Rubdowns from Hairy Turkish Men and Other Fairy Tales

SELCUK (EPHESUS)/PAMUKKALE/FETHIYE, TURKEY: June 7-15, 2013

Leah: So there I was, face down and semi naked in a steamy room being lathered and washed by a tall, dark male stranger who was clad only in a thin, wet knee-length towel as my husband watched from a few feet away. Had we lost a bet? Scored bit parts as extras in the latest Turkish blockbuster? I suppose we better back up a bit…

Steve: The hustle and bustle of chaotic Istanbul behind us we made our way south to the small town of Selcuk. This would serve as our base of sorts to visit the nearby ruins of Ephesus as well as some other ancient sites. However after a long overnight bus ride with multiple stops and random wake up calls (i.e. tea at 4 A.M.) we arrived at our destination a little worse for wear. Before doing anything we needed to get a little sleep and regroup; luckily we were in the perfect place for a little R and R.

Sitting in front of the Boomerang Guesthouse looking (and probably smelling) like a couple of zombies we were quietly overjoyed when the proprietor, Abdullah, led us right to our room even though it was 8 A.M. in the morning. He told us to come out for complimentary tea after we got settled, so after a quick nap and a little freshening up we made our way to the attached garden restaurant for a pick-me-up. We were pleasantly surprised to find the restaurant serenely charming and we would end up spending much of our time there, especially considering that breakfast was included and the dinner menu and happy hour were reasonably priced (Leah: and the stork nest right above the patio provided hours of happy viewing as the parents fed their chicks).

Although still tired, the nap gave us enough energy to do some local sightseeing. Just up the hill—literally a five minute walk—was the site of the Basilica of St. John. These 6th century ruins were the site of a church that was erected in honor of St. John the Apostle—as in St. John writer of the eponymous Gospel, writer of three Epistles, and writer of Revelations. In fact, legend holds that St. John’s remains are buried beneath the site of the church’s altar, which is still marked and preserved. Although an important religious and archaeological landmark, we were able to wander through most of the ruins as we pleased. While personally significant due to our Christian faith, I think Leah and I will most fondly remember the Basilica for our first sighting of Selcuk’s migratory storks. Yup, that’s right. On top of several stone columns we noticed a large bird’s nest with a whole family of storks. Apparently these birds of lore come to this part of Turkey during the mild springs to raise their little ones. We would soon notice nests on top of power poles throughout the city; just another integer to up the charm factor in an already lovely Mediterranean city.

After a much needed full night’s rest, we geared up to spend our second day at the nearby ruins of Ephesus for which Selcuk survives as a tourist town. However prior to visiting this must-see tourist attraction we opted to make our way out to a site known as Meryemana, which is Turkish for “the House of the Virgin Mary.” As it has been historically recorded that St. John the Apostle came with Mary the mother of Jesus to Ephesus following His death, there is already documented support for her last days being spent in this town. In the late 19th century, the now-beatified nun Anne Catherine Emerich had visions regarding the existence of a house that she had never laid eyes on as being the home of the Virgin Mary prior to the Assumption. Her visions, written down in a several books, were later used to help discover a home in Ephesus matching her exact descriptions. Now while no one can be entirely sure if this place is what it is purported to be, it has been a source of pilgrimage for Catholics, Christians and Muslims alike (yes, the Qur’an venerates Mary as the virgin mother of Jesus, even if they only recognize him as a holy prophet), even having been visited by several popes.

I had only found out about the existence of Meryemana the day before from a guidebook in our hostel and really hadn’t given it too much thought. In fact, I almost passed on going since it would end up costing us an extra $50 in taxi and entrance fees—although I obviously kicked myself ahead of time for being cheap. However as we got in the small line filing into a simple stone building I suddenly found myself overwhelmed with a feeling that I can only describe as a culmination. Being raised Catholic and by a single mother (and let’s face it, being Mexican) I had always revered the Virgin Mary and held her in a place all her own, feeling that God’s compassion might best be expressed to humanity, at least to myself, through this blessed feminine entity. As I approached the makeshift shrine I felt myself quietly reduced to tears although I wasn’t sad, aggrieved or depressed. Instead I felt as if I intimately understood how someone could speak in tongues although no foreign languages poured from my mouth; the only vocabulary that came to mind was the language of faith. I made a sign of the cross, said a few words and made my way out. Even though I didn’t know it beforehand, I can incontrovertibly say now that this was the reason if not merely the highlight for my trip to Selcuk.

