Troy: The ultimate one-horse town

No one is even sure if it's the real port of Homer's epic, but Truva in Turkey still attracts visitors in search of Agamemnon, Priam - and now Brad Pitt. Adrian Mourby unearths the story among its ruins

The Greeks took the easy route to Troy, crossing the Aegean in a thousand ships. I drove a hire car from Istanbul airport bouncing along roads that hugged the coast and, as often as not, petered out entirely through lack of governmental interest. It was growing dark when I puttered into Eceabat, one of two 15th-century fortress towns built by the Ottoman army on either side of the Dardanelles. On the opposite coast, three-quarters of a mile away, was Asia and Canakkale, Eceabat's twin, where I was to spend the night. Canakkale was wrapped in darkness and rain and the waters of the Hellespont looked pretty uninviting too. Lord Byron famously swam across this stretch of water. I waited for the ferry, my car surrounded by stocky peasants in army-surplus anoraks.

The Greeks took the easy route to Troy, crossing the Aegean in a thousand ships. I drove a hire car from Istanbul airport bouncing along roads that hugged the coast and, as often as not, petered out entirely through lack of governmental interest. It was growing dark when I puttered into Eceabat, one of two 15th-century fortress towns built by the Ottoman army on either side of the Dardanelles. On the opposite coast, three-quarters of a mile away, was Asia and Canakkale, Eceabat's twin, where I was to spend the night. Canakkale was wrapped in darkness and rain and the waters of the Hellespont looked pretty uninviting too. Lord Byron famously swam across this stretch of water. I waited for the ferry, my car surrounded by stocky peasants in army-surplus anoraks.

The crossing took 25 minutes and, as I disembarked, the steep ramp ripped off a section of my car's undercarriage. That, and a plethora of wooden-horse signs, was my welcome to Canakkale.

I had booked to stay in the Truva Hotel. The only problem is that Truva is the Turkish word for Troy and everything in Canakkale is named after the town's sole attraction and sports a picture of a horse on it. Easing my clattering machine past signs for Truva Tours, Truva Car Hire and Truva Souvenirs, I ended up in a rather empty-looking building on the seafront where the only language we seemed to have in common was my three words of Turkish. I was given a long thin room, where members of the Canakkale Carcinogen Convention must meet, and a view of where the sea would be were it not so dark and windswept. It had been a long cold day but tomorrow, as Agamemnon might have said, I would be in Troy.

My guide for this momentous day was Barish. As a child he used to play on the mound known as Hisarlik. Hisarlik means ruins, Barish warned me. I should not get my hopes up too high.

Although archaeologists have no proof that Truva is Homer's Troy, visitors have been making the trek south of Canakkale for thousands of years in search of Priam, Hecuba and Achilles. Xerxes paid his respects in 481BC. Alexander the Great followed some 150 years later. Julius Caesar also made a sentimental journey here, as did his nephew Augustus, who spent a lot of money building a new Roman city on the site where Aeneas, one of the world's first asylum-seekers, grew to manhood before escaping the avenging Greeks and founding Rome. In total, nine settlements have been built on the hillock known as Truva, but before we explored any of them, Barish took me to the ramshackle shop run by his uncle, Mustafa.

An unconvincing wooden horse stood outside, but coffee and a warm welcome awaited us within. After buying a few Trojan Horse key chains and a T-shirt I followed Barish through some state-of-the-art turnstiles and found myself face to face with the real thing.

Standing 10 metres high, the horse designed by Izzet Senemoglu was erected in the 1970s. It is impressive but ought to have made any recipient immediately suspicious. Those wooden steps and handrail leading into its belly are something of a giveaway, as is the little hut, with shuttered windows, where the saddle should be. If the Trojans didn't suspect anything when Agamemnon left this booby-trap behind, then they deserved to be slaughtered. Still, it makes for a good photo, unlike the ruins themselves.

The big problem with Truva, as Barish explained to me, is that its nine layers were excavated in a rush by one Heinrich Schliemann, a man who preferred dynamite over the archaeologist's trowel, in 1873. Schliemann was interested in finding only one Troy - Homer's - and in search of it he created a chaos that still hasn't been resolved.

Barish took me to where the trail begins on top of an outcrop that would have commanded a view of the Aegean and the Greek fleet were the weather not so foul. "Homer called Troy the Windy City!" Barish joked. "Now you can see why!"

What we came upon was a muddy circle of ramparts rather like those of the British Camp at Malvern. Schliemann paid 100 Turkish workmen to dig up this remnant of the citadel for three years and today it still looks as if they will be back next week to finish off. It is impossible to visit Troy without being confused by the jumble of layers presented to you. The eastern gate I entered through dated from Troy VII (1250-1040BC) , the incarnation generally ascribed to Homer; but this immediately let on to ramparts from Troy II (2600-2450BC) and a temple from Troy VIII, the period of Greek settlement (700-85BC). Excavation of the site in the 20th century was much more painstaking but the presentation remains inadequate.

Only one attempt has been made at re-creation: a small section of outer wall from Homer's time where the lower levels are of local stone and the top built up out of red mud bricks. Everything else is disappointing and the site seems to know this. It has a weary air - it knows that an opportunity was missed.

Barish and I stood a while getting soaked and chilled in equal measure. I had come a long way to see where Brad Pitt and Eric Bana slug it out for immortality. Nevertheless, one benefit came from standing on the hillock known as Troy. I could see how, before the rivers Scamander and Simois silted up Troy's harbour, the city was once a perfect berth for ships battling their way up the windy Aegean or arriving from the Black Sea down through the Dardanelles. Traders from all points on the compass would have put in at Troy to wait out the weather, taking on fresh supplies and spending freely. Clearly it was the maritime wealth of Troy which drove the Greeks to invade. Orlando Bloom doesn't have to abduct Diane Kruger to explain the war. We are talking commerce here.

My view also made perfect sense of the subsequent poverty of landlocked Troy, no longer able to trade. It's a Truva truism but nothing beats standing on the spot where history happened.

GIVE ME THE FACTS

How to get there

Adrian Mourby travelled to Truva in Turkey courtesy of Turkish Airlines (020-7766 9300; www.turkishairlines.com). Return flights from London Heathrow to Istanbul cost from £184.

To get about easily in rural Turkey, car hire is necessary. Holiday Autos (0870 400 0010; www.holidayautos.co.uk) offers one week's fully inclusive car hire from £199.

Where to stay

The Buyuk Truva Hotel on Canakkale (00 90 286 217 1024) offers double rooms from $50 (£31) per room per night, including breakfast.

Where to get more information

For further information about Truva and Turkey at large, contact the Turkish Tourist Office (020-7629 7771; www.gototurkey.co.uk).

The film 'Troy', starring Brad Pitt and Eric Bana opens nationwide in the UK on 21 May.

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