Hittite rock-reliefs, Greek theaters, Roman aqueducts, Byzantine churches, Seljuk caravanserais and Ottoman mosques -- amongst countless other remains -- litter the nation’s often beautiful landscape. Some of these sites, backed by campaigns and promotions launched by the publicity gurus in the Ministry of Tourism, have become iconic. They appear to sum up, in a series of startling photographic images, everything this fascinating country has to offer. The library of Celsus at Ephesus, Istanbul’s Blue Mosque, the Commagene heads atop Mt. Nemrut, the cliff-hanging monastery of Sumela and the palace of İshak Paşa above Doğubayazıt sites whose images lack the “in your face” grandeur and power of the “A” list but which nonetheless command your attention and intrigue you sufficiently to vow to get around to visiting them one day. Think, perhaps, of Antalya’s Yivli Minare, Amasya’s rock-cut tombs or Harran’s “beehive” houses. Top of this hypothetical “B” list for me, though, would have to be the offshore ruin of medieval Kızkalesi, or “The Maiden’s Castle.”
Situated on the Mediterranean coast between Mersin and Silifke, Kızkalesi possesses a rare beauty. Traveler and writer Michael Pereira was fortunate enough to have visited the castle back in the 1960s, when the rash of development now scarring the mainland opposite the castle was not even at the itching stage. Pereira, standing on the golden strand of beach opposite the castle describes it in glowing terms:
“Whether its setting is unique I do not know, but certainly it is superb. It seems to float upon the water like a ship, its smooth and rounded towers, menacing yet graceful, thrown into sharp relief against the brilliant sky and sea. Nothing breaks the outline, no crowding tree or dipping slope of a hill. It is a perfect silhouette of grey on blue. Isolated, inaccessible and remote as the legend which clings to it.”
Pereira, hot and bothered after his exertions exploring the ancient town of Korykos (which lies across the coast road behind the modern resort of Kizkalesi and can still be visited today) elected to swim the 250 meters or so to the castle. He found little of interest there, as the interior was just a mass of tumbled masonry and the once well-patrolled walls home only to noisy sea gulls. Today, of course, you don’t have to swim to the castle. The western end of the beach has several boats with captains quite happy to divest you of a few lira to make the crossing. Unlike Perieira, you’ll have the opportunity to take photos en route, and be well enough shod to explore inside the castle without fear of getting a thorn in your foot.
Despite the mess of concrete that has disfigured the town of Kızkalesi, it is still a great place for a vacation -- especially if you have kids. Most of the accommodation is in small, family run pensions with shady gardens and easy access to the wonderful beach -- easily the best on this stretch of the Mediterranean. The sand is fine, soft and shelves very gently into the limpid blue waters of the sea. As you lay back on a sun-lounger, reading your book under the shade of a beach umbrella, you can keep an eye on your offspring splashing safely in the shallows. And of course if they want to build a sandcastle using the very fine materials to hand, they have a perfect model to work from -- the ever-present Maiden’s Castle seemingly floating on the sea just a short way offshore. If they complete that one, just point down the beach to the so-called land castle -- another romantic ruin that was once joined to the sea castle by a causeway. It’s worth exploring this overgrown ruin, preferably around sunset, when it is cooler and the encroaching shadows lend an air of mystery. Many of the materials used in the castle are recycled -- purloined from the remnants of the ancient Roman/Byzantine city of Korykos -- including columns, capitals and other chunks of decorative masonry. The view from the battlements at this time of day is superb, with the distant walls, towers and parapets of Kızkalesi mirrored in the placid deep blue waters of the bay.
If you tire of castles and the beach, there is plenty to do around Kızkalesi. Just a few kilometers to the west is the charming seaside village of Narlıkuyu. Here the late Roman Kızlar Hamamı or Bath of Pompenius is worth a look, with a fine mosaic floor depicting the Three Graces, minor goddesses in the Greek pantheon of divinities personifying beauty, gentleness and friendship. There are a number of fish restaurants here with good reputations -- and they are certainly more atmospheric than the eateries in Kızkalesi. Far more likely to get your kids attention are the nearby Cennet ve Cehennem. After all, what kid could resist a trip to heaven and hell! Cennet (heaven) is a 70-meter-deep gorge formed by the collapse of an underground canyon, reached by a mighty flight of steps. Beyond the gorge is a genuine cave, that of Typhon who, according to Greek myth, was a fire breathing monster with a hundred heads and father of Cerberus, the fierce three-headed dog who guarded the entrance to the underworld. Handily enough, virtually next door to heaven is hell (cehennem). A 120-meter-deep sinkhole rather than a true cave, it is supposedly where Zeus imprisoned Titan and, according to local legend, marks one of the entrances to the underworld.
