Turkey: Setting matters, right?

Are you off to Turkey for your summer holiday this year? Then you’re in for a treat.  With the holiday season fast upon us, I thought I’d explain why I set my novel in Turkey, and share a few of my impressions of this amazing, exotic country.

The iconic Celcus Library at Ephesus
The iconic Celcus Library at Ephesus

Regular readers of this blog will know that Singled Out is set on a singles holiday on Turkey’s Lycian coastline. It’s a place to which I’ve returned many times over the years for my summer holidays. Having decided to set the tale on a singles holiday, the location options for which I could capitalise on my own experiences narrowed: The Greek islands Crete or Kalymnos, or the Turkish coastline. All have the climate, the heritage and the beaches. But Turkey had the edge for me, with its exotic blend of east and west, mystical and commercial. Turkey has an elemental essence that’s hard to describe. It won my heart the very first time I visited.

A haunting sunrise at Kekova - recognise the pic from anywhere?
A haunting sunrise at Kekova – recognise the pic from anywhere?

I remember a friend first going to Turkey for a summer holiday in the mid 1980’s and commenting that it was beautiful but raw; that the power went off all the time and you couldn’t get hot water for more than an hour or so a day. As for air conditioning – no hotel possessed such a luxury! In those days, Turkey was still experimenting with the holiday tourist trade and to be fair, the holiday companies were treading carefully too.

But with enterprise and commercial endeavour in their DNA, the Turkish people recognised and grasped an opportunity and set about developing their spectacular Mediterranean and Aegean coastlines into holiday destinations with added natural and historic value. Late to the party, they noted the mistakes that had been made along the Spanish coastline, today overwhelmed with tower block hotels and stripped of much of its original beauty. Laws were passed limiting hotels to four storeys high – a masterful decision which doubtless had as much to do with the fact the holiday coastline is a region accustomed to mild earthquakes, as it had with aesthetics. Good governance ensured growth was gradual and not at the expense of natural beauty and heritage, and infrastructure kept pace.

Turkish Gulet - 1995
Gulet holiday, 1995 (me, third from left – won’t see 35 again)

My first visit to Turkey was in 1994, on a two-centre singles holiday. I spent a week in what was then the small town of Kuşadasi, and a week in a more rural area. Two hotels; the first, Villa Konak – still operating in a Kuşadasi backstreet (bigger than it was) – originally a coaching inn; the other a more traditional villa style hotel bedecked with purple bougainvillea set around a welcoming swimming pool. Today Kuşadasi is a sizable and thriving town. It boasts a walled Byzantine castle and its port is large enough to cope with frequent visits from cruise ships. Just a few miles from Ephesus, it’s the perfect place for the day visitors to dock, nip on a coach to one of the most spectacular ancient sites in the world, pick up a leather jacket in the market, sample some apple tea and be back on-board in time for dinner. That’s one way to do it, I guess.

Like other larger towns – Bodrum and Marmaris for example – Kuşadasi has warmly embraced the youth holiday culture based around all-night clubs and bars. That’s ok if you like that sort of thing, but it’s turned Kusadasi into the sort of place I personally, as a moochy 50-something looking for peace and tranquillity, wouldn’t look to stay in today. But that’s not to decry the town, which, like the other bigger destinations, has carved its own profitable path with its eyes wide open.

How could you not love this?
How could you not love a place like this?

After that, I stuck to smaller towns and villages, of which there are still very many lovely ones, along the craggy Lycian coastline. I remember places, but not years: Torba and Türkbükü on the Bodrum Peninsula; the exquisite Bordubet – technically by Marmaris but in truth, in the blissful middle of nowhere at all; Hisarönü above Ölüdeniz (when it was still a quirky hillside village); and a favourite, to which I returned more than once – the pretty town of Turunç, close (but not too close) by Marmaris. In 2013 after a break of several years, I went again to Turkey to gather photos and sensory impressions for Singled Out, and I stayed in a hotel on Şövalye, a tiny harbour island with no cars, a few hundred yards off Fethiye by ferry boat.

