THROUGH HEAVEN'S EYE

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The Independent Culture
ON THE flight to Dalaman, I sat next to a couple from Peterborough. While the husband slept off a shrink-wrapped airline meal, one flushed cheek pressed against the window, his wife and I talked about how we would spend our holiday in Turkey.

She told me what she'd read in her brochure about the sea of concrete Euro-resorts on the crowded Marmaris coast. "Lovely," I said. Then she asked what I was doing. "Me? Oh, I'm joining a group of total strangers in Lycia. I plan to immerse myself in nature and I'm spending the week in a yurt."

The yurt, or yort, I explained authoritatively, is a traditional Turkic tent. Home to Central Asia's nomadic tribes and still common in Mongolia, it is constructed from a ring of latticed timber wands, lashed together with rope, crowned with a bentwood dome and covered in coarse wool felt. There are no windows, only a round hole at the apex of the roof known as the mystical "Eye of Heaven". A womb-like space, it is warm and dry, well-insulated and gives off a musky, earthy smell with a faint redolence of old sheep.

My in-flight companion looked sceptical. "It's an alternative holiday," I explained. But, I have to admit, I wasn't totally convinced myself. All the way from the airport to our destination, Huzur Vadisi, I was dogged by doubts. The official transfer vehicle turned out to be a clapped-out Turkish Renault, shared with three fellow yurtlanders - a town planner, a legal secretary and a university administrator. We bumped and shuddered around vertiginous hairpin bends, trailing clouds of yellow dust, a dodgy exhaust pipe scraping against loose rocks.

Then we stopped on the roadside for a breather. From our hillside perch, the villages on the coastal plains looked like tiny black dots on a green map. The air was clean, cool and scented with pine, and as a setting sun slipped towards the distant Mediterranean, my spirits rose. A few more miles and we were there.

Huzur Vadisi (meaning "peaceful valley") covers nearly three acres of hill farmland, surrounded by limestone cliffs, mountain peaks and pine forest. A 30-minute drive inland from Gocek - a small, east-coast marina on the main drag from Dalaman to Fethiye - it is virtually unknown to Western tourists. When Jane Worrall and her brother Ian bought land here three years ago, there was little to see but olives and poppies. What brought them to this particular spot was, says Jane, "pure serendipity".

A former teacher living in Wales she had suffered with ME for 10 years when she found a cure in shiatsu massage. The dramatic improvement in her health coincided with a marriage break-up, and she decided to put the capital from her divorce settlement into setting up a holistic holiday centre, specialising in courses for rejuvenating mind and body. The original idea was to buy in southern France, but when Jane's younger brother, Ian, returned from working on an alternative energy project in the Himalayan kingdom of Ladakh, he agreed to get involved and persuaded her to look at Turkey. He also added an environmental perspective to their fledgling plans.

The Worralls were no strangers to Turkey. They had spent most of their childhood in Istanbul and both speak fluent Turkish. Over the years, the country they were brought up in "gave way to an overwhelming tide" of Western culture. Even the strict new planning laws introduced a few years ago could not halt the desecration of the more developed west-coast resorts, though tourism isn't entirely to blame.

"Turkey is a bit like Britain in the Sixties," says Jane. "Everyone wants modern, Western-style houses and everywhere you go, lovely old stone and earth buildings are being replaced by concrete. In a small way, we wanted to show that low-impact, ecologically sensitive, green tourism is viable and that some Western visitors respect and prefer the traditions of Turkish culture."

Within hours of arriving at Dalaman three years ago on their rather abstract mission, the Worrals stopped in Gocek for a cup of tea. There they got talking to a local Turk, Tanfer Taka, whose family owned Huzur Vadisi. The family agreed to sell a share in the land as a way of helping the Worrals comply with Turkish law; foreigners can't buy property here without a native partner.

Jane and Tanfer have since married. Assisted by a team of Turkish builders, Ian has renovated the farmhouse, built a traditional kosk - a wooden pavilion mounted on stilts - a swimming pool lined with local stone, a shower and toilet block (there are no en suite facilities), a shaded area designed for course work, and half a dozen yurts. If you look down on Huzur Vadisi from the hills above, the buildings are barely visible among the olive trees and fields of wheat. Farming still survives in the valley alongside tourism.

Each yurt sleeps three and is furnished with wooden floors, electric lights, proper beds, Turkish rugs and textiles. In the morning, you wake to a patch of blue sky, laced with the silvery branches of a neighbouring olive tree. At night, the Eye of Heaven frames a circle of glittering stars. The valley is so peaceful, you can hear the rumble of an approaching car long before it arrives.

At the Huzur Vadisi centre, various courses are available - from "Naked Eye Astronomy" (there is no light pollution in the valley) and "Traditions of Turkish Culture" to "Holistic Massage and Touching Stillness" (a combination of meditation and Tai-chi). I went for one of the less esoteric options, guided walks. There was a detailed itinerary, but I soon discovered that a Huzur Vadisi holiday is far from regimented. "In the beginning we gave ourselves a really hard time trying to stick to an agenda," Jane says, "but we soon realised that the majority of our guests don't want a formal approach. We have learnt to be flexible. Some groups want to go to Gocek or Fethiye every night, others are happy to stay in the valley all the time. We try to respond to everyone's needs."

Huzur Vadisi's guests are a mixed bunch, tending towards the thirtysomething, single professional and vegetarian. My fellow yurt-dwellers included a Greenpeace executive, a clinical psychologist, an Irish youth worker, a birdwatching fanatic (permanently equipped with two sets of binoculars) and the 60-year-old woman with whom I shared my Turkic tent. There was a jolly house-party atmosphere, and frequent visits from neighbouring villagers added to the social mix.

On a typical day, I showered in a whitewashed cubicle lined with decorative Turkish tiles, helped myself to breakfast (fresh bread and olives, boiled eggs, tomatoes, goat's cheese), and spent the morning by the pool or reading in a hammock. Lunch was served al fresco beneath a canopy of vines; we ate dinner in the kosk, seated on floor cushions around a wood-burning stove. The food, prepared alternately by a Welsh-Italian cook from Swansea and Tanfer's mother, was a delicious hybrid of Turkish cuisine and north European vegetarian dishes made from fresh, local produce. We helped ourselves to wine, beer and soft drinks, listing our purchases in an "honesty book".

I opted out of some communal activities and did my own thing instead, but there's no doubt that courses - whether Tai-chi or guided walks - are the mainstay of the holiday. The walks ranged from a two-hour forest scramble leading to a rocky escarpment with breathtaking sea views, to a 10-mile mountain hike along inland goat tracks.

On one mini-bus trip, we drove past the tourist-packed sands of Olu-Deniz and on to a near-deserted beach. On another we looked at beautiful timber houses in the village of Uzumlu before walking up to the ruins of Cadianda, a once prosperous Greek city, 500m above the bay of Fethiye. Here, the detritus of a lost civilisation - a classical Greek theatre, Turkish baths, temples and houses - is scattered among the pine trees like ancient litter: chunks of carved marble, pieces of 3,000-year-old pottery and fluted stone columns. It was an archaeologist's dreamland, and we were the only people there. Never mind the lack of en suite facilities; you don't get luxuries like Cadianda on the average Turkish package tour. !

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