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Freewheeling Along the Turkish Aegean Coast

NEWSDAY

It was my first night alone on the road in Asian Turkey, and long past dinnertime. But I was having more than hunger pangs.

A dozen cafes lined a side street in this small village near the famed ruins of Ephesus, yet I wasn’t sure what my reception would be at any of them. I had been cautioned that a lot of restaurants in Turkey’s country towns function as male-only social clubs, and though there were a few women around, most of the patrons appeared to be local workingmen.

I finally settled on a place where family groups occupied several tables topped with cheery checkered cloths. No sooner had I tentatively sat down than a boy of about 14 came over. In proud grade-school English he asked me to follow him inside.

Why, I wondered, did they think I wouldn’t want to dine under the stars like everyone else this lovely night? I hesitated, but the boy’s smile was genuine and I was curious. So I trailed after him.

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At the door, two beaming men presented themselves with a flourish. One introduced himself as the “director,” the other the chef, who shook my hand vigorously, led me through the kitchen past kettles of simmering daily specials and gestured that I should indicate my choice. My young escort then delivered me to a better outside table, verified my order and kept checking back to ask if I was content.

With a tab totaling $2 for delicious roast chicken, potato, salad, wine, coffee, dessert and such a warm reception, I certainly was.

This mealtime ritual was repeated again and again during the week I spent last summer driving nearly 2,000 miles along Turkey’s Aegean and Mediterranean coasts. Everyone I met along the way, whether in crowded resort towns or at remote archeological sites, was helpful and gracious.

Contributions to an exquisite tapestry of experiences included a handful of fresh figs spontaneously shared by students outside a rural museum, endless glasses of hot tea or cold lemonade offered by cordial shop owners and innumerable “chats” with tag-along children. The children wanted nothing more than to try their minimal English on a visitor from the land of Mickey Mouse.

My drive offered ever-fascinating glimpses of the countryside and Turkey’s changing culture: peasants riding donkeys and motorcycles; European tourists in bikinis picnicking at roadside rest areas next to Turkish women wrapped in veils; Elvis Presley beach towels draped over sacks of grain and potatoes in coastal village markets; centuries-old ruins alongside modern hotels in sophisticated seaside resorts of the Turkish Riviera.

Driving in Turkey presented only one moment of unrest, but it occurred only because I’d mistakenly turned onto a back road en route to a popular beach resort. The pavement ended and the spiraling dirt track narrowed and became increasingly steeper.

I was just about to abandon my rental car and walk back to civilization when a Jeepload of young Turks came by and asked if I was in trouble. They helped me turn the car around in a wide area just around the next bend, and assured me that I was unlikely to encounter another hair-raising route. I didn’t. But driving in this mountainous region while trying to sightsee is not for the faint-hearted.

Auto tourists also have to do a lot of backtracking--there’s often only one road in and out of a place. Still, main roads are well-maintained, good maps are available and gas stations are plentiful. Drivers are courteous, even those aboard the huge smoke-belching trucks, staying to the right as they inch uphill and signaling cars when it’s safe to pass. The familiar international road signs are used everywhere, and though stop signs say DUR, they’re at least red and hexagonal.

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Long-distance buses are modern and inexpensive, working out to something like $2 an hour for most journeys. A driver-guide can be cheaper than driving yourself, but with the distances that have to be covered, most tourists prefer the mobility afforded by having their own wheels.

More compelling than the coastal resort towns, which have a certain sameness about them, are the scores of ancient ruins linked with such famous names as King Midas and Alexander the Great. At some, discarded pop-tops and drinking straws remind you of tour bus encroachments, but at other sites, notably Termessos, you are alone in time.

Note that most archeological ruins call for climbing up steep rocky trails after a tedious drive. Some are best reached by boat. All are well marked on maps and road signs.

The first major site on the route south is Ephesus, about 150 miles from Izmir. The most nearly complete ancient city ever excavated anywhere in the world, it dates from the 12th Century B.C. It was the capital of the Roman province of Asia and one of the wealthiest cities in the Middle East, but was abandoned when its harbor silted up and malaria swept through the population.

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A good overnight base is the town of Selcuk, about two miles away. Selcuk is accustomed to accommodating tourists but small enough to still be curious about each new visitor. It offers first-class hotels for under $20 a night, good shopping and inexpensive restaurants galore.

About 20 miles farther south you glimpse a skyline not of minarets but of construction derricks, preparing you for perhaps the most blatantly touristy of Turkey’s coastal resorts, Kusadasi. Sunsets behind the small 14th-Century island castle jutting into the harbor would be perfect except for the six-foot-high letters spelling DISCO atop the modern building next door. Still, the ever-gracious Turks courteously cope with the hordes who swarm this cruise-ship haven.

Several hours’ drive through rocky farmland takes you to Bodrum, an attractive town with whitewashed houses crowding the hills above a pretty bay where the Mediterranean and Aegean meet. In their villa here, Istanbul-born Ahmet Ertegun, the jet-set chairman of Atlantic Records in New York City, and his decorator wife, Mica, lavishly entertain the glitterati. You, too, can buy in, for anywhere from $40 million to $140 million.

Bodrum is among the yachting centers where you can charter wooden sailboats called “gulettes” for what is known as the Blue Cruise along the Turkish Riviera; the cost is about $500 a week. Numerous boat-chartering outfits operate out of storefronts in between the waterfront restaurants that line the harbor, and as you feast on the fresh catch you watch the yacht set dining on the decks of their boats--and watching you.

