Go hiking in Turkey
The scent of sun-warmed pine hangs over the path. Your body and soul are already soaking up the delicious freedom only a really magnificent walk can offer. To the west of Antalya, the Lycian Way opens up a Turkey that feels so different from the coastal holiday resorts, with landscape reminiscent of heroic ancient sagas and ochre-tinted slopes that fall towards the Mediterranean. Umbrella-shaped pine trees rise in front of the cathedral spire like cliffs and what little noise you hear consists of gentle countryside sounds – the bells of goats and birdsong in the treetops. Then, suddenly an unexpected voice.
The voice and the offer make me curious. I’m soon sitting under the shade of a sycamore tree with a chilled glass in my hand. A farmer, Ramazan, has just reached the top of the Musa Dagh mountain accompanied by an old fruit press and some pomegranates. I slowly sip my juice and try to imagine what it looked like here 2,000 years ago.
This almost inaccessible plateau was then the base of Zenicetes, until 78BC when a Roman punitive expedition destroyed the pirate chieftain’s stronghold. The ruins are now a mysterious mix of trees and stones. I try to differentiate between what’s been created by human hands and what belongs to nature. Meanwhile, Ramazan keeps his eyes focused on the trekking trail that stretches up from the opposite side of the pass.
“There are more people on their way,” he eagerly says.
Shortly afterwards, a Turkish tea kettle, or çaydanlik, is placed over the flickering flame from an old oil drum.
“The hikers will probably be thirsty when they get here,” Ramazan says, adding two new lumps of wood.
Forgotten to the world until the 1990s
Trekking may be a relatively new phenomenon in Turkey, but people have made their way along this stretch of coast throughout the ages. In ancient times, the land between today’s Antalya and Fethiye, Lycia, was perhaps the site of the first democracy in world history. Society was well-ordered with main roads and walking trails that connected these towns with bordering regions.
The network of paths remained forgotten by much of the rest of the world until the 1990s, when British amateur historian Kate Clow started walking from town to town to breathe new life into these links. Six years later, the area had been mapped and the 540km Lycian Way became a reality.
Since then, The Sunday Times has named it one of the top ten walking trails in the world. It’s not difficult to understand why. Hidden bays are regularly interspersed with mysterious city ruins from the time of Ulysses and the Odyssey. And best of all, the trail is both easy to walk and simple to access, being close to holiday resorts offering good accommodation and fantastic food.
The regular local bus links also make it easy to start and finish a hike where and when it suits you. I’ve chosen the two-day stage between the villages of Adrasan and Ulupinar.
I swallow a final gulp of tea with Ramazan in the old pirate chief’s stronghold, then continue towards a sunlit pass. The feeling that creeps over me could possibly be described as spiritual Pokemon, with my eyes and brain focused on spotting the red and white signs that mark the path, always with the brow of the next rise in sight. There’s simply no room for petty everyday irritations. The here and now is all that matters.
So many highlights along the Lycian Way
Beyond the shrill cries of a robin, the Lycian Way leads steeply downhill. Soon I pass under the dense foliage of strawberry trees towards eternal shade and I don’t hear another sound until I step out from the jungle to be met by the swell of the sea an hour later.
There are so many highlights along the Lycian Way, not least the atmospheric ghost town of Kaya Köyu that once housed thousands of people centuries ago, the ancient World Heritage-listed city of Xanthos, associated with so many legends and dramas, and the hidden paradise beach by Butterfly Valley. And there’s always the place you’re walking now.
The late afternoon sun has bathed the old Lycian harbor town of Olympos in a remarkable raking light. It feels as though I’ve been transported to an Indiana Jones movie, where gnarled trees shoot up from mysterious ruins. There are dripping leaves, graves and dark sarcophagi everywhere. I pass Vespasian Bath with its croaking frogs, then soon find myself on one of the most beautiful beaches in Turkey.
This coastal stretch has always been a meeting place. In ancient times, trading ships arrived here from Rome, Syria and Cyprus. Today, Olympos attracts backpackers from all around the world who socialize and sleep in roughly hewn wooden cots in the legendary Kadir’s Tree House.
I swim in the salty surf in the evenings and listen to two Korean women talking about their journey along the Silk Road. As the evening shadows fall across the mountain Tahtali Dag, a few Turkish hippies start playing on oriental drums, while the moon casts a fine silver sheen over the sea.
Lycian Way – guide
Start and finish points: Ovacik at Fethiye-Ölüdeniz, and Geyikbayiri just west of Antalya.
Length: 540km. Divided into 29 stages that take 30–33 days to complete. Plenty of suitable stretches for day outings.
