It is 6:30am on a chilled October morning. I am nestled in a cocoon of my sleeping bag and blankets on top of a cushioned wooden platform overlooking the mountains and Mediterranean Sea. I roll the woolen blanket away from my face, sit upright and push my sleeping bag down to my waistline. I have risen just in time for the expansive horizon in front of me to begin to change colors. The watercolor lines of orange and pink distinguish the sea from the sky and create a magnificent palate of soft blended hues. I look directly above me through the web of grape vines, haphazardly woven through an intertwined wooden frame, and see the still shining moon slowly descending behind me as it gives way to this new day.
A Coastal Walk Through History
I am in Alınca, a small village located directly along the Lycian Way, a 540 kilometer footpath that runs the length of Turkey’s southern coast. The footpath meanders through many historical sites of ancient Lycia, which was once the name for the Mediterranean Tekke Peninsula that juts out from Turkey’s southern coast. The trail begins in Fethiye and ends in Antalya, both hubs for tourism during the busy summer months from April to October. Small towns along the coast are sprinkled with guest houses, shops, restaurants and inviting harbors, beckoning to the wooden Gület boats filled with tourists to tie their ropes and unload the promise of free flowing euros and dollars. The Lycian Way passes through many of these villages and towns and hikers have easy and consistent access to guest houses, hostels, campgrounds and restaurants with fresh and homemade village recipes.
Day 1: Fethiye, Kayaköy & Ölüdeniz
I have arrived in Fethiye at the end of the 2016 summer season. Guesthouses are closing, boats are removed from the water for winter repairs and safekeeping, and many seasonal employees return to the mountain villages along the coast where their families live. This is the ideal time of year to walk the Lycian Way. The impossible summer heat is over and has given way to pleasant daytime temperatures and cool evening breezes that require blankets and endless cups of warm Turkish tea.
I begin walking from Fethiye with three companions on the third week of October. We climb a road leading high above the harbor town, the olive trees eventually yielding to sparkling views of white sailboat masts dotting the turquoise sea. The first way marker leads us off of the mountain road onto a rocky trail that climbs steeply towards the villages of Ovacık and Kayaköy. The pathway is intermittent, sometimes leading back to the road and other times veering off into the woods, providing us with shortcuts away from the traffic and unforgiving asphalt of the paved roads.
After about seven kilometers, we take a short break in Kayaköy, finding relief from the now blazing afternoon sun. Kayaköy, anciently known as Lebessos while it was inhabited by the Greeks up until approximately 1922, is now preserved as a museum village and tour buses frequent the small streets lined with ruins and a few small restaurants and markets. We find a table at one of the quiet cafes and order yogurt ayran and fresh pomegranate juice, devouring both as fuel for our last climb of the day to Ovacık. The trail continues ascending at the peak of this climb but we have planned to turn off from the path when we reach the top and follow the road down to Ölüdeniz beach. I have been to Ölüdeniz before and I know of a safe and secluded place where we can wait until twilight and pitch our tents on the sand.
Day 2: Ascent to Faralya
The next morning I wake with the sun hours before my friends. My tent has gently nestled into the damp early morning sand and an imprint of my sleeping body has formed overnight just below the nylon surface. I crawl and roll and make my way out into the world. My eyes are heavy, my body stiff, and I need coffee. I dress in warmer clothes, slide on my sneakers and trudge my way through the sand to the quiet boardwalk. Just last night, lights and people and music filled this space but now it is quiet and the crashing of the waves dominates the slowly waking world. I find an open cafe and order a coffee in my slowly improving Turkish, “Kahve, sütlü.” Coffee with milk. The man looks sleepily in my direction and nods. He brings the coffee over to me but forgets the milk. I can’t blame him. It is 7:30 in the morning and the sun is just appearing over the mountains. The sky is pink and reflecting off of the calm sea. The view is mesmerizing and I do not have to dig too deep to find gratitude for this view and for my warm mug of coffee, regardless of the milk content.
I return to my tent to find my friends sitting in the sand with messy morning clothes and hair. We dig the few food items from our bags and make simple sandwiches of bread and cheese, eating lazily and allowing the crumbs to fall from our fingers and blend with the sand. The trail from Ölüdeniz today will lead us up a steep climb towards Faralya, with panoramic views of the beach and dazzling Blue Lagoon, famous worldwide for its shades of turquoise and aquamarine.
We wind our way up the mountain trail, sweating and breathing and taking short breaks beneath pockets of shade, all while admiring the scenery behind us. We descend through Kirme village, crossing paths with wandering cows and small herds of goats and sheep. It is early evening as we snake our way through the small village. Elderly women in floral headscarves and loose clothing collect fresh red peppers and long purple eggplants from their gardens. The men, with faces telling a thousand stories, sit in front of their small and dusty homes, staring off into the horizon as they drink sweet tea from small glass cups. Family life surrounds us and I feel warm and held in the presence of such peace and simplicity. We approach Faralya and breathe a sigh of relief when a small guest house appears into view. The owner offers us a space in her garden for us to set up camp. For $1.50 we are given a flat space overlooking the guest house across the street and the ravines of Butterfly Valley far below. The valley is a well known tourist attraction. At 6,480 feet high, it is only accessible by boat and one very steep and dangerous mountain trail. It is home to diverse butterfly species and has been nominated for preservation as a world heritage site. It is known as one of the highlights of the Lycian Way and of this entire region of Turkey.
After we set up camp, the owner offers us a simple dinner of lentil soup, homemade bread and a small salad of chickpeas and okra. The food is delicious and extremely satisfying after a full day of climbing and navigating the steep and rocky pathways and roads.
