For thirty centuries, there has been only one way to see Turkey’s Lycian shore. In the old days, the rough tracks through the mountains made land travel too difficult. These days the new highways have made it too easy, as you whirl past the most interesting villages, the most picturesque bays, the most haunting ruins. To see this coast in comfort, to understand it, to savour it, to enjoy its beauty, you need to come and go as everyone from Hadrian to Freya Stark has done: by boat.

A traditional Turkish gulet, photo courtesy of Marmara Tours

And there are local boats built specially for the job: the traditional wooden Turkish gulets – two-masted, shallow-keeled, wide-beamed – which have been plying these waters since long before Lord Byron dipped a toe in the Hellespont. Still hand-built in Bodrum and Marmaris to designs committed only to the memory of the master boat-builders, they are as central to this coast as clippers to the tea trade or canoes to the Canadian Shield. Of course they have moved upmarket a bit since Byron’s day. Once built as fishing caiques or cargo vessels, they’re now fitted out in a high style, with teak decks and luxurious state rooms, with chefs, watersport toys, and bubbling Jacuzzis.

For me, the voyage along the coast was an historical expedition in a Mediterranean world where Lycian tombs, Roman ruins, Byzantine churches and Crusader castles lay round every headland. For my six-year-old companion, it was a pirate adventure of undiscovered coves and mysterious islands – and she was the Pirate Queen. It is a tribute to the charm of the Lycian coast that it could accommodation both our interests.

Lycian rock tombs in Fethiye
The harbour in Fethiye

Setting sail from Fethiye, we headed south and east. Our days were divided between sail and anchor. Underway, with the westerly winds over our shoulders, riding the long swell of the open Aegean, we watched the Taurus Mountains drift past. Anchored in sheltered coves, as the sound of cicadas enveloped the boat and the aromas of lavender and mint wafted across the decks, we swam among shoals of silver fish. Lunch came with endless mezes and chilled wine. Afternoon tea arrived with freshly baked cakes. Late afternoons usually involved an excursion to a ancient Roman theatre or a sunken city. We swam, we snorkelled, we kayaked; we spent a lot of time doing absolutely nothing. Time slipped by in a haze of sea and sun and slumber.

The Lycian shore has an austere beauty, not pretty, but wild and spectacular. The coastal slopes are Mediterranean pine and macchia scrub, rock and goats, rough textures framing bays and coves where simple stone villages are moored and where the gulets find their anchorages. Everywhere the coast is backed by mountains as the colossal ranges of the Taurus push down towards the sea. Here and there are holiday developments and ranks of new villas, but the real surprise of this coast is how much of it remains wild and untouched.

Turkish gulet anchored beside coastal slopes, photo courtesy of Art Tours

It is an heroic shore, full of glamorous associations. Gods chased lovers and enemies up and down this coast, while pirates and conquerors, explorers and rulers came and went with the regularity of commuters. Caught between continents, Lycia looked both east and west. On the famous Lycian tombs are dancing Greek figures and the great symbolic motif of the Orient: the lion and bull locked in combat.

The names of many of the cities may be unfamiliar – few of us may have heard of Aperlai or Telmessos or Patara – but we have grown up with their characters. Xerxes hurried along this coast on his way to Thermopylae. Alexander dined here by moonlight, dreaming of conquest. Brutus arrived to ensure the loyalty of this corner of the empire. Hadrian toured the coast with his wife in those happy days when they were still speaking. Nero, in a rare moment of lucidity, ordered a lighthouse built at Patara. Hannibal led fleets from Pergamon against the Romans. St. Paul stopped in wayside inns to dash off his endless letters. Saint Nicholas was born on this coast, as was Herodotus, while the Virgin Mary died here in the great city of Ephesus.

Butterfly Valley

At Butterfly Valley, we swam ashore to explore the deep canyon that is home to the endemic Jersey Tiger butterfly. At Belcegiz we hailed a taxi to the evocative ruins of Kaya Koyu, a village abandoned by Greeks in the great population exchanges of the early 1920s, a story that forms the basis of Louis de Bernieres’ Birds Without Wings. The departing villagers took away the exhumed skulls of their ancestors; in the charnel house you can still the clutter of remaining bones. At the ancient port of Patara a friendly dog (apparently the only remaining citizen) led us from Nero’s lighthouse, via a Main Street lined with classical columns, to the stone terraces of the theatre and the old parliament.

Simena sunken city, Kekova
Stone sarcophaguses in Kekova

Our favourite anchorage was the gulf of Kekova. Sheltered by a long island, this roadstead has been a popular anchorage since long before a young Julius Caesar chased pirates on this coast. On the island were the ruins of houses and granaries – a Roman settlement built on an earlier Lycian town – and the collapsed vault of a Byzantine church. We gazed down through the water at the old bones of the sunken city – stairs and patterned pavements and ancient walls among dancing reflections. A long quay appeared, barnacled with seaweed, where the ships of the Xerxes, of Alexander and of Brutus had once moored.

On the mainland opposite we went ashore at the village of Kale. Climbing steep lanes barely wide enough for two donkeys to pass, we met an elderly gentleman shepherding his goats into a pen and a woman in wide harem pantaloons who presented us with sprigs of oregano. At the top we arrived at a Crusader Castle, much to the delight of the Pirate Queen.

Commanding the whole bay, the castle had been handed down like an heirloom from one civilisation to the next. The lower courses of cut stone were Roman, possibly older. The Knights of St. John, on their way to rescue the Holy Land, were responsible for the upper battlements, where a rusty Ottoman cannon peers out over the bay. Set into the hillside was a small theatre, where the Pirate Queen and I danced a reel to the bemusement of a couple of passing shepherds.

Photo by mpjones_007 via Flickr

Below the castle, the slopes were littered with Lycian tombs, as if the place were besieged by the dead. The Lycians used to bring food to these tombs for their deceased ancestors. Round the base of each was a bench where they could sit overlooking the water, contemplating mortality, life and coastal currents. We joined these ghosts among the tinkling bells of browsing goats. Beneath us, afloat on her own reflection in the oyster-coloured bay, our gulet lay at anchor. With sunset our tender came and collected us from a rickety pier.

Turkish gulet anchored at sunset, photo courtesy of Sea Song

After dinner I sat out on deck, beneath the dark silhouette of the castle, the Pirate Queen asleep in my arms. The sky was awash with stars and the dark bay full of tremulous reflections. Then a fat moon rose over the shoulders of the Taurus Mountains and polished the bay with silver.

It was the second sweetest moment of the voyage. The sweetest moment came every morning when I woke before anyone was up and dropped cleanly from the deck of the gulet into the blue Aegean. I could hardly wait for tomorrow.

untitledStanley Stewart is the author of three highly acclaimed travel books and several-hundred articles based on journeys across five continents, for which he has won numerous journalism awards. He is a contributing editor of Condé Nast Traveller and his work appears regularly in the Sunday Times. He has also contributed to the Daily Telegraph, the Guardian, the Independent and the Times. He writes for the National Geographic Traveler in the US, the Sunday Times in South Africa and the Australian.