Palm trees, pretty flowerbeds, dainty white villas, narrow cobblestoned streets, outdoor markets bursting with colour and aromatic herbs, rustic stone work, quaint little restaurants along the shore, majestic wooden sailboats, crystal-clear water, deep-blue skies, blissful tranquility, hot sunshine and a gentle sea breeze. You’d be forgiven for not guessing that this is Turkey—a rare blend of picturesque beauty and low-key living that is surely one of the Mediterranean’s best-kept secrets.
Unlike most of coastal Spain, France, Italy and Greece, the Turkish Riviera has retained its authentic personality, with almost no high-rise apartment blocks, no boom-boxes belting out loud music, no hawkers and no commercial sell-out to invading British tourists and expats. Here, on the Bodrum peninsula, Turks still rule. Many speak only rudimentary English, if any at all, but their friendliness and warmth are a language everyone understands. You want rent car? No problem; I have friend help you.
The small picturesque village of Yalikavak, on the westernmost tip of the Bodrum peninsula, is a prime example of this untainted paradise. There is none of the frantic commercialism that you’d expect in such a beautiful coastal resort, and the haunting strains of the muezzin are a regular reminder that this is a country still firmly rooted in Muslim culture and traditions. Respect, friendship and a dedication to service seem high on the list of Turkish values.
It is impossible to wander along the promenade without making at least half a dozen friends – restaurant owners who love to chat, cook whatever you want, and help in any way they can. They work seven days a week, 12 hours a day and still have a smile, quick wit and a warm handshake – whether you eat at their restaurant or not.
Masters at multi-tasking, the Turks are natural entrepreneurs. Like many of the restaurant owners, Halil seems to use his restaurant as a base for a whole series of other businesses—selling marble to the construction industry, finding homes for tourists and expats, renting cars and even offering to bargain on your behalf if you want a good deal on some purchase. Omer will lend you his car ‘for a special price’ and, man to man, will give you invaluable tips on how to dress and shave for a more macho effect. While his staff serves dinner, Hazik will give you an expert deep-tissue massage, regaling you with his seemingly endless repertoire of Turkish jokes. His favourite is the one about kissing a woman’s hand—a common greeting in Turkey: “Ask a Frenchman why the Turks do this and they will reply that it’s a mark of respect for women; ask an Englishman why they do it and they’ll say that it’s a quaint romantic form of flirting; but ask the Turks why they kiss a woman’s hand and they will say, ‘Well, you have to start somewhere.’”
The Turks seem to have a deep appreciation for the natural environment, holding fast to the traditional style of housing, with painstakingly crafted stone work and crazy paving. The hillsides are dotted with white villas, brilliant blasts of bougainvillea spilling off their balconies and trailing lazily along wooden balustrades. At night, the only sounds in the villages are cows mooing, owls hooting and dogs barking at a passing car.
RELATED: Top 12 Travel Apps
Refreshing though it is, there is a downside to this unyielding Turkishness; westerners who are used to being able to buy whatever they want, wherever they go, will not feel so well catered-to here. Many specialty products—such as gluten-free foods, natural supplements, and organic produce—are unavailable in many parts of Turkey. A ferry trip to the neighbouring Greek islands of Kos and Samos can remedy this, while providing a sobering reminder of the relatively high cost of living in Euro-currency countries. Turkey, though a hot contender for membership to the European Union, remains this side of the divide, with its own currency—the Turkish lira (roughly equivalent to CAD$0.50)—keeping prices lower than in most other European countries.
While the inefficiency and red tape involved in getting a phone line installed would try the patience of a saint, the Turks are surprisingly sophisticated in certain domains. In health care, for example, they leave other countries in the dust; most medications can be purchased for under TL10 (about CAD$4.50), and laboratory test results are delivered to you within 10 or 20 minutes—for a fraction of the price you’d pay in North America or other parts of Europe. If you need to get some bottled water or a gas tank delivered, you can expect it within 10 minutes of placing your order by phone. And if you’re worried about mosquitoes pestering you on hot, sweaty nights, you can relax in the knowledge that the local authorities regularly spray the area to keep the pesky whiners to a minimum.
Fancy a day on the beach? No need to bring a sun shade or lounger. All will be provided, free of charge, on the many clean, uncrowded public beaches and sheltered coves. If you’re feeling energetic, you can even work out at one of the free outdoor mini-gyms along the shore—funky exercise machines in vibrant colours and sturdy design. Or you may wish to relax in the shade of an ancient olive tree, on a profusion of colourful cushions and sag bags so popular among the Turks.
And when you return to base, exhausted from all that sunbathing, swimming, snoozing and sipping cold drinks, too tired to take a shower, you’ll be delighted to find a special little bidet gadget built into your toilet. Just do your business, turn on the little tap on the wall beside you and a powerful jet of cold water magically hits the spot—instantly revitalizing you for the long evening ahead.
RELATED: 10 Of The Best & Worst Travel Advice
The Turks take great pride in their traditional cuisine—a blend of Central Asian, Middle Eastern and Baltic cuisines, with a strong Mediterranean influence in the western regions. The vast diversity of regional dishes is based on simple, locally harvested ingredients enhanced by olive oil, local spices and aromatic herbs. The mezes are a wonderful assortment of small starters that are brought to your table so you can choose what dishes you would like. The choice is endless: stuffed vine leaves, fried aubergines with yogurt, beans in a tangy tomato sauce, marinated squid with red peppers, salicornes in olive oil, courgette (zucchini) flowers stuffed with rice and herbs, hummus blended with ground walnuts, marinated anchovies, stuffed green peppers, beetroot salad, cucumber with yogurt, delicately spiced aubergine purée, and the very popular börek—pockets of filo pastry stuffed with feta cheese, minced meat, spinach or potatoes. Fried, baked or steamed, börek come as triangular pillows, cigar-shaped rolls or just layers of wafer-thin dough cooked to perfection. They are said to be a great test of culinary skill and, according to Turkish tradition, no girl was supposed to marry until she had mastered the art of börek-making.
If you still have room after the mezes, you might want to try one of the numerous barbequed fish dishes served with arugula and grilled vegetables; shish kebabs with rice pilaf; or the traditional amphora casserole—lamb, beef, chicken or seafood baked in an earthenware pot on a bed of flambéed salt. For the truly stalwart, there is the baklava grand finale—a rich, sweet pastry made from layers of filo dough filled with chopped walnuts or pistachios and sweetened with syrup or honey—followed by a murky, tar-thick Turkish coffee that’s guaranteed to keep you awake into the small hours of the morning.
Surprisingly, tourism is not high on Turkey’s list of revenue-earners, ranking fourth after agriculture, industry and mining. This may be a blessing for those in search of a more authentic experience, since the country is not (yet) prepared to sell its soul in exchange for more dollars, sterling or whatever other currency is likely to boost their economy.
For those who know and appreciate the specialness of unspoilt places such as Yalikavak, Turkey’s tempered tourism is not a bad thing. But for those who have yet to discover this rare Mediterranean gem, an authentic, magical experience awaits. Just be sure to leave your preconceived ideas and all-inclusive holiday vouchers at the border.