“From there we had slipped, for the second time in my life (how fortunate, twice in a lifetime), into the exquisite waters that lie around Kekova; and had turned the corner to Tristomo -- now Üch Agiz -- and seen the outcrops of the ridge above, whose pinnacles are worked into here and there into Hellenistic defenses.” When a visitor as well traveled as Freya Stark, perhaps the most formidable and erudite British travel writer of all time, describes a place as “exquisite” and remarks how lucky she has been to see it twice in a lifetime, you can guarantee that it must be somewhere very special indeed.
Stark was, of course, penning impressions of her second visit to Kekova, a sublimely beautiful and historically fascinating stretch of shore gracing Turkey's southwest Mediterranean coast, in the 1950s. So you might be forgiven for thinking, considering the amount of tourist development that has taken place over the last few decades in this region, that it must have changed for the worse since Stark's visits in idyllic, pre-tourism era Turkey. It hasn't. Kekova, a rocky, uninhabited island that lies like a great, calcified whale a short distance offshore, and the compact area it has given its name to -- which includes the pretty villages of Üçağız and Kale Köyü as well as the ancient ruins of Simena Castle and Lycian Teimussa -- is every bit as “exquisite” as it was in Stark's day.
Wild and beautiful
Kekova owes its preservation partly to the nature of the landscape which, while very beautiful, is at the same time vaguely wild, inhospitable even, dominated by rugged, water-starved swathes of weirdly eroded limestone, all sharp edges and peppered with prickly maquis scrub, leavened here and there by pockets of fertile land carefully worked by local villagers. And while the shallow waters might be some of the clearest and bluest you're likely to see anywhere, there are few beaches to excite the interest of hotels catering to the requirements of sea, sun and sand tourists. Perhaps more tellingly, though, Kekova owes its unspoiled environment to the fact that, since the 1990s, it has been designated a protected area by the state.
Nowhere is totally resistant to change, however, and both Üçağız (literally “Three Mouths,” a direct Turkish translation of its earlier, Greek name of Tristomo) and Kale Köyü have accommodation, in the form of simple pensions, for visitors. Of the two, Kale Köyü, which even today can only be reached on foot -- admittedly now only a short stroll across a shoulder beneath the castle from the end of an unsurfaced road from Üçağız -- or by boat, is the most like it must have been when it delighted Stark as she was plotting Alexander the Great's route through southwest Turkey for her 1958 travel classic “Alexander's Path.”
A village beneath a castle
Situated on a rocky promontory dominated by a medieval castle, the quaint stone houses of Kale Köyü (Turkish for Castle Village), a former Greek village, peep out from a profusion of trees and shrubs, including mulberry, palm, carob, olive, citrus and even banana. The views south are superb, across narrow, cobalt blue shallows to Kekova Island, the “Plain of Thyme.” There are just three pensions here, and a strip of seasonal restaurants right on the shore which serve the passing boat trade -- big business in season, as while Kale Köyü is pretty inaccessible by land it is a popular excursion for “Blue Voyage” gulets from Kaş to the west and Çayağızı (Demre) to the east -- as well as from nearby Üçağız.
A stay in Kale Köyü is a real getaway, with little to do bar explore the narrow cobbled lanes or relax on the wooden balcony of your pension, enjoy the silence and admire the views. Most visitors will at least explore the castle lowering above the village, a fairytale mass of crenellated walls laced around a bald hilltop. The views along one of the most beautiful stretches of coast in the Mediterranean are superb, and there's a small theater below the ramparts which is much earlier in date than the castle. Below, on a saddle to the east, are a scattering of free-standing Lycian sarcophagi, hollowed out pillars of stone surmounted by distinctive lids, which resemble the hull and keel of upturned boats. The sarcophagi are likely Hellenistic or Roman-era; the date of the castle itself is much less certain, with various guidebooks ascribing it to the Byzantines, the Crusader Knights of St. John and the Genoese.
More adventurous visitors can use Kale Köyü as a base or stop on the Lycian Way, a way-marked long-distance walking trail which runs right by the village and through Üçağız. It's a long, 22-kilometer haul west to Kaş, an undertaking probably best spread over two days. A shorter day-trip alternative is the eastward leg to Çayağız, near Demre, where a river disgorges into the sea and there's good bird-watching in the marshes behind, a superb Roman site, Andriake, currently under excavation by Antalya's Akdeniz University, and a sandy beach.
