In southwest Turkey, mythical ruins and a laid-back vibe

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to the Temple of Athena at Behramkale as an Ionic temple. Its design is Doric. This version has been updated.


Calcite deposits have over centuries created a white moonscape at the travertines of Pamukkale, which is a three-hour drive inland from Turkey’s seafront city of Izmir. (Winston Ross)
March 6

We were lost the moment we left the parking lot at the Izmir Adnan Menderes Airport. The rental car company had provided only a map of the entire country, I’d forgotten to download directions to the hotel on my phone, and I hadn’t paid for international data before heading overseas for a three-week trip to Anatolia and Cyprus. Perhaps this car rental idea of mine would prove to be a terrible one.

Except, it didn’t. And if you’re up for a slightly harrowing series of road trips, the southwest Turkish coast is a fantastic place to explore by automobile. Some of the stretches of roadway are straight out of a James Bond car chase, or a round of one of my favorite childhood video games: Cruis’n World. And some of the destinations, from the magical calcite travertines of a national park outside a tiny town called Pamukkale to the spectacular ruins atop the panoramic hillside village of Behramkale, were well worth the number of times my knuckles turned pasty at the wheel of that Ford diesel sedan.

If you go: Izmir and southwest Turkey


First, though, my girlfriend and I had to get to the hotel in Izmir. It was way outside the town center, along a waterfront road to the west, and I had no idea how to get there or even where we were or which direction was north. So I drove, hoping to find someplace with obvious WiFi so that I could download a map. It was half an hour before we found a little cafe with Internet access north of Izmir, on the road back to Istanbul. But even after I’d connected, I couldn’t get either Apple or Google Maps to locate the hotel and pull up a route.

I started asking the restaurant workers for help, with little result, until an older gentleman sitting at the table next to me told the guy who spoke the best English to tell me this:

“Follow me. I’ll show you.”

For the next half hour, I did my best to keep up as his white cargo van zipped in and out of traffic at a pretty consistent 70 mph. At one point, he pulled over on the highway shoulder, ran to my car window in the pouring rain and pointed in the direction of the exit. Helplessly, I showed him on my phone where my hotel was and did my best to pronounce the name in a Turkish accent. He looked at the phone, looked at me, and motioned for me to follow him again.

Ten minutes later, he pulled right up to the lobby of the Wyndham Izmir Ozdilek. That entire leg of the trip was completely out of his way. I leaped out of the car and thanked him profusely. He smiled and drove off.

An ancient spa

The next day, undaunted, I charted a course in Apple Maps for Pamukkale, some three hours away. Google Maps doesn’t maintain its turn-by-turn function once you disconnect from WiFi, but Apple Maps does. As long as you stay on the route you’ve chosen, the app will continue to tell you when to turn right and left, and which leg of the roundabout to veer into on your way out of a circle.

So the trip to the park would allow absolutely no room for side ventures, which was fine. We didn’t have much time to get there and wander around before sunset, and that pressure gave me license to drive fast and furious, as if I were being chased.

Pamukkale is best explored in a circular fashion, beginning at the south gate and traipsing up the hill above those travertines, a series of saucers and cliffs formed over centuries by tooth-white calcite deposits, to the ruins of Heirapolis, an ancient Roman and Byzantine spa city. Paved pathways and wooden-bridge walkways lead from one relic to the next, allowing visitors to explore a tourist attraction that dates to 190 B.C.

A highlight is the Roman theater, built for 12,000 spectators and completely accessible today. From there, we sauntered past the Arch of Domitian to the Roman baths, imagining what it must have been like to take a dip here two millennia ago. At the park’s north gate, you turn back in the other direction and look across the “Cotton Castle” (pamuk in English means cotton), discovering the first glimpses of calcite blanketing the hillside like snow and petrifying leaves and twigs that have fallen into its path over the years.

A path meanders atop the travertines back toward the entrance, where the best part awaits. Here, warm mineral-rich water flows over the cliffs and into pools cut perfectly into the rock. Visitors take off their shoes and step onto the calcite, which is a perfect texture for barefoot walking, soft but stable, and our bare feet clung to the tiny ridges in the travertines. Even underwater, it’s nearly impossible to lose your footing.

This side of Pamukkale is the payoff, and as the sun set it cast a long, gorgeous light across the cliffs. You could theoretically lie all the way down in some of the bigger pools, but the water is only a few inches deep, and the substrate is a milky white mud. Swimmers head back toward the entrance, to the antique pool. I found that part a little commercialized, but in the summer, I’m sure that it would be a nice place to cool off.

A village of ruins

The next day, after the Indy 500 drive back to the hotel, we headed north, to another mystical destination: Behramkale and Assos, at the southern end of Turkey’s Biga Peninsula, 160 miles from Izmir. Like the trip to Pamukkale, most of the drive there had more interesting traffic-dodging than scenery, save for a worthwhile stop in Ayvalik, renowned for its “tost,” which is the most overhyped delicacy I’ve ever experienced. The basic version is nothing more than a grilled cheese panini. Ask for “everything,” and they slap a few canned meats, peppers and onions on top. Eat it because you’re basically required to at some point, but don’t expect anything amazing.

