Sailing to Byzantium (1998)

At the end of 1997 I returned from my eighth sailing trip in the Caribbean desperate for new territory. The ancient world beckoned. I compared prices and boats and factored in the fact that one of my clients was a Turkish travel company. That tipped the balance in favor of Turkey.

I picked a charter company with a base in Marmaris on the southern coast, picked dates based on the charter company’s Saturday to Saturday schedule and talked with my client about tours and hotels. Four friends signed on for the trip, which cost $3000 including many meals and airfare. With frightening speed (and only a few snags) our June 15 departure date arrived and we were settled in on the 6 p.m. Turkish Airlines flight to Istanbul . . .

There is English signage in the Istanbul airport, but it doesn’t say anything helpful. We find our way by trial and error to the bus to the domestic terminal, and thence to our airplane on to Izmir. Our luggage lined up on the tarmac next to the plane. We almost miss the instruction to identify our bags or they won’t be loaded. In Izmir our bags don’t appear on the turnstile. We are told to go check the International terminal. Our driver meets us and guides us there, where once again our bags are lined up waiting for us. Having completed this confusing luggage dance, we load the van and head for Kushadasi.

An hour later we’re pool side ordering sandwiches. Jet lag creeps over me, shutting down my senses and dragging down my eyelids. Still, the sunset over Europe is lovely and the Turkish buffet, designed to please the primarily German guests, is interesting. A duo plays bad Elvis tunes. When they move into Eric Clapton we retire.

We’re going in style, having hired both a driver and a guide to go with the van. Our guide, Akay, is in his 60s and a retired sea captain. During the course of the day we learn a bit about his family. Noel, our resident pessimist, observes that it’s all a ploy to get a better tip.

First stop is the Virgin Mary house. The hoards are shocking. We had no idea how important this place is. Italian tourists are hearing a mass being delivered from an altar outside the three-room, reconstructed stone house. Inside I take a picture of the candles set by visitors. The attendant gives me a dirty look so I leave an offering of 500,000 Turkish lira–about two dollars.

Down in the valley, Ephesus is thronged. It’s like a great new land at Disneyland.”Tour the ancient whore house across from the library!”

“Try out the antique latrine!”

“Stand on the very stage where St. Paul preached and lions ate Christians (but watch out for crumbling statuary).”

For two hours we wend through the ruined city, snapping pictures and listening to Akay’s sometimes inaccurate information. Not to belittle this site: Ephesus was one of the most important cities of the ancient world, and more amazing than the size of the excavated ruins is the certainty that there are countless more structures still undiscovered under the surrounding hills.

We stop briefly to see the single reconstructed column of the Artemesian–one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. In the modern world, its a little sad: a lone column, constructed from fragments, on low ground surrounded by marshy water and waterfowl.

Ancient stuff done, Akay takes us to a leather store. The prospect of trying on a leather jacket is unimaginable in the heat. Besides that, its all available in New York. We leave. They follow us out with a tray of apple tea.

Now Akay wants to take us to the village where carpets are made. Noel flatly refuses and asks to be dropped off at the hotel. The rest of us go.

Greener than Ephesus, uncrowded, and sweltering hot, Aphrodesias reminds me of romantic paintings. How on earth were they comfortable posing among the ruins in all those clothes?

Tale of a Parrot

I heard the parrot inside the Anatalya restaurant long before he hopped out the window and across to our driver’s plate of yogurt and honey. The driver was amused but our guide was not, when the jolly little fellow, all green and blue and orange, tried to sample from his plate. He shooed him toward me where my honey and yogurt were an immediate attraction. I was happy to share my dish with him, he reminded me of little Argus–big self-image in a little package.

When our driver left his apple tea on the table the feathered demon hopped right over and grabbed a sugar cube. Finding it too hard to eat, he tipped the tea glass and dropped in the cube. When it was saturated he took it out and ate it. The other cube followed, and he reached in to dip bits of it as he ate. We watched transfixed.

A feisty fellow, he was not intimidated by attacks with forks, or swatting hands, he simply backed off, then returned, and even snapped at the human’s weapons. Nobody really wanted to hurt him, simply protect their food, and he knew it.

