A Mythical Playground in the Mediterranean
By Tony Perrottet
As I lolled on the deck of the Amazon Solo, enjoying the opalescent waters
of the eastern Mediterranean, I could see why even the crustiest of
ancient mariners would wax poetic here. In these surroundings
callous-palmed oarsmen had imagined Aphrodite as a ravishing young woman
surrounded by singing water nymphs and muscular mermen blowing on conch
shells. Who could blame the sailors for adopting as their patron deity the
winsome Greek goddess of love?
And what power over those mortals Aphrodite had! Hard-bitten captains
maintained small altars to her and made sacrifices at seaside temples. The
most famous shrine was in Cnidus, gateway to the stunning cliff-lined
kingdom of Lycia, known today as Turkey's Turquoise Coast.
Conveniently for sailors, Aphrodite was frequently worshiped with
Dionysus, the ecstatic god of wine (and thus the promoter of love) who was
depicted reclining on sailboats whose masts were entwined with vine
In this sensuous seascape, myth and reality often blurred: When Queen
Cleopatra sailed from Egypt in 41 b.c., intent on seducing Mark Anthony,
she presented herself as the "New Aphrodite." Her royal barge sparkled
with precious metals, and silver-plated oars kept time to the music of
flutes. Cleopatra reposed beneath a canopy of woven gold, fanned by plump
young Cupids, while lovely nymphs worked the rigging. Mark Anthony never
stood a chance. When they became lovers, the New Aphrodite sailed again,
this time accompanied by her New Dionysus, who had taken to wearing vine
leaves in his hair.
Alas, Anthony and Cleopatra were doomed, and Aphrodite's temple at Cnidus
has long been destroyed. Meanwhile, the Turquoise Coast has weathered some
of the great battles between Europe and Asia, Christianity and Islam, West
and East. The kingdom of Lycia, purged of almost all Hellenic influence,
is now part of Turkey, remembered largely because of the haunting rock
tombs carved in sheer cliffs.
But myth and romance continue to reign here. In the early 1960s a quartet
of Turkish bohemians sailed along this forgotten coast in a rustic fishing
boat. Navigating from cove to isolated cove, they discovered that the
ancient Greek passion for beauty represented by Aphrodite had become part
of the very fabric of the Turquoise Coast: The goddess's soothing touch
could still be felt in its warm, clear waters -- while the liberating call
of Dionysus echoed from every lonely beach. The waterborne bohemians, led
by a writer who called himself the Fisherman of Halicarnassus, dubbed
their idyllic sailing trip "the Blue Voyage," and a new legend was born.
Today the ancient kingdom of Lycia is the Med's ultimate sailing
destination, the ne plus ultra of escapes from everyday cares into an
aquatic Eden. I signed up for my own week-long Blue Voyage, which would
take me into Turkish waters dotted with deserted islands, Byzantine
saints, and sunken cities. The plan was to explore the playground of
Aphrodite and Dionysus. Where else could a modern pagan gnaw on fresh
figs, plunge from the deck of a yacht, and glimpse the ancient dream?
I quickly discovered that today's Turkish sailors are no less hedonistic
than their ancient predecessors. The M/S Amazon Solo had barely eased its
way out of G�cek's marina, when Serhan, the boat's amiable owner, raised
his glass of milky, anise-flavored raki and made a ritual toast:
"For a safe journey: Pruvan neta olsun! May the ship's prow stay clear."
"Pruvan neta olsun!" chimed in young Captain Mustafa, knocking back his
glass and taking the ship's wheel. They both nodded toward a curious
bauble hanging above their heads -- concentric blue rings around a tiny
yellow-and-black ball, a venerable Mediterranean charm against the Evil
Eye -- and predicted perfect skies for the week to come.
"I don't believe in the Evil Eye," Serhan confided, rapping his knuckles
on the wheel. "I prefer to touch wood."
His was a most convenient superstition to have on the Amazon Solo, a
stunning 107-foot Black Sea schooner. The hull was made of chestnut, the
deck of African iroko, and the interiors crafted from cedar and Indian
walnut. In fact, the Amazon Solo -- named for the race of warrior-women
that legend had placed in Turkey -- was the closest thing I had ever seen
to Cleopatra's luxury barge.
