Chimaera: Turkey's well-kept secret

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown had read of a mythical place in Turkey where flames burst from stones. But nothing could prepare her for the astonishing reality of Chimaera
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The Independent Travel

Last June, we booked a holiday in a popular spot in Turkey, only to find that the dates clashed with sessions I was doing at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. Busy and overtired, I hadn't realised this until way into the summer and it proved impossible to get another booking in the same place. Then I recalled an obscure book on Turkey in which I had read about Chimaera, a place along a mountain track where stones spontaneously break into blue and gold flames. Amazing, I thought, that is where we will go.

"It must be a volcano," said my husband.

"But I remember, the book said that it wasn't a volcano."

"Stones don't burn. They can't. Simple science. It's probably some superstition and you have fallen for it, some romantic idea, as ever." He smiled indulgently. In truth, scientists have come up with no clear explanation.

I had to, then, didn't I? To prove him wrong, show him that I am no credulous dupe, and to win this battle of the sexes.

So I went in search of Chimaera and then located a resort, Cirali (pronounced Cheralay), near enough to the magical fires. It was described as a conservation site on the beach, two hours from Antalya. All the hotels in Cirali are small and discreet. There is virtually no expansion permitted, because it is where a species of turtle lays its eggs. (More of turtles later.) Only three hotels were advertised, two with bungalows that slept four and were air-conditioned. The tour operator, Anatolian Sky, didn't push the place, perhaps because there are no five-star temptations to draw the tourist in need of pampering. Hotel Azur appealed most because it boasted mature gardens and orchards. The beach seemed near enough and there were pictures of simple eating joints selling fresh fish caught that day. Sounded fine to me, so I booked without consulting the kitchen cabinet.

The response? Tepid when I announced that we were off to an obscure Turkish spot, to a hotel with no pool and a pebbly beach a 10-minute walk away. They acquiesced and kept a lid on grumbles until what felt like an interminable drive from Antalya airport, when tempers blew and complaints flew. A German woman was in the front seat. She spoke English and had come to meet us. We thought she was the rep from Anatolian Sky and she got cross after we asked a few touristy questions. "Why are you asking me this? I am a friend of the owner. Please, no more questions. You must wait" (these words sounded terrifying in a German accent). When we finally arrived at the bottom of a steep crag, the place looked dark and broody. Desultory dogs were barking, breaking the heavy silence.

I felt dread rising. Two weeks lay ahead to be filled by regrets and spats with my loved ones. By the time we left, my husband and daughter were both anticipating a return trip very soon. Cirali stole our hearts with its beauty and concealed charms.

Azur's gardens had green lawns, chickens and cockerels in manic chases, and trees laden with pomegranates and lemons. Dozens of hammocks, some with sleeping babies, swayed in the shady orchard. Every afternoon, a young couple lay down head to feet, softly singing Turkish songs. Owned by a local man, Ahmet Altintas, and his German wife, Ilse, Azur was better than it promised: peaceful, beautiful, intimate and artless.

Breakfast was served by Hassan No 1, who was unfailingly bright and smiling, even though he worked until past midnight every evening. (Hassan No 2 looked after all our other needs.) Reading the menu made you feel that you would live forever. Yoghurt, fresh eggs, melon, figs, plums, olives (the best I have ever eaten, preserved in olive oil that had a light floral scent), hand-collected honey, smooth feta cheese (the taste not over-salty, more like subtle mozzarella), bread, and, every day, a different jam made by Ilse with orange cinnamon, pomegranate, berries.

Soon the owners had me helping to write a brochure in English, which I did, but with misgivings. This treasure needs to be kept under wraps. The ecological balance between man and beast and nature is right at present, and sustainable; 10 per cent more visitors and Cirali would feel crushed. And yet they need the business.

We were worried that Leila, now 12, would be lonely and ill-humoured without a mate. There were no English-speaking tourists at the Azur. One hotel, which did have a small pool (the only one in town), was popular with young German families. Leila fast linked up with twofamilies, one from the old East Germany and another from Hamburg. We realised how little she knew of modern Germany. Her school is good, but she was full of the prejudices of a girl for whom that country only means Nazism. Her new friends, aged from eight to 15, gently tutored her about their reunified land, while she taught them new words in English.

Visitors from Istanbul are drawn to Cirali, too. One day, the columnist Maureen Freely ran into us on the beach. She has lived in Istanbul and recently translated Istanbul, an evocative memoir by the Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk. She told us to visit the treehouse people inside the cliff at the far end and to eat at the waterfall restaurant.

So we did, the first by walking as the sun set along the pebbles towards the ancient site of Olimpos, which is steeped in history but doesn't impose or claim great solemnity. You feel the folly of civilisations that refuse to believe they will pass away and be replaced by living things. Preservers of things ancient might be upset to witness its informal decay. There are no forbidding notices, no enclosures, no signs of archaeological activity. Here the past feels more present and yet part of the cycle of life, because it hasn't been ordered and protected and distanced. In Istanbul, Pamuk sees this as a national pessimism, sights that inflict "heartache on all who live amongst them. They are nothing like the remains of the great empires seen in Western cities, preserved like museums of history and proudly displayed. The people of Istanbul simply carry on their lives in the ruins". I was intensely reassured by the detritus of empires.

