The Aspendos theatre is famous for its magnificent acoustics (archer10 (Dennis))
Article Words : David Atkinson | 02 July

The St Paul Trail, central Turkey

The St Paul Trail is a wild and wonderful walk across central Turkey and the homestays en route provide inexpensive insights into the region and its people

Sharp suit. Serious demeanour. Glint of gold wrist bracelet in the afternoon sun. The silver-fox village elder, or muhtar, of Müezzinler came across as part Vince Cable, part Tony Soprano.

“Welcome!” He extended a firm, tanned hand. “We have prepared tea and sesame snacks.”

He led me through the spring-flowering village, all tulips and wild tortoises, to a traditional timber house: animal quarters downstairs, living room on stilts above, with rugged floors, wood-burning stove, and his 86-year-old mother hiding from the mid-afternoon sun under a patterned headscarf.

“Any stranger can still come to a village like this, knock on a door and have a place to stay and eat,” said Murtha Mustafa Acar as we sipped tea more saccharine than a Turkish love song. “Ten years from now, when the trail is established, I hope villages like ours will be alive again.”

Turkey has been making headlines of late – from the 2010 European Capital of Culture programme in Istanbul to a growing reputation as a euro-free fly-and-flop bargain. But the most rewarding and best-value way to explore the real Turkey remains trekking – engaging with local communities at grass-roots level.

The coastal Lycian Way remains the country’s most popular route, welcoming some 12,000 trekkers per year. But I had come to walk a number of sections of the St Paul Trail, the 500km, 24-day long-distance footpath stretching north from either Aspendos or Perge, both near Antalya in the south. The trail partly follows paths walked by St Paul on his first missionary journey in Asia Minor, and continues north to Yalvaç in central Turkey’s Lake District. I’d hop between sections by car as logistics demanded.

The trail was established by walking guide Kate Clow six years ago and is still in its infancy in terms of local infrastructure and visitor numbers. Some sections are remote and physically demanding, with variable signposting. Some trailheads are served by local buses, or you can arrange a guided hike through a local agency.

Welcoming homestays

My aim was to explore some of the more accessible lengths of the trail, keeping costs low by shopping in markets, eating in local cafés and taking advantage of the groundswell of simple but welcoming rural pensions and homestays springing up like wildflowers along the way. For some sections I joined an international group of volunteer waymarkers, led by Kate, which was busily clearing the path and painting new signs on rocks to keep the trail in working condition.

“Villages in rural Turkey are within a generation of dying,” said Kate, who was coordinating the waymarking team over the dinner table in a remote Forestry Commission hut. “When the old people die, the villages will die with them. My aim, by waymarking trails and fostering infrastructure, is simply to keep the land alive.”

I joined the three-pronged trail just north of E˘girdir, a friendly lakeside town with an ancient mosque and bazaar. Heading south through protected forest, my first destination was to be the Roman site of Adada, where the two southern sections of the trail converge and where I would join the waymarkers. But first my guide, Deniz, led a half-day hike through the ruins at Prostanna, climbing Mt Sivri for a view over Lake E˘girdir and a perspective on the trail snaking ahead to the south. I sat on the remains of a sixth-century Roman watchtower, swigging water and taking in the view: snow-capped peaks, ancient ruins and grazing goatherds. This was going to be fun.

Adada felt gloriously lost in time when, after a short transfer by car to meet the waymarking group, I explored its ancient Roman ruins. As I clambered over the pillars in the forum and St Paul’s Basilica, a stone church dedicated to the peripatetic saint, only the low-reverberating hum of bees and the gentle fragrance of the purple flowers could distract me. I was alone, silent among the ghosts of an ancient civilisation.

The path down to the village of Sa˘grak marked the first truly iconic stretch of the trail, following the old Roman road through a rocky scrubland of gorse bushes and wild, garlicky chives. I basked in the late-afternoon sunshine as I descended the huge Roman slabs, arriving at the tranquil settlement in time to eat and bed down in Sa˘grak’s converted schoolhouse with other waymarkers returning from the trail.

That night the watchful eyes of a portrait of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the republic’s founding father, surveyed the group feast of soup, chicken, rice and bread.

Over dinner Jane Hoy, an educational trainer from Merseyside and first-time volunteer, described her experience of waymarking the trail. “I’ve walked the GR20 in Corsica but this feels more uncharted,” she enthused. “I’ve found some sections pretty tough, but the views and rawness of nature more than compensate.”

Crack of dawn

We were up at first light the next morning and, after a breakfast of tea, bread and cheese, set off for a day’s hiking and waymarking through the Yazili Canyon Nature Park. The climb over jagged rock to the viewpoint overlooking the canyon was hot and dry, and the going was tough. Winter storms had flooded the ill-defined trail with loose scree, leaving a white-knuckle section of uphill scrambling and, crucially, no springs en route. Memo to self: prepare well-stocked daypack each morning with plenty of water.

The view from the ledge, however, was spectacular, with the Taurus Range and Karacaören Lake fading away to infinity. A rough mule track descended steeply to water and the wise words of ancient philosophers were carved into the riverside caves.

