The idyllic town that time forgot

Louis de Bernières may have set his latest novel here, but Turkey's beautiful Kaya Valley still seems a million miles from the tourist trail, says the poet Brian Patten

On the outskirts of Keciler, a settlement in the Kaya Valley inland from Fethiye Bay on Turkey's Turquoise Coast, preparations are under way for the village's first Turkish theme-night. Under a huge red and gold awning attached to a cafe garden, at the corner of two deserted crossroads between fields of tobacco, a young Turkish girl is going through her paces in anticipation of tourists who will soon be bussed in for the evening. The musicians accompanying her are keen, and the cook is proud of the wonderful food he is preparing. Meanwhile, in cool kitchens and shady cafes elsewhere in the valley, the last of the American and European hippies and backpackers from the Sixties are muttering that it's time to move on.

On the outskirts of Keciler, a settlement in the Kaya Valley inland from Fethiye Bay on Turkey's Turquoise Coast, preparations are under way for the village's first Turkish theme-night. Under a huge red and gold awning attached to a cafe garden, at the corner of two deserted crossroads between fields of tobacco, a young Turkish girl is going through her paces in anticipation of tourists who will soon be bussed in for the evening. The musicians accompanying her are keen, and the cook is proud of the wonderful food he is preparing. Meanwhile, in cool kitchens and shady cafes elsewhere in the valley, the last of the American and European hippies and backpackers from the Sixties are muttering that it's time to move on.

Grey-haired now, they've decamped once before, moving into the beautiful Kaya Valley from nearby Oludeniz, an ocean-lagoon surrounded by mountains. In the days before the British knew what a kebab was, Oludeniz was an untouched paradise. Then the first organised tours appeared. Day-trippers came over from Rhodes, cautiously dipping a toe in Turkish waters. That was in the mid-Sixties. Private yachts followed in the Seventies and began to pollute the lagoon until they were banned in 1984.

The waters cleared again, but by then the paradise that had been Oludeniz had changed forever. Now it is a noisy place given over to motels, hotels, campsites and crowds.

Hopefully those early intrepid travellers are over-reacting and have little to fear from mass tourism. The Kaya Valley has some years in it left before even benign tourism makes any real mark. For now, the valley is still given over to agriculture, mostly tobacco and vegetables, and remains a calm and verdant place. Its incomers are craftspeople and artists, along with a few Turkish novelists and a bohemian crowd from Istanbul and Ankara. It seems a million miles off the tourist trail.

Having said this, on a hillside four miles inland from the coast is the ghost town of Kayakoy. Fast becoming one of the valley's focal points, Kayakoy might decide the valley's fate as a tourist destination sooner rather than later. It is the place on which Louis de Bernières has modelled Eskibahce, the setting for his latest book, Birds Without Wings. The book is one of de Bernières' best. If it proves as successful as Captain Corelli's Mandolin, it will turn the spotlight on a place that has dozed in obscurity for the last 80 or so years. For Kayakoy is extraordinary. A derelict town climbing up the side of a mountain it has about it an almost unbearable sense of loss. Sadness hangs in the air like a scent.

You approach the town via an old car park. A narrow path of shiny foot-smoothed stones leads up to the deserted houses and fans out to what once would have been numerous shady alleyways. Now the sun beats down on roofless ruins and slants through a thousand and one windowless gaps. In the height of summer the heat is stifling and the deserted town is all but free of visitors. It is a place of ghosts.

There are two derelict churches. The Church of the Virgin at the top was once beautifully decorated with murals, but over the years the elements have wiped all sense of grandeur from its interior. The same fate has befallen the lower church. A few circular murals remain high up near the huge arched ceiling, and fragments of blue and gold paint are just about visible in the gloom. Carved into the plaster where once images of saints kneeled and haloed angels fluttered are the names of a hundred and one Mehmets and Murats and Gunels. In the niches where statues once stood are cobwebs and the skeletons of birds.

The story of how the town came to be this way is simple enough: Kayakoy was once a primarily Greek town with about 3,000 inhabitants. At the end of the Greco-Turkish War of 1919-22 the Greeks left as part of the general population exchanges between the two countries. Being on a hillside 800 feet above sea-level had been no problem for the Greeks. They were craftspeople, able to work in sheds and outhouses. But hilly Kayakoy was of no use to the Turks. They were farmers.

The Turks helped their neighbours, with whom they'd previously lived in harmony, to depart, and then they turned their backs on the hillside houses.

Recently a plan was afoot to convert the houses into a holiday centre. Fortunately the resistance was strong enough to stifle the idea.

Around most sites of antiquity souvenir-stalls and hawkers are quick to cluster, often overpowering and belittling the places they feed off. Kayakoy has escaped most of this because, so far, tourists have been attracted to the region solely because of the nearby beaches and water-sports. Only a few stalls and cafes have appeared on the lower slopes of the town, and a few local craftspeople have renovated a couple of the houses and a crafts workshop, but that's about it. The area is still a lager-free zone, just far enough inland to require an effort to visit.

It is amazing how quickly the town has taken on an aura of antiquity. The weather has done its bit. Winter in the Kaya valley is very rainy and it can be icy. Torrential storms and strong winds rattle about the houses and tear through the village streets, polishing and buffeting the stones out of which the town is built. By spring the area is an explosion of wild flowers. Come summer and the heat, there is an abundance of pomegranates and endless fruit on the wild fig trees.

For now the town clings on to the hillside, with its ghosts still undisturbed by other than a handful of tourists. As they stare at the derelict churches, the roofless houses and the ancient water cisterns smothered by morning glory, some will no doubt wonder exactly how ancient the place is, unaware that down in the valley are living people whose parents knew the ghosts well.

For people who wish to escape the crowds and find peace and solitude in beautiful surroundings the Kaya Valley, with the backdrop of the Taurus Mountains, is a perfect place from which to explore the region. Renovated cottages can be rented. A car is essential.

If you want the buzz of beach-life then Oludeniz is a short car journey from Kayakoy (or, if you're up for it, a two-and-a-half-hour walk over a marked mountain path). There are a few nearer, quieter beaches, along with the marinas and market towns of Fethiye and Gocek, but south-west Turkey's soul is inland, on the slopes of its pine-clad hills and in its valleys watered by the snows of the Taurus Mountains.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

Brian Patten travelled to Turkey with Exclusive Escapes (020-8605 3600; www.hiddenturkey.com), which offers private villas in Kayakoy and Misafir Evi, a boutique hotel. Prices for the latter start at £300 for a week's stay, including flights from London, transfers and car rental.

The closest airport is Dalaman, which has scheduled services from Gatwick, Stansted and Manchester on Cyprus Turkish Airlines (020-7930 4851; www.kthy.net).

Turkish Airlines (020-7766 9300; www.turkishairlines.com) offers connections from Heathrow and Manchester via Istanbul, which is worthwhile if you want also to visit Turkey's largest city. If not, choose a charter flight from one of many UK airports to Dalaman on a wide range of airlines including First Choice Airways (0870 850 3999; www.firstchoice.co.uk), Thomson (0800 107 1517; www.thomsonflights.com), Thomas Cook (0870 750 5711; www.thomascook.com) and Excel Airways (0870 169 0169; www.xl.com).

MORE INFORMATION

Turkish Tourist Office (020-7629 7771; www.gototurkey.co.uk).

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