The compact mountainous territory between present day Turkey’s cities of Fethiye and Antalya was once inhabited by the Lycians, ancient people with a strong desire for freedom and unity, characteristics greatly admired by the Greeks and envied by classical writers. The name itself comes from the Hittite word “Lukka,” meaning light. It was this very yearning that founded the world’s first known democratic union, the Lycian Federation, which enjoyed the peace the rest of the world craved for. They were a non-Hellenistic nation of wealthy, hard-working people, the last to be incorporated in the Roman Empire, and even then continued to function as an independent union.
Among the most enigmatic ancient people, most-likely of Anatolian origins, the Lycians were close to their traditions, fiercely guarding their freedom and independence, evolving in a whole different direction from the rest of the world. Their unusual funerary architecture continues to baffle archaeologists, and their customs elude historians. Remnants of this once powerful nation can be seen at every step along Turkey’s most impressive hiking route.
The Lycian Way
Along Turkey’s Turquoise coast, Tekke Peninsula was once known as Lycia. The postcard-perfect coastal scenery is dotted with archaeological gems, dirt roads passing by idyllic beaches, Seljuk and Ottoman caravan routes, mule trails, goat paths, ancient Lycian and Roman roads, old abandoned Greek villages and of course, tombs and sarcophagi scattered all around.
Running 509 kilometers (315 miles) between Ölüdeniz, near Fethiye, all the way to Geyikbayırı, near Antalya, the Lycian Way is Turkey’s first long-distance waymarked trail. Roughly 20 ancient Lycian sites have survived to this day, and the trail passes by each and every one of them. And yes, you will hike through the ruins!
Rated moderately strenuous, it is well signposted and does encounter some steep terrain and a few challenging climbs, including some loose rock. Crossing unspoiled lands, passing through pine forests and by olive groves, flower-covered fields, shepherd’s huts, you will retrace the steps of the Lycian League, Alexander the Great, marching armies, pirates, sea traders, walk in the shadow of Mt. Babadag and spend the night at family-run pensions, in campsites with treehouse beds, or camp in your own tent wherever inspires you.
They say it takes roughly five weeks to complete the trail. Don’t worry if you are not in tip top shape, you can divide it into smaller sections for a real taste of Mediterranean hospitality. It can take less if you’re a marathon runner and wish to set a new record, and it can also take longer. Not because of the trail itself, but due to the sheer natural beauty you’ll encounter. You’ll wish to spend an extra day among the ruins, take a few days to wander about the ancient cities, stroll down the beach, have a swim and mingle with the locals and fellow hikers. Take your time to experience authentic Mediterranean culture in its fullest.
Kayakoy, a ghost town
Time is merciless, and so is nature. There’s no better proof than Turkey’s Lycian Way. In Kayakoy, hundreds of Greek houses are slowly being invaded by vegetation. I’m sure you’d expect to find an ancient Greek town, but this is not the case. Kayakoy was abandoned in the 1920s during the exodus that forced the Greek population to move out of the country. Nowadays, more than 350 homes stand deserted, most of them roofless.
The sunken cities of Kekova-Simena
Kekova means “plain of thyme” in Turkish, and refers to the area encompassing Kaleköy and Üçağiz and the ancient towns of Simena, Teimussa and Tersane. Stroll around Termussa’s large necropolis and explore Tersane’s bay, the site of an ancient Greek shipyard that still boasts Byzantine ruins. In ancient times, Simena was a prosperous fishing village, which later became an outpost for the Knights of Rhodes. Nowadays, it is one of the Lycian Way’s most unusual attractions, as the ancient town now lies submerged under the blue waters of the Mediterranean. Hire a kayak and explore the sunken cities of Kekova-Simena, as well as Üçağiz harbor.
Monumental rock-cut tombs
One of the highlights of the trail, Lycia’s rock-cut tombs tell a lot about how the ancient Lycians treated their dead and their belief in the afterlife. Earliest examples date as far back as the 5th century BC, and are found in Myra and Amasya. Carved directly into the rock face, these monumental tombs stand as testimony to the exquisite stonemasonry skills of the ancient Lycians.
Myra is also home to Lycia’s largest amphitheater, preserved in excellent condition. Another exemplary rock-cut tomb site is Tlos, for some reason overlooked by travel brochures, with a fortress-topped acropolis, spectacular collection of rock-cut tombs, Roman era baths, agoras and an amphitheater.
The southernmost point of Lycia, Cape Gelidonya is definitely worth a long stop and perhaps even spending the night here, overlooking the Mediterranean islands and a graveyard of ancient ships, the most famous of which is a Bronze Age shipwreck dating from around 1200 BC. But the emblem of Cape Galidonya is the lighthouse. Built in the 1930s, it has no electricity, telephone, or running water. Although it is currently uninhabited, a keeper does come at night to light the lamp. You can camp near the lighthouse for a truly unique million-star accommodation on the Lycian Way.
Ancient city of Olympos
The starting point for the ruins of Olympos is the coastal hamlet of Çıralı, the proud nesting site for the endangered loggerhead turtle. In September, you will see baby turtles heading for the sea for their first swim. The ancient city of Olympos is a 30-minute walk from the village. You can spend a whole day exploring the aqueducts, amphitheater, Byzantine tombs, ruins of Christian churches and Sarcophagus of Captain Eudemos and it still wouldn’t be enough.
The eternal flames of Chimera
According to Greek mythology, Chimera was a fire-breathing monster with the shape of a lion with the head of a goat rising from its back and tail ending in a snake’s head. Bellerophon, the Greek slayer of monsters, was the one who killed Chimera. Nowadays, tourists can still see Chimera’s eternal flames blowing through the rocks on the hillside above the Temple of Hephaestus, the Greek god of fire, near Çıralı beach. The burning flames are the result of gases escaping from the rocks, and they can be used to brew a stylish cuppa tea.
A charming path through a pine forest takes visitors to the ancient city of Phaselis, at the foothills of Mt. Tahtali. Once a thriving sea trading center, its three ports confirm its past prosperity. Take a day to explore the theater, acropolis, ruins of aqueducts and baths, and Hadrian’s Gate. And be advised that the ancient city of Phaselis is not just about the ruins, but also about the beach. If the weather allows, you can go dipping into the Mediterranean straight from the ancient port. How cool is that?