Long weekend: The Carian Trail

A three-day taster of Turkey's Carian Trail offers a glimpse of ancient civilisations along this 510-mile coastal walk from the Mediterranean to the Aegean

By Paul Bloomfield
Published 28 Jan 2015, 15:00 GMT, Updated 1 Jul 2021, 16:04 BST

Walking makes me hungry. I don't mean in a calorie-craving sense, as in: my legs are empty, I need energy, feed me. I mean the curiosity of palate that hiking through an unfamiliar landscape piques, ambling among fruit trees, wild herbs, goat herds. There's a connection with a place that only food provides — the flavours that soil and climate bestow. The French call it terroir; there isn't really a word for it in English. But you know it when you taste it.

I mention the theory to my guide, Murat Okur, as we pick our way along a stony path above the village of Bayır. It's early — not yet 8am — but already the late-spring sun is toasting the back of my neck as we stride between dry-stone barricades, a layer of thorny twigs thrust beneath the top layer: nature's barbed wire.

Murat's lips twitch — the ghost of a smile. He scrambles onto a wall, plucking a fistful of green pods from a tree and hands them down to me. Baring his teeth, he cracks one; I follow his lead. Pulling apart the velvety shell, I bite into the kernel: creamy, slightly sweet. "Çagla," he tells me. "Unripe almonds. We like to munch them with rakı." And there it is: the terroir of the Bozburun Peninsula.

My appetite is being whetted in many senses. I'm at the start of a three-day taster trek, an amuse-bouche for a feast of hiking: the Carian Trail, Turkey's newest and longest waymarked path. Launched in 2013, it snakes around 510 miles through the ancient region of Caria, the modern provinces of Mugla and Aydın.

Many legs traverse ancient paths far from transport, supplies or accommodation, but the first stretch — from Içmeler, a little south west of Marmaris — is eminently accessible. Here, the track jinks around the Bozburun Peninsula, a gnarled finger poking out into the azure waters where the Med meets the Aegean.

A handy new three-day trip provides a comfortable room at a hotel in Kumlubük, transport to trailheads and an experienced guide — the essential ingredient, maps being sketchy at best. Mine, Murat, has picked out a trio of stretches to showcase the best of these paths. So on day one, we put our best feet forward by going backwards — tackling the first stage in reverse.

We're dropped a few miles outside Bayır, alongside a bright yellow Karia Yolu (Carian Trail) sign, and strike uphill into the maquis. The scent of red pines tickles my nostrils, our boots crushing the oil from needles strewn across the path. Murat points out wild carob trees among the pine. To me, carob means the tasteless healthfood chocolate substitute; not so here. "Locals extract the seeds and boil them with sugar to make a chocolatey syrup," Murat tells me. They also harvest carob honey from the clusters of pale blue hives planted under the trees. Earlier I'd watched bees feasting on nectar from the pink flowers of wild rosemary; these woodland hives seem empty, though the apiarist's tools — a smoke funnel and bellows — sit waiting atop one.

Now and again Murat murmurs a direction. Mostly, though, we traipse in a companionable silence, breached only by the chink of stones under our soles, buzz-saw cicadas, snippets of birdsong — most sane creatures are sheltering from the heat — and weary crickets.

We emerge onto a ridge, and my eyes squint at the sudden gleams from the Med sparkling to the east: Sarimersin Bay, named for the oleanders down on the shore. A couple of gulets bob in the cove, but up in the hills we're alone. Murat, who helped waymark the trail last year, recalls hacking through undergrowth to expose tracks abandoned when tarmac roads penetrated the isolated interior. The only people on these paths today are other hikers following the trail.

It wasn't always so quiet. This region boasts a long history, stretching back at least four millennia — to a time before the Hittites, the Persians, Alexander the Great, Byzantium and the Selçuk and Ottoman Empires swept through. Relics from those periods stud the landscape, though few have been excavated; who built them, and what for, we can only guess.

Take the ruins known as Gerbekilise, just beyond Sarimersin. As we pause to frame photos through the derelict arches, Murat tells me this may have been a Byzantine church, from around AD400. Or later a monastery, with sea-view cells. Nobody knows for sure.

The path winds down through pinewoods, glimpses of Kumlubük Bay tantalising between the trunks. We reach our endpoint for the day — Amos, the remains of a Hellenistic city perched on a rocky promontory — and loll on the stepped terraces of a 1,300-seat theatre, the Minack of antiquity, sloping down towards the Mediterranean.

