CHARMING PEOPLE, SPECTACULAR SITES Unspoiled towns and beaches dot Mediterranean and Aegean coast

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Poor old Turkey. So misunderstood.

Mention it as a vacation destination and most Americans look at you as if you just proposed a winter weekend in Detroit. That's partly because most people know little about the place beyond what they've seen in prison movies such as "Midnight Express." Which is sort of like basing your opinion of Northern California on a showing of "Escape From Alcatraz."

Hidden behind this bum image is a huge country with plenty of beautiful, worthwhile -- and inexpensive -- places to visit, and perhaps no region is better for acquainting oneself with Turkey than the Aegean and Mediterranean coastline, on the country's southwest corner.

Regrettably, this part of Turkey has already been discovered by bus-bound British package tours and hordes of globe-trotting Germans, and the resulting tourism boom in recent years has crowded out some of the charm from more popular spots. This is particularly true on the peninsula of the ancient port city of Bodrum, where vast, chockablock hives of apartments rise forlornly from one hillside after another.

But there are still plenty of unspoiled turquoise beaches and quiet towns to be found with local flavor intact, and along the way one comes across some of the world's finest and most plentiful Greek and Roman ruins, often in spots where hardly anyone else is around.

As for the Turkish people, forget the movie images. They're friendly and helpful, and seem especially eager to talk to the few Americans who make their way there, though they seem puzzled and painfully aware of the bad rap they've gotten in our movies. "You must try to understand us, we are not a bad people," we overheard one guide saying gently at a site of Roman ruins. "Did you know that we are a member of NATO?"

Though 99 percent of the population is Muslim, Turkey has been a secular republic ever since the national hero, Kemal Ataturk, instituted a series of reforms after he helped drive out the Greek army in 1922.

As a result, Turkey has adopted many Western ways, and this is particularly true along the coastline. Virtually all of the beaches we went to, in fact, were topless. And even though the nasal, amplified prayer calls of the muezzin ring out from mosque towers five times a day, the ritual creates no more of a ripple than does the ringing of a church bell in an American city.

Do show extra reverence and modesty if you enter a mosque, however: Remove your shoes first, and women should cover their heads and shoulders with a scarf. Shorts and skirts are bad form.

Elsewhere, the tolerance of varying styles of clothing can be summed up best by a scene we saw on a beach. A Turkish woman in her early 20s lay sunbathing topless in a string bikini. Sitting placidly next to her was her mother, wrapped from head to toe in shawls and scarves.

If anything, the relative inexperience of the Turks in the tourism business seems to make them less jaded about visitors than their Mediterranean neighbors in the more popular destinations of Greece. But if Turkey alone is not enough to entice you to fly halfway round the world, a tour of the Turkish coast does wed nicely with excursions to the nearby Greek islands.

Ferry connections are particularly easy to the islands of Samos and Rhodes. Be forewarned, however. Centuries of wars and border disputes have made the Greeks and Turks wary of each other. Don't speak too glowingly of one place while in the other, though ill feelings seem to be softening among the young.

If you're going to the Turkish coast from the Greek isle of Samos, as we did, the best starting point is the port city of Kusadasi, a little more than an hour's drive south of the large city of Izmir. Izmir, probably at the northern end of where you'd want to begin a tour of the coast, or Antalya, a good starting point from the southern side, are easily reachable by air from Istanbul. Domestic air travel is relatively inexpensive.

Unless you're touring by yacht, the best way to see the coastline is by car. A rental will probably cost you $300 or more for a week, but the extra freedom is worth it. Otherwise you'll be at the mercy of the reliable but point-to-point system of small buses, called dolmuses, that tend to be overpriced.

The northern reaches of the Aegean coast offer some of the world's finest sites of ruins. The ancient city of Ephesus, with its well-preserved marble roads (Cleopatra once made a grand entrance up one of them, on her way to a tryst with Marc Antony), the giant theater, the colonnades, a magnificent library facade and ancient public baths, is worth a whole day by itself. Entrance costs are cheap, and make sure and pay the few extra Turkish lira to tour the restored Roman apartments that have been unearthed from a hillside and covered to keep out the elements.

Moving south from Ephesus, one soon discovers a pleasant fact of traveling in Turkey. Ruins seem to be everywhere. Look for the small yellow signs. They denote historic sites. And at many such spots, such as the magnificent but neglected Temple of Euromos just off the highway south of Lake Bafa, you can easily be the only person around. Set among a grove of olive trees at the base of a small hillside, the tranquillity makes the place seem frozen in time.

