Raising the dead in old Lycia

The buzzing harbour town of Kas provided a gateway to an ancient world for Linda Cookson

"The sarcophagus in front of us is more than 2,000 years old," explains the wiry old chap who has suddenly appeared at our side, halfway up a dusty street. "It was built for a powerful man whose name is long forgotten," he continues. Instead, it's known simply as the Lion Tomb - after the four carved lions glaring stonily from each corner. He points to the inscription. "Shall I read?" We nod respectfully, awaiting an Ozymandias moment. He clears his throat. "It say: 'Here I lie for many years'." He claps his arm around our shoulders: "Until two nice people come all way from England to buy carpet from their new friend Ahmet."

We're in Kas (pronounced "Kash"), a pretty, working harbour town on Turkey's south-west coast and the former site of the ancient Lycian port of Antiphellos. The maritime kingdom of Lycia, established in the 8th century BC, ran along the Mediterranean seaboard from Fethiye in the west to Antalya in the east. It remains one of the most spectacular sections of coastline in Turkey. The glorious Patara Beach - 18km of white-gold sand, protected from development because of its status as a breeding ground for turtles - features regularly in round-ups of the "best beaches of the world". Coves and harbours nudge into the ridges of the Taurus mountains, along a forested coastline with folds like fingers. Even after the passing of nearly three millennia, proud reminders of sophisticated Lycian civilisation are everywhere to be seen, in the form of fantastically well-preserved ruins, necropolises and monuments.

In addition to the massive Lion Tomb, the relics of Kas's past include an amphitheatre and a collection of tombs set on a sheer rock mountain wall above the town. Here, as elsewhere in former Lycia, the living and the dead co-exist with minimal fuss. But the truth is, no one really visits Kas because of its ruins: the coast has so many finer archaeological riches that visitors become almost as blasé as the locals, who cheerfully use assorted bits of broken monuments as plantpot holders and ash-trays.

The attraction of Kas is much broader. Firstly, there's its location. Set almost exactly midway along this stretch of seaboard, and with the benefit of a fine harbour, it's a good base for coastal explorations. From Kas you can take boats to destinations as varied as the beach island of Limanganzi (10 minutes), the neighbouring harbour resort of Kalkan (30 minutes), and the sunken city of ancient Kekova (one hour), which is overlooked by the absurdly picturesque waterfront village of Kale, with its hill-top crusader castle.

For something completely different, you can even make a day trip to the sleepy Greek island of Kastellorizo (known as Meis in Turkish). Officially a member of the Dodecanese island group, Kastellorizo is 100km from Rhodes - its nearest Greek neighbour - yet barely 2km from Kas. Local (Turkish) legend has it that you can regularly hear the early morning crowing of Greek cocks from across the water. Although far from its compatriot islands, and with a population of just two or three hundred, tiny Kastellorizo cherishes its Greek heritage: the Olympic flame passed through here on the final leg of its journey to Athens for last year's Games. For day-trippers, the island's quiet harbour and pretty waterfront give a glimpse of Greek life at its simplest and most rustic.

Kas, by contrast, is altogether busier and buzzier - which is very much its other key attraction. Excursions apart, the town has a charm all of its own. It's small, cosmopolitan yet almost untainted by fast-food outlets. The exception? Stalls dotted around the harbour in the evening dispense paper cornets of roasted chickpeas and almonds cooled by blocks of ice.

Kas by day and Kas by night are two entirely different vistas. During the day, once the tour boats have departed, it's quiet, unhurried, soporific. The rows of makeshift ticket offices along the waterfront are deserted, with faded photos of excursion destinations curling visibly on their display boards as the sun climbs. In the empty main square, a statue of Ataturk - lounge-suited, hand in pocket - presides affably over a silent expanse of stone flagging and scorched geraniums. Only the noisy arrival of delivery trucks loaded with watermelons provides the bored dogs with a good excuse to bark.

Meanwhile, the rest of the town has long retreated into the shade of Kas's central tea gardens - clusters of tables tucked away behind screens of oleander, canopied by pine and eucalyptus trees and cooled by the presence of three sturdy stone water fountains. This is the place to read a newspaper, to muse, to smoke, to chew the fat...

In the alleyways beyond the gardens a few shopkeepers hover half-heartedly in the doorways of tacky souvenir shops, or by trestle tables bearing rows of fake Rolex watches and polo shirts in grubby polythene bags. But the fact is, nothing much is going to happen until dusk.