Day 3: Butterfly Valley & Kabak
In the morning I wake early once again, using the quiet early hours to write and slowly devour a beautiful Turkish breakfast of homemade cheeses, honey, jams and bread, with tomatoes, peppers and eggs from the guest house garden and small farm. Breakfast in Turkey never fails to impress and I am constantly in awe of the care and effort that the people of Turkey make when it comes to the quality of their food. Meal times are sacred, slow and social occasions where eating is never rushed or taken for granted. I sit in silence, eating slowly and admiring the sunrise. My companions move slowly and join me one by one as they emerge from their tents. We only begin our walking day around noon, when we are sufficiently caffeinated and have finally gathered our laundry, camping equipment and other belongings back into our rucksacks in preparation for the day ahead.
The sun is high in the sky as we descend down the steep road leading to the most famous views of Butterfly Valley. We pass a few homes with small cages filled with chicken and goat families, the sources of the incredible breakfasts I devour each morning. The trees part and we inhale the beauty around us as the dramatic panorama of the valley unfolds. We remove our packs and pause. I make an effort to imprint this moment in my mind, hoping that I will be able to come back to this view for days to come. However, after over a year of wandering and living my daily life in moments of new foods, customs, and people, I know too well that moments like this cannot be captured, only appreciated for the brief time they are available. So easily can we feel rushed, ready to move on to whatever is next without taking the time to pause and feel gratitude for whom and what surrounds us.
Day 4: Kabak to Alınca
We plan to do a short 7 kilometers today as the ascent to Alınca is long, steep, and barren with no water or food sources along the way. The spectacular views of Kabak beach make the climb worthwhile and rewarding. The trails winds along the bay, high above the where the rocky shore meets the white-capped waves. We are able to see the trail’s path from a distance as we look across the bay. We are on high alert and tread lightly. The trail is full of loose rocks and often drops down in a treacherous and clear path leading directly to the sea.
When we finally arrive in Alınca, we are greeted by a woman named Zahra in front of her home. She has several rooms for rent, a camping platform, hot showers and home cooked meals. She offers us the platform for free and charges approximately $10 dollars for a warm meal in the evening and a fresh breakfast spread in the morning. Zahra immediately takes an interest in me over dinner when I attempt to talk with her in my broken Turkish. We struggle to understand each other but the connection is genuine and her motherly gaze makes me feel comforted and happy. Every time she smiles, the lines on her face multiply and her warm eyes are gently concealed by her tanned cheeks.
When I wake at 6:30 the next morning and wiggle my way out of the tangle of sleeping bag and blankets, Zahra notices me from the garden and motions for me to follow her. I slide my sneakers on and follow her down the road. She leads me off the road towards the cliff’s edge and we walk along the stones, avoiding sticks and shrubs. I feel ridiculous in my expensive sneakers as I watch Zahra walk effortlessly over the terrain in her thin plastic slippers. She offers her hand to me when we reach the viewpoint and motions to Paradise beach, 700 meters below us. I have heard of this beach and admire the shining white sand alongside the sparkling blue of the Mediterranean Sea. Like the beach at the base of Butterfly Valley, Paradise beach is also only accessible by boat. I feel spoiled to have this private view via an invisible trail that is not way marked or noticeable to other hikers on the Lycian Way. I hold Zahra’s hand and take a deep breath in, thinking to myself, “These are the moments I travel for. These are the moments I live for.”
Discovering a New Routine
The Lycian Way and my friends will continue tomorrow to the villages of Gey and Bel. In a few days they will arrive and rest in the coastal tourist town of Kas, eventually finding their way to the end of the trail in Antalya, the eighth most populous city in Turkey. Unfortunately my Lycian journey ends here, with warm sunrise sleeping bag cocoons and secret views of Paradise beach. I donate a few items of food and clothing to my companions, empty most of the water from my bottle and offer embraces of bittersweet farewell.
Zahra has asked her husband, Mesut, to give me a ride on his motorbike to a dusty bus stop where I can catch a minivan ride back to Fethiye. The motorbike ride will cost double what the van does, as we will have to meander along the winding coastal roads that hang high on cliffs overlooking the sea. I strap my bag to my body and hop on the back of the rusty bike. I wrap my arms around Mesut’s soft belly and smile in the direction of my friends. I choke back my unexpected tears and wave as we speed off. The road is terrifying and exhilarating and makes me feel alive. Mesut motions to yet another view of Paradise beach and I nod and say into his ear, “Çok güzel!” Very beautiful! After four days on foot, the scenery speeding by me is alarming. No longer am I able to appreciate the details of the landscape as I did while trudging along the mountain trail. As I grip Mesut’s body with my legs and arms and watch myself smile in the rear view mirror, I make a promise to come back, to return to the Lycian Way one day and complete the journey in its entirety. I have been given a taste of the serenity and indescribable beauty that this trail has to offer and I feel that with enough time and patience, perhaps I could find a way to slow down and treasure more moments like my morning with Zahra.
The Lycian Way is a safe and accessible journey for any avid adventurer or hiker. If you find yourself craving fresh, home cooked meals, consistent exercise, and expanded head space, the Lycian Way is the perfect opportunity to take time and care for your body, mind, and spirit with this simple routine: eat, walk, sleep, repeat. Eating comes with hunger and rest, with fatigue. Life takes on a kind of simplicity that is guided by the sun and moon. Although my time on the Lycian Way was brief, I now know what Henry David Thoreau meant when he said, “I took a walk in the woods and came out taller than the trees.” My body stands tall as I wait for the bus to Fethiye. I release the fresh mountain air from my lungs and wave goodbye to Mesut as he turns his motorbike and slowly disappears down the dusty and winding road.