The early morning road was a gray ribbon that hugged the rough ocher rock walls as they fell into the sea. The silver guardrail snaked along the seaside cliff. Beyond the rail, the deep, blue Mediterranean glistened in the sun and roiled in the wind. Tiny islands, Meis, Rö and nameless masses float in the distance as occasional sailboats flew by in the heavy winds.
As we bicycled away from the friendly, laid-back town of Kas, Turkey I couldn’t help but think of the challenging prelude to our ride. Turkey was our seventh international DIY bicycle tour. Our group, three couples, long-time friends, would eventually cycle over 200 miles from Kas to Datca along the Turquoise Coast and inland through ancient Lycia. In the beginning, the idea of a bicycle trip in Turkey was a bit contentious. Riding along the Turquoise Coast, the dramatic southwestern shoreline of the Aegean Sea with the mountainous backdrop enticed us. That, combined with the allure of spending a few days on both ends of the bike trip in Istanbul, made the idea of Turkey as a destination attractive despite plenty of warning signs that it would not be easy. It wasn’t only the difficult terrain, the unfamiliar language and culture, but perhaps most troubling, the fact that recreational cycling is virtually unheard of in much of Turkey and the kind of detailed road maps we needed almost impossible to find.
As we debated the pros and cons of Turkey as a possible biking destination we searched the internet looking for companies that rented bicycles and/or provided biking tours as we do in planning all of our trips. I emailed and called dozens of leads but found only one individual, a British ex-pat who assured us that he could rent us bicycles and provide detailed maps and cue sheets. The relationship we developed with Simon via email and Skype convinced us that we could indeed manage a ride in Turkey.
Simon arranged for our pick up at the Dalaman airport and transfer to the Hideaway Hotel in Kas, but failed to deliver on every other commitment. Ill-fitting, rusty mountain bikes with worn brakes, no helmets, maps or cue sheets led to a harried search and almost chance acquisition of substitute bicycles. After a long afternoon of attempting to repair Simon’s bicycles, find helmets and maps, and learning that there were no bicycle shops in Kas we were disheartened and unsure of what to do. By luck, chance, or divine intervention, as we walked from the town center to our hotel we found Izett and his shiny, new mountain bikes parked in front of his small storefront/bar. Although he had intended to supplement his income by renting the bicycles to tourists looking for a diversion from Kas’ renowned water sports, he was more than happy to rent them to us for a week and to travel 200 miles to pick them up! After the unpleasant break with Simon and many should of, could of, would of, observations we congratulated ourselves for not panicking and for quickly finding an alternative to Simon. That night at dinner, we toasted our resilience and resourcefulness and fell into to bed feeling much more optimistic about our bicycle tour.
We were headed for Kalkan and then to Patara. The day’s forecast for high winds, with rising temperatures, didn’t disappoint. We struggled to make our way up the coast with a steady headwind and gusts up to 25 miles an hour. The knobby mountain bike tires hummed as they vibrated against the rough asphalt. The friction increased resistance and made it harder to pedal up the steady incline. The shallow inlets whose color is the raison d’être for the “Turquoise Coast” tag, beckoned and we succumbed with a short dip.
Leaving the cobblestone road out of Patara we made our way inland through a busy industrial agricultural area. Miles of white tunnel-like structures—greenhouses—sheltered abundant crops of berries, tomatoes, corn, eggplant, zucchini and melons. These tunnel greenhouses, the fastest growing segment of agricultural production in Turkey, provide a year round supply of fruits and vegetables, income and employment.
Unlike the touristic, coastal towns, the inland villages were hard-worn but active. Only the dogs lay still in the road, in deep sleep as we entered. Workers loaded cartons of tomatoes by hand into large transport trucks. Families pulled up to small markets in cars and scooters, engines idling as a passenger ran in to buy a loaf of just-baked bread. Bearded men huddled around small tables in front of restaurants or in the plaza, smoking, chatting and playing backgammon. A woman beat just-shorn sheep’s wool on a concrete porch, preparing it for weaving. The call to prayer echoed as we left town.
