Bodrum, a harmony of ancient and modern at the crossroads of Europe and Asia
Russell Higham visits Bodrum to see whether the public apprehension to visit Turkey has been justified, and to look at what this particular resort has to offer the bargain-hunting traveller
TURKEY’S TOURIST industry is reeling as a result of terrorist attacks and recent political events. Bodrum, on the Aegean coast, has been a popular destination for over four decades, but visitor numbers are down over 40 per cent this year. That is bad news for the local economy, which is heavily dependent upon holidaymakers, although it does mean there are some keen deals to be had right now — up to 60 per cent off is not unheard of.
IT IS entirely possible to spend your holiday in Bodrum just luxuriating on the sandy beaches, indulging in the excellent local seafood and shopping in the local bazaars — many do. However, its unique position at the junction of Asia and Europe and its three thousand year history under the control of a long line of different civilisations means that there is a treasure trove of ancient history on the doorstep waiting to be explored.
I made first for The Mausoleum of Halicarnassus (Bodrum’s original moniker) which was once considered one of the Seven Wonders of the World. It now lends its name to the word used for all monumental tombs, having been built in the fourth century BC for Persian ruler Mausolus. Many of its statues were stolen in the 1800s and now reside in the British Museum, although replicas are on display outside Bodrum Castle — a building so important to Christianity that, when work started in AD 1402, the Pope ‘guaranteed’ a place in heaven to anybody from the Vatican who helped build it. Nowadays, it houses an Underwater Archaeology Museum featuring the world’s oldest shipwreck. Nearby, a Roman amphitheatre from 400 BC is still used to perform shows and concerts.
An hour’s drive away is the 2,500-year-old Greco-Roman city of Stratonikeia. Here, unlike western European archaeological sites where everything is kept out of reach behind glass or barriers, you can walk amongst the ruins and physically feel the connection with ancient history. This lack of protection does mean that some of the ancient columns and monuments have fallen victim over the years to teenagers carving their names in them for posterity. I was hoping to discover an affirmation of Godly love amongst these ancient artefacts — ‘Aphoridite loves Zeus’ or something similar, but all I could find were banal declarations of loyalty to the local football team! There is still a handful of families living on and around the site, and it is incredible to see how they have got away with ‘borrowing’ some of the ancient stones from this multi-millennia-old city to repair their own crumbling farm cottages. Entry is free to this fascinating place and there are numerous coach excursions to it on offer in Bodrum from 25TL (around £7).
After absorbing so much culture and history, I was ready to cool off in one of the many pools at my hotel, La Blanche Resort & Spa in Turgutreis, twenty minutes from the centre of Bodrum. I make sure, though, that I am back at the bar overlooking the hotel’s own private beach (one of several in this hotel; the main one offers twenty-four hour service) in time to catch the sun setting the sky on fire in rich shades of red and orange as it slips behind neighbouring ‘Rabbit Island’.
After a dinner of Greek-style meze and golden sea bream in one of the hotel’s many restaurants, it is time to head into town to sample the famous nightlife. Bodrum’s relaxed pace and easy-going air put me in mind of the South of France, minus the astronomical prices and peak-season congestion. Well dressed, affluent-looking locals and chic tourists drink beer and sip cocktails at a street café opposite a Maserati showroom in the marina. Cosmopolitan couples stroll amongst the bazaars until the hourly hours, stopping to haggle with the vendors of fake designer handbags, cheap handmade jewellery and locally produced Turkish Delight stacked high in an eye-popping range of different colours and flavours. Turkey’s population is 90 per cent Muslim, but it is a secular country with a relaxed and tolerant attitude. My two companions, blonde girls in typical holiday attire of shorts and vest-tops, draw no unwanted attention other than the approving smile of an aged local Lothario sipping his Turkish coffee at a nearby table. There is a wide range of watering holes and entertainment on offer, from simple seafront tavernas whose rickety wooden tables and chairs spill on to the beach, right up to the internationally famous ‘Halikarnas’, which claims to be the largest open-air nightclub in Europe. I party until the early hours, fuelled by the aniseed-flavoured Raki served in frighteningly generous measures.
Next morning, it is time to shrug off the hangover and find my sea legs as I climb aboard the ‘Afroditi’, a 33-metre long gulet, one of the beautiful handmade wooden boats which are traditionally built in Bodrum. Tourism has replaced sponge diving as the town’s prime source of revenue, but a boat-building industry still flourishes, aided by the Bodrum Cup, an international regatta held in late October each year. The vessel’s owner, Barbaros, explains to me over lunch on deck how the whole craft can be hired by the day for a private charter or, if you do not mind sharing the boat with up to fourteen other passengers, a luxury cabin can be had from €300/week, including meals. Alternatively, you could just enjoy, as I did, a very pleasant few hours cruising around the region’s bays and islands stopping occasionally to dive and swim in the warm Aegean waters, then learning to belly-dance under the tutelage of the chef (who also does a mean home-made chocolate cake!).
The following day, I opt for a different mode of transport to continue my survey of the surrounding area: one of the open-top Land Rovers belonging to adventure safari company Difference Outdoor. We bump up and down the mountain tracks through forests inhabited by wild boar, finally stopping for refreshment in an almost prehistoric-looking hamlet where artisanal carpet-makers demonstrate how their daughters have, for years, signified their availability to potential suitors by the way they finish off the fringes of the rugs they produce. After wolfing down a quick mint tea and a piece of baklava, it is time to clamber back on the 4×4 and head back to town for a reviving stop at Queen Hammam, where I am soaped, pummelled and ruthlessly scrubbed before finally flaking out in the Arabesque surroundings of this authentic Turkish spa and sauna. Indulgent treatments and restorative massages are also available (from €25), but I must pass these up to return and pack for my reluctant return home.
The airport, served by Turkish Airlines, Easyjet and other low-cost carriers, is a forty-minute drive along the coast, affording views of rugged mountains sweeping down into villages of white cubed cottages draped in bougainvillea, with their window frames painted ‘Bodrum blue’. I am reassured by the professional attitude to flight safety taken by the Turkish authorities. At both Bodrum and Istanbul (where I transited on the way over), departing passengers are scanned once as they enter the terminal building and then again at the departure gate. The security areas are well staffed and efficiently managed, though, so I am not kept waiting long. As my plane ascends and I look down at the pleasing scene below, I am left with an impression of Bodrum as being safe, welcoming, modern and laid-back. It is just that little bit further away to be different from the usual European tourist destinations, but less than four hours’ direct flight from London. Its highly accessible ancient history and culture is a draw for older or single travellers like me, but it also serves as a first-class, all-round family holiday destination, offering a perfect climate and exceptionally good value for money, especially whilst prices are this low.
DO: Go on-line to obtain a Turkish eVisa ($20) before flying out. It will save a lot of time at the airport queuing for immigration on arrival… Have dinner at sunset to the sound of water lapping against the shore at one of the picture-postcard waterside restaurants of Gumusluk, a quiet bay just outside town
WATCH OUT FOR: Most restaurant staff speak good basic English, but detailed questions about ingredients are sometimes met with blank stares, so hit Google Translate before you fly and note down the Turkish for any food allergies or dietary requirements on a piece of paper that you can show to waiters
DISCLAIMER: The author travelled as a guest of the Turkish Culture and Tourism Office
Images | September 2016 | © Russell Higham
Russell Higham is a freelance journalist based in Brighton, England, who has also lived in the Middle East, North Africa and Southeast Asia. He writes for a variety of international publications on topics ranging from travel, culture and lifestyle to current affairs, international politics and conflict. (@rkhigham)