BELIEVE ME, I have breathed the air of ancient times, untainted by cigarettes, perfume or exhaust fumes; the very same air that the heroes of Homer, Herodotus and Aeschylus breathed. I have inhaled pure oxygen from the dawn of our civilisation and to any cynic who shrugs and thinks I exaggerate I can only say: go to Arykanda and you will breathe it, too.

I am standing in a pine forest on the steep slope of a mountainside 600m above sea-level in southern Turkey, the area the ancient world knew as Lycia. It is late afternoon but the sun is still high and its warmth intensifies the trees' sharp, resinous smell. Pine needles form a soft carpet underfoot and pine cones are scattered across the ancient stadium that occupies a flattened area 17 metres wide and 90 metres long. The stadium's five rows of seating have only recently been excavated after being covered for centuries by a rock-fall, and the carved stone gleams like new. The flat area where races would have been run is now punctuated by a single tree.

Tony Spawforth, a classics lecturer from Newcastle, stands in its shade to explain that the suffix -anda in Arykanda, the name of the town that once occupied this site, dates it from the Bronze Age. The nearby stream and natural spring high in the mountain were piped to a cistern and this supply of untainted water, and the fertility of the land in the valley below, made it a favoured site for several centuries. The air is intoxicatingly pure and heady. I inhale deeply; it's like breathing neat vodka.

The land drops away on the far edge of the stadium, the hillside forming the back of a theatre, which in turn overlooks an odeon, or small theatre. Below these is an agora or marketplace; below that a gymnasium, a series of high rooms that were once the baths, several tombs and a temple. The city's ruins are astonishingly complete, considering that it dates from before the sixth century BC. Aside from our own small group (10 people and two guides) there is no one else here; being an hour and half's drive from the coast, the site is sufficiently remote to deter most tourists. One of our party finds a tiny Greek coin amid the ruins of the agora, tendered for the purchase of bread, olives, honey, wine or oil from one of the shops whose ground-plan is still perfectly clear. We pass the battered, blackened disc from hand to hand. To get the most from visiting ancient sites, one must surrender to the power of imagination, but this tiny object, carelessly dropped more than 2,000 years ago, is a tangible link.

Descending the dusty path to the road, parched with thirst and craving a drink of sweet, hot Turkish tea, we are swiftly returned to the present. Our minibus passes small children languidly herding goats in the fields and olive groves; young women bundled up in headscarves and baggy trousers gathering herbs and samphire on the hillsides; even a whole family harvesting a field by hand, using tiny, curved scythes - back-breaking work. A tethered donkey, still laden with a makeshift saddle constructed from rigid wooden struts, crops the almost non-existent vegetation. A tortoise lumbers across the road painfully slowly, menaced by trucks. It is easy to romanticise Turkey but this is still, in many respects, a Third World country whose peasantry barely rises above subsistence level. It may be picturesque to see and photograph; it must be a grindingly hard life.

For years I had put off going to Turkey. The film Midnight Express, plus Turkey's human rights record, had combined to create the image of a race of brutal people who did unspeakable things behind closed doors. Turkey has its atrocities still: an English journalist was seized and imprisoned only last month for talking to Kurds - but the ordinary people are as welcoming and hospitable as the Irish, who also have their hard men.

This visit was prompted by a cruise organised by a group to which I belong called Friends of Classics: a trip through the ancient sites of southern Turkey, chosen to appeal to members who read Classics at university or still read Latin and Greek for pleasure. I cannot claim to fall into either category - my Latin ended at O-level; my Greek is non-existent - but it sounded like a good holiday and I jumped at it. Using the pretext of giving the holiday to Tony, my partner, as a 50th birthday present, I booked us on to a boat with accommodation for 12. We flew to Istanbul, thence to Dalaman, and caught a minibus to Fethiye, arriving after midnight.

It is a cliche from a thousand travel books, but I was actually woken next morning by the sound of a muezzin calling the faithful to prayer. It is a hollow, haunting sound, and you couldn't mistake it for anything else. At the same time the cocks began to crow and the fishing village where we were moored bustled into life. I levered myself up from the bed and peered through the porthole. Water] Boats] Cerulean sky] Blinding white houses] Overnight we had swept like Ali Baba through the sky and found ourselves in a magic land.

If you want to catch the last lingering glimpse of the Ottoman empire that Turkey was, let alone the ancient world, go quickly. In 10 years it will be too late: the invading hordes, more deadly than the Tartars, will have over-run it. The great classical sites, the empty beaches, the little villages with buzzing bazaars will have become just another repository for international logos and tat. Turkey is changing fast. The countryside is full of buildings hurriedly thrown up. Tourism is bringing the crude, the garish and noisy: otherwise known as the modern traveller.

In one respect these are no worse, indeed better, than their 19th-century predecessors. In 1842 an Englishman called Charles Fellows plundered the great site at Xanthos, centre of ancient Lycia, and brought away the Harpy frieze from one of the pillar tombs and the Nereid monument dating from 410 BC. He shipped 78 packing cases containing these and other treasures back to England. They now stand forlornly in the antiseptic splendour of the British Museum.

What remains at Xanthos today is a Roman theatre, its central area littered with fallen columns and elaborate decorated capitals across which snakes and lizards slither. Clambering over them is a grown-up version of childhood days at the seaside, climbing over rocks with a fishing net and peering in pools looking for shrimps, only now the search is for Doric or Corinthian carving: more plentiful than the shrimps. Crickets buzz. The sun is blinding, even on the shady side. The theatre was built in the second century AD. Later, the bottom rows of seats were removed to accommodate cages holding wild animals for displays and bloodthirsty battles.

