Out on a limb -- exploring the Datça Peninsula

(Photo: Terry Richardson, Commercial harbour, Knidos)

June 13, 2013, Thursday/ 14:03:00

My friend Steve's mobile bleeped twice. “That's strange,” he exclaimed, checking the incoming message with interest, “I've just been welcomed to Greece! ... by Vodafone.”

Visiting Turkey to escape the climatic vagaries of an early English summer, he was clearly surprised to find himself subject to greetings from a Greek mobile phone network. Later that day, listening to his radio from the comfort of a sun-lounger on a remote beach, he called out, “And now I'm listening to Rhodos FM!”

Greek connections

Yet once he finally got around to looking closely at a map of the area we were visiting, the sublimely beautiful Datça Peninsula west of the popular resort of Marmaris, Steve's sense of surprise quickly evaporated. The Greek island of Rhodes lay just 50 kilometers or so away to the southeast and was actually much closer to the Turkish mainland proper than our base in the tiny resort village of Palamutbükü, located towards the tip of the rocky finger of land commonly held to separate the Aegean and Mediterranean seas.

Indeed, when the haze lifted the next day, our pension owner pointed the island out to us. Some 20 kilometers away in the same direction as Rhodes was the smaller Greek island of Symi, and around the same distance away to the southwest lay Tilos. Out of sight from our south-facing seafront base was the tiny island of Nisyros, a mere 10 kilometers or so from the point of the peninsula, whilst not much further away, off its northern shores, lay the larger and much better known island of Kos.

Given this geography, it's hardly surprising that my friend's mobile phone and radio picked up signals from Turkey's Aegean neighbor. Nor, of course, are those the only links between the two countries. The aged but neat, flat-roofed stone houses we'd passed as we wound our way west along the peninsula, more properly known in Turkish as the Reşadiye Peninsula, were evidence of a Greek population resident here until the traumatic population exchange of 1924. And virtually on the end of the peninsula are the remarkably picturesque ruins of a much older Greek settlement, Knidos, which dates back to the seventh century B.C.

Almost an island

Peninsulas, like the islands they are so closely related to topographically (the English word is of Latin origin and means “almost an island”; the Turkish for peninsula is yarımada, literally “half-island”), are always exciting to explore -- not least because they nearly always take that extra bit of effort to get to. The Datça Peninsula is no exception, as this narrow sliver of land, a mere 800 meters wide at its narrowest point, is over 80 kilometers long and the drive to ancient Knidos from the gateway resort of Marmaris takes almost two hours.

Despite its slenderness, one peak standing astride this limestone ribbon of seagirt land rises to over a thousand meters. Throw in some dramatic plunging valleys, pockets of fertile land given over to the cultivation of olives and almonds, weirdly sculpted rock outcrops, secluded coves, ruined old windmills, the charming harbor town of Datça itself, a handful of low-key resort-villages and a satisfying feeling of isolation and it's easy to see why this spectacular peninsula is well worth the effort of exploring.

Datça town and Palamutbükü village

For those who want the familiar trappings of a resort, the best place to base yourself on the peninsula is its major settlement, Datça. This fast-growing town of some 10,000 souls is set around an attractive harbor filled with yachts and boats offering day trips along the coast. There's refreshingly little to do here apart from signing up for one of said boat trips (the most popular of which takes in ancient Knidos), though the town has three reasonable beaches, plenty of cafes and restaurants and the quaint old village of Eski Datça, a couple of kilometers inland, to wander around. For the moment, at least, Datça remains relatively unspoiled, certainly in comparison to its nearest rival, bustling Marmaris.

Having just driven up from the riverside delights of the busy resort of Dalyan, however, we were looking for somewhere even quieter, and continued westward along the spine of the peninsula to Palamutbükü. Although it has developed over the last few years, and what was not so long ago a handful of beach-front pensions is now an armful of more than 15 establishments, Palamutbükü has retained its charm.

My wife was captivated; Steve's “It'll do” was high praise indeed from a skeptical northerner. Most of the homely looking pensions here, draped like a ribbon along an empty shingle beach more than a kilometer in length, are set in gardens luxuriant with roses, bougainvillea, mulberries, olive, pomegranate and other trees and shrubs. The majority (including the one we chose, the excellent Bük Pansiyon Tel:0252 725 5136; www.bukpansiyon.com) have appropriated a strip of beach right out front, with free umbrellas and loungers for guests, and most run their own simple restaurants with tables laid out just a few meters from the water.

