2000s Archive

Rhapsody in Blue

Originally Published February 2007
‘Do we have to stay here, Captain?’ I asked Safak. Our schooner, the Amazon Solo, had just pulled up next to Gemiler Island, a speck of land off the Mediterranean coast of southern Turkey. It was gorgeous, but other boats were anchored close on either side of us, and Jet Skis buzzed the harbor.

Some Greek islands are almost within swimming distance of Turkey; A goat farmer trudges across one of the barren fields that lie just behind the coastal mountains.

Safak grinned, shouted to the deckhands Memduh and Özcan, and in minutes we were back at sea. A glass of wine later, we dropped anchor again, this time the only boat in a narrow, peaceful cove. The almost musical clanking of goat bells echoed from the slopes above us, and soon a herd of six or eight appeared from the trees. Relaxing on the back deck, we watched them make their long, careful pilgrimage around the edges of the cove to a stream, then depart after only a mouthful or two of water, heading back the same way they had come. On a whim, we decided to follow them; we jumped from the deck into the clear, silky-smooth water and swam to shore.

The goat path wound up the side of the hill, over crumbly gray-white rock, through pine groves carpeted with brown needles three inches deep, across small meadows where yellow and white butterflies plied the low bushes. As we walked, the scents of oregano, mint, and thyme, crushed underfoot, rose into the hot, dry air.

And then the path veered to the left, took a sharp turn, and we stood over the sea on the other side. A bay spread out beneath us in a wide arc, the hill behind it punctuated with the mouths of caves near its summit. In a niche along the coastline, a half-ruined white dome peeked out from a grove of olive trees with giant, gnarled trunks; on the water nearby sat a small boat, a white net just being flung out from its stern.

It was almost absurdly picturesque, like the foundations of Western history reduced to a particularly vibrant postcard. But that was precisely why we had decided to come on the so-called Blue Voyage. Turkey may seem like an odd place for Americans to select for a cruise—the sunny beaches of the Caribbean are nearer to home, and the ports of western Europe might seem like a bigger cultural bang for the buck. But for me, the Lycian coast of Turkey, where the Aegean turns east and becomes the Mediterranean, has it all: temperate weather, unspoiled villages, sparkling turquoise seas dotted with islands, and a history as complex—and as eerily present today—as that of any place on earth. The heroes of classical Greece roamed these seas, along with the satraps of the Persian Empire, Alexander the Great’s armies, Mark Antony and Cleopatra, the apostle Paul, and the servants of the Ottoman sultan. Evidence of their presence is all around you. And then, of course, there is the food, a cuisine that is Mediterranean at heart but amplified with the warm, aromatic spices and delicate flavoring of the Middle East.

The most common vessel for the Blue Voyage (which was given its name not, as you might suspect, by a tourist bureau but by a linguist exiled between the wars in the now trendy resort city of Bodrum) is the gulet, a wooden-hulled motor sailboat modeled on the distinctive cargo craft that have sailed these waters for hundreds of years. Our group of seven had chartered the larger option, a schooner, because it had somewhat bigger cabins and more deck space for lolling.

And loll we did, in the sheer joy of being on the sea—diving from the deck into spectacularly blue, limpid water that plunged to ten feet only a yard or two from shore; watching dolphins play tag under our bow; passing a trio of giant sea turtles in the protected bay at Kas¸; falling asleep to the slap of waves against the hull, awakening to the creak of the boat as it left the night’s anchorage; or simply lying in the sun, half-reading, as we made a slow but steady progress to one vague destination or the other.

The ever-changing scene, and the constant sense of history just around the corner, kept lassitude at bay. Islands were packed so thickly along the undulating coast that it was often difficult to tell whether we were sailing between mainland and an island, between two islands, or just between two outcroppings of the mainland. Because there were no coastal roads linking Lycia to the rest of the country until the 1980s, villages and towns were few and far between, but we frequently slid past stone ruins of ancient buildings, for the most part ignored by the locals.

Once we passed a more recent ruin, a formerly Greek town abandoned in a 20th-century example of history’s sometimes capricious cruelty. In 1922, the fledgling nationalist government of Turkey regained Anatolia from Greece, which had been awarded it by treaty after the Allied victory in World War I. The following year, all Greeks were expelled from Lycia, and all Turks were forced to leave nearby Greek islands. Because “Greek” was defined only as “Christian,” and “Turk” as “Muslim,” a great many of the uprooted families had lived for generations in their adopted homes, and no longer even spoke the language of their ancestral homeland.

But most of our encounters with history were more awe-inspiring than disturbing. One day we passed along the edge of long, narrow Kekova Island and gazed down through the water at the remains of the Byzantine village of Tersane, engulfed in an ancient disaster, most likely an earthquake. We motored on across the bay to Kaleköy, a picture-perfect harbor town with a forlorn stone sarcophagus marooned in the harbor and a medieval castle on the hill behind. We hiked up to the castle and sat there alone except for a hopeful guide, watching sailboats slip out into the Mediterranean on one side and goatherds tend their flocks on the other. Another day, we ventured slightly inland to the Roman amphitheater at Myra, near Demre. When we reached the site, we climbed up the marble bleachers and in and out of the crumbling corridors, which were eerily similar to those of a modern football stadium. Like so many of the hillsides around the villages of this area, the one next to the stadium was thickly dotted with Lycian “house” tombs cut into the rock face, their entrances flanked by pillars and topped by cornices.

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