As I sip strong Turkish coffee overlooking what Homer called the wine-dark sea, it's hard to believe I'm actually in Bodrum. Tell any Turk that Bodrum is your final holiday destination, and they might give you a strange glance. Why? For a long time, this stretch of coast was synonymous with raucous tourists, who jetted in for two weeks by the beach. The clichéd Irish bars and cafes, offering the full English breakfast, are still there ... in places. But, happily, there is much more to experience on the peninsula.
I’m a guest at the new Mandarin Oriental, which is situated on the northern side of the Bodrum Peninsula, at Cennet Koyu (Paradise Bay), and paradise is no misnomer. It’s also only a 40-minute drive from the peninsula’s new airport. The road weaves along Turkey’s south-western coast with views of the endless blue of the Aegean Sea. Local fishermen pull up on the beaches and white stucco homes are just visible, highlighted with streams of floating purple bougainvillaea.
Türkbükü is a five-minute drive from the hotel, west along the coast road, and the town is now popular with the jet set; its beachside cafes and bars come to life after sunset. But instead, I’m visiting the local food market run by villagers from the surrounding area every Monday. I’m handed a shiny green fruit to try. The erik, or Turkish plum, is crisp and tastes slightly bitter, and with almost the same consistency as a Granny Smith apple. I pay just 8 Turkish lira (Dh10) for a kilo of the ripest. Apart from the eriks, there are piles of glistening cherries and tomatoes, bright yellow lemons and shiny aubergines.
From the market, we drive a short distance south for a sightseeing tour of its landmark castle and the Museum of Underwater Archaeology, the amphitheatre and the remains of the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus (as Bodrum was once known). The mausoleum, built around 350BC, was a huge tomb constructed for king Maussollos of Karia. It was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world and gave its name to all monumental tombs since. But the ruins are unfortunately closed on the day I visit. I have to content myself with a tour of Bodrum Castle, or the Castle of St Peter as it’s known. It was built from the 15th century on by the Knights of St John (Knights Hospitaller). Our guide, Isa Levent Gurcavdi, explains the history of the Byzantine mosaics from the fifth century AD, sphinx sculptures from 355BC and the carved marble Crusader coat of arms on the way.
The museum is also inside the castle and it displays artefacts from the many shipwrecks found off the coast, such as hundreds of Roman-era amphora storage vessels, Islamic glassware, and Ottoman coins and pottery. A must-see is the Bronze Age-era Uluburun wreck. Dating to the 14th century BC, it is the world’s oldest excavated wreck, and full-sized replicas of the interior and underwater site have been reconstructed at the museum. The Uluburun was found by a local sponge diver, Mehmed Çakir, in 1982. It was carrying a precious cargo of ivory, amber and gold, along with copper, tin and glass ingots. We make our way to the top, from where the Aegean stretches into the distance seemingly without end. I chat with Gurcavdi as we walk along the palm-lined marina to lunch at the yacht club.
The town has a population of 50,000, which soars to about half a million in the summer. It’s early June, but superyachts are already moored in the harbour. We pass boutiques, artisan food shops and designer clothing stores. It’s no accident that Bodrum has been dubbed the St Tropez of Turkey. But its history is much more complex. Once a backwater, this fishing village was where dissidents against the new Turkish Republic were sent, until one of them, writer Cevat Sakir Kabaagaçlı, fell in love with the town. He was sent there in 1925 and inspired other artists and intellectuals to visit. This crowd gave Bodrum its arty reputation, but it is also the birthplace of Herodotus, the father of history, in the fifth century BC.
As I talk with Gurcavdi, it’s clear not all is well today. Bombs in Ankara in February and in Istanbul in March and on June 6, have put the country on edge and hurt tourism. A visible sign of this is at the entrance to our hotel, when staff check our vehicle and a metal detector passes underneath. Then there’s the refugee crisis. “In the space of a year, I’ve gone from 15 group trips to just three,” he tells me. A year ago, thousands of mostly Syrian refugees were in the area, trying to cross to the Greek island of Kos. It was on a beach close to Bodrum that the body of 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi was found. But now, following a deal between Turkey and the EU, this route is mainly shut off to refugees. However, other routes, from Libya for instance, are still being used. The outlook remains uncertain, but Gurcavdi is hopeful things will improve.
The following day, I take a trip to Bodrum’s Tuesday textile market before my flight back (it transforms into a fruit and vegetable market on other days). The market is located beside the bus station, and it’s easy to take a local dolmus instead of a taxi, as a cheaper and more efficient way to get around. Once there, forget the fake Levi’s jeans, Gucci shades and Chanel bags, and instead nab yourself a traditional Turkish hammam towel (pestemal) for just a few lira. My guide was once a vendor here, and he regales me with stories from his own days behind his stall. From here, he takes me to the ruins of several windmills up in the hills. These were used up until the 1970s to grind flour. From here the view of the castle, Aegean and whitewashed houses is spectacular. Planning laws restrict building heights, and this has been vital in preserving the Aegean character of the town.
Before we return to the hotel, I shelter from the midday heat in a covered cafe close to Bodrum marina. I drink a glass of Turkish tea (talk to any shop or cafe owner for longer than two minutes, and they’ll serve you tea). “Another?” asked the waiter. He didn’t have to ask twice.