Scarlet Turkish carpets warmed the state rooms; up on deck, white canvas
lounge chairs were positioned to catch the sun's rays. And, of course,
there was a canopied dining table in the stern -- although it was hung
with blue sailcloth, not spun gold.
Our first view of the coast was unexpectedly dramatic: The Twelve Islands
in the Gulf of Fethiye were looming through the heat mist. Jagged
silhouettes rose from a sea of glistening silver; sheer ocher cliffs
plunged into the waves, where dolphins were frolicking. It was a
theatrical setting fit for mythic events: Daedalus and his son Icarus had
launched their flight on wings of wax and feathers from these pine-covered
mountains. And the legendary meeting between Anthony and Cleopatra had a
modern echo: Prince Charles and Lady Diana are said to have had a secret
rendezvous in these isles once, arriving in separate yachts in a vain
attempt to rekindle passion's flames.
Our Blue Voyage was taking place in mid-October, at the end of the sailing
season, when Turkish yacht owners like Serhan traditionally invite a group
of friends for one last sail. Hence the cross-cultural mix of passengers:
three Brits, a Turkish restaurateur, me (the lone New Yorker), and a
gaggle of retired Italians. It sounded as though there were 50 Italians --
especially when they all bellowed into their cell phones at once. But I
counted only eight.
An amazing bunch, the Italians, whose habits proceeded to set the
laid-back tone for the cruise. They'd already caused us to depart four
hours late by spending the whole morning in port looking for fresh basil
to make pesto. Their leader was a frail, urbane, white-haired bachelor
named Giorgio, who behaved like Louis XIV with his court, at least with
regard to the five Gucci-clad women in the group. Doctors in Rome had
insisted that Giorgio not smoke or drink coffee or wine. He spent every
moment of the day smoking and drinking coffee and wine, all solicitously
supplied by his bevy of elegant beauties.
Giorgio quickly proclaimed himself my tutor on Dionysian principles.
"It is important to travel with a private harem," he instructed, as one of
his admirers put on a tape of his favorite opera -- Italian, of course.
Next morning at daybreak, I slipped over the side of the Amazon Solo and
swam a few strokes to Gemiler island, pulling myself up onto a stone
landing that had been placed there centuries ago. Branches of
Mediterranean pines dipped to the water; a forest trail led up from the
shore, past the Byzantine apses and columns of a ruined church whose
hollows swarmed with bees.
Gemiler was also known as St. Nicholas island, in honor of the popular
fourth-century bishop who became Noel Baba to the Turks, Father Christmas
to Westerners. Saint Nick was renowned for his generosity: He once visited
three virgins whose father had been left penniless and threw purses of
gold into their house for the girls' dowries. In the centuries after his
death, Saint Nicholas became an international celebrity. (His grave was
one of the holiest outposts of medieval Christendom, and he even came to
displace Aphrodite as patron saint of sailors.) Eventually his cult
extended to the wintry climes of Russia and Germany, where Protestants
converted him into the jolly Santa Claus who delivers Christmas presents
Christmas snows were a long way from Gemiler that bright autumn morning.
Ancient steps led me steeply upward, past a covered tunnel -- a long
passageway that ended at the island summit, where the remains of a church
still commanded a view of the surrounding water. In Byzantine times the
air would have been thick with incense, but since nature has reclaimed the
breezes, every breath was rich with other scents.
"Take a blind man...to Lycia," wrote the Fisherman of Halicarnassus, "and
he'll immediately know from the smell of the air exactly where he is.
The acrid perfume of lavender, the pungent fragrance of wild mint and
thyme, will tell him." Not to mention jasmine, honeysuckle, myrtle, and
Back at the boat, the scent of fresh espresso assailed me. Giorgio's harem
had laid out a morning repast worthy of any Italian pasticceria, to the
accompaniment of Puccini's "Nessun Dorma."
"What did you see on the island?"
