Travertines of the gods

Trip Start Jun 29, 2005
Trip End Nov 30, 2009

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Flag of Turkey  ,
Sunday, April 2, 2006

It has been a while since I've rode the rails in a long distance overnight train and when I stepped onto the Tarsus Express in Aleppo happy memories of Russia and Sweden came flooding back. I love this mode of transport and the scenery along this line to Istanbul is some of the best of any train trip I've experienced thus far. Absolutely exhilarating so thank goodness I was in Aleppo for the one service that runs each week. Top marks to the Turks and Syrians on this one!

My destination was Afyon 24 hours away in central Turkey, marked by the furthest little grey dot on the map above, because I planned to head to Denizli and Pummakale en route to the coast where I will catch a ferry to the Greek Islands. So possibly the world's shortest passenger train - one engine and one sleeper carriage - pulled out of Aleppo around midday, not even full but with a 50/50 mix of locals and tourists.

With only 60km to the border it still managed to take all afternoon, however the spectacular rural countryside had everyone hanging out the windows and almost glad that the train was taking its time. Purple flowers blossoming in the olive groves and a magnificent sunset over distant, snow-capped peaks made for an awesome sideshow during our last hours within the surprisingly good value country of Syria.

Border beers were cracked not long before the sun went down and the mixture of German, English, Indonesian, Turk and Syrian (plus a token Aussie) passengers settled in to get to know one another. After stopping somewhere unpronounceable for a couple of hours to pick up visas, half a dozen more carriages and have the local traders' bags pillaged by customs officials, we were on our way into the Turkish heartland. Tom the journo and his Indonesian wife Nina produced some vino and the Germans dished out the Raki, a mixture that would ensure a wicked hangover the next morning. Fun was had by all however so thanks guys for a great night on the Tarsus Express.

From Afyon I stepped straight onto a bus, skipping the interesting castle above town (feeling way too seedy for that climb) and by late afternoon I was in a bizarre place called Pummakale.

Pummakale has been famous for its calcium carbonate travertines for millennia. The ancient Greco-Romans built a spa town above these milk-white pools called Heirapolis and the enriched thermal waters are said to relieve a diverse range of ailments. Until recently you used to be able to paddle and soak up some of the chemical goodness, but these days it is no longer permitted which is probably fair enough considering the impact of hordes of tourists on such as fragile environment. They even regulate the water flowing through particular areas nowadays, so not all the travertines are looking as full and healthy as those shown below.

These are a major set of ledged pools to your right as you reach the plateau from the main path that winds up the brilliant white hillside. Those shown below are the same set as viewed from their other side.

How does such a bizarre landscape form? Well, the calciate water emerges from below ground at around 36.5 degrees centigrade, oozing down the hillside and cooling as it flows downwards. The cooling calcium particles collect together and form a jelly as they get closer to the ledge of a pool, eventually hardening to a carbonate when compacted at its edge (or after they have flowed over the side of the ledge). Whilst not quite as tough as rock, the resulting carbonate is certainly strong enough for new calciates to build on top of the old, as they've done for thousands of years. Isn't mother nature a wonder sometimes..?

A busload or three of gabbling tour groups turned up so I headed off the travertines to the left of the path top, around the ruins of an ancient building perched on a spur in the hillside. These are not so picturesque and could do with a little more water flow, but still quite impressive all the same. Much more peaceful too, sitting in the sunshine and watching the water percolate slowly downwards to its destiny...

From there it was off to explore the ruins of Heirapolis next door. There is not much to see unfortunately but wandering in the sunshine down ancient roads and through the rock strewn fields carpeted with tiny red, yellow and blue flowers was pleasant enough. The old Theatre is about the most complete ruin in town, but you and I both have probably had enough ruined Theatres in recent times so I didn't bother climbing to get in.

A southern gate had the best in situ carvings, featuring a pair of lions guarding the archway which is a nice touch. There are also a variety of interesting and intricate carved stones laying around the Theatre area which are worth a look.

Clouds and sun didn't cooperate for a nice sunset over the travertines unfortunately, but them's the breaks. Whilst Pummakale is a bit of a tourist trap that's been tinkered with by humanity way too much these days (controlled flows and the construction of fake pools up the old roadway), it's still an amazing landscape which must have been an incredible spectacle back in Roman times. So if you are heading this far out of the way on your travels through Turkey it is worth a stop.

Oh yes, bring enough money with you to cover your first night in town and the entrance fee. In a masterful piece of urban planning the only ATM is located at the top of the hill and if you don't have a ticket you can only climb up after sunset - a dangerous, wet and painful experience (you have to take off your shoes climbing the path) for the 500 metres which is not lit with floodlights. The shadow above is me praying that I will make it the rest of the way and to not leave a bloody red trail down the calcium hillside after going arse over tit...

Words from the Wise #46

"The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides..."
Ezekiel 21:17 from the Bible and Pulp Fiction

Certainly the case in Pummakale if climbing in the dark!
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