A short ride down from Meryemana lies the ancient Greek/Roman town of Ephesus. In its heyday Ephesus was home to 250,000 people and thanks to cruise ships bussing in hoards of tourists I think the number of daily visitors is close to the same.  Like most other sites we’ve visited in Turkey tourists are able to explore almost willy nilly, walking and climbing over blocks and columns carved by long-gone ancestors millennia ago. The size and scope of this city are clearly evident and many of the sculptures, carvings and lettering are still preserved. If you ask Leah I think her favorite site would probably be the four nursing kittens and their mother that sat in front of the library, one of Ephesus’ most recognizable structures. Ask me and I will tell you that my favorite site was the public latrine that was situated in a u-shape so that you could have a nice chat and catch up on current events while doing your business.

Leaving Ephesus you could take one of the many waiting taxis or simply go on foot through several kilometers of tree-shaded trails—you can guess which route we took. As we approached Selcuk a discreet road sign points visitors down a small driveway wherein lies the remains of the Temple ofArtemis which was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. All that remains now are several columns and some of the foundation but the size of the temple still impresses. Due to the current topography of the site most of the temple now sits in a boggy marsh. Staying true to form Leah spent most of her time admiring and baby-talking with the turtle families that called the wetlands home.

So you may still be wondering what Leah was talking about at the beginning of this post. If so you can all get your minds out of the gutter since what Leah was alluding to were Turkey’s famous hamams. While bathhouses may sound dodgy or harbor less-than-desirable connotations for some, these hamams are a longstanding Turkish tradition frequented by men and women alike; Leah had talked up her first visit years ago so being one to try new things I decided to give it a go. Basically what happens is you doff all your clothes and wrap yourself in a towel provided by the owner. Then you go in a giant steam room that is situated around a raised tiled platform that is internally heated where you lay down after dousing yourself in warm water. You then sweat your butt off as you would in a sauna; however instead of simply rinsing off as you would in a sauna, a big hairy Turkish man also wrapped in nothing but a towel summons you over to a private enclave where he then orders you to lay down. Next he proceeds to scrub the bejesus out of you with a glove resembling an S.O.S. pad. Following your pleasantly sadistic exfoliation he uses a pillow-like sack to gently cover you in a soft layer of soapy bubbles which he then massages into your skin using his bare hands, only coming dangerous close to you man- (or woman as the case may be) hood. Then he smacks you on the back, rinses you off and you lay on the heated slab where you proceed to sweat the last of your body’s toxins out of your newly-inflamed pores. In summary I must say is that this experience is simply invigorating and I’d do it again.

Leaving the hamam and making our way back to the hostel we weaved through shop after shop and I did my best to avoid eye contact with the aggressive shopkeepers. As luck would have it we came across a three-week-old kitten with whom Leah was instantly smitten. Out of my peripheral vision I could see a salesman coming up and I did my best to yell under my breath that we needed to go but alas, it was of no use. Within minutes we were having tea with Ali the store owner who happened to be second cousins with the proprietors of our hostel (no surprise there). I positively hate being sold stuff by salesmen but I must admit that I was curiously along for the ride on this sales pitch as I had heard stories of the tea-laden chats that Turkish and Middle Eastern shopkeepers seduce their clients with. I have to admit Ali was quite likeable and before long I admitted that I had an eye for the beautiful Turkish lamps that we had seen all over the place. Even though we don’t even have a house to go back to, I soon found myself picking out several lamps to have shipped back home (with Leah’s gentle insistence of course). Hopefully they make it back to the States in one piece since turning these lights on will always be a warm reminder of our short stay in Selcuk.

Leah: Hamams, religious sites and major purchases behind us, the iconic white chalk travertines of Pamukkale were a relatively quick four hour ride away. We checked into the Artemis Hotel (while the rooms were slightly skeezy and the bed wretched, the on-site pool, hamam, steam sauna and breakfast more than made up for it) and then hightailed it up the hill to see the terrace up close. Pumakkale literally means “cotton castle” and consists of chalky white terraces created from calcium carbonate deposits originating in the nearby hot springs. The semi-circular pools extend all the way down the cliff from over 200m in height and provide a walkable, wet and quite surreal method of reaching the ancient ruins of Hierapolis at the top.

Much like our experience in the Uyuni Salt Flats of Bolivia, the travertine scenery was a true trompe l’oeil and our brains struggled to come to terms with the fact that we weren’t traipsing upward through glacial pools or slogging over ice and snow to reach the plateau above. The water temperature sluicing down the hill ranged from rather toasty to cool-ish depending on the pool depth and it looked like icicles dripped from the side of the slope. We enjoyed the ultimate in infinity-pool views over the surrounding valley and lounged in the mineralized water while taking in the various states of (un)dress from the other tourists.

With the exception of having questionable bathing suit choices burned into our retinas, we made it to the top otherwise unscathed where we meandered around the scenic wooden boardwalk which hugged the periphery of the travertines. We rounded out our day with a stroll through Hierapolis, which was founded in the second century BC and incorporated into the Roman Empire in 129 BC. Jews and Christians thrived here and the city is mentioned in the Bible, as well as being the site where Philip the Apostle may have been martyred. The splendor of the once-grand colonnaded street still survives and we explored the arches, tombs, temples and theater of old before descending back down the travertines for an evening at the hostel consisting of indulgence in the pool, hamam and sauna.