Lake Bafa, only a few miles inland from another fine site of ruins at Didyma, is also worth a stop. A gravel road leading about 15 miles from the main highway will take you past farms and an unspoiled aged village to an eerily deserted site of Byzantine walls and fallen columns hard against the lakeshore. For a spectacular backdrop there are nearby peaks of steep, craggy, barren rock.

Farther south is Bodrum, which despite its crowds, noise and overdevelopment is still worth a visit for the old-world bustle of its marketplaces and streets, and for its seemingly endless docks of venerable wooden sailing yachts.

Bodrum is a fun place to spend an evening, but find a hotel or pension where you can get some peace and quiet. Lodging is a bit more expensive here than in the smaller towns, as is the food, but one can still easily find a good, clean room with a bath for less than $30 a night, and dinner for two for less than $15. In small towns the prices will be about two-thirds those amounts. And if you're really trying to cut costs, even cheaper prices aren't out of the question if you're willing to shop around as you arrive in each town.

As for the food, it is quite similar to Greek food, right down to the lamb kebabs and baklava. Vegetable dishes and appetizers are on the spicy side, and often served cold. There are rarely menus, because all the dishes are usually on display. So, if you have trouble explaining what you want, just point to it.

Rounding the country's southwest corner after the Bodrum peninsula, there are still plenty of ruins, and plenty of fine, little towns. Marmaris, the next big resort stop along the way, suffers from some of the same problems of popularity as Bodrum, but with less of the charm.

But the real treat of the Mediterranean side is the ancient Lycian peninsula, which roughly begins at the town of Fethiye and ends about 200 kilometers (124 miles) down the road, on the outskirts of Antalya.

The charms of this region are many, not the least of which is the small amount of development.

The beaches are best here, too, particularly at spots such as Oludeniz, just east of Fethiye, which one approaches by winding down a steep valley with spectacular views along the way. Also worthwhile is a tiny beach of smooth stones at the foot of a steep mountain gorge called Kapitas. This beach can be found along the road between the villages of Kalkan and Kas -- which are both pleasant, manageable places for an overnight stay.

As is the case elsewhere on the coastline, sites of ruins seem to be everywhere. You may even think you've seen enough. But if you grow tired of colonnades and theaters, at least go see the Lycian cliffside tombs that were carved into the rock at the ancient site of Myra, near the present-day town of Demre.

Beyond this region is the fast-growing town of Antalya, which guidebooks will warn you away from but which seems to be making a comeback of sorts along its waterfront. It seemed to be a sort of Turkish Baltimore.

Another 60 kilometers (37 miles) to the east is the ancient city of Side, with ruins sprawled in and around this town that has been swallowed up by shops catering to tourists. There seems to be a busload of German or British tourists unloading at every corner.

Beyond, one finds the rest of what Turkey calls its Turquoise Coast, with plenty of fine beaches clear down to the resort city of Mersin. But the Lycian region is more worthwhile.

On any trip to Turkey, it would be a shame not to set aside a few days for one of the world's great exotic cities, Istanbul. You can take a train or fly conveniently from Antalya or Izmir. But don't drive your rental car there. Istanbul is best seen on foot, and traffic often becomes an immovable nightmare on its narrow, winding streets.

If you go . . .

Getting there: Connecting flights from Europe are plentiful to Istanbul, Izmir and Antalya. (London to Izmir takes about 3 1/2 hours, for example), and direct flights are available to Istanbul from Washington-Dulles and New York-Kennedy. If you plan on renting a car, arrange it in advance. Many of the major U.S. agencies are available, and EuropCar is also widely available. An international driver's license can be helpful, especially in case of an accident, and one is easily obtained from AAA.

When to go: Spring and fall are the best times. Crowds are down and the weather is warm but not blazing hot as it can be in the summer. And the waters of the Aegean and Mediterranean are still plenty warm for swimming.

Language: Turkish. You might want a phrase book for getting around in small towns if you plan to go very far inland, though in most coastal towns and in Istanbul you can generally get by with English and a few key words and phrases. German can also be a help, mostly due to the large number of German tourists in recent years.

Visa: None. A passport is all you'll need.

Water: Sticking to bottled water is the best way to go, and it is available virtually everywhere.

What to wear: Casual is fine for most occasions, though wear something that will cover your legs and shoulders if you plan on venturing into any mosques.

Currency: The Turkish lira (TL). You might want to change some dollars for a small amount of lira before you leave the United States, to give you some pocket money for when you first arrive. Major credit cards are accepted in many places along the coast.

For more information: Contact a travel agent or the Turkish Tourism Information Office in Washington, 1717 Massachusetts Ave. N.W., Suite 306, 20036. Phone (weekday business hours): (202) 429-9844.

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