It took four winters for Altay Ozcan and two friends to forge the 820km Carian Trail through the dense forests, scrub and rocky coastline of south-west Turkey. Locals accused them of being illegal treasure hunters, animal poachers or just plain crazy, but never hikers. Walking in Turkey, Altay explained, is bred of necessity, not pleasure. But that may be about to change.
What started as an adventure has culminated in the longest continuous footpath in the country. But it hasn't been easy. "I gave up my 20s and spent most of my money on this project," Altay says, but he is smiling. Sometimes the boldest dreams require the biggest effort.
And the gamble seems to have paid off. The Carian Trail – named after the ancient region of Caria in south-west Asia Minor – recently opened to the public. It stretches from Bodrum and Karpuzlu, by the Aegean Sea in the west, around the Gulf of Gokova, to Icmeler, by the Mediterranean in the south-east. The new trail is already hot on the heels of the Lycian Way, Turkey's most popular long-distance walk. But it is more than just a footpath. It links ancient roads and forgotten shepherd ways with historical sites and rarely visited villages, and forms a gateway to an authentic side of Turkey that's rarely seen.
I was booked on a new, privately guided trip that had three days' moderate walking on the Bozburun Peninsula section of the route. This is a protected area of pristine bays, winding mountain roads and small country farms.
"Most of the coast is just a tourist barbecue," Altay said, as we laced up our boots on the first day. "But here you go into the real life."
And real life in Turkey, as I was to find out, means taking your time. There was walking, of course, but there were also tea breaks at every village and long seaside lunches with shady siestas, too. We started at the pretty mountain village of Bayir, walking through pine forests blooming with pink oleander flowers, pear and fig trees, to a series of small waterfalls cascading down to clear green pools, perfect for a dip. We drank cool glasses of ayran, a salty local yoghurt delicacy and shared a plate of mezze by the shimmering waters of Turgut Bay. Then we climbed hard to the more than 2,000-year-old ruined fortress of Hydas, just in time to watch the sun cast golden shadows over the Bay of Selimiye.
It was strange to stand on the crumbling ramparts and scramble down to a Hellenistic era pyramidal tomb, with inscriptions still visible two millennia after they were carved.
The ancient history of the Caria people is largely unknown. Homer writes that they fought as allies of King Priam at Troy. Herodotus describes them as fierce, seafaring warriors. Records show that they worked as mercenaries for the Pharaohs of Egypt. But where they came from and where they disappeared to remains a mystery. Perhaps it is fitting, then, that many of the ruins along the trail are somewhat abandoned – trampled by goats, generations of overgrown bracken and now hikers.
I felt like I was walking through ghost towns, but Altay loved it. "It's like Indiana Jones archeology," he said, lifting a broken gourd from the rubble and holding it above his head.
The Dionysos Estate hotel was our retreat at the end of every long day. Here, individual stone villas, built to reflect the traditional architecture of the region, blend seamlessly into the sheer cliff walls of a 237m deep canyon that drops sharply to the sea, where the Mediterranean and Aegean meet.
The organic farm provides fresh cheese and vegetables, trees of apricot, pear and orange that guests are invited to pluck ripe off the bud and olive groves that are harvested annually to produce the home-made oil gracing the tables of the hotel's three restaurants.
Add to this a spa, beach club and an infinity pool high above the Bay of Kumlubuk and it's a hard place to leave.
But starting in Bayir again, we followed overgrown stone paths, laid by Alexander the Great, to the ancient city of Smyrna – cracked columns, fading foundations and a centuries-old stone olive press, the only clues to betray its once frenetic past. From there, we pressed on to the coast, following long precarious paths beside the cliff edge, shallow bays glistening like ocean treasure. Later, we passed flat-capped farmers tending small family plots, shipyards where traditional Turkish sailing gulets are cut into shape and a cliff-top standing stone, carved thousands of years ago, into the shape of a sentinel looking out to sea.
We descended a steep path from the village of Taslica on our final day, to a sleepy beach in the inlet of Serce Limani. The walk now complete, we threw off our clothes and dived into those clear, warm waters in celebration – heat sizzling off us like smoke on a barbecue.
As I surfaced, I thought again about Altay's four winters of hard work to make this trail. In three days, we had walked less than five per cent of his route – a path he hiked three times before it was mapped, waymarked and made ready for tourists like me.
I followed the trail in my mind's eye along the peninsula – further west there are elaborately painted villages where women wear flowers in their hair; in the north, rarely visited ancient agoras and Neolithic cave paintings.
"There is so much to see," Altay said, as if reading my thoughts. But I was done with walking for a while. Instead I lay on the hot sand, ordered another plate of mezze and let the real life of Turkey wash over me.
Turkey specialist Exclusive Escapes (020-8605 3500; exclusiveescapes.co.uk) offers seven nights' B&B at the Dionysos Estate and three days' guided trekking on the Carian Trail from £1,050pp. The price is based on two sharing, and includes return flights from the private terminal at Stansted, Heathrow or Manchester to Dalaman. It also includes transfers to and from the airport, and a day's gulet cruise.
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