Travel: Mehmet's magical mystery tour

Helen Jacobus spent 16 hot days and sleep-deprived nights travelling 1,800 miles on a group tour of Turkey's classical sites

I WAS going on holiday alone, but how? As I didn't want to be an independent traveller anymore, I decided to take an "adventurous" package holiday instead. I climbed aboard a small bus, with a group of strangers, to cram in the delights of Aegean and Anatolian Turkey over 16 days and 1,800 miles.

Although the enticing and sweaty-sounding "Highlights of Turkey" trip with Exodus Discovery Tours welcomes the single traveller, I hadn't wondered beforehand about how we'd all get on. To be honest, my main concern was whether the bus would be air-conditioned and comfortable.

We'd be visiting Graeco-Roman sites I'd always longed to see, like Troy and Ephesus. There were promises of lesser-known places - pure air for the imagination - such as the pre-Biblical Hittite kingdom of Hattusas.

The first lesson in social, package-tour bonding is that some key friendships are made en route, on the aeroplane. Other relationships evolve, of course, as part of the mystery of the discovery tour.

But we are talking here about interaction en masse. To mention Animal Farm or Lord of the Flies in the same breath as a group holiday is, admittedly, a touch over-dramatic but maybe not far from the truth. We were a disparate bunch: 16, in all. Three married couples, including a pair on honeymoon; one secret twosome, and later, a mid-trip romance. Ten were travelling alone, of whom three were male. (This is not a brain-teaser.)

There were four New Zealanders, a photographer, several teachers, a yoga teacher, a lawyer, a probation officer, a builder, and more. Ages ranged from the twenties to the sixties. I must not forget our unforgettable guide, Mehmet, and an amiable driver - also called Mehmet.

The shiny 22-seater midi-bus (it was air-conditioned) had some seats with more legroom than others, as we discovered after a few days on the road. To get a comfortable place, the trick was to get on board early and settle in. If this meant inadvertently chucking off any sunhat or small rucksack someone had left to bag their place while they ate a leisurely breakfast, tough.

Popularity and comfort do not always go hand in glove. "I don't know why some people insist on sitting alone," muttered one husband who had left his sunhat on a comfy seat, which I had removed. "No one knew whose hat it was," I heard my voice say with faux innocence.

The logistics of coach-sharing soon became apparent. Usually, we solos sat in pairs and chatted. But not when we wanted to nod off.

The second lesson is that everyone sums each other up for journey-compatibility, more or less instantly. My role, which kind of stuck from Gallipoli onwards, was, rather pathetically, the group's medicine dispenser. A paid-up, take- no-chances neurotic, I'd arrived armed with three types of diarrhoea tablets (according to severity), a variety of analgesics, different brands of creams and anti-histamine tablets to relieve insect bites. And another medicine chest.

If some of the must-see stops were somewhat cursory - and they were - Troy certainly wasn't one of them. A local guide, Mustapha Askin, who has written a book about the place - on sale in the legendary kingdom's little souvenir shop - gave us an expert's tour of Homer's city.

Mustapha assured us that the archaeologists shared with him the latest information about their finds and theories. Though, according to an excellent travel-writing book brought along by a friendly teacher, the excavators refused to talk to him.

After lunch, we arrived at the Asclepeion of Pergamum, the healing sanctuary of the classical world, and my first breathtaking glimpse of handsome Ionic colonnades in their natural environment.

One golden rule was that we had to stick together while Mehmet the guide gave a potted history of each site. This meant you couldn't straggle behind when everyone else is moving on, crocodile-style - difficult, when you're falling in love spiritually with a beautiful scene.

The photographers, professional and amateur, would make themselves particularly unpopular with the rest of the group by being a few minutes late back at the bus. I was amazed at the freedom we stragglers had in which to wander around. I made a solitary detour into the Asclepeion's library where, on the ground, lay dozens of 2,000-year-old veined marble fragments. It was tempting to pick up one or two as keepsakes.

All too soon, we drove on to the dazzling, white marble temples of Pergamum, just visible on a hill above the remains of the Asclepeion and gleaming magnificently in the sunlight. Most of this acropolis, however, lies inside the Pergamum Museum in Berlin.

The most sociable moments were usually the evening meals. Afterwards, the official couples generally headed off for an early night in order to rise and shine, while the rest moved on to a bar and, if possible, a disco. "I was ruined at Ephesus," was a sign I spotted in a bar close to our hotel, in the town nearest to the famous Graeco-Roman city.

This, in fact, was one of my favourite evenings. We downed home-made wine and raki in a lokanta in a village in the hills and sat at a long, wooden table, a canopy of vines and stars over our heads. The meal was perfect, endless courses finished off with a raki-drinking contest. The winner made lewd suggestions to one of the women, who barely spoke to him again throughout the trip.

On another evening, when darkness fell, those with energy to spare ascended Mount Olympos to see the fire-breathing monster, the Chimaera. This particular Mount Olympos (there are many in the classical world) is an ancient holy mountain on top of which perpetual flames flicker, like dragons' tongues, out of the rocks.

We had to climb the mount in a torchlight procession along a slippery path in pitch darkness, those who had brought torches shining beams of light for those who had not.

I declined to take part in a mixed Turkish bath in the country's ultra- conservative religious city of Konya, home to mysticism, Sufism and the Whirling Dervishes. The haman - where, I was told, huge masseurs pummel the hell out of you - would have been a brilliant place to bond with Exodus companions, if you didn't mind them getting an eyeful of the flesh you normally kept covered. But, exhausted from more than a week of four-hour slumbers, I chose the early night.

We spent two days in the dizzy, Disneyesque landscape of Capaddocia. Volcanic ash from millions of years ago has created a land of phallic chimneys, rose-pink troglodyte houses, labyrinthine underground cities and Byzantine chapels. We trekked, some straggling behind, along a valley of rocks shaped like meringues and whipped cream, geologically painted in stripes of grey, gold and maroon. We could smell the local wine's hint of pigeon droppings, the region's favoured fertiliser.

My verdict on the trip? It would have been impossible to see as much as I did by travelling alone. But here's the third lesson: you need a strong stomach, plenty of stamina and an easy-going attitude. Party animal instincts are optional.

turkey fact file

Visitors wander amidst the ruins of Pergamon

Basics

Helen Jacobus went on a "Highlights of Turkey" tour with Exodus Discovery Holidays, 9 Weir Road, London SW12 OLT (tel: 0181-675 5550).

The cost of pounds 690 covers airfare, plus B&B in two- and three-star hotels. Allow pounds 120 for food, pounds 50 for tips and site entrance fees and pounds l0 for a visa, obtained on arrival.

Group and staff

Minimum eight, maximum 20, plus a leader.

Transport

Mini- or midi-bus.

Reading

'Discovery Guide To Eastern Turkey and the Black Sea Coast' by Diana Darke, and 'Discovery Guide To Aegean and Mediterranean Turkey' by Diana Darke.

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