An epic ancient ruins road trip
Sunset at the Temple of Apollo in Side, Turkey. (Lori Robertson)
Travelling along Turkey’s south and western coasts is an exploration of a land rich with the crumbling ancient cultures of Lycians, Greeks and Romans. But then there are the beaches. It is a history lesson and sun-and-sand getaway rolled into one.
By renting a car and mapping out a loose itinerary along the Mediterranean and Aegean it is nearly impossible to avoid stumbling upon ancient amphitheaters and temples, secluded turquoise-water coves and bustling resorts within minutes of one another. A good starting point is Side, a city whose highlights include the ruins of Aspendos and its well-preserved Roman theatre, built back in the 2nd Century. The 15,000-seat theatre is in such good shape that performances are still held here, including an annual summertime opera and ballet festival. After hiking around the ruins, relax on Side’s golden sand beaches.
Windy roads west along the Mediterranean lead to the ruins of Perge and its ancient stadium. Peel off into the mountains for the steep and well-fortified ruins of Termessos, a city founded by indigenous Anatolians, or continue along the coast to the rocky, brilliant blue beach of Olympos, complete with its own ruins that date back to the Lycians.
According to the Greek historian Herodotus, Lycians originally came to this area from Crete, and later fell under Persian and Roman rule. In modern times, Olympos has long been popular with backpackers, and it is a refreshing pit stop if you need a swim to escape southern Turkey’s heat. Spend the night and hike up to see the chimera – not the fire-breathing mythological monster, but natural gas-fueled eternal flames.
The hardest part of this beaches-and-ruins tour is deciding which to visit. Patara has a 10-mile-plus beach and ruins of the Lycian port city. Also on the turquoise coast is Ölüdeniz, the country’s most photographed and popular lagoon whose calm waters beget the name, which means “dead sea”. You will pay a small fee to hang out here, as with many Turkish beaches that have been designated protected parkland and, peacefully, lack the beachfront development associated with many resort areas.
Need more history? Visit Lycian rock tombs in the cliffs above the main tourist centre of Fethiye or the eerie Greek ghost town of Kayakoy, which was abandoned when its Orthodox people were exiled in 1923 during an exchange of minority religious populations between Turkey and Greece.
Travel down the peninsula from the city of Marmaris to the seaside theatre at Knidos, where Aphrodite was worshipped. Or hit the party-filled port city of Bodrum, where cruise ships dock near a Crusader castle.
See more cows than tourists at the 4th Century BC ruins of Alinda and the 5th to 7th Century BC temple of Zeus at Labranda, where Ionic columns lie in pieces in the grass. More of a Corinthian fan? The much-intact Roman-built temple at Euromos is not too far away. What these sites lack in preservation, they more than make up for in isolation, lending a feeling of we-just-discovered-it-ness to ruins and rubble that have existed for more than 2,000 years.
Contrast that with the extensive ruins of the city of Miletus, with remains of baths, temples and a theatre, some dating back to the 16th Century BC, and the giant columns at the sanctuary of Apollo at Didyma. There you will also find the large, concerned face of Medusa carved in stone.
Those sites provide a good warm up for the grand dame of Turkey’s ancient ruins: Ephesus, the capital of Asia in the Roman imperial period. Its double-tiered library, marble-paved roads, theatre, baths and even public latrine offer the most-preserved look at ancient city life in Turkey.
With all this tiring ruin-visiting, it is nice to always have a number of Aegean beaches nearby.