A new long-distance walking route takes hikers on a pilgrimage into Turkey's heartland. Stephen Goodwin retraces the holy trail along shepherds' tracks and old trade routes

It was the Bible that turned me on to maps. For the small child enduring the chapel pew, the thin-leaved King James version was a daunting block of text. But bound in at the back were pages of colourful relief - maps of the eastern Mediterranean at the time of the Hittites, the Twelve Tribes of Israel, the Medians and Babylonians, and Palestine in the time of Christ.

Next came (and I presume still do) maps of St Paul's journeys in Asia Minor, Greece and finally to Rome. This was exotic stuff to a child in rural Lincolnshire. The Paul maps had the added ingredient of travel, with arrowed lines linking cities such Tarsus and Iconium, Corinth and Ephesus. If only the book of Acts had been a little more descriptive of landscape, cities and people, as well as detailing the preaching and stonings.

Paul and his companion Barnabas hiked for many hundreds of miles to take Christ's message to the Gentiles, yet the actual journeying gets short shrift. Take Acts xiii, 14: "But when they departed from Perga, they came to Antioch in Pisidia, and went into the synagogue on the sabbath day, and sat down."

Paul and Barnabas must have been ready for that rest. The walk from Perge on the Mediterranean coast to Antioch in Pisidia, overlooking the Anatolian plateau, will have taken at least 10 days. And, as I can attest, it is not easy terrain, the route cutting across the crumpled folds of Turkey's Toros mountains by way of canyons and high passes.

On one unforgettable morning last month I trod the same smoothed pavings as the saintly pair, leading up to the ancient city of Adada, a ruin of Imperial temples, tiered seats and an agora where pied wheatears are far more numerous than human visitors. Huseyin, guardian of the site, was the only soul about, obligingly posing for a photograph by the Zeus Megistos temple. Adada stands half way between Perge and Antioch. Today, the paved way is a romantic treat for lovers of old roads. Roman engineers reorganised the natural limestone of the hill into rectangular blocks, creating a pavement wide enough for legionnaires to march abreast into Adada. It curves for about mile from a valley of stony fields into a defile that formed a gateway to the city.

The outer stones overhang a dry stream-bed with cliffs high above the opposite bank. The gradient is easy enough for an ox-cart, though now it is a route fit only for pedestrians. Junipers and prickly kermes oaks have forced a way through gaps as the slabs have shifted over centuries.

After the humid 35C of the coast, the air at 1,200m on the Roman road was dreamily pleasant, the sound of bees on the wild thyme and the slow, simple song of ortolan buntings encouraging the drift into reverie. Travel in the mountains of Turkey has an addictive quality and this - on my fourth visit - was one of those indefinably atmospheric moments that linger in the mind.

The Roman road into Adada is one of the highlights of the St Paul Trail, a new long-distance walk loosely based on the saint's first journey. It follows shepherds' tracks and old trade routes from Perge, near the resort city of Antalya, to Antioch in Pisidia, by the market town of Yalvac - a total distance of 260km or four or five weeks' hiking. The trail touches 2,000m on arid uplands by snow-streaked Davraz (2,635m), one of several major peaks that can be climbed to add mountaineering spice to the route. Beyond Davraz and its neighbour Barla (2,799m) the trail descends to cross lake Egridir - more an inland sea - and then, for the last few days, strides out towards Antioch across a rolling plateau, a few fields white with opium poppies, permitted for hospital morphine.

Hiking trails are still a fairly novel concept in Turkey, a country with none of the recreational walking culture of elsewhere in Europe. The St Paul Trail has been devised and brought into existence by Kate Clow, an ebullient and determined Englishwoman in her mid-50s who came to Turkey 15 years ago selling computers and stayed on, settling in Antalya and turning to writing.

The trail is Clow's - and Turkey's - second long-distance route. The first was the 450-km Lycian Way, shadowing the rugged coastline of the Teke peninsula, west of Antalya. Over the past year the Lycian Way has attracted some 2,000 walkers, though perhaps only 20 hardy types hiked from end-to-end; some just dipped into it for day walks while on beach holidays at Kas or the backpacker honeypot of Olympos.

Clow has written guidebooks to both trails and, most importantly, waymarked the routes on the ground, aided by a small band of volunteers. Red and white flashes have been placed on boulders, posts and tree trunks, in the same style as the Grande Randonnée trails elsewhere in Europe. Even so, the St Paul Trail is hardly a tamed route.

Turkish officialdom is waking to the public benefit long-distance treks might bring, reviving hill villages and diversifying the tourist economy. While the coast has boomed with sun-and-sea holidaymakers, the mountainous hinterland has slumbered in a timelessness of migrating shepherds and croft-like farming. It's perfect for the wanderer, but there has, as elsewhere, been a drift from the hill villages to urban centres.

Perge was one of the most beautiful cities in Asia Minor in the time of Paul before pirates and earthquakes became its persecutors. Today one can sense its past splendour from the Hellenic gate towers and the broad avenue where water once streamed from beneath a reclining figure of the river god Kestros, now baked dry and eroded. Adada is serenely quiet, while Antioch attracts archaeologists and pilgrims. Christians from Korea were holding an impromptu service by the remains of the fourth century basilica, supposed (probably wrongly) to have been built on the spot where Paul preached to the Gentiles. It made a strange sight; priest holding a golden cup aloft over an altar of fallen masonry, worshippers shielding themselves from the sun with umbrellas, and all around the undulating vastness of Anatolia.

Yet for all the echoes of imperial pomp and saintly footfalls, the most treasured moments were in the mountains, where one is reminded that the Turkish hill people are among the most hospitable in the world. Osman Altintas and his extended family were just erecting the "tent" that would be their summer home as we reached the sparse yayla (pasture) beneath Davraz mountain. A stout wooden frame was almost complete, over which would be layered plastic sheeting and woven awnings of coarse goat hair. Piled around were jars of food, cooking pots, bedding and carpets.

All hands were busy - five men, wives daughters and several excited children - but with the arrival of visitors, grandfather Osman stopped work to welcome us, and two younger women slipped off to the well for water. As the tent took shape a little more slowly, we were seated on carpets, sipping tea and dining on a spread of bread, cheese, olives, tomatoes, cucumber, honey and cake.

Across the wind-swept yayla, hundreds of lop-eared sheep and black goats were foraging, watched over by fierce-looking dogs. Osman talked of summer on the yayla, of the lone wolf he suspected was about, and how he would take the sheep higher on slopes of Davraz as the days grew hotter. This was a rhythm of life older than Antioch or even the moon goddess temple beyond the city. Such are the humbling insights of the Toros.

GIVE ME THE FACTS

How to get there

The nearest airport is Antalya, with direct charter flights from UK until October. For example, Thomas Cook (0870-750 5711; www.thomascook

.co.uk) offers fares from Gatwick or Stansted from around £209 return. Turkish Airlines (020-7766 9300; www.turkishairlines.com) has scheduled flights from around £435, via Istanbul.

Where to stay

Middle Earth Travel, Nevsehir (00 90 384 271 25 28; www.middleearthtravel.com) offers a 15-day guided itinerary on the St Paul's trail, including transfers, b&b, one dinner, guided walks and luggage transfers. The tour costs from €750 (£535) per person.

Further information

'St Paul Trail', by Kate Clow, costs £13.99 through Cordee. The website www.stpaultrail.com is a useful resource. Turkish Tourist Office (020-7355 4207; www.gototurkey.co.uk).

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