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Mythical Playground in the Mediterranean



Islands Magazine
By Tony Perrottet
April 2000

On a sailing cruise along Turkey’s Turquoise Coast, it’s oh so easy to succumb to a lifestyle fit for the gods. As I lolled on the deck of the Amazon Solo, enjoying the opalescent waters of the eastern Mediterranean, I could see why even the crustiest of ancient mariners would wax poetic here.

In these surroundings callous-palmed oarsmen had imagined Aphrodite as a ravishing young woman surrounded by singing water nymphs and muscular mermen blowing on conch shells. Who could blame the sailors for adopting as their patron deity the winsome Greek goddess of love? And what power over those mortals Aphrodite had! Hard-bitten captains maintained small alters to her and made sacrifices at seaside temples. The most famous shrine was in Cnidus, gateway to the stunning cliff-lined kingdom of Lycia, known today as Turkey’s Turquoise Coast. Conveniently for sailors, Aphrodite was frequently worshipped with Dionysus, the ecstatic god of wine ( and thus the promoter of love) who was depicted reclining on sailboats whose masts were entwined with vine leaves. In this sensuous seascape, myth and reality often blurred: When Queen Cleopatra sailed from Egypt in 41 B.C., intent on seducing Mark Anthony, she presented herself as the "New Aphrodite." Her royal barge sparkled with precious metals, and silver-plated oars kept time to the music of flutes.

Cleopatra reposed beneath a canopy of woven gold, fanned by plump young Cupids, while lovely nymphs worked the rigging. Mark Anthony never stood a chance. When they became lovers, the New Aphrodite sailed again – this time accompanied by her New Dionysus, who had taken to wearing vine ;eaves in his hair.Alas, Anthony and Cleopatra were doomed, and Aphrodite’s temple at Cnidus has long been destroyed. Meanwhile, the Turquoise Coast has weathered some of the great battles between Europe and Asia, Christianity and Islam, West and East. The kingdom of Lycia, purged of almost all Hellenic influence, is now part of Turkey, remembered largely because of the haunting rock tombs carved in sheer cliffs. But myth and romance continue to reign here. In the early 1960s a quartet of Turkish bohemians sailed along this forgotten coast in a rustic fishing boat. Navigating from cove to isolated cove, they discovered that the ancient Greek passion for beauty represented by Aphrodite had become part of the very fabric of the Turquoise Coast: The goddess’s soothing touch could still be felt in its warm, clear waters – while the liberating call of Dionysus echoed from every lonely beach.

The waterborne bohemians, led by a writer who called himself the Fisherman of Halicarnassus, dubbed their idyllic sailing trip "the Blue Voyage," and a new legend was born. Today the ancient kingdom of Lycia is the Med’s ultimate sailing destination, the new plus ultra of escapes from everyday cares into an aquatic Eden. I signed up for my own week-long Blue Voyage, which would take me into Turkish waters dotted with deserted islands, Byzantine saints, and sunken cities. The plan was to explore the playground of Aphrodite and Dionysus. Where else could a modern pagan gnaw on fresh figs, plunge from the deck of a yacht, and glimpse the ancient dream?I quickly discovered that today’s Turkish sailors are no less hedonistic than their ancient predecessors.

The M/S Amazon Solo had barely eased its way out of Gocek’s marina, when Serhan, the boat’s amiable owner, raised his glass of milky, anise-flavoured raki and made a ritual toast: "For a safe journey: Pruvan neta olsun! May the ship’s prow stay clear.""Pruvan neta olsun!" chimed in young Captain Mustafa, knocking back his glass and taking the ship’s wheel. They both nodded towards a curious bauble hanging above their heads – concentric blue rings around a tiny yellow-and-black ball, a venerable Mediterranean charm against the Evil Eye, " Serhan confided, rapping his knuckles on the wheel. "I prefer to touch wood." His was a most convenient superstition to have on the Amazon Solo, a stunning 107-foot Black Sea schooner. The hull was made of chestnut, the deck of African iroko, and the interiors crafted from cedar and Indian walnut. In fact, the Amazon Solo – named for the race of warrior- women that legend had placed in Turkey – was the closest to Cleopatra’s luxury barge.Scarlet Turkish carpets warmed the state rooms; up on deck, white canvas lounge chairs were positioned to catch the sun’s rays. And, of course, there was a canopied dining table in the stern – although it was hung with blue sailcloth, not spun gold.

