WEIRD WONDERS OF ANCIENT TURKEY : PAMUKKALE : Inland from the Aegean coast, a dreamscape of thermal spas, Roman ruins

Rodriguez-Hunter is a free-lance writer based in Berkeley

Even 10 miles distant, this bleached-limestone plateau is a dazzling sight, rising an abrupt 400 feet from a dry, flat valley. Beautiful but incongruous, it seems to float on a hazy edge of reality until, as you draw closer, its massive whiteness sharpens in detail. Graceful ripples and convolutions appear, forever frozen into the rock. Snow-white stalactites and water rivulets glint in the sun. Still, shallow pools mirror the bright blue sky. The beauty is so overwhelming--so unexpected--that even the most jaded traveler is stunned into silence.

But that's nothing new. Pamukkale has amazed visitors for centuries. It was, after all, one of the world's first thermal-water resorts, a mecca for ancient spa-goers. Evidence exists that the Hittites erected a religious shrine on the site 3,500 years ago. The early historian Xenophon wrote that King Darius of Persia spent the winter of 401 BC here with his entire army, soaking away the travails of battle. The Apostle Philip is believed to have been murdered here in AD 80 and, a few years later, the Roman Emperor Hadrian came to enjoy the waters.

It's these same waters that have, quite literally, made Pamukkale what it is. Thanks to a tectonic fault, hot waters, high in calcium salts, sprang from an outlet atop the plateau. For at least 14,000 years, the calcium-rich water has bubbled upward from the earth's depths, flowed along the ground and tumbled over the high cliff edge, gradually hardening and forming a few square miles of glistening limestone layers. These mineral deposits, influenced by weather, take on fantastic shapes: There are 50-foot stalactite waterfalls, evenly-stepped travertine basins, shallow petal-shaped pools, and large flat expanses with the texture and look of snowy fields.

As if sheer beauty and a dip in curative thermal waters weren't enough to make Pamukkale interesting, it shares its cliff-top site with the well-preserved ruins of an ancient Roman city. Long thriving by the time of Hadrian's visit, Hierapolis ("Sacred City" in Greek) was small but wealthy and crowded with temples. It also contained an immense theater, a mile-long colonnaded street, a necropolis, a gymnasium, an agora (marketplace) and two splendid baths.

Despite this visual splendor and fascinating history, I'd never even heard of Pamukkale until I visited Turkey. I spent a month traveling the country, discovering why it is difficult to categorize. With its feet set in Europe and its body sprawling into Asia, it's at once Western and Eastern, modern and archaic. I witnessed Turkey's dual nature everywhere.

For instance, I remember journeying along the Black Sea, close to the Georgian border, with my companion, Dennis, a university professor. It was an extremely hot summer day, yet the women watching children play on the white sandy beaches were cloaked head to toe in heavy black chadors. Two weeks later, on Turkey's Aegean coast, women wore bikinis.

Once in Turkey, it is hard to ignore Pamukkale. We saw big posters of its snowy white travertines and stalactites displayed in every single train, bus and ferry station. We decided we had to see the place. So when we found ourselves on the Aegean coast near Izmir, a few hours from Pamukkale, we turned inland.

We caught our first sight of the travertine basins the minute the road carried us past Denizli, a prosperous provincial capital 10 miles south of Pamukkale. Dead ahead were the white cliffs which, from that distance, look a little like a palace for giants (the word Pamukkale means "cotton castle" in Turkish). The road wound beside, and then atop, the cliffs, where we found a few small hotels sharing the plateau with the limestone formations and the Roman ruins of Hierapolis.

Our simply decorated room in the Hotel Belkes/Palmiye had a mesmerizing view of the valley far below. The best thing about it, though, was that we could jump through the sliding doors at the back and into our very own thermal pool. But we saved that for later. The day was too hot to spend immersed in volcanic waters and, besides, we were anxious to explore the travertines.

Most guidebooks use words like "fairy-tale world," "wonderland" and "dreamscape" to describe Pamukkale, and when I moved onto the limestone, I understood why. Surrounding me was nothing but whiteness. The limestone formations' shapes and angles changed constantly in the sun, from puffs of cotton to long, flat fields. Here and there water flowed, descending pool by pool to the valley floor. My senses were constantly set off balance. When I walked across a flat white expanse, I expected the crunch of snow but met the resistance of rock. Wading barefoot through a clear basin seemed like walking upside-down on the sky.