The ezan or Muslim call to prayer woke us in the pre-dawn of our first morning in Turkey. We learned that this ethereal music and lyrics was the muezzin calling the faithful to God five times each day from the mosques’ minarets. The mystical chant, now usually a recording, gave notice that we were where the east and west meet, in a country that, although secular, is 99% Muslim. In Turkey, people do not stream into the mosque at each call; some stop and turn to Mecca and pray while others may simply be reminded of their spiritual tenets.
The ezan accompanied us on our ride; greeting us at mid-day from a small mosque in the village square and as we arrived at our destination in the late afternoon. In the towns and villages where we stayed the Imzak (the call two hours before dawn) often woke us. Initially, the crowing roosters and baying dogs also roused by the call, made it difficult to go back to sleep, but we soon learned to ignore this early alarm clock.
Turning off the main road we left the wide Xanthos valley entering a pine forest and then rode into a narrower river valley. The deserted road was lined with deep pink oleander bushes… natives of Turkey, they were an ever present border on every back road. The Xanthos River was fast-moving and icy grey; its banks covered with yellowish rocks, the shore looked like salt flats from a distance. Another climb and we entered an entirely changed landscape of harsh rocky cliffs and canyons. At the Saklikent Gorge, a 985-foot deep and 11 mile long slit cut through the Taurus Mountains we took a short but rugged river walk in turbulent waters and had lunch in one of the many tourist restaurants. We arrived at our destination The Mountain Lodge at the foot of the Taurus mountain range in a small farming village just below the ruins of Lycian town of Tlos. From poolside, we saw the coast and the city Fethiye where we would visit the next day.
Cyclists were an unusual site in Turkey. We saw only four other cyclists; an Australian man with his two teenage children and a German riding alone. Despite our rarity, our interactions with locals were without exception friendly. Greetings of merhaba (hello) were always returned. Toddlers in their yard or on their porch waved and said bye-bye as we rode away. Students emerging from school practiced their English, responding with “hello” to our “merhaba”, and often added giggling, “Where are you going?” Our hosts at the small hotels where we stayed were friendly, interested in our ride and about our opinions of Turkey. Most were couples, with one Turkish partner and one ex-pat (European or British). They plied us with historical background and often information about our route.
It is impossible to ride through this part of Turkey and not be immersed in centuries of history from Lycian ruins to traces of Trojans, Romans, Greeks, the Ottoman Empire, and the Ataturk era. A lunch in Fethiye, a modern, bustling harbor town built on the remains of the ancient city of Telmessos was followed by a ride along Kaya Caddesi (the Rock Road) passing stone tombs and the ruins of a crusader‘s castle. It was a slow slog up the steep, winding road and for a few of us included pushing our bikes up what felt like nearly vertical inclines. We emerged from the dense forest at the top of the mountain to a view of the Kaya Valley; pastures dotted with farmhouses, the village of Keciler and a small mosque. Beyond the village, the ruins of Kaya Köy (a ghost town) climbed up the hills. For centuries, Anatolian Greeks (Greek Orthodox) lived in Kaya Köy alongside their Turkish (Muslim) neighbors until 1922. A tragic consequence of the Greco-Turkish War (1919-1922) was the evacuation of some 20,000 Greeks in a compulsory population exchange for Turks in Greece. However, the Turks refused to move into the abandoned homes. Now only roofless vestiges of the 350 homes, churches, fountains and cisterns remain.
Our hosts at the Villa Rhapsody, Attilla and Jeanne greeted us with smiles and warm handshakes. After drinks, a swim and a lovely poolside dinner of local vegetables, fish and lamb, they recounted stories of Kaya Köy and directions for our hike to the deserted village and the beach town of Oludeniz on the other side of the mountain. We spent a “down day” exploring the ruins of Kaya Köy, hiking and relaxing on the beach. My beach reading was interrupted frequently by the more interesting goings-on around me. Children laughing and screaming as the waves grabbed them, hang gliders swooping down from the cliffs above, boogie boarders, wind surfers and swimmers sharing the warm, crystal blue water. I reflected too on the mingling of Turks and foreign tourists, of women in hijab or çarşaf (the Turkish equivalent of the burqa) frolicking side by side with those in bikinis and children of all ages. The scene embodied the openness and diversity of the Turkish people we met. The next morning, after hugs and picture taking with Jeanne and Attilla we rode through their gate to continue our journey.
