Turkey By Gulet: Sailing in the Company of the Ancients

turkeyPeter Hughes, The Daily Telegraph, May 31, 2013

Travel brochures are seldom gospel, but when they are they blaze like torches. How’s this for conveying the spirit of a holiday in just a couple of lines? “Day six: We head north to the tiny island of Sikinos. We will endeavour to collar the only transport on the island to visit Episcopi, one of the best preserved Roman monuments in the Aegean… overnight in the harbour or nearby.”

It was that seductive mix of out-of-the-way, Aegean alcove – who has heard of Sikinos? – and buccaneer spontaneity spiked with the promise of a little earnest archaeology that I found irresistible. Which is how I came to be wheeling my suitcase along the quayside in Bodrum, looking first for the dainty little whitewashed Tepecik mosque and then for a gulet berthed in front of it.

About a thousand of the traditional boats operate from the port and most of them seemed to be moored on the harbour front that day. Mine, the 88ft Doruk Reis was one of the smarter ones, with eight passenger cabins, each with its own small shower room. Built as a private yacht in 1993, she is solid teak and caramelised in varnish. Doruk Reis was designed for pleasure: sleeker than other more workaday boats, she sat low in the water, her prow pricked like a terrier’s ear. A dozen sun beds were laid out on deck along with a couple of kayaks but the ship’s social heart was under an awning aft of the below-decks saloon. Here, at a table for 10, we consumed excellent Mediterranean food, local wines and knowledge from our lecturers, then digested it all on a big day bed at the stern.

Here again was the subtle ethos of the holiday, so deftly captured by the brochure, the skilful balance between seafood and Cicero, raki and rhetoric, the former drunk by the Turks, the latter as defined by Aristotle. One moment we were tucking into Turkish meze, freshly made by our cook, Pakize, who was also the captain’s wife, the next we were listening to talks on the Epicureans and Stoics. The small library in the saloon contained books by Ken Follett as well as Homer, and in our not overly academic group, swimming usually took precedence over Socrates. As an expedition to the sources of our civilisation, it could hardly have been more civilised.

Our mentors were Jeremy Barnett, tour leader and expert on modern Greece and Turkey, and John Gaskin, who lectured on the classical world. Jeremy, bluff, fit and grizzled, had for years been head of the British Council in Turkey; John, slight, dapper and, for his lectures, cravatted, was professor of naturalistic philosophy at Trinity College, Dublin. Jeremy spoke to us about post-First World War Turkey and the Greek Orthodox Church; John treated us to the Greek city state and Rhodes. They were the Flanders and Swann of cultural tours.

The third element of the holiday, after indulgence and enlightenment, was the sea. Like all gulets, Doruk Reis is a ketch with all the accoutrements of a sailing ship – two stumpy masts, a big wooden wheel, furled canvas and lines hitched round wooden belaying pins, though only once were the foresail and jib hoisted on our cruise. The rest of the time we motored over a silky sea, the Turkish flag fluttering at the stern.

At our initial briefing, Jeremy told us that Turkish officials occasionally came on board – their main interest to check that the flag wasn’t frayed. Aletin, the captain, would be fined if it was. Next morning we sailed south to the Datça Peninsula and Knidos. “Knidos,” declared Jeremy after breakfast, “is one of the best sites in Turkey, the best on the coast.” We arrived in time for a swim off the boat and then lunch of stuffed aubergines. First things first.

We were anchored in a bay scooped out between two ruffian hills of scrub and rock that dipped to a small isthmus, bushy with tamarisk trees. Two chartered yachts had attached themselves to a jetty; otherwise we were the only boat in the bay. The sides of both hills were ribbed with terraces, the first indication of human settlement.

The seven-ton marble lion in the Great Court of the British Museum came from nearby. It was not until we had puttered ashore in a small rubber dinghy and had stood amid the ruins of the Temple of Dionysus that the importance of the place became clear.

Deeply carved sections of marble architrave, from the second century BC, lay on the ground, neatly aligned. “These weren't here a few months ago,” said Jeremy. “Look at them: stunningly preserved. They could have been cut yesterday.”

I tottered about the stony site trying to imagine the triremes that would have been berthed in the naval anchorage the other side of the isthmus and the protective chain that would have been slung across the harbour entrance between two stone watch towers. I admired the immaculate masonry of a water tank whose doughty stones were as precisely dressed and imposing as those in the walls of a Victorian bank. I trod the paving of the wide main street, ramped and stepped up the hillside. Julius Caesar would have climbed these stones in 47BC when he declared Knidos a free city, relieved of all debt to Rome.

Towards the top of the site, John, carrying a Waitrose carrier bag and dressed in a long-sleeved striped shirt, shorts, polished brown leather boots and woolly socks, read to us descriptions by the ancients of the Temple of Aphrodite where we stood.

There was a stop every day: at Selimiye, a village with a veneer of tourism along its front, where Aletin and Pakize stocked up with lemons, bread and broad beans, and Jeremy bought blocks of sheep’s cheese that we sampled in the market; at isolated Loryma, whose narrow castle from the third century BC is stretched along a high limestone ridge guarding the approach to Rhodes. There were more talks: “We’ll meet for triremes in half an hour, after a swim – with a drink,” announced Jeremy that evening.

We crossed from Turkey into Greece and the islands of the Dodecanese, where for millennia the two countries have been jostled by history. The engine grumbled into life at 7am, drowning the adenoidal slumbers from along the corridor. When a wooden ship is still, the timbers conduct the sound of every thump and footfall. Three hours later we were tied up in Mandraki Harbour beneath the city walls of Rhodes, “the kernel of the trip” in Jeremy’s words. We did the musts that everyone should do on Rhodes, such as visiting the marvellous archaeological museum, climbing to the Lindos acropolis and marvelling at the 2,500-year-old main water and sewerage systems of Kamiros, with their plaster-lined cisterns and earthenware pipes.

But we also made an early morning foray into the old town as women were emerging from their stone houses to sweep the pebbled streets. I made two discoveries: the grotto-like 13th-century church of St Phanourios that I had never managed to find before and Villa Kleoboulos where Lawrence Durrell lived. It’s a little mustard-coloured house, shaded by eucalyptus trees, at the edge of the cemetery of the Murad Reis mosque.

We left the Dodecanese from Symi, the prettiest of islands. The town’s Neoclassical houses, miniature pastel-painted mansions, were piled up the hill behind the harbour in the 19th century when the island grew rich from sponges. On Doruk Reis the Turkish flag was unfurled for our return to Bodrum and the Greek cross of St George folded away. A different mood pervaded the boat. The two crew members, Dogan and Isa, were once again smiling and calling “Good morning” to everyone as they proffered mugs of tea and coffee. Was it the return to Turkish waters or the approach of the end of the season? Probably a bit of both.

Astern, the outlines of the Greek islands were layered on the horizon, indigo and grey. There would be another swim before dinner. It had taken 11 days to make a voyage of two-and-a-half millennia; I could have sailed for another week at least. But then, as, thanks to John, I now know Epicurus had it, “Nothing satisfies him for whom enough is too little.”


Westminster Classic Tours (020 8286 7842; westminsterclassictours.com ) offers a range of gulet itineraries from the ports of southern Turkey. Its Islands of the Knights tour, cruising the Dodecanese and departing Bodrum on September 28, costs from £1,800 per person including transfers, entry fees and lecturer.

Flights for the writer’s Caria and Rhodes sailing were into Bodrum and out of Dalaman. EasyJet (0871 781 6777; easyjet.com ) flies to and from both. Expect to pay around £380 for a return flight with easyJet from Gatwick.