He listened indulgently to my account before turning to more serious
"Interesting. But Antonio, today we have squid ink pasta for lunch." By
now I realized that, for Italians, the whole purpose of travel is to find
the perfect place to eat spaghetti. They had transported their own pasta
in bulk from Rome, along with fresh bulbs of mozzarella and a giant wheel
of parmesan cheese. They had no less than three espresso machines, as well
as saddlebags of Lavazza coffee. If they weren't eating, they were talking
about food. Food was more than an obsession, it was life itself.
The key gourmet item, brought by a silver-haired chap named Corrado, would
turn out to be a bottle of wine, vintage 1898. Corrado was an architect,
and while renovating an old Roman villa, he had discovered a cellar with
300 bottles of Ch�teau Lafitte. Half were being put up for auction --
these bottles, selling at $15,000 a pop, were going to make him rich --
the other half he was slowly drinking. Here on the boat, the bottle became
a subject of feverish discussion among the Italians:
When should Corrado open his 1898 time capsule?
A question that was, of course, in keeping with the spirit of Dionysus.
Punctuality is not a strong point for either Italians or Turks, but the
next morning we cast off from our anchorage at 10 a.m. on the dot, just as
Serhan had scheduled.
Giorgio got up from his deck chair and looked at his watch in mock
concern: "What is this, Switzerland?"
As the Amazon Solo headed into the open sea, past the wild Seven Capes, it
became obvious that the name Tur-quoise Coast was an understatement:
The Meditera-nean's palette is never limited to a single color. Close to
shore the water's tone is emerald green, bright as mouthwash; farther out,
its depths are almost burgundy -- recalling Homer's "wine-dark sea."
For us the eastern Medi-terranean had the same astonishing clarity it must
have had for the wandering Odysseus: We could watch the floor of the sea
passing 60 feet below; it seemed the boat was floating on air, not liquid.
The water sparkled as if a million broken mirrors were scattered on its
surface, so blindingly reflective you had to avert your eyes.
For the next few days we drifted in and out of anchorages; one glorious
spot, Butterfly Bay, was a mere sliver cut into sheer cliffs, visible only
to an experienced captain. Every headland was encrusted with relics of the
Lycians, whose forgotten culture is, as one Turkish writer put it, "an
One thing is certain: The Lycians had a fine eye for real estate. All
their cities had spectacular sea views. I saw the vestiges along our
route: a sand-filled amphitheater above the glorious 11-mile beach in
Patara; stone sarcophagi like orange mushrooms littering the rocky coast.
But none of these relics quite compared to what I found in the waters of
Kekova island: the "sunken city."
While the Italians headed to the mainland to check out the local
cappuccino, I took the dinghy and skirted the island's shore. The Lycian
coast is next to one of the most volcanic areas of the Mediterranean, and
villagers claim that a great eruption 2,000 years ago flooded the channel
here, drowning thousands and sweeping an entire city of marble into the
sea. Archaeologists have a slightly less dramatic version: Kekova island
was actually edged by modest market towns that slowly slipped beneath the
waves, as earthquakes caused the coast to crumble like a biscuit dipped in
I maneuvered the dinghy back and forth, peering into the water and trying
to reconstruct the scattered bones of the past. In the 1980s this seafloor
still held scattered amphorae and Byzantine mosaics, all long since stolen
by antique hunters. But I could make out the foundations of buildings, a
vague hint of a plaza, and what I took to be an ancient street. It was all
very fragmentary, another Lycian riddle, the meaning utterly elusive --
and in my imagination, irresistible.
This place, where tectonic plates collide, is a better place than most to
ponder the vagaries of destiny. One of history's few surviving Lycian
voices is a soldier in Homer's Iliad, whose philosophical words might just
be an epitaph for this entire, ruin-riddled land. "The race of man is like
the leaves of a tree," he says. "You look one way, and the wind blows them
to the ground. You look the other, and spring re-turns. It gives birth to
the new, makes green the forest. Thus one race departs, and another is
Back on board the boat, the Italians had convinced Serhan to seek out a
harbor where they had heard decent gelato was sold.
"Why are you so busy with old stones? It is not healthy."
