Part XXXII: Ucagiz, Myra, and the Church of St Nicholas in Demre, Turkey
Theater Mask. Myra, Turkey
Theater Mask. Myra, Turkey

There is an ever-present tension underpinning the Euro2008 expedition: tugging on one end of the rope is the knowledge that, far too soon, our journey will come to an end. We need to do as much as we can while we have the chance. On the other hand, we are traveling with two young girls. Continuous travel wears on them. It is essential to balance sightseeing and days (or at least half days) off.

The balance was wrong today. Rather than taking a well-deserved break, we elected to take a bus to three places: Ucagiz, Myra, and the Church of St Nicholas in Demre. The girls were troupers, didn't complain about it at all, but I spent the day on the cringe, wishing I had come alone to spare them the exertion.

Our bus driver complicated matters: he was a very pleasant young man who spoke no English. This might not have been a liability if he had known where we were going. It quickly became evident, however, that like us, this was the first time he had made this trip. He also had a nasty habit of driving as if he was trying out for the Turkish bobsled team, throwing the bus with vigor into the steep, switchbacking corners, rocking us side-to-side. Delightful, it was not. Naturally, the specter of the girls' recent car-sickness rose whispering in my mind, and I spent the first leg of our expedition monitoring the color of their gills. Grace went green about 40 minutes into the ride and spent the last part of the first leg with a plastic bag held near her mouth. She toughed it out, however, and made it without throwing up.

The bus was scheduled to go from Kalkan to Myra and St Nicholas' Church (both in Demre) and then to Ucagiz, from where we might catch a boat out to the sunken city near Kekova. In fact we went to Kas, dropped off most of the people in the bus, then proceeded on to Ucagiz. “Is this where we're supposed to start?” we asked. Our driver smiled beatifically.

We finally worked out that we were in Ucagiz rather than Demre. “How long do we have here?” we asked the driver. “What time do we leave?”

His face was a study in bewildered concentration. Finally, he was struck by a cunning plan. He dialed his mobile phone, spoke into it for a moment, and then thrust it into my hand.

“Hello,” I said. “Who is this?”

“Your driver English not good,” said a voice, crackling over a bad connection.

Right. I made a command decision. “Tell him we want to leave here at 1:00.”

I passed the phone back to the driver. He listened intently and then gave me a thumbs up. Situation sorted.

Ucagiz, Turkey
Ucagiz, Turkey

We were unable to arrange for a glass-bottomed boat to go out and see the sunken city of Kekova. This was despite the number of boat operators who approached us, offering their services. Unfortunately their prices clearly signaled that they thought we had come ashore from the Rockefeller family yacht. Unable to strike a satisfactory compromise, we consoled ourselves by walking east of Ucagiz and clambering among the tombs of Teimiussa, another abandoned Lycian town. Nothing is really known about this tiny city. The tombs date from the fourth century BC. There are some fine sarcophagi on the hillside, but little else remains. After inspecting the sarcophagi, I decided that I might be reaching a Lycian Necropolis saturation point, if such a thing is possible.

Ucagiz, Turkey
Ucagiz, Turkey

Back into Ucagiz for lunch. We find a little Gozleme restaurant, half tables, half boat shed ― nets, oars, floats are piled in a corner. It is fairly obvious that the restaurant is a seasonal operation, as the two women doing the cooking have to haul all of the ingredients out to the griddle when we arrive. Evidently they weren't expecting any customers today. I have a cheese and spring onion gozleme, which is really very tasty. With a large bottle of water shared between the four of us, the bill comes to 15 lira, about $12. Cheapest lunch so far on this trip.

Ucagiz, Turkey
Ucagiz, Turkey

We board the bus. Where should we go next? Clearly our driver doesn't have a clue. “Kalkan?” he asks, hopefully. We hoot him down. Myra, we cry! He consults with the authority on the other end of his mobile phone connection, and then agrees. Myra.

And then something very strange happens. As we are pulling out of the Ucagiz parking lot, the man on duty there flags down our bus driver. He has a long conversation with our driver. As a result two passengers join us: a Turkish woman, hair carefully hidden under a colorful scarf, and a little girl. Clearly our driver has been persuaded to give them a ride. But that's not the amazing bit. When these two come aboard, it is like a governor has been clamped on our driver. Mario Andretti yields the wheel to Steady Eddy. We putt along at a sedate pace, slow and careful into the corners, never exceeding 50 km/hour. I don't know how to account for this radical change in our driver's style, but as a father worrying about girls with weak stomachs, I welcomed it.

I must say that the countryside in this part of Lycia is astounding. I am fascinated by the limestone rock formations, a spiky terrain that looks as if God had pressed a giant sponge into the earth to spackle it. The terrain is harsh, forboding and rocky. Only a few hardy plants cling to these wasted mountains, a sun-blasted land covered with a vast silence. It was country like this that gave the world its three great Mediterranean religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. As we drive slowly along the half-paved road, we encounter large flocks of black goats, watched over by women in head scarves, or gnarled, age-twisted men. It is biblical country, where people are living and surviving in the same way they did 2,000 years ago. Except they all have mobile phones now.

