On a stormy, windswept winter's day the sweeping, dune-backed expanse of Patara Beach looks like it would be more at home set down on England's North Sea-battered Norfolk coast rather than sloping gently, as it does, into the near tide-less waters of the Mediterranean off Turkey's exquisitely beautiful southwest shore.
In summer, sun worshippers pack the more accessible reaches of this 15-kilometer-long beach, bathing in the seemingly endless shallows, all the while keeping an eye out for signs of the placid loggerhead turtles who flipper their way ashore to lay their eggs in the soft, white sand. In winter, however, neither sun-seekers nor turtles disturb the serenity of what is arguably Turkey's very best beach, leaving it much as reported by British “tomb raider” Charles Fellows (the man responsible for carting off the best Lycian tombs from nearby ancient Xanthos to the British Museum in London in the mid-19th century). “No signs of life were visible but the footsteps of the wolves, jackals and hares.”
On the beach
Winter sees big skies, stacked with great banks of backlit clouds and storms that whip up the sea into a frenzy of waves, which curl and break ever higher up the beach, cleansing it of the detritus of summer and packing down the sand into the kind of firm base those used to tide-washed North Sea, Atlantic or Pacific beaches are so fond of. The type of surface on which, perhaps, some 170 years or so ago Fellow's crew, relaxing after a long day shifting inordinately heavy stone tombs, played a game that would certainly seem more appropriate for a Norfolk beach. “Our evenings were not without amusement, the sailors soon made bats and balls, and cricket was perhaps for the first time played in Lycia.”
Winter is, in other words, an extremely fine time to visit the beach and enjoy its wave-cleansed, hard sand surface, vegetation-carpeted dunes and distant yet magnificent mountain backdrop. It's usually warm enough to swim, too, or body surf in the rolling breakers. Whether you would opt, like Fellows and his crew, to play a game of beach cricket, is questionable, but you will inevitably follow in his footsteps in visiting the ancient site that gives the beach its name, Patara -- as access to the most popular and in summer, sun-bed and shade littered southeastern end of the beach, is through the ruins. Both the beach and site are accessed from the adjacent village of Gelemiş, just three-and-a-half kilometers off the main coastal highway linking Fethiye and Kalkan/Kaş.
Triumphal arches and Santa Claus
The obvious place to begin, just past the ticket kiosk and barrier, is the necropolis, much of which has been recently unearthed by archaeologists from Antalya's Akdeniz University. Most of the tombs are typically Lycian in style, consisting of a stepped base on which rests the oblong stone “coffin,” which is surmounted by a lid shaped like the hull of an upturned boat. Just beyond the acropolis is what was, until recent excavations and reconstruction, Patara's signature building: a triple-arched triumphal arch. Erected around A.D. 100 by the then governor of Lycia and Pamphlyia, Modestus, it makes an imposing entrance to the remains of what was once both the capital and main port of Lycia, a city well known not only for its trading prowess but also for its famous oracular temple of Apollo, of which no trace has yet been found.
The city was almost certainly founded by the Lycians rather than the Greeks and dates back to the fifth century B.C., and quite possibly earlier. In 333 B.C. Patara wisely opened its doors to the army of Alexander the Great. In 167 B.C. it was granted its freedom by the Romans and became the capital of a confederation of local cities known as the Lycian League. The city prospered, like the rest of what is today western Turkey, during the Pax Romana (27 B.C.-A.D. 180), with a theatre, monumental bathhouse and major granary amongst the structures adding to Patara's splendor during this period. Although the city declined in the Byzantine era, it was nonetheless an important Christian city and in the sixth century B.C. produced its most famous inhabitant, St. Nicholas, latterly the inspiration for our Santa Claus. The city was still a port in the Middle Ages, used by pilgrims en route to the Holy land, but was gradually abandoned as its harbor filled with silt, its buildings engulfed by the dunes.
Council chamber and theatre
The most striking single remain at Patara today is the council chamber (bouleuterion), a dazzling white marble structure that stood at the heart of the ancient city. Restoration work began in 2010 and has now, some two years and TL 7.5 million later, been completed. The building consists of semi-circular tiers of stone seats looking down onto a stage area and fronted by a colonnade. It was once the meeting place of the members of the Lycian League and could seat over 1,400 people. Although locked at the time of my recent visit, it is a very impressive piece of reconstruction/restoration, especially when you consider most of the stone had been pillaged in the Byzantine period and re-used in “new” fortification walls. The Lycian League is often seen as a model form of government, with the 18th century French philosopher Montesquieu writing, “I use the Lycian League whenever I give an example of a perfect democracy from the ancient world.”
