By now, my feelings about Eskişehir are well known–I love this city and the ease and convenience it provides. So when our bus rolled into Pamukkale a few weekends ago, I admit experiencing a twinge of disappointment. I left had Eskişehir on a seven-hour overnight bus to come to a small village? Pamukkale is a tourist destination on the outskirts of Denizli, a town a little ways inland from the Mediterranean coast, and in terms of amenities and cosmopolitan flavor, it wasn’t anything like Eskişehir. I’m glad to say my initial disappointment was replaced with excitement. For a weekend getaway, Pamukkale is a must-see, which shouldn’t be such a surprise considering the place is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the most popular tourist attractions in Turkey… But hey, I’m not one to accept the opinions of others without seeing for myself.
Pamukkale is the name of the famous hot springs–so famous that one of our Turkish friends here was convinced that pamukkale was a generic term for hot springs in English until we corrected him–and its travertines, or calcified mineral sediment left behind by water flowing from the hot springs. Pamukkale means “white castle,” an appropriate epithet: on first glance, it looks like a mountain of fluffy whiteness. Actually, from a distance, I thought it looked like a ski slope bizarrely and incongruously placed at a low elevation in Mediterranean climate. As we approached, however, we saw it was far from being either cotton or snow
After you pay admission and approach the travertines, you are required to take off your shoes and proceed barefoot. This was a bit alarming–barefoot mountain hiking?–but the reason became clear as we entered the site. Apart from the blinding cottony-white stone all around, my first impression was that the rocks seemed to be weeping–a subtle layer of warm water seeped downhill under our toes. The ground underneath, far from being rocky and sharp, alternatively felt silky smooth, muddy and soggy, or occasionally gravelly.
The first hot springs appeared shortly behind the entrance, dozens of ovoid aquamarine pools cascading one after the other in tiers up the mountainside. The thermal waters, opaque with sediments and minerals, are precisely level with the edge of the pools and gently trickle over the lip, creating an infinity-pool effect. The soft, cottony rock formations and warm water flows, set against the town and sprawling landscape below, were really magical. We spent hours there wading and dipping our toes in the water, then came back the next day with our swimsuits to bath in the thermal waters (which some people believe has healing properties, if you believe in that sort of thing).
Ask a Turk about Pamukkale, and they will often complain that it’s too touristy, dirty, and not as white as it used to be. Maybe so (it was slightly off-putting to occasionally come upon strands of hair and bits of garbage stuck to the travertine walls or mixed into the muddy pool beds) but even in it’s so-called diminished state it’s still breathtaking and like nothing I’ve ever seen. Nevertheless, be warned–outside of Istanbul and Antalya, this is perhaps the tourist destination in Turkey; almost every pre-packaged group tour will make a stop here. We were lucky to come in the Fall, at the end of the season, when the weather was more temperate and tourist rush had passed, but our Turkish colleagues and students assured us that in the summer, the place is hot, crowded, and overpopulated. Plan your visit accordingly so you can really enjoy it.
As you can imagine, people have been visiting the hot baths here for thousands of years (since 2 BCE, in fact). Accordingly, the other attraction in modern-day Pamukkale are the nearby Greco-Roman ruins, from civilizations past that, like us, wanted to take advantage of the unbelievable topography. There’s a massive necropolis (cemetery), followed by a Hellenistic city street filled with imposing structures, arches, and columns, a temple to Apollo, and eventually a huge 12,000-seat Roman theater. Set off a bit from the ruins is the site of the crucifixion of St. Philips (one of the Twelve Apostles) as well as a museum containing statues, pottery, coins, and other artifacts found in Hieropolis and two different “antique baths”–original ancient Roman thermal baths that are still in operation today (although they not free of charge).
The story of Hieropolis is actually a fascinating slice of Anatolian history, involving commercial success, pagan worship, Christian persecution and political ascendance, earthquakes, Byzantine, Persian, and Selcuk invasions, European colonial-imperialistic archaeologists, and destructive hotel-building…but I’ll leave explaining that to Wikipedia.
It may not be Eskisehir, but overall, Pamukkale is a manageable, enjoyable weekend getaway with plenty to do and see. So go see it and do it!
Upcoming Freewheeling Reports: “Bursa Redux” and “Tbilisi, Mskheta, and Kazbegi, Georgia.”