Turkish Gulet, on its way out for the day
Turkish Gulet chugging off for a day at sea

But if you really want to get away from everything, you need to clamber aboard a gulet. Just as I described them in my story, these are twin or three-masted wooden sailing boats which serve anything from a half-dozen to 20 or so guests on day trips or, as I preferred, week-long get-away-from-it-all journeys around the craggy coastline. In truth, they run on engines for much of the time, but will put up the sails when the wind justifies it. In a week’s trip, there’s a single overnight stay in port somewhere, so the gulet can re-stock. Otherwise fresh food is prepared on-board or on the beach, or occasionally in hideaway locantas. You won’t need shoes or anything very much, except an appreciation of the beauty of an ancient coastline, a sky full of stars, the gentle slapping of water against hull and the bliss of having nothing to do and nowhere to go. Occasionally during the day, there will be other gulets around, but the week-long cruise affords the crew enough time to get away from the day boats, and when they do, it is paradise.

Pine forested peninsulas, shady inlets, peaceful coves, rocky outcrops, hidden beaches – this is the stuff of the Turkey I love. I know, I haven’t even scratched the surface – I’m ashamed to admit I’ve not yet visited Istanbul or travelled further east than Fethiye. Mea culpa. I’m a boutique hotel girl, not a backpacker.

The Great Theatre, Ephesus
The Great Theatre, Ephesus

But I can’t end this post without reference to the country’s ancient history. The coastline is crammed with evidence of Turkey’s commercial and religious heritage and the ebb and flow of empires, but I want specifically to raise a flag for Ephesus. I know it’s a tourist money-spinner. In the twenty years between my first and second visits, I noticed the explosion of ‘retail opportunities’ around the entrances. But even that’s not a criticism. The little avenue of shops is hardly overwhelming – and useful if you’ve forgotten your water, sunglasses or sunhat, all essentials when rambling about the ruins. I walked Ephesus and took hundreds of photos to jog my memory for writing the chapter in Singled Out where my characters visit this remarkable site. It’s sensitively preserved – there is much to see, most of it right up-close-and-personal. In its Roman heyday, Ephesus was a thriving port, though the landscape has since shifted, putting some 5 miles between the ruins and the sea. There are amphitheatres (yes, two), avenues to wander, carvings and mosaics to admire and the magnificent Celsus Library. If you can bear a few hours away from the beach, this, of all of Turkey’s magnificent man-made and natural sights, is right at the top of the list of places you need to see.

The Ephesus retail experience
The Ephesus retail experience

A word now, on something that makes any visit to Turkey particularly special; it’s the hospitality. Whether hotelier, restaurateur, bar owner, shopkeeper, carpet-seller, or gulet captain – you will enjoy warmth, friendly hospitality and service of the highest order. The Turks who work the tourist coastline understand the business they’re in. Make no mistake, there’ll be hard-selling and up-selling aplenty, but it will be executed in such a cordial and charming manner, you’ll hardly realise it’s happening! It’s all part of the experience and the pleasure.

And one last thing… of course I would say this, wouldn’t I? If you should happen to be visiting Turkey this year for your holidays, why not take a copy of Singled Out to the beach with you.  😉

15 thoughts on “Turkey: Setting matters, right?

  1. Ephesis (a Greek city, I must note) is indeed a wonderful place to visit — but killer hot hot hot. Tourists beware: be prepared to sweat, and empty your water bottle. Love the photo of you at 35. And who is that centerpiece of a smiling fellow with his bare chest pressed against your bare shoulder? 🙂

    1. Ephesus is certainly an endurance test, but well worth the effort.

      As for the centrepiece… I couldn’t possibly comment.

  2. One correction: Kusadasi castle is Ottoman, not Byzantine -circa 18th century.

    The best time to visit Ephesus and Fethiye region is in May. Ephesus is huge and you need a whole day to see all the ruins there, the heat can be dangerous after May. Definitely a no-no in July and August due to the heat stroke risk.