After the long hike down I found myself filled, for the first time, with a sense of walking in the footsteps of ancient wise men. With the Yazili River rushing past I sat quietly for a moment at an ancient stone altar, where St Paul would have recited psalms for a safe passage, and soaked up the visceral spirituality of the landscape. I drew inspiration from the words of a rock-inscribed poem by the second-century Greek philosopher Epictetus, who followed in Paul’s wake: ‘May it bring you happiness, O traveller. Everyone has only one chance. The charm of Zeus is born fated.’

My base that night was the village of Kasimlar, where I had a chance to learn more about rural Turkish life at one of the best-established homestays on the south-eastern section of the trail. The house of Abdulrahman Kokdogan and his wife, Serpil, is a benchmark for how the infrastructure of the St Paul Trail could develop. Abdulrahman started welcoming Israeli backpackers ten years ago and has fully grasped the concept – and potential – of the trail from the start, adding new rooms to his house for the expected increase in visitor numbers.

Guests sleep on fold-down sofas in the living room, warmed from early morning by a wood-burning stove, with lots of thick blankets for chilly village nights; home-cooked food is served in the same room. Most importantly, the well-connected family has obtained the only alcohol licence in what is a deeply conservative rural community, ensuring a sturdy kitchen cupboard is kept well stocked with Efes Pilsner for weary hikers.

“We’ve made friends around the world. We learn about their culture and my wife shows them how to make Turkish bread or goats’ cheese,” smiled Abdulrahman. “In return, the visitors taught us to make pancakes.”

It was just after 6am when the cockerels woke me to sun-bleached views over the village of Kasimlar. Abdulrahman and Serpil spread out on the floor a tablecloth emblazoned with the Turkish nazarlik (evil eye), then showed me how to tuck my feet into the folds of the cloth. A huge silver tray laden with bread, cheese, olives and homemade jam was brought; glasses of strong, sweat tea were served.

Serpil’s father arrived and offered a virtuoso masterclass in the art of the saz, a seven-stringed guitar-like instrument. After breakfast was cleared we sat in a comfortable silence, Serpil knitting, me poring over the trail map. I was thousands of miles from my own family yet felt completely at home.

Belsarnig Pass

The walk south from Kasimlar to Kesme started from the village graveyard and climbed moderately to the Belsarnig Pass, where a 30m-deep Roman well marks the summit. The going was good and I dipped on and off the waymarked path to seek the shade of the pine trees. The snow-capped peak of Tota Mountain soared above the path; larks, cuckoos and nightingales encouraged me onwards, and bright flora splashed the trail beside the dribbles of fresh red and white paint daubed by the waymarkers.

As I approached the pass, moving into greener pasture, a herd of hungry cows munched a greeting. I also heard the cries of a local shepherd, telling us he knew we were there and he’d try to keep his – no doubt wolf-like – dog under control. “Just remember,” warned Deniz, “don’t get between the dog and the goats.” The good-humoured guide looked suddenly serious: “Not ever.”

We transferred on from Kesme at dusk, avoiding a night of wild camping and subsequent walking through the village of Beydili, where tensions with local villagers currently keep this remote section off most itineraries.

Instead, I reconnected with the trail at Çaltepe, planning to head south on the loop back to Antalya over the next few days.

I had a long day ahead, and a difficult section of the trail to reach Selge the next day, but Erdinc Barca and his wife Emine welcomed me in the doorway of their simple but atmospheric pension to put me instantly at ease. We sat on the terrace, picking out the stars over the mountains and sipping sugar-thick tea as Erdinc offered his advice for tomorrow’s walk and shared the latest gossip from the village. A hot shower, a comfy bed and blissful slumbers: home sweet home.

A breakfast of garden-fresh produce set me on my way at dawn, following an old Roman road past chameleon rock formations and dipping into the shade of olive trees. The landscape on this leg had a more ethereal, twilight feel, with mossy, volcanic rock-carved grottos and toy-solider crags standing to attention as I marched past.

The approach to the ancient ruins of Selge was unmistakable, announced by the words ‘MARKET’ stencilled in red on a rough-hewn wall. This was the primer for a stampede of children and old women in headscarves hawking gifts as I prowled the weathered amphitheatre. I bought a bracelet with a nazarlik and a headscarf for 20 lira (£8). The price was low but, crucially, I knew my small contribution would feed directly into the local community. Besides, I was probably the only visitor they would see all day.

The next morning one final leg took me south via the Roman bridge over the Köprülü Canyon, before I picked up a transfer to the well-preserved ruins of Aspendos and the dusty, sun-baked south-eastern trailhead at the nearby aqueduct. Strolling through the well-preserved ruins made for a suitably atmospheric end to the mammoth hike, but the sudden left hook of mainstream tourism unsettled me somewhat. After the freeze-frame pace of village life, the fields of tulips, the vagabonding tortoises and the open-arms warmth of my hosts along the trail, the transition back to the real world was an uneasy one.

A women waved a €5 note for a camel ride, a local man rubbed his hands behind a counter of lukewarm cans of coke and the jobsworth ticket officer was grumbling about taking pictures. I had to fight a mad urge to turn on my heels and start walking again, perhaps back to the sesame snacks I’d eaten with Mustafa a week ago; perhaps along the coast, following the Lycian Way.

I could have. There were plenty more trails, more wildflower meadows, more stove-warmed kitchens to explore.

The author travelled with Middle Earth Travel on a ten-day guided itinerary

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