An iconic image that appears in all the travel magazines for Turkey is the white terraces of Pamukkale, or the “cotton castle” in Turkish. Over the ages, hot water springs have deposited calcium carbonate down the hillside, thus creating pools in which people have bathed for thousands of years. In fact, at the top of Pamukkale lie the Greco-Roman and Byzantine ruins of the city of Hierapolis; beginning in the 2nd century BC, the Romans used the hot springs as a spa as the waters were believed to cure all sorts of ailments. Clearly the Romans knew a good thing when they had it!
Deciding that we, too, wanted to see what the fuss was all about, we jumped on a train in Selҫuk and headed about three hours east. This was our first exposure to Turkish trains and boy, did we love it! Not only are the trains comfortable and on time, they are CHEAP. We had thought that the buses cleaned up in this category, but we had no idea. The total cost for our entire family, for our three hour trip, was $23. That’s it! For our return trip (which was an hour longer as we went to Izmir) we paid a mere $38. (A few days later, when we headed north six hours on the train to Bandirma (on the south shore of the Sea of Marmara) to catch the ferry to Istanbul, we again paid $38!!). I really think that the train system must be the best kept secret in Turkey; there were no other tourists on any of the trains that we enjoyed. Of course, we were off season and the train routes are relatively limited, but I did get the sense that not many travelers use this mode of transportation.
But, I digress…
Arriving in Pamukkale our Canadian brains refused to believe that what we were looking at was not a hill covered in snow. It was only when we actually touched it that our senses began to align and we accepted that it was hard rock, not snow. We settled in to our guesthouse and enjoyed a lovely meal from our hosts. Our guesthouse, the Dort Mevsim (or Four Seasons), was a lovely family-run affair, with all the men and women pitching in together to make sure that the guests were well cared for.
The next day we walked up the two kilometer road to the south entrance and poked around the top ruins of Hierapolis first. I had read that there were hot water swimming pools both at the bottom and top of the travertines, but unfortunately the swimming pool at the bottom was closed because we were so out of season. Nevertheless, we packed our suits on the off chance that the pool at the top would be open. Well, it was, and there was no way that we could not go for a dip. The pool is built within the ruins and in the water are ancient columns and pillars. When we arrived there was only one fellow in the pool, and I silently wondered whether the high cost would be justified. It was a very cool day and so I really hoped the water would be warm enough. We quickly changed and climbed in. It was bliss!
After our swim, we explored the ruins a little, including one of the best preserved Roman theatres we had yet seen.
Then, as the sun was setting, we walked down the travertines. As you walk, you are required to remove your shoes and so must go barefoot. The temperature was quite cool by now, and the water sitting in the pools was freezing cold. So, as we descended, we had to stop every few minutes to warm our feet up in the trough of warmer water that was being channeled down the hillside. A great day, but the best was yet to come.
While Pamukkale is on the ‘must do’ list of most tourists to Turkey, we were quite struck by how poor the actual town was. Clearly it was not profiting much from being located to this amazing UNESCO World Heritage Site. As we watched the numerous tour buses dropping off their passengers at the bottom of the travertines, we realized that Pamukkale is just a one- or two-hour whistle stop for the majority of tourists. At most, tourists might stay one night and then push on. Given that we were staying for three nights (during the off season!) and that we were travelling with children, I think our guesthouse family took a bit of a shine to us. One evening during dinner, our host, Hasan, asked if we might be interested in going mushroom picking. Not really knowing what this would entail, we nevertheless quickly agreed. And so it happened that we had one of the most memorable days yet on our trip!
On the agreed upon morning we jumped into a somewhat ramshackle van along with Hasan and two of his friends, Ali and Osman, neither of whom spoke a word of English. Off we went – we drove about 45 minutes winding our way past small towns, all the while climbing up into the mountains where the air was crisp and clear. We suddenly stopped, our hosts grabbed their bags and jumped out. We quickly followed suit and with no explanation of what, exactly, we were looking for, off we went. Now, as most people know, you cannot pick mushrooms on speculation. We stayed close by Ali’s side and watched as he, as if by magic, located and uncovered these elusive fungi. Gradually we each began to learn the technique, each time calling Ali over to verify that we had, in fact, found the real thing. Disappointment came often at first, as he would shake his head and say “hayir” to reject our find. We cheered when he finally said “evet”, and after a few hours we bagged a satisfactory amount (Ellen Schwartzel, you would have been proud!). We then celebrated with an impromptu lunch by the side of the van.
Later that evening, Hasan’s wife, Elvan, cooked up our bag of Lactarius deliciosus, commonly known as the Saffron milk cap or Red pine mushroom. And believe me, their Latin name was very fitting!