Nearby is an inscribed obelisk bearing 138 lines of text in lost scripts called Lycian A and B and a 12-line epigram in Greek, a torment and delight to scholars. As with the breath of ancient air, I must ask you to take on trust that one can become seriously fascinated by Lycian B; a Rosetta Stone puzzle as yet largely unsolved. There are lesser monuments in whose shade even the goats rest from the midday heat, where small boys selling melons and tomatoes to cool your parched throat sit casually until you pass, when they leap to their feet shouting, 'My friend] My friend] Deutsch? Eengleesh? Tomato?'

Nearby is Patara, once a great harbour and the principal port of the Xanthos valley, still in use right up to the 12th century AD. The inlet has silted up since then and sand dunes are gradually filling up the theatre's great bowl. Alexander the Great marched through here in 333 BC on his triumphal progress through the known world: and much that was unknown, too. St Paul stayed here and St Nicholas was born here. The path to the site leads through a field of knee-high barley bordered with poppies, daisies and four-foot-tall thistles, and the first hint of anything special is a long Latin inscription decipherable (well, by some) at the base of a wall. The dedication is followed by the name of the donor: Uilia Procla, a Lycian citizen of Patara whose father was a Roman senator. Its date is AD 142. We cluster round, peering at the beautifully incised lettering, half- hidden by vegetation.

The theatre behind it has never yet been excavated and never will be, if the dunes encroach at their present speed. It is overgrown with thorn bushes and half-hidden by fine slippery sand that invades one's shoes and stings the eyes. I climb 27 rows of seats to the top and sit under a twisted olive tree. A young Turkish couple, she in headscarf, white blouse, black waistcoat and billowing pantaloons, her husband casual in a cool shirt and trousers, ask me to take their picture. They pose decorously, he with a hand resting lightly in the curve of her waist. Behind them, fields stretch away towards a rocky outcrop; the rocks become hills, the hills mountains. They smile. I click. They smile at me, take their camera and walk away, apart. It would be improper to hold hands. The footsteps of our party are already almost obscured in the sand dunes. I hurry to catch up.

Later that evening, after dinner on board, we disembark and stroll through the balmy night-time streets of Kalkan, a relatively new holiday village. I haggle for hours with a black-eyed young carpet seller who speaks excellent English over a beautiful rug in shades of sand and old rose, but since pounds 200 is my absolute top price and he won't come down that far, we part with elaborate courtesy and mutual regrets. (Later I bought a similar carpet in a remoter village for pounds 20 below my limit.)

During the tourist season the shops are open from 7 or 8 am until midnight. 'We work for six months and rest for six months,' I was told. There were jewellers selling ropes of polished amber and necklaces of coral, haematite, turquoise and silver; carpet sellers everywhere, their best rugs hung tantalisingly outside the shop; shops selling leather, T-shirts, and the usual postcard and baseball cap paraphernalia. There was one lively restaurant where everyone sat on rugs and cushions on the floor and in the middle people did a mixture of bopping and belly-dancing, which made them and the watchers laugh uproariously. It was jolly and funny and somehow innocent. The south of France must have been like this 30 years ago.

Turkey has a wealth of glorious ancient ruins. I have not described the half - not a quarter - of what I saw; and I saw a fraction of what there is. There are theatres and Lycian tombs, some carved out of the sheer rock- face, others covered over with high stone lids, but all plundered now, their decorations ruthlessly chipped away to give grave robbers access to the bones and belongings of the dead. There are temples, columns, mosaics, baths, all best reached by landing in tiny bays where the turquoise sea fringes deserted beaches and you can dive from the boat and swim in water that puts the rest of the Mediterranean to shame.

That, I suppose, is the built-in hazard: the boat. If you have a bore on board, there's not a lot you can do to get away. We were lucky; our group of 12 (including two lecturers, specialists in classical sites, and ranging in age from 21 to 77) got on so well that before parting we arranged a reunion to compare notes and swap photographs. We ate together every day around a table on deck, watching the rolling sea speed past in the mornings, sometimes accompanied by dolphins, or cradling pre-dinner drinks as the clouds deepened to pink, then grey, then sunset. Our meals were prepared by Nury, a wonderful Turkish cook who conjured up miracles in the cramped galley using yoghurt and aubergines, feta cheese, tomatoes, onions, beans and masses of fresh fruit. The advantage of the boat is that you are spared the terrors of Turkish driving, the dusty, pot-holed roads and the constant change of hotels, the chore of packing and unpacking.

We spent our final day in Antalya, a bustling modern town with a fascinating old quarter, where rickety wooden houses peered into one another's windows and balconies and a woman in every upper window peered at us. In the 18th-century bazaar the merchants are still in full swing. I was beckoned into a carpet shop by one, Erhan Ergovan, to watch his grandmother make a carpet. His German was fluent and no wonder: he had been a Gastarbeiter there for 13 years. Inside the shop sat a woman in her sixties, cross- legged before a frame, her hands softened with henna, knotting with incredible speed. She had been making carpets for 55 years, having learnt the craft from her mother.

My partner went off to enjoy a Turkish bath, scrub, massage and shave (it took an hour and a half and cost the equivalent of a pound), returning pink and shiny as a baby to find me cursing as I crammed the last of our dusty clothes into a suitcase suddenly, mysteriously too small. It had all been, he said, a lovely birthday present.

Angela Lambert's trip to southern Turkey was arranged by the Friends of Classics (membership, pounds 60 per year, details from Jeannie Cohen, 51 Achilles Road, London NW6 1DZ, 071-431 5088) and organised through Temple World Tours (081-940 4114). Turkish Airlines (071-499 9249) offers return flights to Dalaman or Antalya starting at pounds 350; charter flights from pounds 170 from Flightclub (0903 231857).

Kirman, in Antalya (010 90 31 487809), sold well-priced carpets.

(Photograph and map omitted)