Our first view of the coast was unexpectedly dramatic: The Twelve Islands in the Gulf of Fethiye were looming through the heat mist. Jagged silhouettes rose from a sea of glistening silver; sheer ochre cliffs plunged into the waves, where dolphins were frolicking. It was a theatrical setting fit for mythic events: Daedalus and his son Icarus had launched their flight on wings of wax and feathers from these pine covered mountains. And the legendary meeting between Anthony and Cleopatra had a modern echo: Prince Charles and Lady Diana are said to have had a secret rendezvous in these isles once, arriving in separate yachts in a vain attempt to rekindle passion’s flames.Our Blue Voyage was taking place in mid-October, at the end of the sailing season, when Turkish yacht owners like Serhan traditionally invite a group of friends for one last sail. Hence the cross-cultural mix of passengers: three Brits, a Turkish restaurateur, me (the lone New Yorker), and a gaggle of retired Italians.It sounded as though there were 50 Italians – especially when they all bellowed into their cell phones at once. But I counted only eight. An amazing bunch, the Italians, whose habits proceeded to set the laid-back tone for the cruise. They’d already caused us to depart four hours late by spending the whole morning in port looking for fresh basil to make pesto. Their leader was a frail, urbane, white-haired bachelor named Giorgio, who behaved like Louis XIV with his court, at least with regard to the five Gucci-clad women in the group. Doctors in Rome had insisted that Giorgio not smoke or drink coffee or wine. He spent every moment of the day smoking and drinking coffee and wine, all solicitously supplied by his bevy of elegant beauties. Giorgio quickly proclaimed himself my tutor on Dionysian principles. "Antonio!""Giorgio?""It is important to travel with a private harem," he instructed, as one of his admirers put on a tape of his favourite opera – Italian, of course.

Next morning at daybreak, I slipped over the side of the Amazon Solo and swam a few strokes to Gemiler island, pulling myself up onto a stone landing that had been placed there centuries ago. Branches of Mediterranean pines dipped to the water; a forest trail led up from the shore, past the Byzantine apses and columns of a ruined church whose hollows swarmed with bees. Gemiler was also known as St Nicholas island, in honour of the popular fourth-century bishop who became Noel Baba to the Turks, Father Christmas to Westerners. Saint Nick was renowned for his generosity: He once visited three virgins whose father had been left penniless and threw purses of gold into their house for the girls’ dowries. In the centuries after his death, Saint Nicholas became an international celebrity. (His grave was one of the holiest outposts of medieval Christendom, and he even came to displace Aphrodite as patron saint of sailors.) Eventually his cult extended to the wintry climes of Russia and Germany, where Protestants converted him into the jolly Santa Claus who delivers Christmas presents to children. Christmas snows were a long way from Gemiler that bright autumn morning. Ancient steps led me steeply upward, past a covered tunnel – a long passageway that ended at the island summit, where the remains of a church still commanded a view of the surrounding water. In Byzantine times the air would have been thick with incense, but since nature has reclaimed the breezes, every breath was rich with other scents. "Take a blind man …to Lycia," wrote the Fisherman of Halicarnassus, "and he’ll immediately know from the smell of the air exactly where he is. The acrid perfume of lavender, the pungent fragrance of wild mint and thyme, will tell him." Not to mention jasmine, honeysuckle, myrtle, and orange blossom.

