Travelogue Turkey 5: Pamukkale

19 April 2012

Another day, another sight. Or so we thought when we set out this morning. Pamukkale (“puh moo kah lay”) was just on the itinerary of the tour (that Mother had picked in its entirety solely for its inclusion of a Troy visit), so wasn’t high on either of our Things To Do In Turkey lists – or our expectations.

A natural wonder famous for its terraces, Pamukkale is a(nother) World Heritage Site. Terraces formed on the side of the hill 400m above sea level, its limestone-bearing water originates from a natural spring with temperature of 35 degree C. When the limestone settles, it resembles heaps of cotton, hence earning the name Pamukkale, which translates as “cotton castle”.

The terraces spread over a 4km wide area and visitors are allowed to walk on them. The bad news is that this traffic hampers growth in tourist season and the oils from many feet makes it darkened and yellow. The good news is that the terraces renew themselves between tourist seasons and we – being here in the shoulder season (beginning of Spring) leading into tourist season (Summer) – were treated to brand new, fresh and bright white terraces that look like fresh thick snow on an Alpine peak.

To add to the deal, the ancient city of Hieropolis is on top of the Cotton Castle. Founded by King Eumenes II and named after his wife, Hiera, the ancient site is most famous for the necropolis (big cemetery), well-preserved theatre with perfect marble reliefs and the monumental gate with round towers on either side. Sadly, the area has been severely damaged from recurrent earthquakes and only a few structures remain standing.

Of course, we knew none of this when we climbed on the bus today. We were lucky enough to have a very eloquent and articulate guide (the best so far) who seemed just as fluent in Spanish as he repeated all of his English info for our 3 Argentinean companions.

The site is very tourist-friendly with wide paved paths guiding visitors past the main areas. Being on a hill, the views are spectacular from beginning to end, no matter which direction you choose to look. Up the hill is green grass (a primary green, much brighter green than home) and waves of flowers (a bit like a Yardley print ad sans Labrador and lady in white linen summer frock) dotted with relics and ruins; straight in front is the blue sky and snow-capped mountain ranges in the distance; look down and you can see lower terraces and people dotted on ground level. It’s really really pretty.

We started the walking tour with the guide, who led us through the gates and up to the museum. This was originally a Roman Bath that was then converted into a church in the Byzantine times, and is used as a local museum today. Further up the hill we got to the amphitheatre, a grandiose affair and the third biggest, seating 15,000 people. The high walls around the bottom row of seat show that this was a theatre designed to accommodate both stage performances and gladiator shows (the walls prevent the wild beasts pouncing on the audience).

While there we were treated to an additional (rare, so we’re told) sight. Five Turkish Stars planes flew overhead, jetting across the sky and intertwining with one another so their white plumes of smoke were leaving long plaited trails behind them. Quite a juxtaposition of these planes just above the ruins from a bygone era that, hilltop, appeared to reach to the edge of the skyline that we were approaching on our way to wade in the terraces.

The healing powers of the thermal springs was the reason why thousands of people came to Hieropolis. Those who were cured went home, those who didn’t were buried in the extensive cemetery. We understood immediately why those people might have placed so much expectation that the water is extraordinary.

From the top of Pamukkale you’re treated to a view of the cascading terraces that cup pools of various sizes within a semi-circular range that ensconces a lake and gardens on ground level below. Right side has wide waterfalls coating steeper rockfaces; left side has stepped terraces that you can climb down to enjoy the pools. The overall whiteness looks like snow on a mountain, that abruptly stops at the base.

Removing shoes and socks, we gingerly made our way across the uneven top terrace to the wide pool. The water is warm and so murky from the limestone that you can’t see your feet at the bottom. The floor is alternately slippery on the rocks and stony on the sandy bits. We were lucky that the weather had cleared so we got to wade and enjoy the view in sunshine with relatively low wind.

The paddle in the terrace pools gave me impetus to head to the Aqua Centre to don swimsuit and have a wade in the thermal pools. These pools are notable because there was originally a hotel on the site that had built their swimming pools around the ancient ruins that had fallen into the thermal pools during one of the earthquakes. The Turkish Government ordered the hotel be demolished and removed when the site was awarded World Heritage Site status – so there is nothing remaining from the hotel buildings, but the pools remain and have been converted into the Aqua Centre for tourists visiting Hieropolis.

We had some free time between visiting Hieropolis and our overnight bus to Capadoccia, which we used to explore the town of Pamukkale. The highlight was by far our visit to the lake and gardens at the base of the mountains. Really pretty with ducks and geese gracing the water (and being overfed by tourists) and a new perspective on the magnitude and wonder of the Cotton Castle mountain from its base.

The town isn’t more than a few roads, with the same assortment of shops and restaurants. The local carpet shop did have one of interest that had animals resembling prehistoric sausage dogs, but the novelty was mine alone as the piece of art came at the very unfun sum of 20,000TL.

After a spot of dinner, we meandered back to the hotel that was hosting our lay-over and were ready and waiting when the bus arrived at 8.45 for the next leg of the journey.