Pamukkale

After two hours on the road we are happy to find that our hotel offers three pools in the style of roman baths (hot, warm, and cool). Even better are the Turkish bath and masseur.

The after dinner belly dance show is terribly contrived, with the dancer enticing young men to dance with her (John included, to Akay’s delight, not to mention his own). Most of the photographic evidence was, unfortunately, confiscated by John.

Friday, June 19: On to Marmaris

We start at the Heiropolis necropolis, a jumble of tombs across the hillside like children’s blocks, ruined in the ubiquitous earthquakes. We stroll through the ruined baths (tepiderium, calderium, frigidarium . . .).

The theatre is an excellent reconstruction. John, Lisa and I climb to the top. From the ancient orchestra pit Akay calls up to us and we ask him to sing. He obliges with “Love is a Many Splendor Thing” to the amusement of all the tourists in the theatre.

We move on to the bluffs. Here the water from the springs has been flowing over the bluffs since shortly after the ice departed from this part of the world. The water evaporates , leaving behind layer upon layer of white minerals, very hard, yet very delicate, with a surface like solidified powdered sugar. Ancient obstructions created puddles, which built up to create terraced pools on the edge of the bluff. The earliest pools where Romans bathed are silted up and closed to the public. In recent years the Turkish government closed a road up the bluff and redirected the water down it. The addition of low retaining walls has forced the faster creation of new pools where tourists can wade. This strange site is fun, if crowded, but the best is yet to come.

The Pamukkale hotel charges $4 to swim in their man-made pool built over the source. The spring emanates from a deep, azure lagoon. It’s 95 degrees, naturally effervescent and tastes like vichy water. Broken columns and chunks of carved stone from Heiropolis have been placed on the gravel bottom. Blooming bougainvillea and oleander hang in from the sides and waterfalls are spaced along the edge. An arm of the pool leads to the spring, which is fenced off. It’s about twenty feet deep outside the fence, and I cannot prevent the bubbly water from going up my nose when I dive. This must be what it would be like to swim in champagne.

My Turkish client discourages Americans from visiting Pamukkale because many are disappointed, but we find it to be a delightful respite.

After Turkish pizza on the road, everyone slips into a food coma as we ride south toward Marmaris. Then we spot the sea in a bay with farm land and a small village. We have reached the coast.

There are always two unknown variables when chartering: Quality of head and quality of bed.

–John

Except for the occasional mosques, Marmaris could be any American beach town. Among the rug and leather shops are cheap boutiques and beach shops full of rafts, inflated animal floats and racks of sunscreen. Hawkers approach us from all sides.

“Hello, my friend. What’s your name? Where are you from?”

The beach–dark sand covered with lounge chairs and umbrellas, weedy, cold water–disappoints. John and I take lounges for a couple hours of reading and I’m sure I could not spend a two week holiday here. As the sun slips behind the hills a waiter from whom we’ve bought a couple beers wanders up and points out two dogs on the boardwalk (well, cement walk).

“They make tiki tiki. Everyone on the beach make tiki tiki.” He goes on in this vein for a few minutes and we decide it’s time to go. But John has adopted this expression and resolved to confirm our suspicion about its meaning.

Lisa gets a restaurant recommendation from the hotel desk and we set out. We have no luck finding the place, but we do find the Marina where rows of big, wooden gulet boats are tied up across from rows of big, busy restaurants. Lisa picks one (a restaurant). We order fish without confirming prices in advance. The meal is very good. The bill is 83 million lira–more than $300. Our second shopping lesson.

Saturday, June 20: Max

We have a few hours to explore Marmaris before going to the charter base. We buy spices and Turkish delight, an inflatable raft and Turkish music. We find the castle up a narrow alley and pay $1 to walk around the reconstructed building. The highlights are the view, and the family of peacocks. We collect our luggage and take two cabs to meet the water taxi to the charter base.

On the quay we are met by the boat driver and Max, our captain. He’s a tall, wiry Frenchman with curly salt and pepper hair and a roman nose.