The next day, we eased into kas -- pronounced cash -- a once-quiet
sponge-divers' town that now resembled a budget C�te d'Azur. The
waterfront proudly sported a new marina beneath palm trees; caf�s crowded
the plazas with flower-strewn tables. ("The Italian verdict on the
chocolate gelato: "molto buono.") The streets were full of Turkish carpet
vendors, plus a mock-Greek temple advertising aphrodite jewelry. But you
could turn a corner in Kas and be faced with a 19th-century world of smoky
dives packed with Turkish men -- always men -- sipping hot tea from
slender glasses, playing backgammon, and puffing on sweet tobacco through
gurgling water pipes. At dusk the air became heavy with the scent of lamb
kabobs on fragrant wood fires and alive with the wail of a Muslim muezzin
drifting across the harbor.
In fact, Kas straddled the Asian-European divide in a way that seemed
distinctively Turkish -- just as the Amazon Solo's four-person crew did
On the conservative side were the deckhand Marem, a cherubic carpenter
from the Black Sea who had recently taken a wife in an arranged Islamic
marriage; and the cook, the somber, inscrutible Imdat, as animated as a
ship's figurehead, who looked like he should really be wearing a fez and
long robes. On the Western side of the spectrum there was Captain Mustafa
-- habitu� of every late-night bar in the Mediterranean -- whose designer
T-shirts and eyewear made him appear more European than the Europeans.
And there was also the unflappable Serhan, a former shipping agent in his
late 30s, who looked as if he'd be as comfortable living in London or New
York as in Istanbul.
After dark I accompanied Serhan on his social rounds in Kas. The town, so
somnolent by day was now humming with activity, shops ablaze with lights
as if Noel Baba was expected any moment. The sidewalks were piled with
antiques and pyramids of fluorescent pink Turkish sweets. Next to French
restaurants serving nouvelle cuisine, huge sides of meat were being carved
in the open, and the bars kept pounding out classic rock 'n' roll.
I t took the amazon solo only 15 minutes to motor from Turkish Kas to the
Greek island of Kastell�rizon, and two hours for Serhan to arrange the
paperwork -- a comment on the sorry state of official relations ever since
the bloody wars of the early 1920s, which resulted in forced population
exchanges between the two countries.
Unofficially, however, at least on Kastell�rizon, the Greeks and the Turks
behave more like rival siblings than angry nations. Mustafa made the
mistake of leaving the Turkish flag flying above the Greek one, and the
island's harbormaster triumphantly sent him scurrying up the mast to
"Up with the Greek flag!" he cheered. "Down with the Turkish!"
Kastell�rizon, about 80 miles from Rhodes, is the most isolated of all the
Greek islands. This remoteness has not been without its benefits: Ignored
for decades, it may well be the most picturesque island in the
Mediterranean. As we sailed in toward the row of pastel buildings lining
the waterfront, old men flicked their worry beads and fed fish scraps to
cats, luridly painted fishing boats bobbed at anchor, bougainvillea framed
the weathered blue tables of the tavernas.
At the only caf�, a grandmotherly woman named Angela, dressed all in
black, gave me a pomegranate to go with my Greek coffee in the middle of
"I didn't know Greek islands like this still existed," marveled Caroline,
one of my shipmates. "It looks like a film set."
"Looks?" Giorgio shook his head at our ignorance. "Eh! Pellicola italiana:
An Italian movie. Academy Award, 1991. Very, very beautiful."
He was talking about Mediterraneo, a film about a handful of Italian
soldiers stranded on a Greek island during World War II. When the
producers needed a location that hadn't changed since 1942, they were
delighted to find Kastell�rizon. Today, with fewer than 300 inhabitants,
it still looks like a vintage postcard -- although a bevy of
Greek-Australians have returned here in recent years, restoring old family
houses and bringing new life to the place.
The back alleys of the village zigzagged toward a medieval fortress above
the harbor. There, two Greek soldiers sat by a pillbox, their shirts off
in the sun, nibbling a picnic of olives and tzatziki and waiting for a
Turkish invasion. Five hundred whitewashed steps farther, at the peak of
the island, the wreck of an Orthodox monastery was being guarded by goats.