When evening falls the transformation is exhilarating. Suddenly the streets are packed. The harbour - a forest of masts, now that the boats have returned - is ablaze with lights and lanterns and has become a hawkers' convention of competing yells as boat crews drum up trade for tomorrow's excursions. Vendors have set up charcoal burners to roast chunks of corn on the cob. And the shops and stalls, so shabby by daylight, have become oriental treasure troves. Swathes of silver chains glitter under the loops of coloured lights that festoon the town's balconies and terraces. Entire rolls of carpets in vivid reds and greens are unfurled across the cobbled streets or draped across Ottoman balconies.

Every other roof-top houses a restaurant or bar. All have magical views over the harbour and across to the mosque, barely noticeable by day but a fairy castle in the moonlight. Music from the various bars clashes amicably in the night air - discreet baroque strings from the Blue House through to pulsating reggae from the Banana Bar. Our favourite restaurant turns out to be Eris, just back from the main square. It was founded in 1955 by a man named Ali - a former butcher, baker and purveyor of camel sausages - and is now run by his son, Yusuf. In the 16th century, the chefs of the court of Suleyman the Magnificent knew 150 different ways of preparing aubergines. Here in Kas, in the third millennium, we settle happily for five or six.

GETTING THERE

Linda Cookson travelled to Kas with Tapestry Holidays (020-8235 7888; www.tapestryholidays.com), which offers a range of villa and hotel options on the Kas peninsula and (to a rather more sophisticated standard) in nearby Kalkan. A week for two people sharing hotel accommodation in the area costs around £650 per person, including return flights from London or Manchester to Dalaman airport. Kas is about two-and-a-half hours from the airport.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

Turkey is vast, but it has an excellent public transport network. Buses range from the shiny, new air-conditioned type to battered wrecks. There is also a modest rail network and a good range of domestic flights.

BUS

Turkey's roads are notoriously poor, so most locals prefer buses for long-distance journeys - and a fiercely competitive market has developed to serve them. You might be used to minimalist British coaches, but in Turkey you are likely to receive tea, coffee, water, biscuits, air-conditioning, movies and even a tuxedo-clad steward dispensing a refreshing hand-wash at regular intervals.

The bus station, or otogar, is often on the outskirts of town, which can be reached by a local bus (dolmus). Once there, stride purposefully past the touts and head for the counter displaying your destination. Here you can compare prices, journey times and departures - and start haggling. However, with a five-hour trip from Denizli to Fethiye starting at just 10 lira (£4.30), it's worth paying extra for comfort. For an overnight journey, you shouldn't necessarily opt for the fastest trip: drivers trying to achieve an unfeasibly early arrival often compromise on safety.

TRAIN

There are some downsides to travelling by rail in Turkey. It can be excruciatingly slow - the "express" to Lake Van in the east takes two days - the facilities are basic, there is no buffet car and the routes are somewhat idiosyncratic. If you have time on your hands, however, a train journey can be a relaxing way to take in the ever-changing countryside, far away from the unsightly motorways.

If you're visiting the far-flung inland tourist spots of Cappadocia and Pamukkale, and you can't bear sleeping upright, opt for a bunk in a couchette car. The Guney Express sleeper train leaves Istanbul's Haydarpasa station at 8.05pm and arrives at Kayseri in Cappadocia at 2.48pm the next day. Another train leaves Istanbul for Denizli, near Pamukkale, at 5.35pm. It arrives some 15 hours later, price 30 lira (£13). Use Turkey Travel Planner ( www.turkeytravelplanner.com) to decipher the Turkish-language rail website ( www.tcdd.gov.tr).

AIR

A trio of private companies now offer competition to the state-owned national carrier, Turkish Airlines ( www.thy.com). Onur Air ( www.onurair.com.tr) flies to 12 domestic destinations from Istanbul, with one-way fares starting at 79 lira (£34). Atlas Jet (00 90 212 663 2000; www.atlasjet.com) flies to 10 cities from around 90 lira (£40). Fly Air (00 90 212 424 3737; www.flyair.com.tr) serves Antalya, Bodrum, Izmir and Trabzon.

CAR

Unless you plan to go off the beaten track, hiring a car is not advisable. Turkish drivers can be careless, if not downright dangerous; there are huge distances to cover; road signs can be confusing; and unscrupulous police have been known to pull over Westerners for the slightest infringement, while other drivers career past. If you are not discouraged, a four-door, manual-drive hatchback will cost around £250 for a week. Try www.autoeurope.com or www.holidayautos.co.uk.

Sam Archer

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