The last 10 miles or so of the drive is a beachfront stretch of narrow, potholed roadway that winds its way among olive trees and past seaside hotels with hammocks calling out to weary travelers. It’s what I expected this entire length of the coast to be, but most of the road is a fast-moving highway, tucked inland and away from any sublime views.

In the former Greek settlement of Behramkale, narrow cobblestone streets wind their way up to the top of a perfect dome of a hill, where a kindly old man finds you a place to park. A short, steep walk to an entrance gate gets you into the Temple of Athena, a 6th-century B.C. Doric temple, whose 360-degree vista is much more impressive than the ruins themselves. On the January day we were there, we had the place to ourselves. But for the wind, rolling up from the sea, it was the quietest place I’ve been in months.

There isn’t much in the way of signage at Behramkale, so it’s hard to tell when you’re in the village and when you’re not. The Lonely Planet guidebook described this as a place of “twin villages,” not just Behramkale but also Assos. I assumed at first that the two were indistinguishable, that you skipped through one and then the next on the way up that hill.

I was, happily, wrong. On the way back down, a somewhat terrifying cliffside road drops like a meteor into the seaside village of Assos, founded by Mysians in the 8th century B.C. Today, its roads are barely an automobile wide. Aristotle lived here from 348 to 345 B.C. A nice place to write, surely.

Eager to begin the long drive home, we only cruised from one end of the village to the next, wishing that we’d rented a hotel room here so that we didn’t have to haul all the way back to Izmir after only a couple of hours at our destination. Next time.

The laid-back scene

At the end of both of our long road trips from the busy seaport of Izmir, we dined at the same place: Sakiz, just off the main waterfront drag of Ataturk Caddesi. The first time, it was a deliberate choice, a restaurant that both Lonely Planet and TripAdvisor agreed was worth a stop. That night, we ate some of the most delicious and different food we’d had in Turkey, where restaurateurs don’t typically veer far from the standard mezze options of grilled lamb and eggplant. Sakiz burst at the seams with creative dishes and fantastic seafood. We had baked octopus on a bed of eggplant and calamari.

Here, we got a real feel for Izmir’s reputation as a more laid-back, progressive answer to Istanbul. A pair of local folk artists — a singer and her guitar accompanist — played an assortment of Turkish traditional hits, evidenced by the chorus of people in the restaurant who knew the words to every song and, at their favorite parts, belted them out loud.

After dinner, a professorial gent in a tweed blazer stood and invited the man at the table next to him — a stranger, as far as I could gather — to dance. The man smiled and got right out of his seat, and before long, half the people in the restaurant were spinning and twirling. This is not the kind of thing that you’d see in buttoned-down Istanbul, and it was delightful.

The second night, feeling adventurous, I asked Apple Maps to guide me to a restaurant called Gozlemicim, at the top of a monstrous hill in Izmir, that allegedly served the best gozleme in the city. It wasn’t until we’d spent a frustrating hour hunting for the place that the proprietors of a small Internet cafe informed us that gozleme is a breakfast food (it’s a Turkish pancake) and that Gozlemicim is a breakfast joint. We moped back down the hill and hoped that Sakiz was still open. It was, and we dined there on sea bass and seafood pasta.

A day at the bazaar

The next day, we were supposed to go to the region’s crown jewel: Ephesus, which Lonely Planet bills as the “best-preserved ruins in the Mediterranean.” But we skipped that, a decision that has drawn some wide-eyed disbelief from travelers who’ve been there. We were suffering from ruin ennui by that point, and even after nearly two weeks in Turkey, our only bazaar experience had been a whirlwind trip through the spice bazaar in Istanbul. The Kemeralti Bazaar in Izmir was supposed to be a better deal than Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar, and we’d finally gotten sick of driving. So, yes, we skipped the most touristy thing you can do in the region and never looked back.

The Kemeralti wasn’t amazing or anything, but on the sleepy Monday we ventured there, it was easy to navigate and uncrowded. The only pushy shopkeepers were cafe proprietors, surprisingly enough, demanding that we have a Turkish coffee or smoke some shisha. Everyone else let us browse and keep walking, unmolested.

Except, that is, for a charming adolescent who spoke great English and struck up an easy conversation with me after I bought a $5 Nike knockoff duffle bag to cart home the unreasonable number of Turkish sweaters I’d picked up here and there. His name was Ahmed, and he promised to show me the best of what the bazaar had to offer — including, of course, his family’s leather shop.

Normally, I’d say something polite and push off, but I liked Ahmed and didn’t mind having him show us around. My girlfriend did buy a smart Burberry-style leather jacket from his brother. We haggled and got a good deal, after which Ahmed found us excellent Turkish coffee, a good barber and a place to buy stained-glass bulbous lamps, all at reasonable prices and all in enough time to make it back to the airport with ample time for our flight — even without a friendly old guide to show us the way.

Ross is a former national correspondent for Newsweek and the Daily Beast. He lives in Eugene, Ore., and blogs at winstonross.wordpress.com.

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