There can't be many places in the world where a stunning geological phenomenon can be found adjoining an incredibly well-preserved and extensive ancient site, even less where a bargain TL 20 admission fee allows you entry to both wonders. But that is exactly what you get for your money when visiting the glistening white travertine pools and terraces of Pamukkale and the Greek-Roman spa-city of Hierapolis, which perch in admirable symbiosis on the lip of a valley side high above the bustling textile town of Denizli, in western Turkey.
Back to the 1980s
A confession. Having first visited what is indisputably one of Turkey's most iconic sites back in 1980, I'd studiously avoided a return, despite having criss-crossed the entire country many times since and revisited “lesser” sights on countless occasions. “It's amazing, but it's far too busy and touristy,” I'd explain to friends querying my apparent aversion to Pamukkale. I was (quite rightly) accused of being a travel snob by some of my forthright acquaintances, but until last week I wouldn't be swayed. For how could Pamukkale circa 2012, swarmed over by busloads of camera-toting tourists, hope to compare with my first visit, way back in 1980. Then my companion and I were the only foreigners there. For not only did the Turkey of that era attract a fraction of the visitors it does today, but we were there just a few days after the Sept. 12, 1980 military coup, a period when the uncertainty surrounding the country's future put off all but a handful of tourists.
In other words, Pamukkale was completely empty. We stayed for peanuts in the hotel then built around the hot-spring fed pools and swam, alone, in warm waters amongst fallen Roman columns and capitals. The scalloped travertine pools tumbling gloriously down the valley side brimmed with tepid mineral water, and we ranged across the snow-white formations, bathing in natural basin after natural basin. It may not have been quite as unspoilt as the “Pambouk” visited by Society of Dilettantes member Richard Chandler back in 1764, who described a pool with a Turcoman woman “washing linen in it, with a child at her back,” but it felt pretty close.
A frozen cascade
So it was that last week, spurred on by the visit of my brother, his wife and my uncle (who had already “done” all the sights around my adopted hometown of Antalya on previous trips) I found myself back at Pamukkale, Turkey's “Cotton Castle” and UNESCO World Heritage site. After a very pleasant night at a welcoming pension in the village of Pamukkale, at the foot of the formations, we drove up towards the site, skirting the foot of a hillside gleaming white under a still powerful mid-November sun. It looked for all the world like a snow-covered mountainside, though the intrepid recorder of antiquities Chandler described his first view of the wonder that is Pamukkale thus: “The vast slope, which at a distance we had taken for chalk, was now beheld with wonder, it seeming an immense frozen cascade, the surface wavy, as of water at once fixed, or in its headlong course suddenly petrified.”
We stopped for the obligatory photographs. I was won over already. Apart from one bus rumbling past us and a man on a scooter, who appeared out of nowhere to flog me a Pamukkale/Hierapolis guide for TL 10, there were no signs of the mass tourism I'd feared, just a pleasant orchard of vines, mulberries and figs alive with bird song at the foot of Chandler's “frozen cascade.” Winding around the eastern fringes of the travertine formations we arrived at the south gate, marked by a cluster of smart new souvenir shops and the ticket turnstile. There was room in the parking lot for dozens of buses but there was, as yet, only one. So far so good.
A trip to the theater
Stumping-up the admission fee, we entered the ancient site of Hierapolis through an impressive gateway piercing the Byzantine-era walls, built from giant blocks re-used from earlier Hellenistic and Roman buildings. Another confession. My memories of 1980 did not include (the handful of Roman columns and the like in the hot pools apart) any recollection of a Greek-Roman site at all -- shameful for a man who'd just majored in Ancient History. Yet here, spread out before us on a vast, sloping shelf on the hillside were the remains of a city of some magnitude. Even allowing for the considerable amount of excavation and reconstruction that has taken place in the 32 years since my last visit, I found it hard to believe that I'd either failed to notice at the time, or completely forgotten subsequently, Hierapolis.