Back at the boat, the scent of fresh espresso assailed me. Giorgio’s harem had laid out a morning repast worthy of any Italian pasticceria, to the accompaniment of Puccini’s "Nessun Dorma.""Antonio!""Giorgio?""What did you see on the island?"He listened indulgently to my account before turning to more serious matters."Interesting. But Antonio, today we have squid ink pasta for lunch."By now I realized that, for Italians, the whole purpose of travel is to find the perfect place to eat spaghetti. They had transported their own pasta in bulk from Rome, along with fresh bulbs of mozzarella and a giant wheel of parmesan cheese. They had no less than three espresso machines, as well as saddlebags of Lavazza coffee. If they weren’t eating, they were talking about food. Food was more than an obsession, it was life itself.The key gourmet item, brought by a silver-haired chap named Corrado, would turn out to be a bottle of wine vintage 1898.

Corrado was an architect, and while renovating an old Roman villa, he had discovered a cellar with 300 bottles of Chateau Lafitte. Half were being put up for auction – these bottles, selling at $15,000 a pop, were going to make him rich – the other half he was slowly drinking. Here on the boat, the bottle became a subject of feverish discussion among the Italians: When should Corrado open his 1898 time capsule? A question that was, of course, in keeping with the spirit of Dionysus. Punctuality is not a strong point for either Italians or Turks, but the next morning we cast off from our anchorage at 10 A.M. on the dot, just as Serhan had scheduled. Giorgio got up from his deck chair and looked at his watch in mock concern: "What is this, Switzerland?"

As the Amazon Solo headed into the open sea, past the wild Seven Capes, it became obvious that the name Turquoise Coast was an understatement: The Mediterranean's palette is never limited to a single colour. Close to shore the water’s tone is emerald green, bright as mouth wash; farther out, its depths are almost burgundy – recalling Homer’s "wine-dark sea."For us the eastern Mediterranean had the same astonishing clarity it must have had for the wandering Odysseus: We could watch the floor of the sea passing 60 feet below; it seemed the boat was floating on air, not liquid. The water sparkled as if a million broken mirrors were scattered on its surface, so blindingly reflective you had to avert your eyes. For the next few days we drifted in and out of anchorages; one glorious spot, Butterfly Bay, was a mere sliver cut into sheer cliffs, visible only to an experienced captain. Every headland was encrusted with relics of the Lycians, whose forgotten culture is, as one Turkish writer put it, "an unsolvable riddle."One thing is certain: The Lycians had a fine eye for real estate. All their cities had spectacular sea views. I saw the vestiges along our route: a sand-filled amphitheatre above the glorious 11-mile beach in Patara; stone sarcophagi like orange mushrooms littering the rocky coast. But none of these relics quite compared to what I found in the waters of Kekova island; the "sunken city." While the Italians headed to the mainland to check out the local cappuccino, I took the dinghy and skirted the island’s shore.

The Lycian coast is next to one of the most volcanic areas of the Mediterranean, and villagers claim that a great eruption 2,000 years ago flooded the channel here, drowning thousands and sweeping an entire city of marble into the sea. Archaeologists have a slightly less dramatic version: Kekova island was actually edged by modest market towns that slowly slipped beneath the waves, as earthquakes caused the coast to crumble like a biscuit dipped in coffee. I maneuvered the dinghy back and forth, peering into the water and trying to reconstruct the scattered bones of the past. In the 1980s this seafloor still held scattered amphorae and Byzantine mosaics, all long since stolen by antique hunters. But I could make out the foundations of buildings, a vague hint of a plaza, and what I took to be an ancient street. It was all very fragmentary, another Lycian riddle, the meaning utterly elusive – and in my imagination, irresistible.This place, where tectonic plates collide, is a better place than most to ponder the vagaries of destiny.

