If there was a how-to guide for tourism in Turkey, someone forgot to send the people of Eğirdir the memo. Life is so laid back here that you'll have to hunt down hotel proprietors at the local teahouse before you can book a room. The ever-persistent waiters found wielding smart quips outside Mediterranean resort restaurants are a distant memory; instead, I'm often inundated with glowing recommendations for competitors or ushered to a neighboring pension when rooms are full. I'm offered discounts or freebies without so much as opening my mouth to begin haggling. But for all its nonchalant attitude, tourism, albeit a very different type to the Mediterranean beach resorts, is quietly booming in this lakeside haven.
Eğirdir is the kind of place travelers intend to pass through on a night's stopover and wind up spending half the summer whiling away the hours sipping beer on a roof terrace overlooking the lake. From the winding descent into the valley, revealing a stunning stretch of azure blue lake, to the glittering strip of Yeşilada (the town's adjourning island) snaking out onto the moonlit waters, memories of Eğirdir quickly imprint themselves onto your brain -- one idyllic snapshot after another.
It's easy to see why this is so often touted as one of Turkey's “best kept secrets.” “We prefer it that way,” a local pension owner, İbrahim, tells me, and it's a consensus shared by many of the locals -- travelers are welcomed with open arms, but tourism, with all it's modern conveniences and frustrating business ventures, can stay away. İbrahim is one of a few entrepreneurial locals taking advantage of the town's striking natural scenery and helping to transform the town into a hassle-free sanctuary for road-weary travelers. It's a venture that seems to be working, and his two pensions on Eğirdir's mainland -- Lale and Charly's -- both see a steady stream of patrons, many of whom chose to stay far longer than intended.
The town is finally beginning to capitalize on its natural assets, and İbrahim has recently branched out with another family venture, the Eğirdir Outdoor Center -- a meeting place where travelers can sip Turkish coffee while planning their stay and rent out a range of equipment, including mountain bikes, kayaks, skis and camping equipment. The shop doubles up as a tourist information center furnished with a deep knowledge and passion for the region, and they dish out hiking and cycling route maps, sight details and transport information in addition to organizing tours.
Summer by the lake
Aside from its genial hospitality, Eğirdir's biggest draw is its stunning freshwater lake, Turkey's second largest at a vast 488 square kilometers, hugged by the surrounding Toros Mountains. Cool waters and pebble beaches make the lake an ideal swimming spot, but as summer rolls in, the waterfront plays host to a number of water sports, taking advantage of the warm and breezy climate: Kayaking, windsurfing and even jet-skiing are on offer from the lakeside and, in typical Eğirdir fashion, profits are channeled into sports training and equipment for local kids. Alternatively, fishing boats ply the harbor, with local fishermen more than happy to escort fellow fishers out to the lake's prime spots, stopping on the way back to barbecue your catch in a lakeside cove. There's even a growing trend for paragliding when the winds pick up, with tandem flights soaring up over the lake affording some incredible views of the valley below.
Heading for the hills
Dominated by its backdrop of the Toros Mountains, the town is also a prime base for some world-class hiking routes, the most famous of which is the St. Paul Trail. The 500-kilometer trail traces the A.D. 46 route of the preacher himself from Perge, or Aspendos, to the Roman colonial town of Antioch ad Pisidiam, winding through the canyons and valleys of the Toros Mountains and taking in sections of ancient Roman road, mountain summits of almost 3,000 meters and even including a boat trip across Eğirdir lake itself. Many sections of the trail can be walked from Eğirdir, including the 2,635-meter Davraz Mountain (a popular winter ski resort) to the south or by following the lake north to the once-Greek village of Barla, bound by a steep limestone valley and encircled with cherry and apricot orchards.
The way-marked trail forms a big part of the region's vast network of day hikes or multi-day treks, and many pensions arrange pick-up and drop-off points for hikers. Mountain biking has become a popular option, too, and cycle routes to Barla village, Zindan Cave and Kovada National Park have been carefully mapped out by the locals at the outdoor center. The closest hike to the city is scaling the heights of Sivri Dağı (Needle Mountain), whose rugged peak dominates the skyline to the west of the lake. Part of the way uphill, around a 7-kilometer walk from town, the nomadic village of Akpınar makes a popular stop-off, a mere 50 houses clustered around a yurt (Yörük tent) selling gözleme and ayran and a small apple orchard, peering down over the lake below.
Heading a little further out, the little-visited Kovada National Park is set around Kovada Lake, tinted by limestone sediment to a cloudy green, with the park's pine and juniper forests skirting the base of the imposing Davras Mountain. A stroll through the marshlands and forest walkways is accompanied by the scent of wild olive and pistachio, with carpets of wildflowers brightening up the horizon while squirrels and rabbits dart between the trees. Teeming with butterflies and birds, it makes a great location for nature spotting, and the vast lake is filled with enough carp, fresh-water bass and even lobster to keep avid fishermen amused. Overnight camping is also available.
Just south of here lies a well-preserved section of the famous ancient Kral Yolu, or King's Way, that once stretched from the Aegean coast to Babylon back in the 5th century B.C. Today, the road lies close by the partially hidden gorge of Çandır Canyon, another popular stopping point, where you can swim in the freezing pools beneath tumbling waterfalls.
Hitting the markets
Back in Eğirdir, there are few distractions to tear you away from the lakeside for too long, aside from a cluster of restaurants serving up healthy portions of fresh lake bass and the renovated 13th century Hızırbey Mosque, notable for its unique walk-through minaret. Things liven up in the small town center each Thursday, when locals from the surrounding areas pour into Eğirdir for the weekly market. Rosewater soaps from Isparta, clothing and electronics sprawl the stalls, but best of all is the food: cabbages the size of your head, gooey slabs of honeycomb, towers of glistening olives and the sweetest homegrown cherries. From the end of July through to October, a special series of Sunday Pinar Pazarı, or Yörük markets, are held for the Yörük mountain tribes to trade produce and stock up for the winter. Single ladies should take care if they're attending the women-only market preceding the 10th and final market -- legend has it this is the negotiation ground for mothers to discuss potential marriage matches for their sons or daughters.
Where to stay
Ali's Pension, east side, Yeşilada 0246 311 2547, www.alispension.com
Charley's Pension, Kale 0246 311 4611, www.charleyspension.com
Göl Pension, south side, Yeşilada 0246 311 2370, [email protected]
Lale Pension, Kale 0246 311 2406, www.lalehostel.com/lalepension.net
How to get there
Direct buses run to Eğirdir from Antalya and Göreme. There are also buses that run every 20 minutes to and from Isparta (40 minutes). The bus station is in the town center, south of the Hızırbey Mosque, from where there are regular buses to Yeşilada, the last of which leaves at 9 p.m. Many pensions also offer free pick-ups if you call ahead. Alternatively, all of Eğirdir's sights are easily reachable on foot, about a 15-minute walk from the bus station across the causeway to Yeşilada.