City of the dead
Üçağız has more dwellings and a few more pensions than Kale Köyü, as well as a handful of simple restaurants and even a bar, but is dominated by the harbor fronting the town, its wooden quays lined end-to-end with elegant gulets. The eastern end of the small settlement, just beyond the tidy Theimussa Pension, is home to a forest of Lycian sarcophagi, a city of the dead scattered picturesquely amongst curiously shaped, tricky to explore limestone outcrops. According to another 1950s visitor and writer, Lord Kinross, author of a much-admired biography of Atatürk, “Only the Lycian dead watched over Tristomon, their tombs silhouetted like sentry-boxes along the rocky shoreline.” Nicely put, as the necropolis is very striking when viewed from the water. Once you are amongst it, the views along the coast to Simena Castle and out to the humped ridge that is Kekova Island are quite stunning.
Nineteenth-century British traveler Charles Fellows, whose covetous eye fell on the rather grander Lycian tombs at Xanthos, some of which he removed wholesale and shipped back to London to display in the British Museum, was less than complimentary about this shore in his “Travels and Researches in Asia Minor,” writing, “The coast we had passed presented from the sea a barren appearance, and even the outline was monotonous in its grandeur.” I'd beg to differ, as would most who today voyage along this impressive coastline, but at least Fellows was impressed by the crystal clear waters for which the region is famous. “One peculiar feature in the voyage was the effect of the extremely clear water over the white marble rock, which here forms the bottom of the sea … the whole watery world was thickly inhabited by a great variety of shellfish; thus was I permitted, as it were, to visit this kingdom of the deep with its crystal atmosphere.”
Island of partridges
Fellows makes no mention, though, of the mysterious “sunken city,” ruins clearly visible beneath the surface just off Kekova Island's north shore, which forms the focal point of boat tours from Üçağız. The boats also take in Tersane, a ruined shipyard, as the Turkish name implies, and the remnants of a Byzantine church, at the back of a beach fronting a small bay on Kekova Island where tour boats anchor. According to Kinross, the island's Greek name of Kakava means not “Plain of Thyme” but “Island of the Partridges.” Kinross, who told of his adventures along Turkey's Mediterranean and Aegean coasts in “Europa Minor,” wrote that there was “no sign of life on Kakava Island” and that today the island remains uninhabited -- in part because of a lack of water and in part due to the preservation order slapped on the area by the state.
If you're after luxury, forget Üçağız and Kale Köyü as places to stay, and be content instead to visit by boat from Kaş or drive to Üçağız and sign up for a boat or, more adventurously, kayak tour. But for those who value peace and quiet, rustic charm and the chance to immerse themselves in some of the most strikingly beautiful scenery in Turkey, one of these laid-back villages may be just the ticket.
Üçağız, around 40 kilometers southeast of the resort of Kaş, is 20 kilometers off the main Kaş-to-Antalya coastal highway. There's one daily afternoon minibus from Antalya (Batı Antalya); a taxi from Kaş will set you back TL 70. Pension owners from Kale Köyü will collect you from Üçağız for free.
Where to stay
Üçağız -- Kekova Pansiyon: www.kekovapansiyon.com or Tel.: 0 (242) 874 22 59. Cheap, cheerful waterside pension.
Theimussa Pension: www.thiemussa.eu or Tel.: 0 (532) 272 64 07. The smartest place in the village, backing onto the Lycian necropolis.
Lykia Yolu Palas, Kapaklı Köyü: www.likyayolupalas.com or Tel.: 0 (242) 874 22 22. Lovely boutique hotel some 20 kilometers northeast of Üçağız.
Kale Köyü (Simena)
Kale Pansiyon: www.kalepansiyon.com or Tel.: 0 (242) 874 21 11. Closest pension to the water.
Mehtap Pansiyon: www.mehtappansiyon.com or Tel.: 0 (242) 874 21 46. Friendly place nestled beneath the castle.
Ankh Pansiyon: www.ankhpansion.com or Tel.: 0 (242) 874 21 71. Set back from the water with lovely views.
Open daily 9 a.m.-7 p.m.; entry TL 8