How: On your own or with an organized group and guide, such as Pathfinder and On Foot Holidays. An in-between way is to arrange accommodation and luggage transport between overnight stays via a Turkish travel agent, a service offered by the likes of Mithra Travel and Bespoke Turkey.
Best times to go: April–June and September–October. The weather can also be good in February–June and September–November. It’s often too hot during the height of summer.
Food & Accommodation: Guest houses and B&Bs.
There are also apps for the Lycian Way with maps and GPS points for the latest updates.
I spend the night on Çirali, the other beach at Olympos, drifting to sleep to the sound of the gentle surf. It’s the same sound I wake up to as I step out into a jasmine and citrus-scented morning. Breakfast is being served under the tamarind trees by the edge of the beach – three kinds of sheep’s cheese with varying degrees of consistency and salt. Plus, blue black plums, the Turkish vegetable omelet menemen, creamy yogurt, homemade fig jam and dried apricots.
I eat slowly to the sound of bulbuls singing in the date palms. If it was anywhere else, a place like this would probably have been overdeveloped by now, but here the buildings are still hidden among the greenery. Every summer, sea turtles arrive on the beach to bury their eggs in the soft sand. The microclimate is also mild and gentle, which enables everything from sweet marzipan persimmons to bananas and figs to flourish. I find myself thinking of the Bible.
“The Garden of Eden? Why not? Çirali attracts people who appreciate nature and believe in the importance of sustainability,” says Kübra Gümüs, who left her home city of Istanbul to work in the green bungalow village of Arcadia.
The morning sun tickles the back of my neck as I leave Çirali for my second day’s stage. Just past a sharp left bend, I leave the village road for the Lycian Way path under shady pines. Soon, a smell that reminds me of a childhood camping stove stings my nostrils. Beyond the next ridge lies the explanation.
Orange tongues of fire shoot straight up from the rock. In ancient times, the myth of a monstrous fire-breathing hybrid creature, the Chimaera, was born. Bellerophon, a hero of Greek mythology, was dispatched on the winged horse Pegasus to defeat the monster, but the flames continued to dance from the slopes, and over time worshippers of the Greek god of fire, Hephaestus, and his Roman equivalent, Vulcan, came on pilgrimages here. The modern explanation for the fire is somewhat more prosaic though – methane gas.
I follow Lycian Way leading away from the flames as the trail climbs resolutely through a sparse forest. Soon, I reach a pass with views back over my walk from the previous day – the beach at Olympos, distant sailing boats, the mountain Musa Dag. In the opposite direction, I keep my eyes firmly on the continuing trail, the slopes of the Taurus Mountains, pines, cedars and remote minarets. I take a short break, then continue downwards. Halfway down I come across a ravine. Suddenly, I hear a loud clonking noise. A group of heavily laden Russians are driving their hiking poles against the hard ground.
“It’s so wonderful here. So absolutely wonderful. The food is also really fantastic,” chirps Lydia from Smolensk when we finally come face to face by wild cyclamen plants and red dragonflies.
An hour later, I reach my own final destination and celebrate my arrival in Ulupinar with dinner at Selale, a restaurant surrounded by rippling water. I go for a charcoal-grilled lamb and Gavurdagi salad, named after one of the peaks of the Taurus Mountains, which also includes finely chopped tomatoes and parsley, mint, walnuts, pomegranate vinaigrette and cumin.
“Does it taste good?” the waiter asks.
“Elinize saglik. Fantastic food, fantastic chef,” I reply in all honesty.
As I relax on embroidered cushions at low tables, I think back to the mountains, sea and fresh air. Can hiking get any better than this? I doubt it.
Accommodation in Olympos & Çirali
An organic project, with -generous breakfasts and comfortable bungalows in a calm lemon grove a few steps from the -sandy beach in Çirali. A perfect place to relax to a backdrop of gentle sounds.
Kadir’s Tree House
Laid-back backpacker accommodation with an air of a hippy colony. Roughly hewn cabins and wooden cots. Restaurant, bar and café. A few kilometers inland from the beach in Olympos.
Kadir’s Tree House
Adrenaline rushes around Antalya
In a short space of time, Geyikbayiri, just west of Antalya, has become one of the hottest climbing destinations in the Mediterranean. Kezban’s Guesthouse and Climbers Garden -offer trips for beginners.
Several travel agents in Antalya and Alanya arrange half-day trips through the dramatic canyon of the Köprü River. October–November and April–May are best.
The mountain Babadag near Ölüdeniz Beach and Fethiye is classic paragliding terrain.
Published: March 19, 2019