The whole check out experience is surreal–Max has done all the inventory and is responsible for the systems. Kim does the food, we add some snacks that are available at the base, we unpack and leave behind some bags, and we’re done. The food–enough for half the week–is $44 more than last night’s dinner.

We motor out of Marmaris harbor and take a mooring in Kumlubük. We opt for the inexpensive local restaurant. The service is first class, the food is great, and the price is much better than the night before. I present Max with cigarettes we had intended for Akay (amazingly, he didn’t smoke) and a rigging knife.

Sunday, June 21: Ruin Bay

Our 33 mile sail to the Gulf of Fethye starts slow on a downwind run but the breeze picks up after lunch. We come to rest at what passes for a dock in Ruin Bay. Max, John, and I hike across the Isthmus along a 2000 year old wall built to protect the peninsula. A swim to the sunken ruins of a Roman bath is perfect after the climb. Akay had repeated his Roman bath speech so many times we could do it ourselves:

The Roman baths had three parts, the cold pool, or frigidarium, the warm pool, or tepidarium, and the hot pool, the caldarium. First they visit the warm pool, then the hot pool, then the cold pool, but they mostly used the baths for entertainment.

–Akay

There’s a small restaurant on the dock, but we cook chicken aboard. We don’t have a barbeque–they’re illegal in many of the anchorages we visit because of the fire hazard. This probably contributes to the remarkable cleanliness of the water. Another big factor is that the boats all use their holding tanks in the anchorages. This may seem like an obvious course of action, but it’s not that common to sail in an area where people are scrupulous about it.

Monday, June 22: Gochek and the Turning Goat

Max takes us on a tour of the Gulf of Fethiye with its dozens of tiny anchorages. We anchor and make hot dogs for lunch in Laundry Bay–so called because a fresh-water stream provides sailors with a chance to do the wash. Lisa, Max, and I take the dinghy to the restaurant on shore for Turkish coffee where we met Tuba, a girl of 12 who has a future selling carpets. She tries to sell us a “turning goat” for dinner and we watch as they stuff one with vegetables, wrap it in an old plastic tablecloth, and put it aboard a boat to take away–talk about take-out food! But the price was high–about 220 dollars–ultimately we decided to move on.

The best thing about this stuff (the round pie of marshmallowy nougat we bought in Marmaris) is the name-Neewww-gut, neewww-gut.

–Noel

We sailed slowly to Gochek in the Gulf’s light wind, finally giving in to motor. Our engine balked at starting twice, but Max was unconcerned. That made him worth the price if nothing else-I didn’t have to worry about it.

Gochek is the town Marmaris could have been. The waterfront boasts big marinas full of boats from Britain, France, and even Hong Kong and California. The melange of voices is more varied, and there are definitely more Americans. The main street has subdued tourist shops, the waterfront is a broad promenade with few hawkers.

Tuesday, June 23: Gemiler

After a busy morning shopping and cleaning, two long tacks take us out of the Gulf. The wind coming around the point gusts enough to almost round me up several times, then it settles. Near the point it drops and we motor in behind St. Nicholas Island (Gemiler). We anchor and tie a line to a rock on shore in a row of gulets and yachts.

John goes ashore to view the ruins which, even from the boat, appear to be impressive. The rest of us drink. He returns having had a near-religious experience.

John: “Bonjour, Max.”
Max: “Pardon?”
John: “Bonjour!” (with thicker accent)
Max: “What?”
John: “It’s French, Max!”
Max: “Oh, Bonjour! Yes, good morning.”

Wednesday, June 24: Santa Claus

All but Kim climb to the top of the Island in the early morning. The ruins are St. Nicholas’s monastery, now inhabited by lizards and goats. One could spend days exploring the island, but we only have a couple hours. We scramble down, meeting other visitors just arriving, and prepare for a 30 mile sail.

When the engine won’t start again Max earns his keep by bleeding the fuel line several times.

We motor into the eastern corner of Ekinick Bay near Dalyan. We drop the hook in 80 feet of water and back up to a pine-studded rock wall. A man from the local restaurant dinghies out and helps tie two long lines from our stern to rings set in the rocks.