The plus side of my amnesia was that I now had the opportunity to explore a “new” ancient site. For the next four hours we rambled across the remnants of a city that was founded by the Attalids of Pergamon in the second century B.C., rose to giddy heights under the Romans and continued to flourish in the Byzantine period. The theater is often the most substantial remnant from a Greek-Roman city, and Hierapolis is no exception, so we trudged up a hillside littered with fallen masonry to the horseshoe-shaped auditorium set into the hillside to the north. It once held between 15,000 and 20,000 spectators, who in the Roman period at least would have looked down on a stage building lavishly decorated with spiral columns, ornately carved capitals and coffered ceiling blocks, statuary and bas-relief carved friezes. Today the stage area is cordoned-off as restoration work is ongoing, and a giant crane towers behind, much to the chagrin of my brother and uncle, both keen photographers.
Of martyrs and sacred pools
Further north from the theater, just beneath the pine forest cloaking the upper slopes of the hillside, is the Martyrium of Philip. A mammoth structure comprising an octagon within a square, this memorial to the apostle who was (allegedly) martyred here in A.D. 87, dates back to the Byzantine period. We had it to ourselves, and sat in the sunshine to watch goldfinches drink from rainwater that had collected in the peg-holes of Roman capitals, and rock-nuthatches root noisily in the cracks between blocks of Byzantine masonry for insects and grubs. A goat path traversing the hillside west of the martyrium brought us to an upper necropolis where recently excavated house-shaped Roman tombs stared blankly down on the rest of the city below. There wasn't a soul in sight, not even on the travertine terraces, which we could just about glimpse on the rim of the valley, beyond the sprawling lower necropolis and monumental remains of a Roman bathhouse.
On the rim of the valley a few tombs were bizarrely “frozen” in the white travertine whilst, further in, a three-arched triumphal gateway opened up onto a magnificent stretch of broad, paved street, flanked by columns that once fronted ornamental fountains (nymphaea), shops and bars. It was well past one by now, and we had barely scratched the surface of the site, but we were in need of sustenance and shade, so we hurried straight to the cafe at the center of the site. It's built, in place of the hotel I'd stayed in all those years ago, around the warm, spring-fed pool once sacred to the gods -- and the focal point of the ancient spa-town. After a predictably over-priced and average snack, we swam in the pool, slithering across the grooved Roman columns and other bits and pieces of fallen masonry that make this a hot pool like no other. The catch? A TL 30 admission charge -- but at least the hefty admission price puts off many visitors (including my uncle, who stomped off grumbling about the exorbitant price to the nearby travertine terraces to take pictures) and leaves the beautifully landscaped pool blissfully uncrowded.
A travertine sunset
Mid-November days are short, and it was getting on for sunset when we finally tore ourselves away from the warm waters of the pool to what is for most the main event of a visit to Pamukkale/Hierapolis -- a sunset splash and photo opportunity on the travertine terrace. Having had the whole site of Hierapolis more or less to ourselves all day and having shared the gorgeous hot pool (36 degrees C) with surprisingly few fellow bathers, it was a shock to find the terraces chock-a-block with visitors. Here at last were the bus-tour hordes I'd feared. But hey, it was still stunningly beautiful, not to mention unique (according to my brother, who'd spent some time on his iPhone looking it up, only Huanglong in China and Mammoth Springs in the US boast travertine formations that match Pamukkale in scale -- and they don't have an ancient site attached to them).
So we dutifully rolled up our trousers, took off our shoes and socks and joined the throngs enjoying the warm, blue waters filling the remarkable basins and admired the way the white travertine changed hue as the sun sank over the mountains to the West. All in all it had been a glorious day, and I'll (inşallah) be back soon. Despite having spent the entire day on site, I'd seen less than a third of it and hadn't even had time to visit the on-site museum (an extra TL 5 entry) housed in a beautifully restored Roman bathhouse.
How to get here
Pamukkale village is around 20 kilometers north of Denizli, a city linked to the rest of the country by inter-city buses. Regular minibuses ply to the village from Denizli's otogar.
Where to stay
There are plenty of decent value pensions in Pamukkale village. We stayed at the highly recommended Melrose (www.melrosehousehotel.com; Tel.: 0  272 22 50), which has comfy rooms with a kettle (bring your own tea bag and/or coffee), a great buffet breakfast and hearty, good-value evening meals.
Pamukkale/Hierapolis (www.pamukkale.org.tr) is open daily in winter 8 a.m.-5 p.m.