The Aegean has to be the bluest sea in the world. – so it’s odd that many
people get a little confused about actually what, or where it is. The ‘where’
part is easy: it’s the stretch of the Mediterranean that reaches northwards
between Greece and Turkey, until it narrows to the bottleneck of the
Hellespont, passes Istanbul, and opens out again to become the Black Sea.
The Aegean itself is full of sun-kissed islands which are pretty
evenly distributed between Greece and Turkey - the two major countries in the
area and historic enemies since 1453 when the Turks conquered the Greek city of
Constantinople and turned it into Istanbul. The new name and the new possessors
remain unchanged to this day. During the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries the
Turks, working their way up to the great Greek city, slowly conquered most of
Anatolia, the lump of land between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean that
forms most of modern-day Turkey. As the captured town after town they renamed
them in their own language.
This is what happened to the ancient town of Halicarnassus.
After being overrun by the Turks it became, and remains, Bodrum. These days
it’s a very popular seaside resort and stop-over for cruise lines.
You’ll probably get a full day in Bodrum as part of an Aegean
cruise. Typical itineraries in this part of the world tend to focus on Kos and
the Ionian islands, neglecting the Turkish mainland except for the odd visit to
hotspots like Bodrum and occasional trips ashore to visit ancient ruins. That’s
a shame, as there are very many interesting towns and villages along this
stretch of coastline, and Bodrum is a fine example of their charms.
For a start, it’s not as chaotic as you might expect. Although a
popular seaside resort with the locals, the town has not been overrun with
tourist tat – the very large number of middle-class Istanbul residents who have
weekend homes here help to maintain a certain degree of decorum. But apart from
that, the atmosphere of this place – ancient as it is – seems quietly to
discourage too much hedonism, as if the drunken excesses of islands like Ibiza
would seem out of place and inappropriate here. That’s not to say Bodrum’s
stuffy – it’s anything but – it’s just a fine example of what a first class
place a Mediterranean seaside resort can be if it puts its mind to it.
The town is very rich in plants and trees. There’s a wonderfully
relaxing time to be had strolling around some of the tangerine groves that
surround the town, working their way right down to the water’s edge. If you
enjoy a walk, you should consider taking the brief hike up the coastal hillside
on to which the old town is built to enjoy the panorama.
Another worthwhile excursion is a wander around the front of the
old harbor. These days pleasure yachts and sail boats sit in the berths where
triremes and galleys used to dock and its fun on a warm afternoon to walk along
the quayside and admire the huge variety of vessels that now line the ancient
wharves. The harbor is dominated by the Castle of St. Peter, which sticks out
into the sea on a great promontory, its position chosen as a fine place of
defense against marauders.
For years the castle was a possession of the Knights of St. John
– otherwise known as the Knights Hospitaller – an order of warrior monks. They
built the castle on the land they got their hands on during the crusades, when
armies from Western Europe pretty much helped themselves to land and property
all over Asia Minor.
Today the castle is an interesting exhibit in itself, and, like
so many crusader castles, seems oddly out of place where it is: it’s built in a
style common in Western Europe, but which seems to stick out a mile when
transferred to Asian surroundings. The huge pile stands on a neck of land that
used to be an island, lying a couple of hundred yards off shore. However, years
of silting up have bridged the divide. Today, the castle is a great place to
explore, and has been extensively renovated to provide a wonderful museum
experience. When you’ve had enough of exploring the defences and the rich coats
of arms that decorate the interior, you can explore the Museum of Underwater
Archaeology. A lot of ancient ships sank around here over the years, some of
them carrying rich and spectacular cargoes. Everything that has been – and is
being – salvaged is restored and displayed in the Museum.
Bodrum, really, merits more than the single day that most cruise
itineraries afford it. This is a town with a rich history and a beautiful
setting that you’ll just love to explore.