Country life

We set out earlier still on day two, from Bahçeli village, wary of the exposed paths ahead. We climb steadily alongside neatly terraced fields and tumbledown cottages flanked by fig and almond trees, picking our way over basking tortoises; signs of domesticity evaporate as we turn up to the looming headland, through vegetation that grows increasingly stunted. In this southern part of the peninsula, the pines that provided welcome shade north of Bayır are absent; at these arid coastal heights even the holm oaks are little more than shrubs.

Just before I melt, we turn inland towards Taslica, nestled in a valley at a junction of roads. Mostly modern concrete houses, it nevertheless preserves an air of timelessness. Women in housecoats and headscarves sweep steps, while old men play dominoes and drink glasses of çay (tea) on the terrace outside the village cafe.

South we head, past gardens shaded by scarlet-flowered pomegranates and figs, to Phoenix. This ancient Carian site occupies a broad valley once irrigated by a gushing river; today, the bed is dry and the human inhabitants gone, while donkeys and goats graze among the relics — superbly cut stones forming tight-set walls in a hilltop castle and agora, and curious three-stepped column capitals. But Phoenix is no Roman forum. Like other sites on the peninsula, its charm lies not in epic monuments but in the juxtaposition of country life — grazing beasts and olive groves — among scattered ruins.

We drop steeply to a sheltered cove and the village — resort is too big a word — of Cumhurıyet. This is where Turks do seaside, lounging under parasols in front of a handful of pansiyons (guesthouses) and cafes. Like them, we fuel up on meze, tucking into gül dolması (roses stuffed with rice and herbs), mücver (spicy courgette fritters), cigar-shaped cheese filo böregi and garlicky grilled peppers.

My final day begins on Bayır's village square in the shade of a venerable (and venerated) plane, sipping çay. Murat tells me about the mystical powers of this 1,900-year-old tree: circumnavigate it 15 times — or three, or perhaps just once; the versions varied — and you'll have good luck. I perform a quick circuit, pausing to admire the balkabagı dangling from rafters, peculiarly bulbous pumpkins carved or painted as decorations.

We depart, passing craggy heights, fertile valleys and hidden terraced meadows, and halt briefly at Selale, modest waterfalls near Turgut. Iguaçu it's not — the highest cascade is about 9ft — but at this time of morning, before the lunch rush, it's peaceful, just a raucous chorus of frogs disturbing the babbling and gushing.

A stiff climb brings us to a pyramid-topped tomb atop a rocky prominence above Turgut. For centuries villagers paid homage here, praying for help with marriage or children, or safety in war. Then it was identified as the tomb of a Greek gavur (infidel) and the visits abruptly stopped.

The final highpoint of my trek is the remains of a Hellenistic acropolis at Hydas. We pant and sweat up forested slopes, between two-metre-thick walls and among derelict cisterns, watchtowers and gateways, peering into the rounded apse of the Byzantine basilica. Centuries ago it was a vital redoubt; today, the vistas that made it strategically important remain, with panoramic sea views to north, west and south.

Murat gestures me to sit in the shade of an oak, and hands me a pear. Juice spills down my chin as I pore over the trail map, tracing our path with my finger and recalling the flavours of our walk. Almond and olive groves, goat herds providing cheese, swelling plums, beehives gently humming among carob and thyme.

Three days, it turns out, is ample time to get a taste for the Carian Trail.


Getting there
Airlines including British Airways, EasyJet, Jet2.com, Monarch, Thomas Cook Airlines and Thomson Airways fly to Dalaman from various UK airports.
Average flight time: 4h.

Getting around
Turkey is big — nearly 995 miles from west to east — so domestic flights are convenient. Carriers include Turkish Airlines and Onur Air.
Long-distance buses run by various private companies are frequent and cheap.

When to go

Visit in spring or autumn if heading out on the Carian Trail with temperatures around 20C. The heat can be brutal in summer, while winters tend to be wet. Wildflowers bloom March-April.

Need to know
Visas: British citizens require an e-visa, best obtained in advance (US$20).
Currency: Turkish lira (TL). £1=TL3.60.
International dial code: 00 90.
Time difference: GMT+2.

How to do it
Exclusive Escapes offers three days' guided walking along the Carian Trail from £765 per person, including four nights' B&B at The Dionysos Estate, picnic lunches, flights, transfers and local transport.
The Lycian Way is also accessible from Dalaman.
Macs Adventure can tailor-make a five-day walking break between Ovacik and Alinca, from £305 per person excluding flights, but including B&B and transfers. A longer, eight-day option costs from £565.

Published in the Jan/Feb 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)


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