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History colors all of Turkey's Turquoise Coast

A dory with a couple making and selling crepes approached by the author's vessel off Turkey's coast.
By Julie Hatfield and Timothy Leland
Globe Correspondents / February 8, 2009
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FETHIYE, Turkey - We knew the fish at lunch was fresh. Just 10 minutes before, our captain had plucked this catch from a wire basket he had pulled onto the boat.

Once aboard, the fish were barbecued whole on a grill in the bow before appearing at our table on the stern deck of our "gulet" (pronounced goo-let), an 85-foot replica of a traditional Turkish fishing boat. We ate them with warm bread, tomatoes, two kinds of olives, mixed salad, feta cheese, stuffed peppers, bulgar, and strawberries.

Fresh food and brilliant sunshine are a large part of every small-boat cruise along the Aegean and Mediterranean coasts. But it's the color of the water - a dazzling, clear, intense blue - that brings travelers here from all over the world. At greater depths the water becomes a strong cobalt blue, morphing into a lighter luminosity that mimics the semiprecious gem and gives this part of Turkey its name: the Turquoise Coast.

Running from Bodrum, the St. Tropez of Turkey, to Finike near Antalya, the Turquoise Coast borders both the Aegean and Mediterranean seas. In Turkey, to sail and motor in and out of secluded coves and inlets at the foot of the precipitous fir-sided Taurus Mountains is to take "the Blue Voyage," a trip that draws tourists from all over.

We boarded our gulet on a soft afternoon in May along with a dozen other Americans. Eyeing our dusty sandals as we stepped onboard the polished teak deck, the smiling captain showed us the cupboard for our shoes and indicated that we should never wear street shoes on this gleaming wood.

Captain Dursun-Ay, and his two sons who made up the crew, spoke no English, and none of us spoke Turkish. Throughout the trip, however, one of our fellow travelers, a sailor, carried on animated "marine speak" with him, involving engines, sails, and navigation.

We boarded at Marmaris, its harbor full of flag-decorated gulets of different sizes but all with the characteristic pointed bow and rounded aft, equipped with mainsail, jib, genoa, and mizzen mast. Walking up the gangplank we could see the Greek island of Rhodes, the last inhabited large island we would be near for the rest of our cruise. An hour or so later, after our vessel had left the harbor, we saw nothing but that mesmerizing water and the Taurus Mountains in the far distance, topped with white rocks that looked like snow.

At anchor that night, snug in our cabin, the deep silence of the remote bay made for peaceful sleep. We understood, on these quiet nights, why Homer called the Aegean coastline "the country of dreams." (Had we wished to sleep outside, the deck at the bow was covered with soft blue pallets for lying under the moon and stars.)

Each day we had the option of staying onboard or rowing to shore to see one of the historic ruins that seem to fill every inch of this country. There are 300 ancient cities in Turkey, and everywhere there are signs of the people who once lived in them - from the Greeks to the Romans, the Arabs, and the Ottoman Turks and their neighbors. Few other places have been home to so many different cultures over so many centuries.

St. Paul and St. Nicholas, Homer and Herodotus, all came from the land that is now Turkey. Aristotle taught philosophy here, and Diogenes searched for an honest man.

The western shores of Turkey begin along the Dardanelles, the ancient Hellespont, and the density of Hellenic ruins along Turkey's Aegean and Mediterranean coasts is mind- boggling.

We saw signs of one of the area's oldest civilizations when we took a skiff up the Dalyan River, passing fishermen who stood along its marshy edges catching blue crabs. The scene resembled the Mekong Delta in Vietnam. Farther along, steep cliffs rose up from the riverbanks. Peering up at them we could see a honeycomb of tombs carved into the sheer precipice, intriguing relics of ancient Lycia. Similar to the actual structures in which the Lycians lived and worshiped in the 4th century BC, these strange tombs have a somber beauty about them, a brooding connection to the people who lived in this region 2,400 years ago.

On another day we went ashore at Gemiler Island to walk up the mountainside to a 6th century Byzantine monastery with one of the most spectacular views in all of the Mediterranean. Abandoned in the 12th century, the stone building still retains its majesty.

Speaking of abandonment, the ghost town of Kayaköy, whose Anatolian Greek residents were forced back to their homeland after the Turkish War of Independence in 1923, was our next day's destination. Two churches and some 2,000 stone houses built along a mountainside stand eerily empty. A dozen sheep were milling about the sanctuary in one of the churches when we entered. The Ministry of Culture is in the process of restoring the town as a history museum.

After our daily touring of so many ancient ruins, we were brought pleasantly back to modernity aboard our vessel one afternoon by the jingle of an ice cream truck - make that an ice cream boat - manned by a local vendor, who rowed up on the starboard side and passed treats over the railing. Even more surprising (and delightful) was the arrival next morning of the crepe boat. On the bow of the little dory was a woman cooking crepes over a tiny grill, while her husband steered from the stern. We debated whether to have a fruit-and-honey or chocolate-banana crepe for breakfast, and finally decided to have both.

That day, we hiked for three hours from the cove of Aga Limani into the mountains, enticed by the sweet smell of rosemary and eucalyptus and the sight of lush oleander blossoms beside the trail as we made our way to Lydea, a Greco-Roman site where a goat herder was still using a Roman cistern for his fresh water. When a person lives on a piece of land for 20 years in this area of Turkey, he is allowed to claim it, and the man and his wife had planted olive trees, peppers, tomatoes, eggplant, mint, and onions with that purpose in mind.

Another herder offered to cook a goat for our dinner, and a dozen of our group took him up on it. That evening he brought the meal out to the boat. "Similar to pot roast but gamier, with more fat," was the critique.

For our part, we were happy to have another variety of freshly caught fish that the captain served, along with "simit," the classic sesame bread shaped like a giant bagel, and raki, the powerful alcoholic drink of new grape and anise seed.

That was about the only alcoholic drink we had on the trip. Although Turkey is 99 percent Muslim, the Turks proudly say they are a secular country, and alcohol is readily available to non-Muslims. But the Muslim influence on the government results in a heavy tax on liquor. A Scotch and water can cost up to $25.

We returned to Aga Limani cove for a swim in the Sunken Baths of Cleopatra, built by Mark Antony, who gave the entire Turquoise Coast to the Egyptian queen as a wedding gift. Here, in the crystalline blue water, we paddled around the stone maze where Cleopatra once swam, feeling like royalty.

Each evening at sunset Bahar Kahraman, our tour director, offered us optional lectures. Fluent in English, he held forth on fundamentalist Islam, the rich history of Turkey, and the touchy political situation between his country and Greece on the island of Cyprus.

Kahraman's lectures were as complex as Turkey itself, and they made us want to return soon.

Julie Hatfeld and Timothy Leland can be reached at julhatfield@comcast.net.

If You Go

Odysseys Unlimited

255 Washington St., Suite 240

Newton

617-454-9100

888-370-6765

www.odysseys-unlimited.com

Blue Voyage tours are offered April-October and start at $3,095, including airfare.

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