplied the city of Phaselis down by the sea. A larger track takes us to a single storey hut, on a rocky plateau – really no grass at all, perhaps why the shepherds have abandoned the place. Kate says that global warming has left this area much drier in recent years.

The track takes us the whole way down, for an hour or so, through fresh-looking pale green pines speckling purply-red rock (some lava towers visible) into a deepening valley and eventually to the coastal highway. The highlight of the walk has to be the brown chameleon which we catch very slowly crossing the track. Its eyes survey us with extreme, independently-swivelling suspicion. Picked up, Reggie’s fingers become tightly-squeezed twigs; it transforms to green on his shirt.

Across the highway, through some sandy pines, we hit the sea in the form of what would be a perfect cove, but for the cars and bodies and boats. We lunch in pine shade on the limestone hillside above (the lava piles have petered out), surveying the gullits and their passengers – trippers from the town round the corner – bobbing on the gentle swell. A Russian (lots of them here, nowadays) joins us, unsmiling, unasked, to pose with Kate’s very sweet dogs.

On the rocky platform above, we are in the outskirts of Graeco-Roman Phaselis, passing huddles of sarcophagi among open pine woods which reveal glimpses of the sea. Gorgeous. Across the promontory, we are back to low limestone cliffs curving round to Phaselis proper.  Turning inland, we clamber over the remains of the town walls, entering strikingly different, thick vegetation in the shelter below. We are under the acropolis, and soon passing Byzantine structures – you can tell by the slapdash stonework, amply interlaced with tile fragments to keep structural order, Kate tells us  - and then an immaculate small temple and tomb right by the sea: we have reached the northernmost of the town’s three harbours.  Round the beach is a fine aqueduct, then the main street running across the narrow isthmus to the southern harbour. It must have been wonderful in its prime:  sea breezes, shady porticos, an aqueduct winding in to fill the baths (of course) to the west of the main street; an agora, into which a Byzantine church was planted, all Angkor-style collapse and unruly vegetation, to the north-west; and a fine theatre in the hillside to the south-east; comfortable houses on the upper ground. And centuries of quiet prosperity.

Then it is the very hot trudge along the beach to the laidback Sundance set-up at the far end, over a stream and in deep shade below a hill. We fall on cold beers and quiz the long-suffering Kate about her exploits.

Day 3 is our biggest walk. A short drive gets us through functional Tekirovar and climbing a track that quickly rounds a bend, into the peace of the forested hills behind cliffs and sea.  We meander back to views through the pines across now-secluded bays to the quiet open sea. This is what we came for. After a couple of hours, we cut down beside a stream to Chrome Bay, lovely from above but a bit of a disappointment as a result of what turns out to be fairly pervasive seaborne junk, as well as more fellow humans – ten of them? – than we had bargained for, including a pair of  elderly male nudists. Once we are by the sea, it is clearer, and we bathe and munch lunch in the shade under the southern cliff.

A roastingly hot afternoon sees us making a long climb back up to a high traverse through forests to the next bay, home to an old mine and some beached fish farms. We now leave tracks for old mule trails, romantic but rough and steep.  Across another ridge is a perfect cove with ramshackle tentage and chickens and a small dog in the pines behind it. The owner, we assume, is fishing in a small boat a couple of hundred metres out.  Up another steep slope is a particularly delectable traverse of a sheer hillside with views onto the next, even smaller, cove through pines that are golden in the early evening light. A steep drop into the depressingly littered cove, then a long slog up onto the next ridge, takes us through rapidly varying areas of vegetation to a final descent into the surprisingly charming holiday-enclave of çirali: a string of shaded little one-storey “pansyons” lining the road behind the long, sandy beach.  Our Emin Pansyon is run by the friendly owner and staff we now risk taking for granted. Delicious food in the balmy evening and hedgehogs scurrying in the garden.

Day 4: rest day. We could have walked 4 hrs downhill to the Chimaera, but most of us opt for a delightful boat trip to deserted coves to the south. I nose around the extraordinary ruins – think Angkor, all strangler trees pulling away at the remaining walls – of the ancient city of Olympos, with its two streams, in a shockingly-green, cliff-girt valley behind a Genoese castle-topped promontory, at the end of the beach. I spend hours producing a couple of not very good drawings. Perfect.

