Along the Turkish coast
Until 10 years ago, driving in Turkey used to be perilously close to a contact sport. Road accidents were a constant threat, as tractors, ageing Fiats, and scooters with entire families clinging on vied for dominance of the rutted, crumbling roads. But as affluence has come to Turkey's coastal strip, so the road system has been rebuilt and upgraded, making self-drive trips a great way to explore the stunning coastline and mountainous inland.
I've holidayed on the Turkish coast for the past 15 years, but a road trip held real appeal - the chance to explore away from the main tourist areas and discover places I'd previously missed. Car hire companies are now offering one-way trips, so I decided to start in Dalaman in the heart of the tourist region and finish in Izmir on the east coast. Although the distance wasn't huge to cover in a week - around 560 kilometres - it allowed for plenty of diversions and exploration of the peninsulas that stretch out from the coast.
Driving after a flight is never one of my favourite things, so I booked my first night in the pretty yachting village of Gocek, barely 20 minutes from Dalaman airport. It was five years since my last visit and I was struck by the change that had taken place; the promenade had had a serious facelift and was lined with a mix of chic cocktail bars, traditional restaurants and sleek boutiques selling the kind of designer labels normally seen in Dubai Mall.
My billet for the night was the elegant Swissôtel, which stands at the far end of the village, surrounded by luxury villas. Targeted at the affluent yachting crowd, the hotel's "X-factor" is the newly-created beach club that lies about 10 minutes' walk further along the coast. It is idyllic; powdery sand, a softly-sloping shoreline, and luxurious rattan clamshell chairs perched on wooden piers. I walked down early the next morning for a swim and found I had the beach to myself, the air thick with the scent of pine and no sound, save for the gentle roll of baby waves onto the shoreline.
But the open road called me, and I set off east, whizzing along the new road that cuts through the lush plains that separate the Taurus mountains from the sea. After an hour I came to a large junction; right to head up over the mountain to Mugla, in the direction of Izmir, left down to the sprawling resort of Marmaris. I turned the car left, speeding past clutches of ramshackle cottages surrounded by lush orchards and on into the pine-clad mountains. The road down to Marmaris is spectacular, but I was heading for somewhere far more remote, and wound my way through the busy streets and out again, towards the Bozburun peninsula.
A drive on this peninsula is not for the faint-hearted; the road twists and curls around increasingly vertiginous hairpin bends, and when I finally reached the top I pulled up and took a minute to gaze down at the small resort of Turunc, hundreds of metres below. It's a breathtaking, widescreen view and I gingerly steered the car down the other side of the mountain, through Turunc and on into the sleepy hamlet of Kumlubuk, where a few cottages stood silently among the fields, and a rough, unmade road led to my hotel at the very far end of the bay.
My two days at the Serendip Select were heavenly. At night, across the water, the bright lights of Marmaris twinkled along the bay, but in reality I was as far away from that type of holiday as it is possible to be. In the morning I snoozed on the great arc of sand, before eventually persuading myself to explore the mountains that sheer up behind the village. Up on a fertile plateau I discovered the village of Bayir, where a shopkeeper gave me tastings of local honey and olive oil. There was a small restaurant in the heart of the village, shaded by the pristine white mosque and a huge plane tree, and I sat sipping strong coffee, while children skittered by in bright blue school uniforms, released for the day.
The Serendip was a joy; sleek rooms, a delightful alfresco bar area with comfy, cushion-filled nooks, and an excellent restaurant. But even this far off the beaten track there were surprises; on my second night I strolled to the yacht club next door to the hotel for supper, and found myself eating one of the best Chinese meals I have had in a long time (the chef is Chinese). Crispy duck and Szechuan prawns in the heart of rural Turkey. Surreally perfect.
Next morning I hit the road again, back through Marmaris and up over the mountain to Mugla, where I stopped off to visit the weekly market (Thursdays) - one of the best in the region. There were a fair few coaches parked up, but this is a market for locals more than tourists, with women in traditional headscarfs and floral harem pants bartering over piles of scarlet tomatoes and huge, jade-green watermelons. I fought against buying some beautiful wrought-iron lamps (not baggage-allowance friendly), and instead settled on a chic cream fake Prada handbag.
The drive from Mugla to Izmir is simple; just one long road split in two by the inland city of Aydin. It's easy to divert off to the beautiful harbour town of Bodrum - just a couple of hours from the Mugla-Izmir road, but I was heading for somewhere smaller and far more undiscovered - the small hill town of Sirince, around 15 minutes from the ancient site of Ephesus. The village is famous for its wine, and as I wove up the road towards the village I could see rows of vines stretching to the horizon. The village is strung along a curving main street, lined with wine caves and tiny shops selling locally-made ceramics and brightly coloured sarongs. There is a ramshackle charm to it that reminds me of other villages I once knew in Turkey; Kalkan, Hisaronu, Turunc - before the hotels were built and the developers threw up apartment blocks and villas.
At the very end of the street lay the doorway to my hotel, the Gullu Konaklari, a small six-room hotel created from three 19th-century houses, set around a central courtyard, with a beautiful lawned area and plunge pool. After settling in I sat and watched the sunset over the hills before strolling into the village in search of supper. Restaurants in Sirince have kept to the tradition of having no menu; instead I was taken up to a cold bar and chose from an array of meze and meats, neatly skewered and ready for the grill.
I ate succulent chicken kebabs and a side order of fresh greens so delicious that I had to ask for another. Halfway through supper, a man appeared with a guitar, sat at the bar and began to play softly. By the second song, all the Turkish couples around me were singing along while I, the only non-Turkish person in the restaurant, beamed a little helplessly and sipped my wine. It was quite a moment; the moon was high in the sky, the cicadas were chirruping and this tiny restaurant, high up in the hills, was suddenly filled with singing. It was everything I have always loved about Turkey; warm, spontaneous, unpredictable - a fitting end to a week that gave me such new insights into a country I thought I knew so well.
Published: September 18, 2010 04:00 AM