The next morning, after a leisurely breakfast overlooking the travertines, we took off to explore the ruins of Hierapolis. Founded during the Greek Hellenistic era (beginning in the 4th Century BC), the city was destroyed by an earthquake in 17 AD and restored over the next century by the Romans. Hierapolis reached its peak of wealth and fame in the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD, a time in which many monumental temples and other structures were erected. Repeated earthquakes finally destroyed the city for good. Thanks to excavation and partial restoration, however, today's visitor can catch a glimpse of Hierapolean life.

One of the most impressive buildings is the large 2nd Century Roman baths, with its massive walls and arched vaults. The Romans--men and women alike--were constantly in the baths, using them less for cleansing than for ceremonies, sports, chatting, showing off and just generally hanging out. The Hierapolis baths contained a steam room, cold and hot pools, an enclosed sports field and two ceremonial rooms measuring 120 by 170 feet, both faced with high-quality marble.

Perhaps the city's best-preserved structure is the theater, which contains fairly intact marble pillars, arches, statuary and reliefs. In its heyday, the theater could hold 15,000 people. Performances are sometimes held in summer on the beautifully restored stage.

By lunchtime the day had turned too hot to tramp through ruins, no matter how fascinating. We opted for lunch and a swim in our hotel, planning to continue our historical tour in early evening.

And what a swim! For a few dollars we gained entry to the Pamukkale Turizm Hotel and its bubbling springs. Two thousand years ago, on this very spot, the ancient spa-lovers immersed themselves in the Sacred Pool. An immensely popular place visited by three Roman emperors, the pool was surrounded by marble columns and a graceful portico. When earthquakes destroyed Hierapolis, the columns and other marble structures fell into the pool, where they remain to this day.

Swimming over these fragments of the past is akin to floating atop Atlantis or some other mythical kingdom. A marble arch, still bearing a bas-relief of grapes, hints of bacchanalian rites. An elegant, fluted column speaks of delicate white robes edged in purple.

That night, after another glorious sunset, we strolled to the theater, climbed to the highest seats, and sat silently beneath a butter-colored moon. From our aerie we could gaze over the ruins of Hierapolis, across the shadowed travertines of Pamukkale, and into the darkened valley. I thought of Hadrian sitting here, of Darius resting nearby, of the Hittites erecting a shrine.

Then a match flared on the stage below, breaking the moment. A silky laugh rang out, and the scent of thyme and roasting lamb wafted through the night air. We stood, suddenly hungry, and headed to dinner.

GUIDEBOOK: Spring Time in Pamukkale

Getting there: From the Aegean coast, buses and trains depart regularly from Izmir and Kusadasi for Denizli. A Pamukkale-bound bus departs Denizli every half-hour; fare is around $2. Taxi fare is about $10. You can also reach Denizli by train or bus from Istanbul. The train journey takes about 14 hours.

Where to eat: Most hotels in Pamukkale have restaurants, and the food is about the same in all of them. Typical fare (similar to Greek food) is stuffed grape leaves, a Turkish version of the Greek taramasalata (a fish-roe spread), goat cheese, black olives, yogurt, grilled fish and meats, pilafs of several varieties.

Where to stay: Down at the base of the cliffs, a small village has sprung up catering to tourists. There are inexpensive pensions, and a half-dozen small hotels on the cliff. Most have a thermal swimming pool; some have views of the cliffs and valley.

We stayed at the Beltes/Palmiye Hotel. Decor is plain, but we had a large room, stunning valley view and our own thermal pool, all for about $60. Other, more expensive rooms are grouped around a large, beautiful swimming pool. From the U.S., telephone 011-90-258-1014.

The Sacred Pool is located in the Pamukkale Turizm Hotel. Operated by the local government, it's a favorite accommodation for families and groups. About $75 for a double, but anyone can use the pool by paying a small fee; tel. 011-90-258-1024.

If you seek fancier accommodations, hotels in Karahayit, about four miles beyond Pamukkale, contain upscale restaurants and cost about $100 a night for two. Two first-class hotels are The Club Polats Hotel (tel. 011-90-258-4111) and The Hotel Thermal Colossea (tel. 011-90-258-4231).

For more information: Contact the Office of Tourism Information Attache, 821 United Nations Plaza, New York 10017; tel. (212) 687-2194.

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