Ancient paths: The Lycian Way, Turkey

Turkey rarely rates a mention among trekkers but with the opening of the Lycian Way it now has a serious drawcard.
By Ben Clark March 9, 2015 Reading Time: 5 Minutes

Located on the southern shores of Turkey’s Mediterranean coast, the Lycian Way was the vision of British expat Kate Clow who emigrated in the 1980s.

As Kate explained over a glass of Turkish tea, “I had a fascination for old roads and how they fit the contours of the land, as well as the civilisations that created them.”

Over the subsequent decade, she found that the Teke Peninsula harboured many remnants of these civilisations that, although registered, were too numerous to be protected. For locals, after harvest was in, treasure seeking was a leisure activity.

“I also noticed that higher-level villages were being abandoned – partly due to the lowering of the water table, partly due to lack of education and health services, as well as EU policies towards Turkish prices for agricultural produce. The government’s tourism policy had initiated large-scale coastal development, brought in a flood of visitors, but had little regard for local culture or the environment, or providing an income for local people.

To address some of these issues, Clow envisaged a trail that utilised the old roads and linked the sites and the towns. Unnoticed by bureaucracy and local tour operators, she marked out a 509km route, published a guidebook and website and started promoting it.

The walk’s name honours the civilisation of Lycia (pronounced li-kee-ah), which developed a thriving society on the Teke Peninsula in the period from 1000BC until 400AD. At its zenith, the Lycian League was a democratic union of 23 cities, which traded with neighbouring empires, such as the Ancient Greeks, Romans and Persians. The opportunity to encounter artefacts of the Lycian civilisation, and their successors, such as the Byzantines and Ottomans, is one of the walk’s key attractions.

En route along the Lycian Way

From the start near Ovacik, the route heads east and, in addition to archaeological remains, offers walkers a diversity of landscapes and insights into Turkish culture. The route generally follows the coast, but often well above the water. It also ventures inland to mountain ranges that form a dramatic backdrop for much of the journey.

My wife, Pen, and I began walking in February, aware of the potential for tempestuous winter weather. With only three weeks available, we never intended to walk the entire distance. Our plan was to start at Ovacik and find our rhythm, taking breaks when needed and connecting sections with local buses.

Soon after starting our efforts were rewarded with views of the dramatic coastline and distant snow-capped peaks. For the first week, each day’s walk challenged us with alternating stiff climbs and steep descents. Aside from the scenery, other distractions included prolific wildflowers, rustic Turkish cuisine and encounters with villagers on the trail.

After a week of undulating terrain, the sight of a vast coastal plain was surprising. The plains glimmered, making them appear inundated, then we realised it was a sea of greenhouses. This fertile location was equally valued by the Lycians; their inaugural capital – Xanthos – was sited where the plains met the hills.

Ancient settlements

Over the millennium of its existence the city sustained repeated attacks, being rebuilt on four occasions until succumbing to relentless raids in the 6th Century.

British archaeologist, Charles Fellows, visited Xanthos in the late 1830s and uncovered some of Lycia’s most significant remains. Among his finds was a trilingual inscription, like a Rosetta Stone, which helped decipher the Lycian language.

Lycian settlements were very similar to Ancient Greek and Roman cities with significant public buildings, such as baths, public fountains and marketplaces at their centres, and theatres and necropolises (cemeteries) at the periphery.

Our investigation of earlier ruins had offered glimpses of the Lycian culture but it was at Xanthos that the picture seemed most complete. Looking down on the site from the remnants of its hilltop acropolis, we admired its grand amphitheatre, with sentinel-like pillar tombs either side. Further exploration revealed tombs hewn into the hillside and clusters of sarcophagi. We reflected on the significance the afterlife must have held in their belief system to inspire such elaborate monuments.

We started our second leg of the walk at the coastal city of Kas under blue skies. Soon after nightfall, rain began to fall, with the distant percussion of thunderclaps becoming louder. By midnight the tempest was directly overhead, with our tent being lit like a beacon, and an accompanying cacophony.

By morning, the ground was saturated, turning our makeshift campsite into an ephemeral pond, and our tent into a mud bath. We trudged the waterlogged track to the village of Ucagiz just as another downpour began. Here we spent a couple of nights in a pension – drying gear, savouring locally caught fish and exploring the sunken city.

Changing landscapes along the trail

Our final week’s walking began at Karaoz and was the most challenging, as several short sections of the trail were wiped out by landslips. These navigational headaches were compensated by changes in flora and geology, commanding views of the walk’s highest peak – Tahtali Dag – and more archaeological treasures.

The city of Olympos was one of the Lycian League’s six great cities, with its strategic location as the final port before west-bound ships rounded treacherous Cape Gelidonya. Unlike many other sites, which are often in dry locations, the valley’s lush vegetation has grown up and through the ruins, creating a setting akin to an Indiana Jones film.

Another nearby attraction is the Chimaera – a hillside of eternal flames – caused by gas seeping to the earth’s surface and naturally igniting. Legend has it the mythical fire-breathing monster – also called the Chimaera – was slain here, and the flames are its spirit. To fully appreciate them, we visited at night.

Continuing north from Olympos, the coastline was dotted with coves that sheltered dark pebbled beaches. A prominent landmark was the former port of Phaselis, with its three natural harbours on an easily defendable peninsula. Within the site, the towering arches of its aqueducts were one of many testaments to the Romans’ engineering prowess.

After Phaselis the track headed inland, back into the mountains, where we negotiated a series of landslips and tricky river crossings. With heavy rain forecast and Pen’s shoes disintegrating we decided to stop walking a day from the trail’s official finish. As we descended through groves of strawberry (Arbutus) trees, I reflected on our trip.

In three weeks we’d been transfixed with what we’d seen and learnt about these ancient cultures, as well as the opportunity to observe traditional rural life. These highlights, combined with the scenery, made it easy to see why the Lycian Way is appearing on more trekkers’ wishlists.

The essentials

Getting there: Turkish Airlines offers several flights a week from Sydney and Melbourne to Istanbul, and multiple flights daily from Istanbul to Dalaman and Antalya – the closest airports to the start and end of the Lycian Way, respectively: www.turkishairlines.com.

Visas and permits: Australians are issued visitor visas on arrival, valid for three months.

Best time to go: Spring (late February to mid June) or autumn (September to November).

Trip planning: The brilliant Lycian Way guidebook, by Kate Clow, is available at www.map-centre.com.au.

Transport: Local minibuses (dolmus) service many coastal towns en route, so connecting sections is easy.

Updates on trail conditions, and information on Turkey’s other treks, is posted at: www.trekkinginturkey.com