I first went to Turkey eleven years ago, on a 2,000 mile walking adventure, to retrace Alexander the Great's footsteps from Troy to the battlefield of Issus, where the epic warrior defeated the Persians for a second time. A five month journey took me down the western Aegean coast past some of the giant cities of classical history, like Ephesus, Priene, and Miletus; deep into the interior through tiny farming villages where I was feted as an honoured guest; and south through the peaks and valleys of the Taurus mountains, where donkeys are still a favoured mode of transport.
A decade later and my love affair with Turkey still beats strong. While it was walking that brought me to Turkey, today I prefer a very different way of travelling: sailing. With some 5,178 miles of coastline, Turkey is a paradise for cruising. Its south and west coasts offer perhaps the most spectacular sailing in the Mediterranean, full of craggy coves and sleepy fishing villages, bustling harbours and deserted bays shaped like giant theatres with breathtaking vistas. Littered with antiquities, protected by law, large sections of it have remained undeveloped, still lapped by the clear waters on which the giants of ancient history sailed: Achilles, Cleopatra, Julius Caesar...
In places, mountains of limestone drop sheer into the sea, elsewhere pine forested peninsulas stretch out like sinuous fingers hiding a cornucopia of golden beaches, deep gulfs, and tiny offshore islands. With such a stunning everchanging backdrop, I can't think of a better way to see Turkey, to explore its culture, discover such rich ruins, and drink in the landscape, than to set sail on a gulet. Spared the need to constantly pack, unpack, and change hotels, instead one travels in luxurious style. Perhaps the key thing for me is that it's travel the way the ancients usually did. It makes thinking about the past altogether easier. Out on the waves, time can literally dissolve in the water, two millennia can disappear from the mind.
A mad keen sailor, Peter Ustinov once wrote: "The sea not only sharpens a sense of beauty and of alarm, but also a sense of history. You are confronted with precisely the sight which met Caesar's eyes, and Hannibal's, without having to strain the imagination by subtracting television aerials from the skyline and filling in the gaps in the Collosseum...off the magical coast of Turkey you rediscover what the world was like when it was empty...and when pleasures were as simple as getting up in the morning...and every day is a journey of discovery."
Gulets are really the vessel of choice for exploring the Turkish coast. Handbuilt from wood, usually pine from local forests, they're often as much as 80 feet long and sleep between six and 16 guests in attractive double or twin cabins. They tend to have three or four capable and helpful crew members, captain, cook, and one or two mates, who do all the work allowing passengers to relax. Most gulets have a spacious main saloon, a large rear deck where meals are served, and sun loungers on the roof at the front. The majority operate for the most part under motor, but some are also designed for proper sailing. When the sails go up, and the engine turns silent, you have the same soundtrack as Odysseus on Homer's "wine dark sea", the slapping of water on the side of the ship, and the wind rushing through the canopy.
Aboard a gulet, one travels in the footsteps of ancient Greek pilgrims en route to an oracular temple like Didyma, or in the wake of Byzantine merchants carrying a cargo of glass, like the Serce Limani shipwreck now in Bodrum museum, or like Roman tourists on their way to see the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, one of the seven ancient wonders of the world.