Olimpos was a hub in the second century BC, when Lycians had established themselves in these parts. It was supposed once to have housed Zeus. The Romans came and left proud, though crumbling, temples. Genoese and Venetian sailors also dropped by. Sarcophagi appear as you turn a corner. We walked into the rock face and splashed through half-dry rivers and sparkling freshwater creeks; bright oleander bushes were on all sides and wild grapevines curled around arches and gravestones.

As we wandered further in, we heard Eric Clapton and the babble of people and then saw the treehouses, small shacks built on stilts strewn with cushions and hookah pipes and dopey hippies with beards, sandals, beads and joints that we told Leila were special Turkish cigarettes. Cheap bars were selling pancakes, usually topped with feta and herbs, made by women in balloon trousers and floral scarves. A German couple told us they had had an interesting night in a treehouse that they had rented. A man quietly tucked himself in with them at midnight. It's what happens in Olimpos, he cheerily informed them.

The sea was bath-warm and azure and the beach was not blemished by too many humans. At night, the full moon rose, orange-red. At the restaurants, they bring you grilled lemony fish, borek (cheese pastries), aubergine cooked in a dozen ways, breads bigger than a tray, pomegranate juice. People shared their dishes across the tables; some played backgammon. We drifted back to the "town", one small lane with shops that are never locked. In a den, we laid back on cushions, listened to music, had Turkish coffee and wine. The waterfall restaurant was incredible. We sat at little tables in the middle of the cascades, eating trout and mushrooms and fragrant rice. Waiters begged us to help them to move to England. It would break their hearts and hopes, I told them, especially after Cirali.

One morning, we went to the beach at 5am to witness the hatching of the turtles. As the sun rises, they emerge, frail and determined, the size of a small hand, and then have to scuttle to the sea to survive. One day, the females will return to their birthplace to lay eggs. The dawn of life, it felt momentous.

We took a boat trip for a day. Ours was owned by a man whose wife runs a boat for hijabi women. The two vessels took us to lovely coves and enclaves. Hijabi swimmers now have special all-body costumes, bright green and purple. Nilgun, a teacher from Istanbul, complained that these "ninjas" were destroying her secular nation. But the hijabi women were kinder, waving happily, expressing no disapproval as women strutted around in bikinis. We talked about the future of Turkey. Nilgun and the others felt humiliated by the European Union, but they were afraid that, without membership, Turkey would become another Iran.

We sailed to Phaselis, an exquisite shore with three natural harbours surrounded by mountains. Again, the Lycians, the Greeks and the Egyptians all came here and laid claim to it, until fate and time moved them on. Alexander the Great is said to have spent a happy sojourn here, and the ruins all attest to these narratives. An hour or so from Cirali, we drove along a glorious coastal road to another equally rich historical site, Myra, with rock tombs and an almost intact amphitheatre. It is popular with nouveau riche Russians, who visit the old Church of St Nicholas. Turkish rugs with Santa Claus are a local speciality.

Finally, Chimaera. An old man in a tractor drove us there as night fell. We had to walk up a perilous track in the dark. At one point, I thought my asthma would kill me. We had forgotten to bring a torch. Thank God for Dieter, the careful German who shared his light with us. Suddenly we came upon the astonishing sight: dozens of fires bursting out of stone. Myths abound. Bellerophon rode on Pegasus to slay a fire-breathing monster. He got too arrogant. Zeus punished him, and here is the warning. In this miraculous, mystical place, I imagined the great messengers who have had their trysts with angels and God. My husband was more stunned: he offered no scientific explanation, he didn't see divinity, but he did become teary and poetic with wonder. Romantic even.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

Cirali is roughly 80km south west of Antalya, which is served by Excel Airways (0870 169 0 169; www.xl.com) from Gatwick and Cyprus Turkish Airlines (020-7930 4851; www.kthy.net) from Stansted and Heathrow . Charter airlines fly there from several UK airports; Thomas Cook (08707 520 918; www.flythomascook.com) flies from Gatwick, Stansted, Manchester, Birmingham, Glasgow, Nottingham and Newcastle. To reduce the impact on the environment, you can buy an "offset" from climate care (01865 207 000; www.climatecare.org). The environmental cost of a return flight from London to Antalya is £5.95, which is used to fund sustainable energy projects.

Anatolian Sky (08708 50 40 40; www.anatolian-sky.com) offers seven-night holidays in Cirali from around £500 per person, including flights, B&B and transfers.

STAYING THERE

Azur Hotel (00 90 242 825 7073). Doubles from €60 (£43) including breakfast.

FURTHER INFORMATION

Cirali tourist information: www.cirali.org

Turkish Tourist Office: 020-7839 7778; www.gototurkey.co.uk

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