We get into a strange conversation with the Scots on the next boat–strange because we can’t understand half of what they are saying. Nonetheless, they understand that we are almost out of gin. Shortly one of their women, wearing a beret with a fringe of orange hair attached, swims over with a small water bottle half full of gin. We give her one of our bottles of tonic in trade.

We visit the restaurant for a lovely dinner and lovelier view of the bay. After dinner the restaurant lights go dim and we suspect a power failure, but waiters emerge from the kitchen pushing carts bearing four-foot towers of fruit and candles. One goes to a table inside, and the other comes out to us on the patio. They serve us fresh fruit from among the hollowed out oranges and melons. We accuse Max of knowing this would happen and he says they do it about half the times he brings crews here.

John spends the week probing Max about his life, his loves, his plans. His boyish charm allows him to get answers to questions that would earn most people a slap. I think he’s gone to far when he asks, “Do you have any children?”

But Max quietly responds, “yes. A girl. I am not a part of her life.”

John also asks about “tiki tiki.” Max grins.

Thursday, June 25: Heart of Lycea

We’ve arranged for a six hour boat trip to the ruins of Caunos, the Lycean Rock tombs, and the town of Dalyan for lunch. We expect to pay about $75 each, based on the price list in Deutsch marks on the boat. Riding up the river delta is like a visit to Indonesia. The ruins of Caunos, another city that was once on a harbor and is now land locked, are well preserved but too much like all the rest for us to get excited.

The Lycean rock tombs, elaborately carved into cliff faces overlooking the river, are impressive but distant. In Dalyan our guide tries to direct us to eat at a specific restaurant. Noel picks a different one and we have a nice lunch.

The ride back to Sicié is hot in the delta and rough in open water. None of us are thrilled about paying so much, so when the driver says its $90 we all grimace. Then Max, who’s figured out what’s up, says, “for everyone.” Suddenly we’re a lot happier.

We decide to spend another night and invite the Scots over for drinks, despite the fact that we haven’t enough glasses or gin. Skipper/father Colin picks Max’s brain about where to go. Daughter Fiona brings their nightly entertainment, the Quiz. We divide into mixed teams and are issued answer sheets. My team thinks it’s weaker with John, Kim, me and two of the Scots women, but a couple good guesses and better teamwork help us prevail by two points.

Friday, June 26: “A Gust the Size of Nebraska!”

We decide to use the bulk of our remaining food on a big breakfast and sail to a restaurant for a late lunch (since the closest possible anchorage with a restaurant is quite near Marmaris). Outside Ekincik we find very fluky wind, going from five knots to 40 and back, and right on our nose. As planned, it’s a long run to a late lunch–we finally pick up a mooring at nearly 4 p.m. We can only afford about 90 minutes. After lunch at the bad Chinese restaurant (if Max had told us that we would have opted to cook), we take very quick swims and Noel makes coffee.

The engine won’t start. Max bleeds the fuel line. Several times. We grind the starter until battery slows down. Max’s calm reserve grows thinner. He’s assessing us and the conditions in terms of sailing. We’re out of radio range because of the high mountains, but I asked if he wants to go ashore and phone the base. He finishes his coffee and says, “let’s go.”

John takes the helm, I go to the bow to slip the mooring, and Max raises the reefed main. We wait for Sicié to slew around and the sail to fill. Then she’s off, cutting across the uncrowded anchorage on a reach. We roll out the jib, reefed. At the mouth of the little bay the wind dies and we wallow on, sails flapping. I realize he that Max’s assessment of us was more important than we’d thought-he knew what conditions we were getting into. To our credit he did it anyway.

The next 45 minutes are the most exciting sailing of the week. The wind never holds from one direction or at one speed for more than 30 seconds. It’s different at the top of the mast, the spreaders, and the deck. The first gust lays her over on her beam ends and there’s a tremendous crash below. The coffee service wasn’t stowed and now cups, carafe, kettle, and silverware drawer (left unlatched) are all over the cabin.

Noel goes below to clean up. I man the starboard jib sheet, Kim takes port, Max stands in the companionway to handle the main. To manage the gusts we reef the jib further. Even so, several times we have to let lose all sail to avoid a knockdown. We can see the gusts coming, but each is a little whirlwind so we never knew what to expect-from abeam? Aft? On our nose? Each ripple across the water pumps our adrenaline.