One of history’s few surviving Lycian voices is a soldier in Homer’s Iliad, whose philosophical words might just be an epitaph for this entire, ruin-riddled land. "The race of man is like the leaves of a tree," he says. "You look one way, and the wind blows them to the ground. You look the other, and spring returns. It gives birth to the new, makes green the forest. Thus one race departs, and another is born…"Back on board the boat, the Italians had convinced Serhan to seek out a harbour where they had heard decent gelato was sold."Antonio!""Giorgio?""Why are you so busy with old stones? It is not healthy."The next day, we eased into Kas – pronounced cash – a once-quiet sponge-divers’ town that now resembled a budget Cote d’Azur. The waterfront proudly sported a new marina beneath palm trees; cafes crowded the plazas with flower strewn tables. ("The Italian verdict on the chocolate gelato: "molto bene.") The streets were full of Turkish carpet vendors, plus a mock-Greek temple advertising Aphrodite Jewellery. But you could turn a corner in Kas and be faced with a 19th-century world of smoky dives packed with Turkish men – always men – sipping hot tea from slender glasses, playing backgammon, and puffing on sweet tobacco through gurgling water pipes. At dusk the air became heavy with the scent of lamb kabobs on fragrant wood fires and alive with the wail of a Muslim muezzin drifting across the harbour.In fact, Kas straddled the Asian-European divide in a way that seemed distinctively Turkish – just as the Amazon Solo’s four-person crew did.

On the conservative side were the deckhand Marem, a cherubic carpenter from the Black Sea who had recently taken a wife in an arranged Islamic marriage; and the cook,the somber, inscrutable Imdat, as animated as a ship’s figurehead, who looked like he should really be wearing a fez and long robes. On the Western side of the spectrum there was Captain Mustafa – habitue of every late-night bar in the Mediterranean – whose designer T-shirts and eyewear made him appear more European than the Europeans. And there was also the unflappable Serhan, a former shipping agent in his late 30s, who looked as if he’d be as comfortable living in London or New York as in Istanbul.After dark I accompanied Serhan on his social rounds in Kas. The town, so somnolent by day was now humming with activity, shops ablaze with lights as if Noel Baba was expected any moment. The sidewalks were piled with antiques and pyramids of fluorescent pink Turkish sweets. Next to French restaurants serving nouvelle cuisine, huge sides of meat were being carved in the open, and the bars kept pounding out classic rock’n’roll.It took the Amazon Solo only 15 minutes to motor from Turkish Kas to the Greek island of Kastellorizon, and two hours for Serhan to arrange the paperwork – a comment on the sorry state of official relations ever since the bloody wars of the early 1920s, which resulted in forced population exchanges between the two countries. Unofficially, however, at least on Kastellorizon, the Greeks and the Turks behave more like rival siblings than angry nations.

Mustafa made the mistake of leaving the Turkish flag flying above the Greek one, and the island’s harbourmaster triumphantly sent him scurrying up the mast to change it."Up with the Greek flag!" he cheered. "Down with the Turkish!"Kastellorizon, about 80 miles from Rhodes, is the most isolated of all Greek islands. This remoteness has not been without its benefits: Ignored for decades, it may well be the most picturesque island in the Mediterranean. As we sailed in toward the row of pastel buildings lining the waterfront, old men flicked their worry beads and fed fish scraps to cats, luridly painted fishing boats bobbed at anchor, bougainvillea framed the weathered blue tables of the tavernas. At the only café, a grandmotherly woman named Angela, dressed all in black, gave me a pomegranate to go with my Greek coffee in the middle of the afternoon."I didn’t know Greek islands like this still existed", marvelled Caroline, one of my shipmates. "It looks like a film set.""Looks?" Giorgio shook his head at our ignorance. "Eh! Pellicola italiana: An Italian movie. Academy Award, 1991. Very, very beautiful."He was talking about Mediterraneo, a film about a handful of Italian soldiers stranded on a Greek island during World War 11. When the producers needed a location that hadn’t changed since 1942, they were delighted to find Kastellorizon. Today, with fewer than 300 inhabitants, it still looks like a vintage postcard – although a bevy of Greek-Australians have returned here in recent years, restoring old family houses and bringing new life to the place.The back alleys of the village zigzagged toward a medieval fortress above the harbour. There, two Greek soldiers sat by a pillbox, their shirts off in the sun, nibbling a picnic of olives and tzatziki and waiting for a Turkish invasion. Five hundred whitewashed steps farther, at the peak of the island, the wreck of an Orthodox monastery was being guarded by goats. And at dusk, instead of the lonely wail of a muezzin, church bells tolled over the streets far below. And yet – you could never tell this to a Greek or Turk – to an outside observer, the similarities between the two countries were more striking than their differences. After dark the waterfront became an outdoor living room, with TV sets propped up on tables, all tuned to a soccer match in Athens.

