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The St. Tropez of Turkey : It's easy to fall in love with ancient Bodrum. One traveler tells how he stumbled upon this jewel of the Turkish Riviera and was so dazzled that he stayed.

February 23, 1992|DONALD CARROLL | Carroll is the author of 10 books, including the recently published "Insider's Guide to Turkey" (Novo Editions/Hunter Publishing).

BODRUM, Turkey — It was the spring of 1985. After spending autumn and winter in the town of Lindos on the Greek island of Rhodes, I was about to return to the United States. But before doing so, I thought I'd take a closer look at those shadowy lumps across the water to the north and east--Turkey. It ended up being a very close look indeed.

Almost from the moment I stepped off the ferry at the little Turkish port of Marmaris, about a 3 1/2-hour voyage from Rhodes, I found myself shedding preconceptions. For one thing, I had assumed that offshore islands were, topographically, merely condensed examples of the mainland--footnotes in the water. In fact, there could hardly have been a greater contrast between the jagged, rocky landscape I had just left and the forested mountains rising steeply on both sides of the deep fiord leading to the port.

For another thing, like many Westerners, I had grown up with a vague prejudice against the Turks. This is hardly surprising, considering the bad press they have received: The medieval Church, for instance, included "plagues, floods, comets, earthquakes and Turks" in its catalogue of the dire consequences of sin. And in the 16th Century, Martin Luther prayed to be delivered from "the world, the flesh, the Turk and the Devil." This sort of thing, obviously, leads to an image problem.

I was greatly relieved, then, to find that the image and the reality were not even distantly related--that the Turks, from the moment I met one, were perhaps the friendliest, most hospitable people I had ever encountered.

Indeed, I found my welcome so warm in Marmaris that, instead of returning through Greece as I had planned, I decided to rent a car and drive, at a leisurely pace, to Istanbul, then start home from there. Thus began my accidental adventure--an adventure that has not yet ended.

I started off one morning--after a perfect breakfast of white cheese, black olives, fresh bread, pine honey and Turkish coffee--along a road that was to take me through majestic mountains bearded with pines and cypresses, down along coastal plains sprouting silver birches and olive groves and past a blur of tableaux vivants that introduced me, glimpse by glimpse, to life in Asia Minor.

I saw old women in billowing pantaloons trundling along the roadside, their torsos parallel to the ground, their backs weighted by loads of twigs and branches. I saw caravans of laden camels whose arrogant, bored expressions seemed clearly intended to let passers-by know that they were only in this for the money. I saw flocks of sheep chivied away from the highway by shepherds in sheepskin (!) coats; groups of old men propped against tables in the shade, puffing cigarette smoke at the road, and boys in jackets and ties cascading out of little schoolhouses. I saw occasional huddles of orange-tiled roofs, each with a white minaret needling the air, from which muezzins summoned the faithful.

My first stop was a town called Bodrum (pronounced BOW-drum), the ancient city of Halicarnassus, about 100 miles northwest of Marmaris. Now best-known as a holiday resort, with a forest of yacht masts tilting in the harbor beneath its magnificent Crusader castle, Bodrum was famous 25 centuries ago as the birthplace of Herodotus, the "Father of History"--and again not long afterward as the provincial capital of the Persian satrap Mausolus, whose tomb (the original "mausoleum") was to become one of the Seven Wonders of the World.

When I say that Bodrum was my first stop, I don't mean to give the impression that I simply pulled off the road at a convenient exit marked "Bodrum." No, you have to aim for Bodrum. Whether you are coming from the south, as I was, or the north, you have no choice but to approach the town from the northeast. This means abandoning the northbound highway at Milas or ancient Mylasa, and looping back across an alluvial plain until you reach the northeast corner of the Bodrum Peninsula at Guvercinlik Bay. From there, the road begins to climb along the edge of the bay, escorted by pines up to the mountains that form the vertebrae of the peninsula. The road curves again and again--until you come around one last bend and see first the mighty Castle of St. Peter, and then Bodrum itself stretching out below. The vista defies you to keep your eyes on the road.

As it happened, Bodrum was not only the first stop on my journey, it was also the last. I fell in love with the place. Suddenly, I saw no reason at all to hurry on to Istanbul, or even to return, in the immediate future at least, to America. As with any infatuation, it's difficult to identify, much less explain, exactly what was so captivating about Bodrum--but I'll try.

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