The Mediterranean coastal road between Alanya and Mersin is long, winding and takes such a toll on the stomachs of those prone to motion sickness that the conductors on the buses routinely come round with pills and plastic bags for those looking green around the gills.
That being the case, the best way to cope is to break the journey along the way. One possible place to do that is Kızkalesi. Another is the small beach resort of anamur, midway between Alanya and Silifke, a place that is much better-known to Turkish tourists than foreign ones.
That anonymity is in part due to Anamur’s confusing layout. Buses plying the coastal road run through the outskirts of the town itself without offering passengers the slightest glimpse of the resort that is tucked away in the iskele suburb. To find it you need to hop off the bus as soon as you spot a colorful statue of a woman holding up a bunch of bananas, then look for a local bus running down to the beach.
This, when you reach it, may not seem very inspiring, especially in comparison with the wide swathe of sand at Kızkalesi further to the east. However, there are a handful of hotels here that make the perfect base for exploring an area rich in reminders of the past. On a tight budget, you’ll be relieved to find the restaurants catering to Turkish families, with pleasingly low prices if not much in the way of choice or excitement. The hotels are, for the most part, pretty ordinary, although the new İkonyum, some way out of the center, suggests that things may be starting to look up. Certainly, it wouldn’t take much investment to liven up the older places overlooking the harbor.
Anamur itself is of little interest to visitors, but venture into the countryside around it and you will be greeted by the sight of thousands upon thousands of banana trees covering every inch of spare ground; more of the plants hide away inside the many greenhouses. This is Turkey’s premier banana-growing territory with the small, sweet fruits much prized around the country.
Most important of the sites around Anamur is that of ancient Anemurium, which lies 8 kilometers west of town and a short walk south of the main highway. This is one of those sites that will have even the most jaded of visitors reaching for the superlatives. Right on the shore at Cape Anemurium -- Turkey’s most southerly point -- and backed by soaring mountains, Anemurium could hardly have a more beautiful setting. However, it’s not so much the natural beauty of the site as the sheer size of the ruins that is likely to strike most people. So much survives here that you can even go upstairs in an antique bathhouse, a rare treat. Blink and you could almost imagine that the locals have been temporarily relocated after some disaster and will have returned to reoccupy their properties by the time you open your eyes again.
Although Anemurium is believed to have been founded by Phoenician colonists and then developed by the Romans, many of the ruins that survive today date back to the Byzantine period, when there was a rich and flourishing city here. The puzzle is to understand what became of it. Given Turkey’s history of horrific seismic catastrophes, the most obvious answer would be that it was never able to recover from a devastating earthquake that struck in around 580. However, some archeologists believe that it was the frequent Arab raids of the seventh century that did it for Anemurium. Parts of the site were re-inhabited during the years when it formed part of the kingdom of Lesser Armenia but, by the 14th century, permanent silence had fallen.
Today, you approach the site via a sprawling necropolis of huge tombs every bit as impressive as those at Hierapolis (Pamukkale). Once past them, you come to the remains of huge civic buildings: bathhouses, a theater, an odeon, a palaestra and an aqueduct. Particularly impressive are the city walls, which stride up the mountainside to the acropolis from the seashore.
Allow plenty of time to explore the ruins; an hour is barely long enough to work your way round the main buildings without inspecting the necropolis. Since this contains more than 300 tombs, some of them two stories high, it’s well worth taking a good look round, especially if you can find anyone to unlock the gates of those decorated with frescoes for you.
Anamur also makes the perfect base for visiting the spectacular remains of Mamure Kalesi (Mamure castle, aka Yılanlı Kalesi or the Castle of Snakes) on the beach at Bozdoğan, immediately to the east. Although the site was probably fortified as early as the third century B.C., the magnificent structure you see today, with its 36 sturdy towers and moat, was built by the rulers of the Armenian kingdom of Cilicia in the 12th century and closely resembles the great Crusader castles of the Middle East.
For those who’ve visited the castle at Kızkalesi and been disappointed to hand over the admission fee and then find not so much as a path cleared through the fallen rubble, Mamure will come as a delightful surprise. This is a castle that has been beautifully restored and made accessible to visitors, who will find the interior divided into an inner and outer courtyard. In the middle of the outer courtyard stands a delightful small mosque originally built between 1300 and 1308 during the reign of the Karamanoğlu ruler, Mehmud Bey, and rebuilt in the 16th century after the fort was seized by Lala Mustafa Paşa during the reign of Sultan Selim II.
If you wonder why Mamure is in such an astonishingly good state of repair, the answer lies in more recent history. The castle was refortified by the Ottomans in 1878 after the British occupied nearby Cyprus, then strengthened once again as a precaution during World War I.
The small pensions across the road from the castle make possible alternatives to Anamur (İskele) if you’d prefer to stay somewhere smaller and homier.
This part of the Mediterranean coast is particularly well endowed with castles, and if you hop on a dolmuş continuing east, it will bring you to Bozyazı, whose eastern outskirts are dominated by the ruins of the enormous Softa Kalesi (Castle of the Fanatics), ringing a hill on the inland side of the road. Little is known about the castle, although its history seems to have paralleled that of Mamure, with a Byzantine castle built on the site of a much older fortification which was then rebuilt by the Armenians and strengthened by the Ottomans. Although there is a path up to Softa, it’s for the agile and energetic only.
Before returning to Anamur, you might want to pause briefly in Bozyazı, where dolmuşes pass by the pretty little harbor area, allowing for a brief break of journey to explore. There are a couple of large hotels here as well as an inviting smaller one down on the beach near the harbor.
How to get there
All the buses plying the coastal road from Antalya and Alanya to Mersin and Adana pass through Anamur, while local buses connect Anamur with Bozdoğan and Bozyazı. Frequent local buses connect the Anamur town center with the beach at İskele. If you don’t want to walk the 2.5 kilometers down from the main road to the ruins at Anemurium, you’ll need to hire a taxi in Anamur itself or in İskele.
Where to stay
Bozyazı. Tel: 0324-851 2051
Grand Hotel Hermes
İskele. Tel: 0324-814 3950
İskele. Tel: 0324-248 2719
İskele. Tel: 0324-814 2316
Onur Motel Restaurant
Bozdoğan. Tel: 0324-827 1352