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Patara the active
Can you imagine touring ancient Lycia in the back of a truck that’s come all the way from Siberia? Or visiting the land of the Caretta caretta’s on the back of an Austrian Haflinger? Or pulling oars on the same river as the natives of Xanthos? Such opportunities might strike you as impossible, but Anatolia offers them all.
This colorful crossroads where Xanthos, Patara, Letoon and Antiphellos come together and the Akdağ Mountains meet the Mediterranean is in the land of ancient Lycia, which stretches from Patara to Kalkan and Kaş on the coast and from there up to Bezirgan, Yeşil Üzümlü and Islamlara on the slopes of Mt Akdağ. What’s more, it’s a fine line between dream and reality, far beyond what any atlas has to offer.
Extremely narrow in comparison with our truck’s enormous tires, they call this fine line a road! On one side of us the steep slopes of Akdağ, on the other a sheer cliff plunging all the way down to the Mediterranean below, we are climbing straight into the clouds. Our truck is a seasoned old 1970 Ural. Soviet-made. It has seen Siberia and Afghanistan and its paternal bearing betrays the weight of history on its back. Not only history but also the tourists who joined the group at Patara and Kalkan that it has taken on as well. Tossing them into its white-tarpaulined back, it is climbing now from Kaş into the higher elevations of the Akdağ mountains.
The higher it climbs, the more Kaş’s white-painted houses and big-bellied yachts diminish in size and the Mediterranean grows bigger and bigger. As it does so, the lace-like coastal strip and a tiny island take their places on the map. We are still far below the 3200-meter high summit, but the air here at 800 meters is already slightly cool in comparison with the heat on the coast. Those fleeing the summer’s average 32º C. temperatures take refuge here in the cool mountain air.
A traditional highland lifestyle reigns in the region. Taking to the highlands at the beginning of summer, the local folk return home again come October. These migrations lend a certain vitality to the highland villages, which contributes to the development not only of farming and livestock raising but also of trade in the region. And the historic ruins, said to be centuries old, near the present-day highland villages show that this vitality has continued for thousands of years. The gabled huts next to the houses are wooden granaries, the same triangular design the Lycians adapted for their sarcophagi in an aesthetic tradition that transcended the millennia. As the heavy old Ural truck covers the miles, you suddenly find yourself in timeless valleys.
Don’t look at the activity in Patara’s cafes and restaurants by night and think the day is going to get off to a late start. Truck safaris and canoeing and horseback tours all start at the crack of dawn. Any tour that gets going at 9 in the morning will take all day. The first to set out are the canoers, off to the banks of the Eşen at the edge of the ancient city of Xanthos. Following a briefing on the day’s program and safety issues, the paddles will begin to cleave the river’s sweet waters.
THE EŞEN: A FAVORITE WITH CANOERS
The Eşen River brings the water of life to these lands. Known in antiquity as the Xanthos, it rushed headlong from the Akdağ Mountains down to the Mediterranean, slowing slightly at the Lycian town of Xanthos to which it gave its name. Dipping their paddles in the water here, the canoers begin to flow to the sea with the river, and the elegantly curving Eşen interacts pleasantly with them along its 8-km length. Every now and then there is a mud bath in store, and rumor has it that the rich alluvion carried by the river has therapeutic properties. Whether this is true or not we don’t know, but the mud-slathered, statuesque bodies cause great mirth. After a break for food amidst the reeds, it’s back to the seaward flow.
FROM THE ICE AGE TO NOW
When the river reaches the sea, its placid flow suddenly gives way to an unexpected vigor. On one side are fishermen setting out to sea, tossing their nets into the fertile waters at the mouth of the stream; on the other, holiday makers eager to savor the taste of sea and sun, and the canoers and horseback riders alongside them. An even more fascinating story lies behind this colorful scene. The story of the Eşen and the beach goes back very far, all the way to the Ice Age. Their level rising with the melting ice, the waters first fill the depression that is Eşen Plain to form a small bay. With infinite patience, the Xanthos tries to fill up this bay with alluvia it carries down from the mountains. About six thousand years ago when the sea finally stops rising, the Eşen’s patience finally pays off and a lagoon is created. Meanwhile the alluvion is deposited along the Mediterranean coast forming a sandy beach. Impelled by the sea, the sand spreads inland to the center of the plain, where it forms sand dunes with the help of the wind.
At 18 kilometers in length, Patara beach is Turkey’s longest and continues to hold its own in the top ranks of the ‘World’s Best Beaches’ list.
This is the starting point of the Patara horseback tours. Gold-maned Haflingers proceed from here down routes that wind between the pine trees on the beach. The ancestors of the Haflingers hark from Austria’s grueling natural conditions. Used as pack horses in the Second World War when they were sent to Turkey as well, this sturdy breed later continued to be raised on a stud farm at Karacabey in Bursa province. Golden yellow in color with long white manes and tails, these solid, friendly horses are known for their docility. Even if you have no riding experience, you can embark on your first tour after one brief training session.
The Haflingers’ route turns immediately from the mouth of the stream into the cool beauty of the pine woods. Do not be taken aback by the timid steps of those powerful hooves. August and September are the months when our Mediterranean friends the Caretta caretta lay their eggs. And Patara and Dalyan beach to the west are among the last homes left in the world to these Loggerhead Turtles. The Haflingers are aware of it as well and instinctively thread their way through the eggs their little friends have buried in the sand without doing them any harm. After the pine woods the sand dunes begin. The caravan forms a line, leaving enormous footprints on the sandy yellow slopes.
In the east, behind the dunes, lies Patara, the ‘Sleeping Beauty’ of the archaeologists. One of Lycia’s six largest cities and a key port, Patara’s story begins in the 5th century B.C. and continues with the enrichment of the beauty of the harbor, which became a primary base for the maritime trade as well as the occasional naval fleet. During the time of the Roman Empire, Patara was the capital of the province of Lycia, and its 1600-meter long and 400-meter wide harbor filled up with sand in time. Thus deprived of its commercial importance, Patara plunged into sleep beneath the sands. Now archaeologists are trying to gently lift the blanket of sand that covers this ‘sleeping beauty’. Their most recent boon was the discovery here of one of the world’s three oldest lighthouses.
It would appear that new surprises await us in these lands. Don’t wait any longer. Either go with the flow of the Eşen River to the Mediterranean or climb the slopes of Akdağ with the clouds. But feel the exuberance of nature and history and feel in your veins the dynamic power of the cultures that thrive in this country.