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Though you’ll see no golden arches, there seems to be a Benetton on every block here, and LaCoste and Boss resort wear is touted everywhere. Still, there are mosques and markets, reminding you that this is not Hilton Head.

On less developed Bodrum Peninsula are isolated beaches and fishing villages such as Gumusluk, where tiny pensions charmingly if ominously boast “lasting water.”

On the outskirts of town you pass a vast “carpet farm,” with scores of carpets laid side by side across a field to be sun-tested. Donkeys and camels laden with farm produce stand beside the road, as do children selling fruit and jars of honey.

An interesting two-hour detour inland is Pamukkale, which means cotton castle. Petrified waterfalls of white stone cascade into thermal waters that collect in shallow wading pools. The pools have been used since Roman times for the water’s therapeutic powers and reportedly were frequented by Cleopatra. Now hotels border huge artificial swimming pools as well. Nearby are the ruins of ancient Hierapolis.

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Back on the coastal route, about two hours from Bodrum, is Marmaris. It has the look of an international resort but is casually set amid pine-forested mountains on a fiordlike harbor where yachts are gunwale to gunwale. Here, too, you dine almost nose-to-bow with their occupants.

Choose from any of the hotels along the main boulevard, and you’ll be surprised how cheaply you can join the smart set--as little as $20 a night for a seaview room with terrace.

A painfully slow two hours away via a roller-coaster road that winds around a dozen peaks (more pleasantly reached by boat for $10 or $15) is the laid-back outpost of Datca, Key West-like in its remoteness. Settle in for a few days or skip this one.

Temple-like Lycian tombs carved into the cliffs high above Fethiye bring the past to hand at this tourist magnet. You can climb up to the tombs, which also are eerily illuminated at night. Across the hills is Oludeniz, a lagoon created by a sand-bar beach and popular for family outings.

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Similar tombs and the ruins of an ancient amphitheater distinguish tiny Kas, which offers a handful of nice shops selling carpets and ceramics, plus the usual waterfront brigade of restaurants but a less-touristy atmosphere. But prices reflect the international crowd that comes through. For local charm at a good price, a good place to stay is the homey Hotel Mimosa, with rates of about $30 daily.

Next and last stop on most weeklong itineraries: Antalya, the main tourist center on the Turkish Riviera. Its old quarter rambles down a hillside to the harbor from a congested palm-lined boulevard. The historic Hotel Turban Adalya is splurge material, at about $100 a night, but well worth it for ambience and amenities.

Antalya is surrounded by beaches, many of which charge a small entry fee but offer lockers, showers and water sports if that’s your pleasure. It’s also the best base for a day trip to lofty Termessos, one of the least accessible ruined cities. A tumble of huge granite building blocks on a steep wooded mountainside is all that’s left of this reclusive civilization, which even Alexander the Great decided not to tackle. You can visit Antalya’s fine museum to fill in the details.

From Antalya, it’s again only an hour’s flight to Istanbul, barely a wink in Turkish time.

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Turkish Travel Made Easy

Getting There: Among the airlines that fly to Istanbul from New York City are Turkish Air Lines, PanAm, Trans World, British Airways, Air France and Lufthansa. A round-trip ticket between New York City and Istanbul costs $925 to $1,400, depending on seat.

When to Visit: The climate is perfect on the Aegean and Mediterranean coasts during spring and autumn, about April through June and September through November. Temperature changes from about 65 degrees in March to about 93 in July. In November the temperature drops to about 70.

Getting Around: Buses cost just pennies, taxis only a few dollars for most jaunts in the cities. City buses require tickets bought in advance, but if you apologize to the driver for not understanding the system, other passengers may offer you one of their spare tickets or you’ll be allowed to ride free.

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Faster than a bus and cheaper than a cab is the Turkish group taxi, called a dolmus (pronounced DOL-mush). Dolmuses , either ancient sedans or modern minibuses, follow set routes between major downtown points in cities and outlying villages. Sometimes they can be flagged down between official marked stops. You pay the driver when you get on.

Money: One U.S. dollar buys about 2,400 lira. Always have your passport with you when you change money. Many tourist shops, travel agencies, expensive restaurants and some hotels will accept foreign currency, but the rate may not be quite as good as you get at a bank. Also, most post offices will give you liras for U.S. dollars, but not for traveler’s checks.

Car Rentals: Hertz and Avis have outlets in Istanbul. Prices are $20 to $35 daily, depending on type of car.

Terrain: The Aegean region presents changing views of hillsides covered with olive, fig and fruit orchards, along with broad fields of tobacco and sunflowers. The Mediterranean coast is mountainous without much beach between Fethiye and Antalya, but then opens into a fertile plain between Antalya and Alanya east to Adana.

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Departure: It is illegal to buy, sell, possess or export antiquities. However, you may export valuables that have been registered in your passport on entry or that have been bought with legally converted money. For souvenirs, the maximum export limit is $1,000 for all items combined.

Driving: Drivers must have a valid driving license. An International Driving License is useful, but not normally required. A U.S. license should be enough. Third-party insurance such as a “green-card” valid for the entire country or a Turkish policy is obligatory.

For more information, contact the Turkish Embassy, Tourism Counselor’s Office, 1714 Massachusetts Ave. N.W., Washington, D.C. 20036, (202) 429-9844.


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