I watch a sloop coming from the other way in good air. I note where she runs into bad air–that will be our exit point from the turmoil. Meanwhile we’re beating across the channel, with the lee shore shifting from one side to the other with each new gust.

John guides us through it with our constant sail trim and a steady stream of shouted orders and warnings.

“Oh my God, there’s a gust the size of Nebraska! This one’s gonna’ get us. My God!” we all crack up as the wind drives us over.

“Crank in that main dammit. No, let it out we’re on a reach,” John screams.

Max says calmly, “Make up your mind, John.”

“Hold your course, hold it, just wait to get some speed, hold it, hold it, hold it, OKAY, tack!” I order.

“I’m worried about those rocks!” Says John.

“Ignore the rocks.” I counter.

Noel pokes his head out and says this is the only time he likes sailing–when we’re near to sinking the bloody boat. Lisa later admits she was worried until John compared the gust to Nebraska, then she knew he was just having fun.

Once inside Marmaris harbor Max radios Stardust and has a long conversation in French. Two men come out in a launch and come aboard with a tool kit. After a brief discussion with Max one of them bends down and starts the engine. Naturally we all vouch for Max, that this wasn’t just a ploy because we were late.

Saturday, June 27: On to Istanbul

Our driver drops us at the wrong terminal and Dalaman airport and only Noel’s persistent inquiries prevent us from either missing our flight or ending up on a plane to Berlin.

In Istanbul we freshen up and set out for a snack and visit to the bazaar-Noel’s choice since he’s leaving in the morning. In the streets we are struck by all the Islamic women in traditional dress on the streets. In contrast, many women are in western dress, from dresses to short shorts. Nonetheless, this city has a clearly eastern flavor.

In the bazaar we visit a couple Hans–old caravan warehouses surrounded by the fabric of the bazaar but still used for storage as well as workshops. We buy maps of the bazaar that indicate where certain types of products can be found, but it’s all just too overwhelming for us to stand for long. Outside we fall prey to an ice cream vendor who sells a gooey product that Noel, Kim, and John hate.

Sunday, June 28: Topkapi

We don’t expect Topkapi Palace to take all day, but with a harem tour and lunch overlooking the Bosphorous, it’s 3:30 by the time we get done. We slip into the archaeology museum and close the place John leads us through a street fair in the palace grounds where we’re the only foreigners in a throng of Islamics. In fine New York street fair tradition, there are cotton candy and ice cream vendors, food stands, and audio tape dealers. The only thing missing is tube socks. We find a gate to a park on the water where families have staked out patches of grass.

The current rips around this intersection of the Bosphorous and The Golden Horn, yet ferries power right up to the sea wall to load and unload, and children swim off the rocks right next to them. The water is remarkably clear for a major shipping channel. We walk south along the water on a narrow path. Hundreds of men swim and fish along the wall. Very few conservative women walk with men.

Monday, June 29: Istanbul In a Day

The streets behind our hotel are lined with ancient houses, some restored, many not. We have passed often by houses with the floors of overhanging upper stories rotting out. Many of these dilapidated wonders are inhabited. Piles of trash on corners attract stray cats. Children play in the streets, and at night people sit out on the curbs chatting. All this just behind the Blue Mosque and adjacent to our four-star hotel.

Istanbul’s museums are closed Mondays. After looking at calligraphy and miniatures in shops near the hotel, we visit the Blue Mosque. The massive interior is striking, but not interactive, perhaps because of the massive size, perhaps because of the lack of human and animal imagery that we’re so used to seeing in such places. In the courtyard Lisa strikes up a conversation with two young men about Turkey and Islam. In the end they try to direct us to their rug shop.

Next stop is the Basilica Cistern, or Yerebatan Sarayi (underground palace). Built by in 532 using materials from older buildings, the cistern was a primary water source throughout the Byzantine era and into Ottoman times. It was reopened in 1987 after renovation. Vivaldi echoes through the vast, dank cavern. Colored lights play off the hundreds of columns. Blind fish lazily circle in a pool in the farthest corner. It’s a refreshing break from the heat and bustle of the streets.

