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Pamukkale, Turkey: odd and definitely dazzling


My heart sank. The dingy gray bluffs in the distance didn’t look anything like the pristine white cliffs I’d seen on TV. They looked more like the mounds of grit-splattered snow you see off at roadsides after a snowstorm.

That first glimpse of the travertine terraces outside Pamukkale was a little unsettling, but I had to believe things would look better once we’d climbed up into them.

Our van bumped on into town, wound a couple blocks through the main street, and stopped at the tiny bus office in Pamukkale’s dusty town center. Mardena and I watched from inside the van as people got off. One of them, a college-age Asian girl in faded Levis and a blue tee-shirt, pulled her backpack from the rear door and asked the driver about transportation out of town the next day. She wanted to leave early, she said.

Tourist photos at Pamukkale

I almost gasped. I’d been in a hurry, too, at her age, but this was off the charts. It was already late afternoon, and Pamukkale’s two tourist draws—the travertine bluffs and the ancient Roman city of Hierapolis just beyond them—were spread over a vast area at the edge of town. She’d have to jog just to see, much less experience, any of it, and it’d be an uphill jog at that. She was like a young me on steroids.

The girl hauled her pack into the ticket office, and the driver got back in the van. We drove a couple more blocks and stopped in front of a tall, gabled structure with a sign out front: Venus Hotel. I’d reserved a room there for two nights. I tipped the driver, and Mardena and I lugged our packs through the front door and into a lobby furnished with elegant Turkish carpets and colorful cushioned benches. While we waited for a desk clerk to appear, I peeked around the corner into a dimly lit bar brightened by a cheery display of liquor bottles.

A few minutes later, we were following the clerk up to our second-floor room. It was small, but the furnishings were as rich as those downstairs. I went over to the window. It looked out over a heated pool and beyond that to the road we’d driven up on. A horse was just then clip-clopping past pulling a wooden cart. A teenage boy walked alongside, accompanied by a gaggle of barking dogs, tails wagging happily.

310716DSC_3687It was late to start exploring the sights, so Mardena and I decided to save our sightseeing for the next day.

The next morning before breakfast I went down and asked the desk clerk about the best place to run, then headed that direction, past a block of whitewashed houses and on to another block of weedy empty lots. Pretty soon, I turned down a two-lane road that ran through the farmlands outside of town.

A quarter mile out, I came upon a strange sight—a children’s water park, a towering maze of multicolored tubes, dips, and slides. It seemed almost surreal in that rural landscape, as if I’d stumbled onto a Las Vegas casino in the middle of a wildlife refuge.

After a while I turned around, stopping eventually back at the weedy lots to walk and cool down. As I neared our hotel, I noticed up ahead a whitewashed house with a curtain of red peppers dangling from the balcony, drying. An elderly woman in a traditional black head scarf and robe stood outside the front gate. “Merhaba,” I said as I walked by. “Merhaba,” she said, smiling. With a gesture she invited me into her yard, but I was focused on getting back to breakfast. “Uh, no, Tesekkur,” I said, waving my thanks. She smiled and waved back.

The Venus’ breakfast buffet, included in the room rate, was lavish, served in the open-air restaurant outside the bar. There were red spreads, green spreads, breads, baked sweets, fruits and vegetables, cheeses, eggs, and more. A blond, trim, thirtyish American and his wife were the only other people in the restaurant. The man was piling his plate high as I bellied up to the buffet next to him. I glanced at him and nodded.

“This is amazing,” he said, turning a happy face toward me. I pegged him as an ex-surfer who’d ended up attending UCLA. For all I knew, of course, he could have been an insurance salesman from Omaha.

“Yeah, it’s great,” I said. “Actually, all the hotels we’ve stayed at—sort of mid-range–have been like this. Not the pensions, the hotels.”

“Really?” he said, genuinely surprised.

I figured he and his wife must have been just starting their travels, probably circling the country counterclockwise, opposite the direction Mardena and I had come. We were heading home in a few days.

An hour later, we were at the base of the travertine bluffs, paying the 20 Turkish Lira (about $8 US) entry fee that covered the bluffs and Hierapolis. Our guidebook had said shoes were forbidden, so we took off our sandals, put on socks (as the book advised), and started up.

Pamukkale, Turkey

Water slid down in translucent sheets from the travertine layers above, collecting here and there in turquoise pools two or three feet deep before drifting across the terrace we were on. The climbing was easy; it was impossible to slip on the wet, rippled stone. Even at mid-morning, there were lots of people, but there was plenty of room to walk up.

The turquoise on the white stone was dazzling; without dark glasses it would have been blinding in that sun. We waded ankle deep through the shallower pools, admiring the colors. I hadn’t had any particular expectations about the place, and I was surprised at how much fun it was to walk through that pastel world while the lukewarm water sloshed softly at our feet. There was something dreamlike about it.

Once we reached the top, we put our sandals back on and walked over to Hierapolis, a couple hundred yards to the east. The site was extensive; even with a map, it took us a while to get our bearings. It covered a much greater area than the travertine terraces and was far less busy.

Pamakkule, Turkey

To my mind, Hierapolis’s most interesting features were the beautifully preserved Roman theatre, the large latrine complex, and the “gate to hell,” a toxic-gas-emitting cave that, Romans believed, led straight to the underworld. Unfortunately, when we were there a flimsy construction fence around the cave detracted considerably from its sinister allure.

Before starting back to the bluffs, we stopped at Hierapolis’ Antique Pool, famous for its submerged marble columns. It was as pretty as on TV, but so packed with bathers it didn’t seem worth the separate 32 TL entry fee.

We’d intended to take a shortcut back to town by skirting the edge of the bluffs, but as we were walking toward them I began to waver. “That was really fun coming up,” I said to Mardena. “You want to go down the same way?”

“Sure, if you want,” she said.

We made our way down more slowly, stopping to swim in some of the deeper pools and taking time to appreciate the rolling green farmlands beyond the town. It was even more fun than on the way up.

310716DSC_3594

The next morning after breakfast, Mardena and I checked out of our room, rolled our packs to the bus station, and bought tickets for Selçuk, our next destination. The ticket clerk, a short, sturdy boy of about thirteen, walked us out to the van.

“Where you from?” he asked in English.

“U.S.,” I said. “California.”

“You’re our friend,” he said with a smile.

Nice kid, I thought, but I was a little puzzled. Was it a political comment? Odd, somehow, that the only vaguely political remark we’d heard in four weeks of travel would come from a barely adolescent kid in a backwater town.

But then much of Pammukale was a surprise—some memorable characters, improbable sights, even the luxury of our mid-priced hotel. Most surprising, though, were the travertine bluffs, not so much their beauty, which I’d read about, but the sheer pleasure of the experience: clambering over the white stone, dipping into the warm pools, the currents caressing our feet, the sun on our backs. No zip lines, no contrivances, just water, travertine, and sunshine, a water park created by nature. It was pure, unfettered fun.

310716DSC_3683

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