If the heat is not too unbearable there are a number of classical era ruins scattered in the hills behind Kızkalesi, and along the coast to the east. Adamkayalar is perhaps the most interesting. Here a terraced rock face is punctured by Roman era tombs with relief carvings of the dead -- but be warned -- the path up is steep and rock-face precipitous, so take care. Three kilometers along the coast is the modern village of Ayat, ancient Elaeusa Sebastae. The remains here date from the Roman and Byzantine periods. The pick of the monuments is a well-preserved temple, with a number of Corinthian columns still standing. Further on lie the remains of another ancient city -- Kanytelis or, in Turkish, Kanlıdivane (place of blood). The ruins here are grouped around a large chasm some 90 meters long, 70 meters wide and 60 meters deep. Locals believe it was used to execute criminals -- first by throwing them into the chasm and then by watching them be devoured by wild animals. It’s a good story for the kids even if it is only local lore.
Kızkalesi has a great beach, friendly family pensions, plenty of things of interest nearby -- and an iconic fairytale castle. What more could anyone ask for?
Your kids may be intrigued to learn the legend of Kızkalesi referred to by Pereira. It seems that a local king had a very beautiful and much loved daughter. Unfortunately, a soothsayer visiting the court one day foretold that this attractive girl would die tragically young -- after being bitten by a venomous snake. In an attempt to thwart destiny, the king ordered a castle to be built out to sea. Once the castle was completed the king sent his daughter off to live there -- protected from serpents by the natural barrier of the sea and castle’s ramparts. The girl passed her time quite happily until her 16th birthday. Unfortunately, as a gift the king decided to send his daughter a present -- a basket of figs. Excitedly the girl uncovered her treat -- only to reveal a deadly viper hidden amongst the delicious fruit. Destiny was not to be averted and the girl succumbed to its deadly bite. Locals claim the castle is still inhabited by venomous snakes -- descendents of the lethal viper -- so it may be better to tell your kids this tale after a trip to the ruins!
The real story
The real story of the twin castles is interesting enough. They were built in the 12th century when this region was part of the Cilician Kingdom of Armenia (set up by Armenians fleeing eastern Anatolia following the arrival of the Seljuk Turks in 1071) to protect the flourishing port and town of Korykos from seaborne invasion. During the 12th and 13th centuries this region was much affected by the passage of the Crusaders, traveling through en route to the Holy Land. In the 14th century the famous Crusader Lusignan dynasty assumed control of the Cilician Kingdom of Armenia (through marriage) and King Peter used the castle as a base against the Muslim Turks in Anatolia. In the end, though, Islam prevailed. In 1448 the castle fell to one İbrahim Bey and became an Ottoman possession not long after.
How to get there:
Nearest airport, Adana (regular flights from Ankara, Istanbul and Antalya). Frequent buses from Adana to Kızkalesi (2 hours).
Where to stay:
Yaka Hotel Tel: (324) 523 2444; www.yakahotel.com
Hantur Tel: (324) 523 2322; [email protected]
Where to eat:
Kızkalesi: Pata Restaurant
Narlıkuyu: Kerim Rerstaurant
Admission times and fees:
Kızkalesi (Maiden’s Castle): Daily, dawn to dusk 2 YTL
Korykos (land) Castle: Daily, dawn to dusk 2 YTL
Bath of Pompenius at Narlıkuyu: 2 YTL
Cennet ve Cehennem: 8 a.m.-5 p.m., 2 YTL
Kanlıdıvane: 8 a.m.-7 p.m., 2 YTL
Guides and books: “Blue Guide Turkey; Mountains and a Shore” by Michael Pereira