After lunch nearby we take the tram to the Grand Bazaar to shop for carpets. The carpet dealer directs us to his friend the copper dealer, who also sells the shadow puppets that have caught Lisa and my fancy. Murat lectures at length on each item we look at. Although his stories are interesting I can’t shake a feeling that they are constructed to convince us to pay his prices. He will not haggle. John asks about a strange horn hanging form the ceiling and Murat lets him try it out, to our amusement.

Tuesday, June 30:
Religious Wonders and Wonderful Baths

John embarrases the desk clerk at our hotel by asking what “tiki tiki” means. The young man does not answer, which is answer enough.

St. Sophia was built as a cathedral, turned into a mosque, and converted once more by Mustafa Ataturk into a museum. The Muslims covered and obliterated all the Christian images, and the state has been restoring them. The walls are filled with hidden and partial Christian mosaics overlaid with Islamic floral patterns. Perhaps because I have read so much about it already, I am not as fascinated by St. Sophia as the others. They read every descriptions of every mosaic and statue as they view it.

We proceed to the Mosaic Museum, which houses fragments of a courtyard of the Great palace of Byzantium. Built in the 6th century, it was covered in the 7th century, and the palace was sacked by the crusades in 1204. It was discovered and excavated from 1935 to 1954. To think what other marvels are hidden beneath buildings in a city like this.

We lunch quickly then cross the Hippodrome to the Museum of Islamic which houses lots of carpets from Aladdin’s tomb and various mosques. There are ceramics and copper work, wood, and some displays of nomadic life. After a while it seems like a lot of old rugs in a city full of new ones.

When we finish Lisa and John go to the book bazaar, Kim back to the grand bazaar, and I take a cab to the spice market (consistently called, by John, the Saffron Museum). My cab driver speaks no English. I point to my destination on the map. The ride costs one and a half million – six dollars – and takes ten minutes. He takes me to an area along the Golden Horn that looks like the Port Authority for ferry boats.

Past the ferry docks by the Galata bridge is a crumbling mosque with cars parked all around it. The crowds have thinned so snap a picture and take out my map to locate the spice market. I’m on the wrong side of Kennedy Ave., which is like the West side highway. The cars simply do not break. Finally I shadow a man and we get across by darting and taking advantage of cars that slow for us. Of course, had I cared to walk back another 50 yards I could have used the pedestrian underpass at the ferry terminal.

I plunge into the narrow streets. This is definitely not tourist town. I am not approached by the shop keepers. Islamic women are buying giftwrap and household goods. I make a right and start seeing spice shops. I don’t see saffron. I keep moving, waiting for some sign that I’ve found the right shop–whatever that is. Turns out to be the shop where a clerk says hello in English. I ask for saffron and he takes me inside. The shop is lined with finished wooden bins full of jars and loose spices and nuts.

Saffron is 18 million per kilo. I have him measure out two enormous two-dollar bags. I add some Jordan almonds and a kilo of pistachios to my purchase and pay 17 dollars for it all.

It’s almost a dare from John to try the “touristic” Turkish bath near the bazaar. For 15 dollars we get the full treatment in separate men’s and women’s sections.

We are given lockers and sarongs and plastic shoes with big flowers on top. All the shoes are size 7. We change and enter the bath. For 30 minutes we relax on the heated platform and rinse with the water bowls filled from marble basins around the round, domed chamber. I watch the light stream through small colored glass discs set in the dome above. Eventually several large Turkish women enter and select us for massage and wash.

Lisa and I are rubbed and washed by a woman who I hope was near the end of a pregnancy. At one point she pauses to ask Lisa how she liked her massage, leaning heavily on the back of my knee. “Shut up and move!” I think, and she does before the pain forces me to speak.

On the men’s side John was asked for tips by everyone who touched him. Compared to that our slightly subtle masseuse was a pleasure.

Our final dinner at the hotel’s rooftop restaurant is perfect. The view is spectacular, with the Bosphorous to one side and both the Blue Mosque and Aya Sophia visible the other way. The food excellent, the service impeccable–actually a typical Turkish dining experience.