    Kusadasi is a horrible place, the all-inclusive holiday villages in its fringes are ok but the city (around the castle) is awful. Shopkeepers are rude and behave like pests, cat calling and harrassing female tourists. Turgutreis (near Bodrum) is by orders of magnitude more civilized than Kusadasi. The vendors are very polite and don’t pester you at all, unlike the low class, annoying Kusadasi vendors. Kusadasi is only good if you stay at one of those all inclusive places and use the town as a base to visit Selcuk, Ephesus, Samos, etc.

    Oludeniz is great and there are some secluded, virgin hideouts nearby. I didn’t see anything exotic in Turkey (except the walled city part of Istanbul and some towns around Bodrum) on my last visit this summer, everywhere was full of the same cookie cutter shops, same made in China stuff, nothing local or original left except a few less popular places.

    Btw there are great affordable boutique hotels in Istanbul, around Hagia Sophia and Kadikoy on the Asian side (which is a short trip by ferry+tram to the historical district) there’s amazing intact Byzantine architecture and even some Roman heritage to see.

    1. Interesting… I’ve checked a number of different guide books and websites and I think there’s a difference of opinion. Is it a castle or a fortress? Is it Ottoman or Byzantine? I’ve seen it described as a castle, ‘built for the purpose of observation in Byzantine times’, but it was burnt down (late 14th century). I’ve also seen it described as a ‘restored 14th or 15th century fortress’. I’ve seen it labelled Byzantine all over the place, but given that it was rebuilt, what does that make it? Either way, whether it’s a castle or a fort, it’s worth a visit if you’re in the town.

      I understand your warning about Ephesus, although many people attempt the tour in the hotter months, simply because that’s when they’re on holiday. I visited in May and it was already very warm. But with appropriate sunscreen, parasol, hat and copious quantities of water, it’s doable in the warmer months, although perhaps more of an endurance test. But your warning is sound.

      I sympathise with your feelings about Kusadasi. I was last there over 20 years ago and it was a nice place, but I did note in my post that all the big towns have become very commercialised, which isn’t to everyone’s taste. It isn’t to my taste either, to be fair. That’s why I celebrate all those smaller towns and villages which still offer a low-key and more ‘civilized’ atmosphere.

      I guess we will have to differ in our use of the word ‘exotic’. You can see cookie-cutter shops and Made in China souvenirs and I won’t disagree that both are undoubtedly in abundance. Or you can choose to see a rich ethnic, religious and cultural heritage melded with a modern-day commercial economy which contrives to deliver a sympathetic tourist experience whilst bringing in much needed touirism revenue. As always with places colonised by tourists, the challenge is the balancing of cultural and commercial imperatives.

      Thanks so much for sharing your views – you make valid observations. One day I shall get to Istanbul. But I confess, each time I think about visiting Turkey, my thoughts turn to small villages and nights spent on gulets in empty coves. You should try it.

  3. Nice to learn more about the setting of your novel. As you already know, I thought your descriptions of Turkey were wonderful, from the food to the heat to the sand on the beach. I can see why you’d want to write about it. Adds so much to the richness of your book.

  4. Isn’t it wonderful to go back to the same place again and again. With each visit there are new wonders, signs and sounds to experience. I often wonder if we ever really ‘know’ a place since ‘places’ are organic (or at least I think so) and change and alter as time passes. I think, too, that visiting a place over and over again, leaves its imprint on us, maybe mostly for just calling us back year after year, but somehow or someway we are always changed by the experience.

    1. There have been so many changes in Turkey over those 20 years. Part of what I love is the way in which Turkey combines a respect for its history and heritage, with an enthusiasm for commercial endeavour and an awareness of what the customer wants. Then there the sunshine, of course, and the beaches, the sea, the food…..

    1. Just too kind, Wendy. But when you make your trip, choose carefully. Small towns and coastal villages have so much to offer, and be sure to spend a few days on a Gulet too. Bliss!

    1. It’s a remarkable place, though if he lives there, I expect your brother has had to get used to hordes of coaches and eagle-eyed sightseers around the place. It’s well worth a visit.

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