Road maps are scarce in Turkey making it difficult to locate the unmarked back roads that appeared abundant on Google maps. Fortunately, the main roads were wide and all had shoulders. We found that most drivers were accustomed to slow moving vehicles, commonly scooters with two or three riders, crawling up the shoulder. The Turks love their horns and honked as they passed us; friendly toots accompanied by waves and cheers of encouragement.
As it turned out, a greater issue was the road surface. Most of the roads were macadam—large broken stones covered in a sticky black asphalt substance, a rough surface for bicycling. In the heat, the tar-like material softened and stuck in our cleats and shoes. Our knobby mountain bike tires cushioned the ride a bit but made riding up hills even more difficult. And yes, there was significant elevation gain. Thwack, thwack, thwack, a slow trudge up what seemed like never ending inclines. Sweating, stopping, sometimes walking, we realized that we had underestimated the length and grades of the route. We decided that the Turks only had two grade signs—5% and 10%. In fact, looking at the maps later there were several climbs with 10% to 15% grades.
In Dalyan, the proprietor of the Kilim Hotel, Emrah, chatted with us as we relaxed with gin and tonics in the outdoor bar. We spent the afternoon off our bikes, touring the remains of the Kaunos amphitheater (10th Century BC), the rock wall tombs along the river and a boat trip to Iztuzu Beach where we missed seeing the famed loggerhead turtles. Emrah expressed interest in buying a new bike; he wondered what kind would be best. We talked about where he wanted to ride, whether he wanted a road bike or a mountain bike and offered our advice.
“Where will you travel tomorrow, when you leave here?” he asked.
We showed him our planned route, a 30-mile ride along the coast.
“What’s the best way to get our bikes across the Dalyan River? We understand that we can hire a boat”.
“Of course! There is a rowing boat service run by a family who will take all of you across and your bicycles without a problem.”
He continued: “…they take people even motor bikes across the river. They even carry them across on their small row boats so don’t worry, if the worst comes then a local fisherman will take you across in two minutes on his motor boat, there’s plenty of choice.”
Emrah thought there might be a better way out of town, but called a friend who cycles to confirm it. He came back to our table and reported:
“My friend tells me you cannot go the way you planned. The military has that road restricted, no one is allowed there.”
The good news was that we got this information before riding 10 miles and then being turned back. The bad news? The alternate route was much longer, at least 60 miles with several long climbs.
We left the hotel earlier than planned and pedaled to the river where there was indeed a small boat. The boatman piled all six bikes and riders into a 12-foot boat to cross the narrow but very deep river. Off the boat, we resumed the ride up a rough-surfaced, forested mountain road. Sixty miles is a long day’s ride for us, especially given the hills, traffic and construction that we encountered. As the sun set, we arrived in Icmeler and after a few wrong turns found the Fortuna Beach Hotel.
Our final day of riding was on the Datca peninsula a lush green stiletto reaching into the water where the Aegean and Mediterranean meet. Pastures alternate with fields of yellow, white and blue flowers, pine forests, olive groves and almond orchards. The shimmering Villa Asina rewarded our long ride and final climb into the town of Datca. Each individually decorated room with private terraces and sea views of Symi and Rhodes were luxurious respites. On our second day in Datca we explored the ocean side ruins of Knidos and a walked through Datca’s old town.
On the ferry to Bodrum and our flight back to Istanbul and then home I ruminated. Other than the steep, never-ending hills (and the Simon fiasco), there was absolutely nothing that I didn’t like about our trip and this country. From our bicycle seats, we saw only a small part of Turkey but from that perspective we experienced the intersection of two worlds; an enchanting mix of people, history, culture, religion, food and scenery.
We did this ride in late May, early June 2012. Much has changed in Turkey since then.