And at dusk, instead of the lonely wail of a muezzin, churchbells tolled
over the streets far below.
And yet -- you could never tell this to a Greek or Turk -- to an outside
observer, the similiarities between the two countries were more striking
than their differences. After dark the waterfront became an outdoor living
room, with TV sets propped up on tables, all tuned to a soccer match in
Athens. Sea bass and octopus were being barbecued on grills, and glasses
filled with ice-cold retsina. Sounds of a swing band from a passing yacht
added Glenn Miller to the party atmosphere.
"You know, if the population of this island falls below 200 people,"
Serhan challenged the Greek taverna owner, "by treaty it reverts to
"Only if you come with lots of guns!" said the Greek, laughing.
"G-o-o-o-a-l!" cried the Italians, glued to the TV.
The next day, we navigated remoter straits to G�kkaya Bay, where the
landscape became more unearthly by the hour. Until now, the Lycian
mountains had seemed oddly familiar, even vaguely Californian. But here
the coast became brittle and rocky. Twisted claws of stone emerged from
the water. Jagged islets seemed to rise and fall with the tides -- no
wonder Greek sailors considered them the barbs of Poseidon's trident. It
was as though we'd entered an ancient water maze, with a million coves
hidden from the rest of the world. To my immeasurable relief -- and the
mortification of the Italians -- even cell phones couldn't pick up signals
in G�kkaya Bay.
It was in this lost world that I finally fell into the rhythm of the Blue
Voyage. I'd wake in the still of dawn and set off by kayak, listening to
delirious birds as the sun rose through the mist. Around me flyingfish
leaped out of the placid water. Then, after a Homeric breakfast of honey
and feta cheese, I'd tackle a modest excursion -- snorkeling over Lycian
ruins, say, or hiking to an unexcavated Lycian site where sarcophagi
protruded from the pale soil. I'd come across scenes that recalled
Ottoman-era paintings: a quail hunter, his rusted antique carbine slung
over his shoulder, wandering with his dog; a young Muslim man and his
fianc�e sitting in silence by the water, the girl's mother perched on a
rock higher up, watching them like a hawk.
The climax of each day was the Dionysian, three-hour lunch. Although
Giorgio always insisted on his bowl of pasta, Imdat would lay out Turkish
specialties -- a succulent eggplant dish called "the Holy Man Swoons,"
lamb kafta, green beans in garlic, herbed yogurt.
Each course was washed down with bountiful infusions of cold white wine,
the full glasses sparkling like diamonds in the warm sun, their contents
slowly but surely dissolving any afternoon plans. I would end up reclining
on pillows like a pasha -- feeling, in fact, not unlike Dionysus himself.
There was still one Dionysian ritual left to perform. On our last day,
under the rising full moon, Corrado announced that the moment had come to
open his 1898 wine.
By now anticipation had reached fever pitch. We examined the faded label,
which announced that this sauterne was an after-dinner favorite of the
King of Spain. We crowded about Corrado as he peered at the cork and
smelled the bouquet. We watched in anticipation as he considered the
viscosity and measured the precious liquid into 14 glasses, half an inch
in each. To think that when this was bottled, in 1898, C�zanne and
Toulouse-Lautrec were exhibiting in the salons, a new Strauss composition
was premiering, and Chekhov's Seagull was opening in Moscow.
It was a touching Europhile moment -- except that Asia stole the show. As
we stood on deck, the Turkish coast glistened in silver moonlight. The
Milky Way -- the ancient Greek pathway to heaven -- swirled into eternity.
Giorgio made a toast: "Guarda che luna," he proclaimed, sweeping his arm
to encompass the wonders of G�kkaya Bay. "Guarda che mare." Behold what a
moon. Behold what a sea.
How did the wine taste? To be honest, like a $1.99 sherry. But nobody
cared. East and West had joined once again on the Turquoise Coast, and the
afterglow was delicious.
(c)Islands Magazine 2000
[Distributed with the permission of the Islands magazine.
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