Sea bass and octopus were being barbecued on grills, and glasses filled with ice-cold retsina. Sounds of a swing band from a passing yacht added Glenn Miller to the party atmosphere"You know, if the population of this island falls below 200 people," Serhan challenged the Greek taverna owner, "by treaty it reverts to Turkish control!""Only if you come with lots of guns!" said the Greek, laughing."G-o-o-o-a-l!" cried the Italians, glued to the TV.The next day , we navigated remoter straits to Gokkaya Bay, where the landscape became more unearthly by the hour. Until now, the Lycian mountains had seemed oddly familiar, even vaguely Californian. But here the coast became brittle and rocky. Twisted claws of stone emerged from the water. Jagged islets seemed to rise and fall with the tides – no wonder Greek sailors considered them the barbs of Poseidon’s trident. It was as though we’d entered an ancient water maze, with a million coves hidden from the rest of the world. To my relief – and the mortification of the Italians – even cell phones couldn’t pick up signals in Gokkaya Bay.It was in this lost world that I finally fell into the rhythm of the Blue Voyage. I’d wake in the still of dawn and set off by kayak, listening to delirious birds as the sun rose through the mist. Around me flying fish leaped out of the placid water. Then, after a Homeric breakfast of honey and feta cheese, I’d tackle a modest excursion – snorkelling over Lycian ruins, say, or hiking to an unexcavated Lycian site where sarcophagi protruded from the pale soil. I’d come across scenes that recalled Ottoman – era paintings: a quail hunter, his rusted antique carbine slung over his shoulder, wandering with his dog; a young Muslim man and his fiancee sitting in silence by the water, the girl’s mother perched on a rock higher up, watching them like a hawk. The climax of each day was the Dionysian, three-hour lunch. Although Giorgio always insisted on his bowl of pasta, Imdat would lay out Turkish specialities – a succulent egg-plant dish called "the Holy Man Swoons," lamb kafta, green beans in garlic, herbed yoghurt.Each course was washed down with bountiful infusions of cold white wine, the full glassed sparkling like diamonds in the warm sun, their contents slowly but surely dissolving any afternoon plans. I would end up reclining on pillows like a pasha – feeling, in fact, not unlike Dionysus himself. There was still one ritual left to perform. On our last day, under the rising moon, Corrado announced that the moment had come to open his 1898 wine.

By now anticipation had reached fever pitch. We examined the faded label, which announced that this sauterne was an after dinner favourite of the King of Spain. We crowded about Corrado as he peered at the cork and smelled the bouquet. We watched in anticipation as he considered the viscosity and measured the precious liquid into 14 glasses, half an inch in each. To think that when this was bottled, in 1898, Cezanne and Toulouse-Lautrec were exhibiting in the salons, a new Strauss composition was premiering, and Chekhov’s Seagull was opening in Moscow. It was a touching Europhile moment – except that Asia stole the show. As we stood on deck, the Turkish coast glistened in silver moonlight. The Milky Way – the ancient Greek pathway to heaven – swirled into eternity.

Giorgio made a toast: "Guarda che luna," he proclaimed, sweeping his arm to encompass the wonders of Gokkaya Bay. "Guarda che mare." Behold what a moon. Behold what a sea.How did the wine taste? To be honest, like a $1.99 sherry. But nobody cared. East and West had joined once again on the Turquoise Coast, and the afterglow was delicious.