Another astonishing sight greets us as we start down the hill to Myra: Demre spreads below us and this small city is 95% greenhouses. Plastic and glass buildings cover the plain in shiny, reflective white, stretching as far as we can see. It is difficult to convey how incredible this is, as if Demre was responsible for growing all of the world's hothouse tomatoes.

Rock tombs. Myra, Turkey
Rock tombs. Myra, Turkey

Myra is another ancient Lycian city. It is also, as our tour book notes, one of the easiest to visit and thus usually overrun with crowds of people. As we near mid-September the crowds are beginning to thin. There are only a couple of Russian tour groups going through the site when we arrive.

Theater. Myra, Turkey
Theater. Myra, Turkey

Myra is still largely unexcavated. A large Roman theater stands on the eastern side of the site, while the great attraction, some of the best rock tombs in Lycia, are on the western end. These rock tombs were carved out of the cliff, cut to resemble houses. There is no access to the tombs so we must admire them from afar. Our bus driver also buys a ticket and goes in. As I am taking photographs, I catch sight of him from time to time, reading the signs and studying the ruins.

Myra. Turkey
Myra. Turkey

“Kalkan?” he asks, wistfully as we clamber back aboard the bus. No, we exclaim, St Nicholas' church. He appears utterly baffled and once again consults the oracle on the other end of his mobile phone. Apparently he learns that we do have the right to visit this church, but he still has no idea how to get there. We set off driving. Annie's sharp eyes catch a sign that the driver has missed, and soon we are all hollering out “turn here! Left! Right!” as we follow the trail of signs to St Nick's.

St Nicholas, you will recall from an earlier installment in this series, was born in Patara during the latter half of the third century. Eventually he was consecrated bishop of Myra and moved here. After his death, he was buried in a rock tomb, but eventually his body was interred in the church which bears his name in Myra. The church itself was built in the eighth century after earlier versions of the building had been destroyed. Nicholas is the patron saint of sailors, as well as Russia. His body is no longer in the church. It was stolen in 1087 by a group of grave robbers from Bari, Italy (although both Venice and Russia claim that they have the body).

Mural. Church of Saint Nicholas. Demre, Turkey
Mural. Church of Saint Nicholas. Demre, Turkey

The connection between Santa Claus/Father Christmas and Bishop Nicholas centers on gift giving. According to legend, Nicholas learned that three girls in his parish were unable to afford the dowry required for marriage. Without money, they would be unable to marry, and thus would have been consigned to lives of prostitution. When Nicholas became aware of their plight, he secretly crept to their house in the village and threw three sacks of gold through the window, saving the girls.

When I enter the church, it is packed with Russian tour groups. It is a fascinating mix of people: older women in long, modest dresses and flowing white head scarves, and young college-aged girls in tight mini-shorts and abbreviated tops, posing and preening for the cameras of their husbands and boyfriends. The younger crowd looks a bit bored, eager to get to the beach, while the older women are laying icons of St Nicholas on the altar and praying to the saint.

Church of Saint Nicholas. Demre, Turkey
Church of Saint Nicholas. Demre, Turkey

Despite appearances, the guidebook states that this is a working church. There is a mass held every December 6 (St Nicholas' Festal day) and on occasional Sundays throughout the year. Most of the stone is bare, stripped of plaster and artwork, although a few frescoes remain. A team of Turkish archaeologists is working in a side chapel when I tour the building. According to a nearby sign, they are charged with the conservation of the artwork, so at least no more faces will be scratched off the frescoes.

A great crowd gathers around a sarcophagus, which is popularly believed to contain the bones of the saint. It doesn't. The lid clearly depicts a couple, husband and wife, interred inside. Nevertheless, people poke their fingers around the protective plexiglass barrier, touching the tomb of the “Saint” in defiance of the signs which say not to do this. Cameras snap, pretty Russian poppets pose, pilgrimage accomplished.

As I take my photos, patiently waiting for the crowds to clear, I see our bus driver wandering through the gloom, studying the church. He has bought another ticket and is inside having a look. He may not know where he is going, but I do admire his curiosity and interest. A man after my own heart.

Boats. Kas, Turkey
Boats. Kas, Turkey

“Kalkan?” he asks, as we line up to board the bus. Yes, we affirm. Kalkan. The day is done. Having ridden with him all day we are not surprised when we don't go to Kalkan, but in fact, stop at Kas. Presumably we are to wait for the people we dropped off on our way to Ucagiz. The driver indicates, through sign language, that we will leave Kas at 5:00. With thirty minutes to kill, we trudge down the hill to the harbor, snap a couple of boat pictures, then trudge back up. We climb aboard the bus and we pull out ― no additional passengers. Quite a mystery.

Home after another long day in the sun. We decide to pull out the budgetary stops and have dinner in a nice rooftop restaurant, overlooking the harbor. The sun spins gold and red around us, then drops behind the western hills. Soft Turkish music wraps us in its discordant notes, as we happily tuck into some very lovely food.

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Copyright, 2017 Richard J. Goodrich