When the going gets cold, the not-so-tough get going…south. With winter well and truly settling in in Istanbul, I was desperate to soak up the last remnants of the warm weather (while making as many Game of Thrones jokes as possible). So when our school bunkered down for Turkey’s national exams, a fellow teacher and I headed south to Antalya for a long weekend of sunshine, beaches and a healthy dose of sightseeing.
Antalya is known for being one of Turkey’s premier beach cities. With a population of around 1 million in the off-season, in summer it swells to quadruple that size. Every man, woman and stray cat in Turkey heads south for the crystal blue shores of the Mediterranean. After experiencing Croatia in the height of summer, I knew first-hand how too many tourists can ruin your experience of a place. Thankfully, once the season is over the hoards of tourists are no-where to be seen, and Antalya returns to its casual, relaxed and incredibly beautiful self.
One of the immediate benefits of visiting in the autumn is how cheap everything is. Our flights from Istanbul only cost 200 TL return (around US$100), and while Alex and I were both CouchSurfing, meals were barely more expensive than my local Lahmacun place in Istanbul. We got off the plane, shed our coats and headed straight for Kaleiçi, the historic centre of Antalya. Despite it being late November we enjoyed late breakfast on a terrace in our t-shirts, soaking up some much needed Vitamin D.
The old town of Antalya is gorgeous. I’ve seen plenty of old towns in my travels, and while it’s not quite as stunning as somewhere like Kotor, Kaleiçi certainly has its charms. The streets are winding and almost devoid of people and cars, about as far removed from Istanbul as you could imagine. We spent the morning getting lost and providing hilarity for the locals with our (admittedly terrible) attempts at Turkish. Without the crowds, the locals are much friendlier, and we were stopped and invited in for tea so many times we lost count.
We made our way down to the Marina, the centre of the tourist activity and home to a fleet of faux-pirate ships offering ridiculously overpriced tours of the bay. I didn’t think it could get any more tacky until one of the boats passed us on the rocks blasting MY HEART WILL GO ON at full volume. If that doesn’t make you want to take a ride on a rickety wooden ship in the middle of the Mediterranean, I don’t know what does.
A short stroll away from Kaleiçi is Karaalioğlu Parkı, nestled on top of the cliffs overlooking the bay. We sat in a cafe drinking our 5th litre of tea and witnessed one of the best sunsets I have ever seen. The golden hour is always a sight to behold in Turkey but this one certainly takes the cake.
Even though the days were pretty much as close to perfect as you could get, once night fell it got surprisingly chilly, so we headed indoors for more tea and Salep, the delicious Turkish drink made from orchid roots and cinnamon. I’m told that in summer the nightlife in Antalya is pumping, full of sun burnt tourists and the requisite amount of seedy Turkish men trying to hit on them, but in the off-season it’s considerably more chilled. Despite the cold we stumbled upon Yağmur Cafe, a gorgeous little courtyard tucked away in the old town that was full of extremely attractive Turkish men playing guitar around an open fire. If the sunset earlier in the day hadn’t done it, it was at this point that I fell in love with Antalya.
The next day we headed out of the old town to Lara, Antalya’s most famous beach. Not to bang on about the weather but it was SO SPECTACULAR – not a cloud in the sky and a toasty 24 degrees. It’d been so long since I’d worn shorts that I’m sure I must have blinded someone with my legs’ whiteness. Good thing the beach was practically deserted; in summer it’s full of five-star resorts, Russian tourists and tacky beach bars, but in the off-season we had the entire beach to ourselves. It was actually somewhat eerie walking along the shore passing all these abandoned resorts and bars. It looked like people had literally packed up and fled an impending apocalypse. Most still had their lounges set up, and we found a Tavla (Turkish backgammon) set sitting under one of the bars, so we spent the afternoon basking in the sun with my new favourite pastime (nothing to do with the fact that I beat Alex 5-0, I swear).
A short bus ride away from Lara is one of Antalya’s numerous waterfalls. These ones aren’t even the biggest, but it’s not often you get to see a river cascading directly into the ocean. Unfortunately our favourite faux-pirate boats had a similar idea, and we were blasted with more Celine Dion than anyone should ever have to put up with in a single day.
There are plenty of attractions surrounding Antalya that are well worth making a day trip for, but we opted to head along the coast to Olympos, home to a village of treehouses and some seriously impressive beach-side ruins. My Aussie-sense must have been tingling, because Bayram’s Treehouses where we stayed was run by fellow Australians, and almost every guest we met was from the land down under.
Up in the mountains surrounding Olympos lies yet another of Turkey’s natural wonders: the eternal flames of the Chimera. Ancient Greek mythology spoke of a beast with the body of a lion, head of a goat and tail of a snake that lived in Anatolia, breathing fire and just generally terrorising anyone unfortunate enough to stumble upon its lair. Thankfully good ol’ Pegasus was around to save the day, banishing the beast deep into the mountains of Lycia, not far from modern-day Antalya. In reality the flames are a byproduct of methane in the mountains, causing the fires to burn endlessly rain, hail or shine. We spent hours sitting by the warmth of the flames, drinking beer and talking shit about religion and politics under the stars. It’s not often you get to see stars in Istanbul, and after a while we fell silent, embracing the silence and imagining the thousands of sailors who’ve used the flames over the centuries to guide their way into Asia Minor.
I could have stayed at Bayram’s for a week. The place has got a fabulous hippy-vibe and made me miss Byron Bay in Australia. We spent our final day lounging around in the hammocks and exploring the ruins of the ancient city by the beach. Unfortunately it was too soon that we head to make tracks for the airport to get back to the reality of Istanbul. Antalya and its surrounds was everything that it was cracked up to be, and with the relative quietness of the off-season, it made for perfect autumn getaway. The more I see of Turkey, the more I fall head over heels for this incredible country.