Surrounded on all sides by the south-western spur of the towering Taurus Mountains, the small fishing village of Kalkan on Turkey’s southern coast, manages to maintain that fragile balance of catering for a reasonable influx of summer visitors, while retaining the authentic feel of a culture which has over the centuries been governed by such illustrious rulers as Alexander the Great, Emperor Constantine and Suleyman the Magnificent. Fortunately, development is limited by the steepness of the terrain and some very strict building regulations, which ensure that the village retains its original character, and many of the red-tiled stone buildings of the Ottoman period, with their distinctive carved wooden balconies overlooking the narrow cobbled streets, are maintained in pristine condition.
The journey from Dalaman Airport along the coastal plain is a a tiring one, and at eight o’clock in the morning the temperature is already in the 30s centigrade. The fertile valley is rich in vegetation, and as we travel eastwards more and more figures become apparent amongst the abundant crops, the majority of them women incongruously wrapped from head to toe in heavy clothing to protect them from the heat of the day. Given the ferocity of the sun, it comes as a surprise to see many of them working knee-deep in water, but closer inspection reveals an intricate irrigation system whose origins go back to the days of the Roman Empire. Most of the day’s work is done already and whole families can be seen balancing on top of bulging sacks of vegetables, as rickety pick-up trucks splutter their way to the markets. The climb up the mountains and the descent into Kalkan provide an experience of roller-coaster proportions, but we are rewarded with a breathtaking view of the turquoise (literally “Turkish blue”) waters of the bay and the steeply-rising olive groves which surround it.
Kalkan apparently has more restaurants per head of population than any other part of Turkey (estimates ranging from 150 upwards), and we are soon to discover that they fall into two broad categories – good and better. Fish and seafood are plentiful, as are fresh vegetables of every colour, shape and size. Traditional shish and barbecued meats compete for attention with exquisite fish casseroles and slow-cooked legs of lamb falling off the bone. From sunset , a different Kalkan becomes apparent as the many rooftop terraces light up and the sounds of classical guitar or live jazz music hang in the stillness of the night, interrupted only by the haunting ululations of the muezzin calling Muslims to prayer from the pencil minaret of the local mosque.
Thursday is market-day in Kalkan, and a short walk up the very steep hill is worth the effort, if only to feast on the colours and smells of the local produce:every conceivable spice from cinnamon to saffron; peppers red and green, big and small, hot and sweet; bunches of spring onions too big to put your arms around; sackfuls of rice and bucketfuls of olives. The air is thick with good-humoured inducements to buy “real” Burberry, Versace, Gucci -”Buy one, get me free”, “Cheaper than Asda, better than Harrods”, and “One knicker half-price, the other knicker free”. English couples, somehow missing the point of the barter system, argue with each other over prices.
An experience not to be missed in this part of the world is a trip to the traditional barber’s shop for a haircut and a shave, and despite being somewhat follicly-challenged to begin with, I can’t resist the invitation on the sign on the pavement outside to “Feel like a Sultan.” Stepping inside the shop, I am immediately transported back to that exclusively male world of the barber-shop of my childhood, with its smells of soaps and hair-lotion, and sitting in the padded leather chair I begin to relax as Edipe (or Edi as he introduces himself, making me wonder for a split-second whether he has a Scottish connection) meticulously removes every uneven, unwelcome or offending hair on my head, using scissors, clippers, cut-throat razors and even a flaming torch which he douses in methylated spirits, sets alight and proceeds to dab around and inside my ears. The sensation is, unsurprisingly, hot, but not unpleasant! At this stage, two glasses of Turkish tea are produced and taken in silent interlude, before battle is recommenced. My chin is soaped lavishly and skilfully shaved clean, as Edi chats constantly with the waiting customers and waves to any good-looking women who happen to be passing the window, the razor poised interestingly close to my nose. The shave is completed with a generous splash of lemon cologne, causing an immediate Macauley Caulkin-style awakening, before soothing moisturisers are gently rubbed into the skin. I am about to climb down from the chair, feeling completely refreshed,
when Edipe begins to massage my head and neck, followed by my back, arms and fingers. Half expecting to be offered “something for the weekend”, I hand over the princely sum of 15,000000 TL, or approximately six pounds – you obviously don’t have to be a sultan here to end up feeling like one!
There is an openness and generosity of spirit here, symbolised in the offering and sharing of the local drink of choice – apple tea. Nadeem, a medical student from eastern Turkey, spends the summer months helping his two brothers sell clothing and leather goods to tourists, and over a glass of tea he is keen to discuss his country’s internal politics and his (Kurdish) people’s position in the world. His enthusiasm, his sense of humour and his eagerness to learn, encourage us to spend more and more time in his company, as for the rest of our stay he becomes our unofficial and unpaid guide to, and interpreter of, a culture of which, sadly, we still know very little.
However, the real business of our trip is a more hedonistic one, the reparation of tired minds and bodies, and we have found the perfect place to relax in Kalmar Beach Club, a hilly twenty-minute walk or a short taxi-ride from the centre of Kalkan. Here, the natural shelter and clear waters of the inlet are ideal for swimming and snorkelling, and it is not unusual, while relaxing on the surface, to see the dark outline of divers exploring the rocks twenty or thirty feet below. The sea here is a fairly constant 16 degrees for nine months of the year, and I am struggling to think of a better place to spend them, as the occasional gulet, the beatifully-crafted wooden saling ship, glides majestically across the bay.