Get to know the real Turkey in Patara

Set in the foothills of the imposing, thickly forested Taurus mountains, Patara is a small, friendly village, untouched by mass tourism and a place where time stands still. Its unspoilt 18 kilometre sandy beach has won awards for its beauty, and the crumbling ancient city it lies next to tells a story 2,000 years old.

The start of a new day in Patara village is a delicious blend of sounds, sights and smells. The cockerels and pigeons sing a spooky, haunting chorus, echoing over the mountains to call in a new day, as the low sun casts a hazy mist over the barren, rocky landscape. The strong fragrance of the fresh eucalyptus, musky pine trees and sweet jasmine flowers hangs thickly in the warm, still air. Eventually a slight breeze picks up, gentle as a feather, carrying the sound of dogs’ barks, chickens’ clucks and the distant chugging of an idle fruit delivery truck.

The branches of the eucalyptus trees begin to sway, so slightly you could have imagined it, as the sound of a motorbike cuts through the air like a chainsaw, prompting the crickets to begin their relentless chirruping – keeping a constant beat that the whole village moves to. The momentum is only broken by the booming voice of the call to prayer – played at full volume out of the village mosque. The low, evocative singing voice punctuates the peacefulness of the village three times a day, lifting locals out of their sleepy daze for a few minutes each time.

As the village slowly wakes up, so do the rest of the animals. Kittens and puppies stretch and play and roll around on the cool dirt and chickens start to forage for food. In the daytime the village is almost a ghost town, except for the permanent presence of the restaurant owners, barbers and grocery shop workers, who all sit languidly outside the front of their premises wearing their uniform baggy pants, offering a friendly wave and a greeting of ‘merhaba’ (hello) as you pass.

Just a short walk away from the main drag you’ll come across the food you are going to be eating for the rest of your stay. Sprawling greenhouses grow aubergines, tomatoes, chillis, peppers and courgettes from the fertile land, while orchards are filled with lemon, lime and pomegranate trees, and grape vines hang low overhead, close enough to pick and eat the fruit.

As the day turns to evening, the people of the village and the visitors from nearby neighbourhoods stop for long chats as they pass each other by – no one has to be anywhere urgently. Restaurants slowly come to life, but never really get going, such is the chilled out, meandering nature of the area. Holiday-makers spend all evening slowly eating their fresh, delicious suppers in the village square and chatting to the owners of the restaurants, while their daughters, sons and grandchildren look at you shyly from behind their mothers’ legs, and get embarrassed when you catch them playing and laughing with abandon. The food on offer varies from Turkish meatballs or kebabs, to moussaka or a casserole, to a simple pancake, made from scratch in front of you on a big iron dish above a fire and filled with anything you like. Food is cheap, and the high standard is completely unwavering wherever you go.

The beach is two kilometres away from the village, but there is good reason for the distance. Between the village and the sea lies an ancient city, having been discovered relatively recently, previously hidden under sand dunes.

An impressive amphitheatre was fully uncovered in 2007, along with what is believed to be the first ever lighthouse and the world’s oldest government building, which is currently being carefully rebuilt using its original stones, with plans to use it once again for the reason it was built in the first place. There are many more historical treasures being unearthed to this day, with archaeologists from all over the world spending all the daylight hours of the summer dusting down ancient gems, from baths to temples to tombs.

You can take in all of these ruins on the way to the beach, before making your way through the shady pine forest, over rocky tracks and eventually climbing the vast, imposing sand dunes all the way to the calm, clear sea. Of course, there is a flat road you can take as well, which is just as scenic, but not nearly as adventurous.

Also important to Patara are the endangered loggerhead turtles, which would be almost extinct if it wasn’t for the dedicated team of conservationists that have set up camp at the Eucalyptus Pension and who set out on the two-kilometre walk to the beach twice a day – at midnight and 5am – to make sure the eggs are safe and to check for new nests.

The female turtles, which reach an amazing one metre in length, come out of the sea at night to lay their eggs in the sand, and after 80 days the little hatchlings are ready to dig out and make their way to the sea. Every morning the conservationists embark on a nine-kilometre walk to establish whether there are any new nests in the sand, and when they find one (by putting a T-bar into the sand and feeling whether there is an air pocket), they bury a metal grate to stop foxes digging up the eggs and tourists trampling on them during the day.

Holiday-makers are completely unaware of the life below their sunloungers – including the thousands of crabs, which come out at night in full force. Joining the group one night, I was fortunate enough to experience the baby turtles first hand. We checked the existing nests by gently scooping the sand away, which was warm from the heat of the nest, and picking up some of the eggs, which look exactly like white ping pong balls.

Holding one in my hand and feeling the baby turtle shuffling around inside was a magical moment, like holding your hand to a pregnant woman’s belly and feeling the baby kick. Another nest of around 40 eggs hatched later that night, but it was too close to morning, so the conservation group put them in a bucket and took them back to their pension – to the delight of the people in Patara, who would stop to hold the turtles and learn a bit about them from the passionate team. Word got round, and that night a group of about 30 walked in convoy to the beach to set the turtles free in the ocean. As soon as the turtles were put down on the beach, about 10 metres from the sea, they started their journey over the lumpy sand, some getting stuck in deep footprints and others racing off at full speed, all following the light of the moon as it reflected off the sea.

We returned from the beach just in time to join in the festivities of a Turkish engagement party – a more lavish affair than even a British wedding, with a funfair atmosphere and around 500 guests – almost doubling the population of the village!

While Patara is a quiet village (other than the massive parties!), there is loads to do in the region. From the ice-cold river of Saklikent Gorge (a tourist trap, but worth it if you have extra time to explore further into the gorge than the tour groups) to the spooky abandoned Greek town of Kayakoy and the delightful mountain village Islamlar, history buffs and thrill-seekers alike will be very happy. Not far away is also the popular resort of Olu Deniz, famous for its natural blue lagoon, as well as the shopping town of Kalkan and the picturesque Kas, not to mention the numerous swimming holes hidden in little coves around the spectacular winding cliffside coast.

Why go?
The best (and worst) thing about Patara is that it’s impossible to return home without being sad that you’re leaving your new friends. The people are so genuinely friendly that it’s impossible not to make life-long friends – and many of them treat you like family, calling you their Turkish sister/brother. That’s why so many people return year after year!

Who is it for?
Couples will love Patara, as well as nature and history-loving travellers who want to come home with better stories than all their friends.

Who is it not for?
Big groups and those who are looking for lots of nightlife and an endless amount of things to do will be disappointed.

When to go?
Midsummer is so hot you’ll have sweat dripping down your legs as soon as you step out of your hotel. Go in September for perfect weather.

Where to stay?
There are lots of pensions to choose from, as well as one posher resort, way up in the hills (which tellingly seems to have quite a few negative reviews). The many small pensions are all friendly, comfortable and affordable, but if you come in the height of summer you’ll need one with a pool! I stayed at the Golden Lighthouse Hotel, run by the mayor of Patara, his son and their friends – a very friendly and welcoming bunch.

Extra tip
Hire a car to get the most out of your trip, otherwise you’ll end up spending a lot of money on organised tours. A hire car costs roughly £35 a day.