A tranquil, good-value break

In early June, Palamutbükü was gearing up for the main season, which begins when the schools break for the summer, and İstanbulites and other big-city dwellers make their way down and out to this quiet backwater for some much needed rest and relaxation. One of the many positives of this charming place appealing (for the moment at least) mainly to Turks is that accommodation prices are a fair bit lower than in resorts favored by foreigners -- and food and service quality are generally very high.

Palamutbükü makes the quiet town of Datça look like a teeming metropolis, so if you want to do anything other than grab a sun-lounger, swim, read or eat in one of the beach-front cafes -- or attempt to do any of these things whilst keeping a careful eye out as your kids gambol in the shallows -- it may not be for you. But with virtually no traffic, a sprinkling of shops amongst the pensions behind the beach for ice creams, plenty of shingle to go at and clear, turquoise waters merging with a horizon broken only by the shark-fin-like silhouettes of passing yachts or the bulkier form of the ferry linking the Greek islands, it's just perfect for anyone looking for a tranquil, good-value break.

Saving the best till last: ancient Knidos

Guidebooks tend to undersell the site of ancient Knidos (open daily 8:30 a.m. to 7 p.m.; TL 8), superbly situated at the end of the peninsula. The “Bodrum to Marmaris” volume of Sunflower's “Turkish Coast” series says, “The ruins themselves are unspectacular.” “The Rough Guide to Turkey” writes, “The catch is that very little remains of its former greatness.” The Lonely Planet guide completes these reviews with a perfunctory “what remains of Knidos ... lies scattered along 3 kilometers at the end of the Datça Peninsula.”

Despite the guidebooks' less-than-overwhelming endorsement of Knidos, however, there is plenty to be seen here -- though admittedly we'd timed our visit for early evening in order to catch the light at its best, when, with the sun sinking slowly over the Aegean, what remains of this once great Greek city is thrown into vivid relief. The majority of the ruins is on a south-facing rocky spur overlooking two ancient harbors, one on either side of the peninsula and separated from each other by a less than 100-meter-wide isthmus. West of the double harbors rises a spectacular cape, Tekir Burnu, capped by a modern lighthouse. To the northwest, across a searingly blue Aegean Sea, looms the island of Kos.

Churches, temples, ravens and a lion

Exploration of the site is easy, with a signed path leading around the major buildings from the well-preserved Hellenistic theater up to the temples on the slope of the hillside above. Most striking of the temples is that of Athena, easily distinguished by its circular “tholos” design. There are also the remains of three Byzantine-era churches, clearly marked by their semi-circular, east-facing apses -- in one fragments of black and white mosaic flooring have survived. The almost circular harbor on the northern side of the isthmus is still used by a few small fishing boats, though originally this was for warships, and the wall narrowing and guarding its entrance is still in good condition. The southern harbor, far larger but more open to the sea, was ancient Knidos' commercial harbor. In a sense, it still performs this function today as it is used by private yachts and tour boats bringing visitors to the site.

We spent a good couple of hours at Knidos, our meanderings accompanied at different times by a pair of cawing ravens, a cormorant, a pair of black redstarts and a scops owl, but we could have stayed much longer. The water is incredibly clear and the swimming extremely tempting -- especially if you bring a mask and snorkel with you. There's also a decent cafe-restaurant on site, strategically located on the isthmus between the two harbors, and a museum shop. A bold sign near the car park, adorned with the words “Karia Yolu,” announces that the peninsula is traversed by a new and exciting long-distance walk, the Carian Trail (www.cultureroutesinturkey.com) due to open this autumn, which will give the adventurous the opportunity to reach this dramatic spot on foot.

In the mid-19th century, Briton Charles Newton arrived at Knidos on the HMS Gorgon in search of antiquities. His star find was made on Tekir Burnu: a nine-ton stone lion once the lid of a sarcophagus. Don't bother looking for it, though, as it is now housed in the British Museum in London. Wandering across the site today, despite the efforts (some would say pillaging) of Newton and the excavations undertaken by later archaeologists, it's clear that there is still much digging to be done at Knidos, a fact that only adds to the thrill of a visit here.

As we got back into the car for the return journey to Palamutbükü, Steve, not given to hyperbole, remarked, “Well, that was spectacular.” On Knidos, trust him, not the guidebooks.

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