Pirates of the Mediterranean

Welcome to our nation-state. It is 43 feet long and 23 wide — a bareboat catamaran, if you prefer. We are plying the Mediterranean coast of southern Turkey, wandering at will among bays and coves, tying up where we like, doing whooping cannonballs off the bow. Our chartered craft flies the French flag, but we aren’t French. It makes us feel like pirates.

There are eight of us — friends and friends-of-friends. We are bad sailors with good attitudes. Our skipper is Captain Marco, a Californian (like most of us) who last roamed these waters 15 years ago as a charter captain. He will maneuver the boat with more ease than I could pilot a bathtub toy, transform us into a crack crew and regale us with tales of his past exploits — whether we like it or not. These waters are known as the Turquoise Coast. They could well be the source of the word “turquoise,” which is simply French for “Turkish.” If not, they deserve to be. Looking out to sea, we summon up all the words we know for “blue” and still leave shades unnamed. The water is so clear that, in shallows, it glows incandescent from rays of sun bouncing off the sea floor.

Over the next seven days we will sail from Marmaris to below Fethiye and meander back up to Gocek. We’ll snorkel among shards of ancient amphorae, cavort in mud and play amateur archaeologist. Two Dutch yachties will stand on their stern, serenading us with harmonica chanteys as we dance an impromptu jig. One morning, I’ll come up from my cabin and spy Winston Churchill, reincarnated as a bulldog, strutting along the deck of a sailboat docked next to us. Another, I’ll be awakened by Pavarotti, the opera-singing donkey. We’ll fix cucumber salads and fry up lamb chops onboard. We’ll wash down smuggled French chocolates with duty-free grappa.

Our shoes — banished to the hold by Captain Marco — will ferment, forgotten, sloshing in a splash of seawater.

Food, Mud, History

As Mamaris dims to a murmur in the distance, we test ourselves at sea, taking the cat up to eight knots under sail. Stealing speed from the air makes us giddy. We think we could go anywhere.

We turn east and overnight in Ekincik, at a restaurant-with-a-dock that serves up food and hot showers to boaters. “I’m Captain Marco!” our skipper shouts to the kid who comes to catch our stern line. “Captain Marco! Remember me?” At most, the boy has seen 15 summers. Marco is sweetly oblivious to math and time.

At night, we rock below deck, in four tiny cabins wedged into the boat’s double hulls, lulled by the slap of waves and the groan of mooring ropes.

In the morning, a battered wooden motor launch fetches us up the Dalyan River, past a powdery crescent of beach where sinuous flipper tracks from breeding loggerhead turtles disappear into the sea. We weave through tall reeds to the harbor town of Kaunos, which lies marooned by silt — as well as by history. It dates from the 9th century B.C., though the remains are mostly Greek and Roman. Outside an amphitheater sited to catch sea breezes and dispense panoramic views, a goat climbs halfway up a tree to snatch tender leaves.

Past the shell of a Byzantine church and ruined baths, down a stone road, warehouse foundations and mysterious monuments are all that’s left of the harbor’s bustle. One in our party helps a French woman descend from a crumbling wall. “This is not the first time America has come to the aid of France,” her husband says with a touch of irony.

Upriver, Lycian tombs dominate the cliffs. Their carvings mimic Greek temple facades, with pediments and columns, hovering halfway up the rock face. The Lycians ruled this slice of coast long before the Greeks arrived. They had their own language and alphabet, created the first known democratic union and were fiercely independent. Lycia was the last holdout on the entire Mediterranean coast before finally being absorbed into the Roman Empire in the 1st century A.D. These tombs are remnants of their ancestor worship.

Further upriver, we wallow like pigs in a mud bath, coating ourselves in sulfurous gray ooze, then letting it dry and crack in the sun. We look like bush tribesmen but feel like fools — until we stand rinsing off in communal showers and discover how soft our skin has become.

At Dalyan town, we forage beyond the tourist shops rimming the dock and find a greengrocer who sells us strange, leafless branching vegetables that look to have been bred on an alien planet. She breaks off a piece for us to taste, and it’s salty. (Later, back home, I find out they are “sea beans” grown in marshlands.) Through pantomime and a bit of English, she tells us the freaky greens should be boiled then tossed with olive oil and lemon. Her proud friend elbows into the cooking lesson to show us photos of her son living in North Carolina. She points to each person in the snapshots and explains all about them in Turkish.

In the Gulf of Fethiye, we anchor off of tiny Karacaoren Island, a deserted, jagged mass of black volcanic rock pocked with ruins. We plunge into the deliciously chilly waters. From the nearby mainland, hopeful hawkers head our way in battered wooden boats.

Two men in a dinghy beckon, holding out ridiculously expensive tomatoes. Then a woman pulls up, seducing us with gozleme, Turkish “pancakes,” made fresh on her brazier and folded around salty, crumbled cheese and sprigs of fresh dill. They are so good that we put in dessert orders for more warm envelopes filled with chocolate, bananas and honey.

“Sorry,” we say to the hustler in a slick speedboat waving Magnum ice cream bars. He seems to have raced over from another century.

Tombs in the Stone

Karacaoren is guarded by treacherous stones that jab up from the sea, yet we want to explore its meager ruins. Captain Marco agrees to maneuver our rubber raft to a landing point where we can jump ashore as the waves heave our little craft toward the rocks. We leap onto parched terrain carpeted with goat dung. Remnants of terra cotta roof tiles crunch under our feet. Climbing to the summit, we find remains of a modest church and small, vaulted tombs with traces of frescoes. We suspect they’re Byzantine. We discover cisterns and ponder the hard life on this sun-blasted knoll, with no fresh water source, in cramped buildings built from dark stone. Were these people religious hermits? Traders? Lookouts? Not a soul shares the island with us; maybe the goats are ghosts, too.