Fethiye was our chosen final stop in the southwest of the country and for good reason; this Turquoise Coast gem lives up to its reputation and was a highlight on my 2009 trip to Turkey, so of course I suggested a visit to Steve. Once the ancient Lycian city of Telmessos, this bustling harbor town was captured and lost by Alexander the Great before going through numerous name changes, at which point Fethiye was bestowed in the 1930s. Ancient Lycian rock tombs keep watch over the city from the cliffs above and the quay and shoreline boulevard provide sparkling views of some of the 12 islands speckled around the azure waters comprising the Gulf of Fethiye.

Our days in Fethiye were lazy, sun-dappled and diverse. We spent one afternoon huffing through pine forests and along mountain ridges overlooking the sea on the Lycian Way, a long-distance trail running along most of the Turquoise Coast. Our 16km hike took us past locals herding their goats through the shrubs (tinkling bells strung around the goats’ necks announcing their arrival before we ever saw them), through quaint Turkish villages teeming with firey red pomegranate blooms, past more Lycian rock tombs and even through the ghost town of Kaya Koyu.

This former town once supported about 6,000 people. However, after the horrors of the 1919-1922 Greco-Turkish war a compulsory population exchange occurred, with the Greeks who had been harmoniously living there amongst the Turks sent packing to Greece, a country many identified with culturally but had never actually seen. In return, almost 500,000 Muslims in Greece were sent to Turkey—all this despite the fact that in many communities the Muslims and Greek Orthodox Christians had been living amicably, just as in Kaya Koyu. The town has been abandoned since 1923’s forced exodus and the haunting hillside village stands as a stark sun-bleached reminder to history’s lessons. In fact, Louis de Bernieres (of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin fame) even based his book, Birds Without Wings, on Kaya Koyu.

We also decided to be boat bums for a day and booked passage on a day trip that would take us around the 12 islands basking in Fethiye’s bay. We lounged on the deck, stuffed ourselves at the buffet lunch (shocker, right?), jumped like little kids from the balconies into the refreshing water below and caught up on our reading. However, the best entertainment of the day occurred when the ship’s photographer kept playing Celine Dion’s Titanic opus, My Heart Will Go On, in loop on his laptop as he fit our photos to music. Upon hearing it for the third time, Steve grabbed the camera and an impromptu lip sync session took place (well, for those of us who actually knew the words!)—check it out HERE
but don’t say I didn’t warn you. Unfortunately our super cheese-tastic photos were a bit pricey (he made us pose like the leads on a bad 80’s film VHS cover, all while in our bathing suits) or we would have loved to have shared those as well. All in all, a lovely day on the water.

The rest of our time in this harbor paradise mainly consisted of ice cream consumption (I’m surprised we’re still lactose-tolerant), taking day trips to neighboring beaches and befriending some fabulous travelers at our hostel, the Yildirim Guest House. One in particular, Coleman, bears mention, as we have a feeling our paths will cross again. A former Manhattan workaholic around our age, Coleman said he realized that while his life was good, he looked around him at all the 2nd and 3rd marriages and didn’t want his 40-something self in the future to look back at his 20-something self with regret. Therefore, he walked away from it all (sound familiar?) to travel for over a year, at which point he’ll resettle in Colorado—can I get an “amen!”?  The three of us enjoyed an instant camaraderie, swapping war stories and experiences and we’re planning to hopefully connect with him again at our next location. In the meantime, check out his blog for a single guy’s take on the nomadic road warrior way of life: www.lifewaitsfornoone.com.

Time flew lately, but we’ve also been busy keeping an eye to the news regarding the protests still raging in Istanbul. While in Fethiye the prime minister deployed more police to bring in some of the more virulent protest leaders (not without struggle) and just today he was supposed to be meeting with key protest leaders. We continue to ask locals about their thoughts and concerns and they run the gamut, from support of the Taksim Square occupation, to near-anger that the younger generation doesn’t realize how bad it once was and that the current government has made great strides. Just like any government in the world, you can’t make all citizens happy and we’re trying to be impartial observers to the ongoing political strife. So farewell stunning coast lines, ancient ruins and watery wonders—we loved our stay with you but it’s time to head into the heartland!


CLICK FOR SELCUK PICTURES, PAMUKKALE PICTURES and FETHIYE PICTURES

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Steve Devis June 26, 2013 at 1:35 AM

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Leah June 29, 2013 at 12:17 PM

Thanks so much for your feedback, Steve, we really appreciate it! I hope you find it useful and best of luck to you as well.

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