Sunday, July 20, 2014

Bodrum, Turkey’s San Tropez by Jack Scott

Bodrum -- "the prettiest of the three Muğly Sisters"
"Very professional – a knowledgeable and informative introduction to a destination that digs beneath the surface, in an engaging style."

-- Robin Graham, travel writer and judge of the 2014 I Must Be Off! Travel Essay Contest


The town of Bodrum (ancient Halicarnassus) sprawls along the southern shore of a chiselled peninsula in the Turkish province of Muğla. This south-western region contains the highest concentration of expat retirees in Turkey, mainly living in or around the major Aegean resorts of Marmaris, Fethiye and Bodrum itself. Countless others have acquired a bolthole for the summer sabbatical adding to the march of little white boxes up and down the coast. Locals have confidently dubbed Bodrum the St Tropez of Turkey and while this accolade may not be entirely deserved, its smart marina, wealthy yachties, Tiffany Blue waters and tiers of sugar-cube houses make it the prettiest of the three Muğly Sisters.

A Town of Two Halves
Bodrum is a town of two halves divided by a sturdy Crusader castle. The east is the rougher, overwhelmed by Bar Street, a procession of mixed-quality watering holes, eateries and hassle shops. The west end is a swanky affair and, for the most part, obscenely expensive, a place where the well-heeled go to get well-oiled. The exemplar bar is Fink, a lavish watering hole overshadowed by an enormous red chandelier, the most photographed east of Versailles, it’s elegantly carved gate guarded by a platoon of huge, brooding bouncers. Only the moneyed sort gain entrance. East or west, Bodrum’s main drags are not exactly blessed with gastronomic delights, not the Ottoman variety at any rate. The standard Turkish offering is a service plate of rice, chips and a compost of limp shredded greenery with a kebab or plain grilled fish hurled on top. Consequently, restaurants with an international flavour are especially popular. In-season, Bodrum is party town and unlike her sisters, dominated by holidaying Turks rather than pallid-skinned bargain bucketiers from northern Europe.

"There is Turkey and then there is Bodrum."

Bodrum by Day
Bodrum by night may be a loud neon strip, rocking to earth-quaking Turkopop but Bodrum by day is a lazy, laid-back kind of place. Visitors and locals saunter along the promenade, gorge on gossip in the cafés, graze in the posh shops or relax under the shade of an old palm tree. The fit and the adventurous will leave the shore, wander up through the narrow streets and catch glimpses of Bodrum as it used to be. The ancient town is sprinkled with tumbledown stone houses, often open to the elements and slowly crumbling like a Turkish version of Pompeii.


Some Like it Hot
Bodrum’s south-facing aspect and natural amphitheatre of low hills protect it from the prevailing north winds and this can ramp up the temperatures, making it hotter than the surrounding peninsula. Mercifully, the searing heat and soaking humidity of July and August is occasionally moderated by the dry Meltemi Wind, a welcome respite that blows down from the Balkans and sweeps across the entire Aegean basin. The wind can last for days and gust to gale force, scuppering sailors, sand blasting beach bathers and fanning forest fires.

Bodrum’s Crusader Castle
The Castle of St Peter, Bodrum’s Crusader heirloom, is the town’s jewel in the crown and its handsome silhouette dominates from every direction. The fortress was built in the fifteenth century by the Knights Hospitaller and remained in Christian hands until Suleiman the Magnificent unceremoniously booted them out in 1522. The picture-postcard castle last saw action when it was bombarded by a French frigate during the Great War, presumably an act of wanton vandalism as it had long lost its strategic importance. Several towers were badly damaged and the minaret of the mosque (a former church) was toppled. Today, the reconstructed castle is a major tourist draw and home to the Museum of Underwater Archaeology, the biggest of its kind. The grounds also play host to the annual ballet and dance festivals, atmospheric and sweaty affairs that draw in the arty types at the height of the season. Rambling over the castle ramparts is a popular diversion for camera-toting tourists. The views are spectacular, the dandy peacocks entertaining and the well-tended gardens offer plenty of shade to catch your breath and soak up the atmosphere. The exhibits are absorbing enough if you’re into old wrecks, chipped anfora and ancient glass, and the castle towers provide drama and a fun way to spend a spare afternoon. The English Tower is particularly striking, a ready-made Ivanhoe set. All that’s missing is Richard the Lionheart and Elizabeth Taylor in a kirtle.

The Castle of St Peter, Bodrum’s Crusader heirloom

The Mausoleum of Halicarnassus
Bodrum is home to one of the Wonders of the Ancient World (the first of two in Anatolia, the other being the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus) and the meagre ruins of the once magnificent Mausoleum of Halicarnassus are well worth the modest entrance fee. The vast tomb was constructed to inter the remains of King Mausolus in 350 BC (hence the word ‘mausoleum’). Remarkably, the tomb survived virtually intact for seventeen centuries before it was felled by an earthquake in the Middle Ages. Many of the toppled stones were plundered by the Knights of St John to build their castle and all that remains today is a large hole in the ground with random pillar drums and dressed stones scattered about the undergrowth. A bijou and rather tired museum attempts to fill in some of the finer detail but its naff video on a loop is more of a tourist-board promo than a serious attempt at explaining the significance of the site. Typically, there is more to see at the British Museum in London but with some imagination and a good guide book, it is perfectly possible to visualise the monument’s former splendour.

A Liberal Oasis
Traditionally, Bodrum was where political dissidents were exiled and the unconventional sought refuge from the stifling conformity of everyday Turkish society. The liberal vibe continues to this day and a tour of the small Zeki Müren Museum drives the point home rather well. This was the home of Turkey’s answer to Liberace, an entertainer whose prodigious talent had Turks emptying shelves of his music, flocking to his films and weeping at his poetry. This was also the man who single-handedly advanced the cause of diversity, even though he never actually stepped out of the closet. He didn’t need to. Festooned in gaudy jewellery and layered in silky foundation, Zeki Müren showed that difference was okay and the Turks loved him for it. His museum is a shrine to camp, kitsch and the liberalism of Bodrum Town. 

Bodrum, Bodrum so Good They Named it Twice
Bodrum occupies a special corner of the Turkish psyche, so much so that the town even has its own song. ‘Bodrum, Bodrum’ is a haunting melancholic ballad that sells by the shed load and brings a tear to the eye of every Bodrumite. There is Turkey and then there is Bodrum.


Writer and blogger Jack Scott is the author of the 2011 best-selling, award-winning book Perking the Pansies, Jack and Liam move to Turkey. The sequel, Turkey Street, Jack and Liam’s Bodrum Tales is due out late summer 2014.