Nearby Gemiler Island looks more welcoming, with pine trees and a bounty of ruins. Byzantine-era docks and stone warehouses lie partially submerged along the shore, and paths lead to remnants of five churches built between the 5th and 6th centuries. It’s possible to catch glimpses of mosaics and inlaid marble floors in the remains of a basilica on the island’s highest point, a good hundred yards above the water. But what saves our souls is the view.

Some say St. Nicholas, the original Santa Claus, once lived here, making Gemiler a popular pilgrimage site back in the Byzantine era. The island’s mysterious masterpiece is a long, enclosed walkway that snakes down its center. It has spawned many tales, but my favorite says this vaulted, fresco-decorated corridor was built for an albino queen so she could promenade through the city without exposing her delicate skin to the sun.

That night, we encounter the only siren’s song of our trip. It’s belted out by Pavarotti, the opera-singing donkey of Cold Water Bay. We succumbed to a little ad in our boat manual to anchor in this harbor-with-a-restaurant because, really, who could pass up an asinine aria? Pavarotti’s owner, Ali, plies us with grilled fish and boar stew, cooked by one of his “boys” who squats by a fire built on the ground. It’s the best food we’ve encountered on the voyage. Ali fires up a fat cigar, commands an extra bottle of wine and joins us at our table under the trees.

“Shut up!” Captain Marco suddenly shouts, and our group falls silent, exchanging nervous, guilty looks. “Shut up!” he cries again, laughing. “That’s how you order more wine in Turkish!” Ali doles out the wine, the glow of his cigar punctuating his moves as darkness pushes in from the sea.

Ali tells us his village lies on the other side of this mountainous territory guarding the water, and he offers to take us there. The lure is Lycian tombs and the deserted Greek town of Kayakoy.

The next morning, Ali makes good on his promise. Because Cold Water Bay is cut off from inland roads by the coastal mountains, it’s a roundabout tour. We pile into Ali’s speedboat and rocket along until we reach a beach where a road runs inland, then all squeeze into his van and careen over the mountains.

Ali shows us two types of Lycian tombs — modest versions of the temple-facade-style burial chambers, carved into the base of a cliff, and free-standing house-type sarcophagi cut from massive hunks of stone and topped with thick, peaked slabs. There’s something of the South Seas about these house tombs, a sensibility far different from the Greek-influenced temple tombs.

We swing by Ali’s big stone house topped with a satellite dish and help him load cases of wine into the van. Ali’s wisp of a mom comes out to show us her flower garden and hand out hugs.

Nearby Kayakoy was abandoned in the 1920s by more than 2,000 Greek families, who were “exchanged” by the government for Turks living in Greece. Their forsaken, roofless, whitewashed houses march up the mountain like rows of rotting teeth. In the small rooms, corner fireplaces and bits of bright, painted decoration hint at what the occupants left behind when the deportation occurred. A church with beach-pebble mosaics waits forlornly for worshipers to return.

Ali spirits us back to Cold Water Bay, covering the sea distance in a blink, compared with sailboat speed. As we lift our anchor and sedately set out for open water, Ali waggles his cigar in farewell while Pavarotti sings us off from shore.

Backpackers, Beware

We sail for Butterfly Valley, reachable only by sea — or by a deadly, precipice-hugging path known to devour foolish backpackers. The 1,150-foot cliffs embrace a canyon that slices back from a beach of rounded stones, luring hikers with a forest of oleanders that rain candy-pink petals, while 35 species of butterflies flutter and flirt. The path slowly constricts, grows more sinister, clotted with boulders and tangled roots, but the prize at its end is a 200-foot-tall waterfall.

Returning to the beach, I shake oleander petals from my hair and swim out to our boat. We circle back to the Gulf of Fethiye, scouting the island of Tesane. Though there are remnants of ancient shipyards, the place looks desolate and desiccated, baked brown as an overdone sugar cookie, with scraps of buildings poking up.

We sail on to Tomb Bay, beautiful despite a name filled with doom. Scraggly tiers of old olive groves mount steep hills, with Lycian tombs etched into high rock faces. We leap into the cool water and climb out on stone steps, once part of docks where goods were hauled to the agora above. As I scramble uphill, lost steps emerge from the brambles. Who passed this way hundreds of years ago, stopping to gaze out at the gulf — fearing pirates, not the package tour boats that we shun?

At Ruin Bay, we set anchor and tie up for the night, roped to a pine tree. A shore party paddles over to see ruins of the baths where Cleopatra soaked herself in asses’ milk, so it’s said. Was this the beauty secret that conquered Caesar and Mark Antony? The baths’ crumbled foundations lie mostly submerged, begging for someone with a grand imagination to conjure the exotic queen.

The vision isn’t helped by the rusting hulk of a ship that hunkers at the rickety dock, serving as restaurant and bar. We toss down a beer and row back, holding plates of meatballs and chicken to serve with the spaghetti simmering in our compact galley.

After dinner, we lie on deck, trying to pick constellations out of the glittering, crowded sky. There’s talk of skinny-dipping. It seems perfectly natural. The salt crusted in my hair seems perfectly natural. No one wants to surrender our boat the next day. We wonder how far we could sail before they’d find us.

© 2007 Gayle Keck
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