PAMUKKALE, Turkey — Even 10 miles distant, this bleached-limestone plateau is a dazzling sight, rising an abrupt 400 feet from a dry, flat valley. Beautiful but incongruous, it seems to float on a hazy edge of reality until, as you draw closer, its massive whiteness sharpens in detail. Graceful ripples and convolutions appear, forever frozen into the rock. Snow-white stalactites and water rivulets glint in the sun. Still, shallow pools mirror the bright blue sky. The beauty is so overwhelming--so unexpected--that even the most jaded traveler is stunned into silence.
But that's nothing new. Pamukkale has amazed visitors for centuries. It was, after all, one of the world's first thermal-water resorts, a mecca for ancient spa-goers. Evidence exists that the Hittites erected a religious shrine on the site 3,500 years ago. The early historian Xenophon wrote that King Darius of Persia spent the winter of 401 BC here with his entire army, soaking away the travails of battle. The Apostle Philip is believed to have been murdered here in AD 80 and, a few years later, the Roman Emperor Hadrian came to enjoy the waters.
It's these same waters that have, quite literally, made Pamukkale what it is. Thanks to a tectonic fault, hot waters, high in calcium salts, sprang from an outlet atop the plateau. For at least 14,000 years, the calcium-rich water has bubbled upward from the earth's depths, flowed along the ground and tumbled over the high cliff edge, gradually hardening and forming a few square miles of glistening limestone layers. These mineral deposits, influenced by weather, take on fantastic shapes: There are 50-foot stalactite waterfalls, evenly-stepped travertine basins, shallow petal-shaped pools, and large flat expanses with the texture and look of snowy fields.
As if sheer beauty and a dip in curative thermal waters weren't enough to make Pamukkale interesting, it shares its cliff-top site with the well-preserved ruins of an ancient Roman city. Long thriving by the time of Hadrian's visit, Hierapolis ("Sacred City" in Greek) was small but wealthy and crowded with temples. It also contained an immense theater, a mile-long colonnaded street, a necropolis, a gymnasium, an agora (marketplace) and two splendid baths.
Despite this visual splendor and fascinating history, I'd never even heard of Pamukkale until I visited Turkey. I spent a month traveling the country, discovering why it is difficult to categorize. With its feet set in Europe and its body sprawling into Asia, it's at once Western and Eastern, modern and archaic. I witnessed Turkey's dual nature everywhere.
For instance, I remember journeying along the Black Sea, close to the Georgian border, with my companion, Dennis, a university professor. It was an extremely hot summer day, yet the women watching children play on the white sandy beaches were cloaked head to toe in heavy black chadors. Two weeks later, on Turkey's Aegean coast, women wore bikinis.
Once in Turkey, it is hard to ignore Pamukkale. We saw big posters of its snowy white travertines and stalactites displayed in every single train, bus and ferry station. We decided we had to see the place. So when we found ourselves on the Aegean coast near Izmir, a few hours from Pamukkale, we turned inland.
We caught our first sight of the travertine basins the minute the road carried us past Denizli, a prosperous provincial capital 10 miles south of Pamukkale. Dead ahead were the white cliffs which, from that distance, look a little like a palace for giants (the word Pamukkale means "cotton castle" in Turkish). The road wound beside, and then atop, the cliffs, where we found a few small hotels sharing the plateau with the limestone formations and the Roman ruins of Hierapolis.
Our simply decorated room in the Hotel Belkes/Palmiye had a mesmerizing view of the valley far below. The best thing about it, though, was that we could jump through the sliding doors at the back and into our very own thermal pool. But we saved that for later. The day was too hot to spend immersed in volcanic waters and, besides, we were anxious to explore the travertines.
Most guidebooks use words like "fairy-tale world," "wonderland" and "dreamscape" to describe Pamukkale, and when I moved onto the limestone, I understood why. Surrounding me was nothing but whiteness. The limestone formations' shapes and angles changed constantly in the sun, from puffs of cotton to long, flat fields. Here and there water flowed, descending pool by pool to the valley floor. My senses were constantly set off balance. When I walked across a flat white expanse, I expected the crunch of snow but met the resistance of rock. Wading barefoot through a clear basin seemed like walking upside-down on the sky.