Day 5: a long but wonderful walk. A crunch along the kilometre and a half of already roasting beach to Olympos, where we nose about the ruins – fine tombs, a magnificent remaining monumental door from the temple, remains of a civilized portico beside the main riverbank – summers here must have had their compensations. We put off the impending hundreds of metres of slog with a fruit juice in a [sudeded] cod-hippyish bar, then face it.

After winding up through the tombs of the Southern Necropolis, we enter the scrub and then attractive strawberry tree forest of the steep hillside above. This is described as “inexorable”, but it isn’t that bad, just a long slope and it gets tedious in humid heat. Not much to report, except that things improve hugely when the pines begin and, after the mayhem of a belt of fire-damaged then gale-toppled pines, we enter the beautiful open forest of the upper slopes, littered with crazed limestone excrescences and the ruins of an ancient upper city (how did it ever have enough water at this height?). A delightful lunch (salty cheese and tomato rolls for the fourth day running), during which we watch a woodpecker (the first and only bird we see today: where is the wildlife??). Lying on the soft needles, the pine branches above me curved around sensuously toward the patches of unencumbered sky. Somehow slightly surreal. Good trip, man.

We traverse our way on pine needles up and across the higher slopes, above a surprisingly deep little gorge, now gaining views out to high crags and the sea far below, to a high (well, 2,400 ft) pass, with new views south to a deep valley that is depressingly full of polytunnels. 10 minutes down is an old shepherd’s hut and threshing floor (what was grown on this tough rock?) on a hilltop, then we are crossing steep meadows (of sorts) interspersed with woodland, to another ridgetop. Then it is down steadily through a marvellous succession of vegetation zones – strawberry trees, pines, shrubs among fallen boulders, scrub - as we descend into a series of ravines that drop into gorges, all topped by impossibly broken limestone cliffs and crags. The October afternoon light throws increasingly gorgeous golden shafts through the straight, strong pine trunks; the needle floor glows.

Then it is the orchards and polytunnels of the valley floor. Let’s be charitable: it’s intriguing to see the reality of rural Turkish life. We reach our hotel, the Aybars, across a footbridge over a river which had been dammed to produce a series of shallow, clear pools populated by minnows and arguing ducks, in which platforms with tables and soft seats have been planted. A hammock lazes on its stand over the water. All desire to walk tomorrow evaporates from six hearts.

But Day 6 is perhaps the best yet: On Foot have been clever with their build-up, starting almost underwhelmingly, and building up tone and vibrant hue to this crescendo-finale. A taxi ride takes us to an abandoned camel farm up the hill beyond a fairly regulation beach. We are immediately climbing steadily in perfect pine forest, slanting morning light illuminating its rich carpet of needles. It gets steeper and harder work as we approach the high ridge: limestone outcrops appear and we teeter on the edge of a gorge. Sweat starts to pour. Then we are on top of the col, with a very blue sea visible, far below, between the open pine forest that clothes the long, wild Gelidonia peninsula. Gorgeous.

After glugging copious water, we set off on a long traverse down the eastern side of the serrated ridge, between 100 and 400 metres, up through pine forest, on almost perfect walking paths with pine needles underfoot, crossing rocky landslips and areas of grass and bush, and climbing a couple of tough, rough hillsides. The sea, displaying craggy, barren little islands, is fleetingly visible through the calm, open pine forest, occasionally proclaiming its full glory – and showing its isolated, cliff-girt coves – from high viewpoints. Eventually, we crest the ridge as it descends to its watery terminus. Deep and peaceful sea is now on three sides, and we can consider the long peninsula behind us with its cliffs and coves, and line of sheer, lonely islands ahead of us marking the peninsula’s petering-out.  The sea is not always thus: Freya Stark describes the fears of ancient mariners as they approached this nautical graveyard.

The lighthouse appears below us, and soon after we are there, swilling water – it is, again, a hot and sea-humid day – and snoozing on the rickety boards of an old, raised platform, presumably the keeper’s daytime perch.

Then our fitting final trek, gently descending the western flank, again through lovely sienna-carpeted pine woods, cliffs above us and sea now close enough below to see individual waves.

A memorably beautiful day.

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