Next to it is a building very similar in shape, the theatre. When Fellows visited he noted that “sand ... is drifted over the walls of the theatre, so that the area is more than half filled up, and the whole, with many other ruins, will soon be buried and left for future ages to disinter.” Fellows was right about the disinterring part, as much work has been done to recover the theatre from the dunes in recent decades. It has not, however, unlike the bouleuterion, lost its patina of age and makes an ideal spot to sit and contemplate the remains you've already seen or admire the rich and varied local bird life, from pied kingfishers to wagtails and snowy-white egrets to crested larks.
Heading northwest from the theatre/council chamber area, a rough track leads through the dunes to what is marked on my old Blue Guide plan as a tomb but is now known to be the base of a Roman-era lighthouse. Like the bouleuterion this too is under reconstruction and, like the other major buildings on this sprawling site, comes complete with an informative signboard. From here you can wander up into the dunes amidst stands of olive, umbrella pine, eucalyptus and strawberry trees, to gain vantage points over the reed-fringed, frog-filled swampland behind and look out over the surf-soaked beach.
Then temptation of jewels and money
Another Brit visited Patara back in the 19th century, a good 30 years prior to Fellows, Francis Beaufort. Although his mission was to map the coastline for the British Admiralty rather than find and export antiquities, whilst exploring Patara he mused -- remarkably even-handedly for a man of his time -- on a very contentious issue even today, the treatment of antiquities. Whilst his men exclaimed: “What barbarous Greeks are these Turks! See their sarcophagi a prey to their cupidity. Look at these columns and temples, trampled under their prophane feet or carried away to build their hovels!” Beaufort himself wrote, “I should like to know what nation could resist the temptation of the jewels or money buried with the dead, and if the Turks, ignorant of history and taught to despise the taste and the monuments of all other religions than their own, are so culpable in converting the remains of ancient buildings to their use or convenience, what shall be said of those who, educated in the highest veneration for the ancient Greeks and Romans, rob, pillage, break and steal away their most valuable fragments to gratify a momentary whim or childish caprice?” To Beaufort, then, it seemed that the antiquity hunters of the imperialist European nations were as culpable as the Turks in the destruction of the region's Greek-Roman heritage.
Many people visit Patara on a day trip from the nearby resort towns of Kalkan or slightly more distant Kaş, but the laid-back village of Gelemiş, two kilometers back inland, makes an even better base. It's far from being Turkey's most picturesque village, but its setting, in a valley running down at right angles to the ancient site and beach, is wonderful, and it is still very much a working rural community. There are plenty of cheap and cheerful pensions to choose from, as well as a few more upmarket places. Many close in the winter, but there are always a number open -- but make sure you call ahead to confirm. The village center is host to a number of simple restaurants and bars, a few of which stay open year-round, although most visitors here for a couple of nights or so are more than content with the excellent home-cooked meals on offer in the pensions.
Although Patara/Gelemiş is busiest during mid-summer while spring/autumn may offer the best combination of a quiet beach and warm weather for sightseeing, for atmosphere, with a lull in the cycle of traditional village life, the site of ancient Patara near deserted and only the odd gull for company on the beach, winter is best.
How to get here
Patara/Gelemis is an hour-and-a-half south of Fethiye by bus, Fethiye an hour from Dalaman airport. Alternatively, there are regular buses, taking five hours, from Antalya.
Where to stay
Akay Pension: Tel 0242 843 5055, www.pataraakaypension.com.
Flower Pension: Tel 0242 843 5164, www.pataraflowerpension.com.
Patrara Viewpoint: Tel 0242 843 5184, www.pataraviewpoint.com. (closed November-March).
Ancient site of Patara
Two kilometers from Gelemis village. Open daily November-April 8 a.m.-5 p.m.; May-October 9 a.m.-7:30 p.m. Admission: TL 5.
Beach users must enter the site to get to the beach -- to make this affordable for long stays, Plajkarts are available for TL 7.50 allowing 10 entries to the site, and more than one person can use the same card.