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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 September 2018

Discovering the hidden gems of Bodrum, Turkey

We explore the city’s oft-overlooked sites – from the Tomb of Mausolus to its magnificent amphitheatre

The hillsides of Bodrum hold ancient forests of pine, scrub and olive trees. 
The hillsides of Bodrum hold ancient forests of pine, scrub and olive trees. 

Like stilted postcards on steroids, giant ­photographs of bleached teeth and infinity pools, promising “luxury” and “premium” hotel experiences, almost threaten to obscure my view of the reason why ­Bodrum became such a desirable destination in the first place: the aquamarine beauty of its shoreline.

But if the proliferation of five-star palaces that squat on the hillsides around Bodrum bay is a relatively new and monstrous phenomenon, here and there ancient forests of pine, scrub and olive trees, still tumble down from the hills to the rocky shore, ­interrupted only by crops of small white houses.

On the road we are waved through a series of police checks en route, skirting the city of Bodrum, that locals credit with keeping the region safe despite recent political turbulence. The success of the summer season is vital as Turkey struggles to recover its visitor numbers, which have been hit by the series of deadly bomb attacks at tourist and government sites in 2016, most notably against Ataturk International Airport in ­Istanbul in June.

The tourist death toll, specific threats against aviation interests and the failed coup attempt against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in July that year sealed Turkey’s ­reputation as an unstable destination. Prospective holidaymakers stayed away and booked elsewhere for 2017.

This year, the outlook is already more positive, and tourism is increasing according to figures from the country’s Culture and Tourism Ministry. In May as the temperature hits 26 degree celsius, Bodrum Old Town – overlooked by the landmark 15th century castle built by the Knights of St John – is already busy, and as I arrive I find the marina already buzzing with holidaymakers. Most are from European countries, but tourist numbers from the Middle East and Russia in particular are also rising.

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The crenellated fortress and its popular Museum of Underwater Archaeology is currently closed for restoration, but in the narrow stone streets just beyond, shopkeepers call out enthusiastically, inviting me to browse shelf after shelf of tourist bric-a-brac and leather sandals, fake designer bags and T-shirts. It’s all a good-­natured game and judging from the number of “Gucci” baseball caps on display on my flight home, their insistence often pays off.

If there are few memorable highlights in Bodrum Old Town, the city does have some authentic treasures to offer. The castle itself was repeatedly fortified with huge stones from the nearby ruins of the Tomb of Mausolus, a Persian satrap who ruled the ancient city of Halicarnassus in the fourth century BC. This extraordinary marbled monument, which eventually succumbed to earthquakes, once resembled a colonnaded temple and stood on a plinth 45 metres high. Visible at sea, it became one of the seven wonders of the world, and such was its fame that the modern word, mausoleum, takes its name from the ancient ruler.

A view of the St Peter’s castle from the amphitheatre in Bodrum. Alamy Stock Photo
A view of the St Peter’s castle from the amphitheatre in Bodrum. Alamy Stock Photo

Today, sections of white marble columns and stone fragments litter a narrow site ringed with small offerings of stone finds and old-­fashioned information boards. There’s little fanfare revealing the site’s importance from the street, and as cars and everyday life carry on outside the gates, it’s hard to imagine the majesty and ambition that Mausolus’s tomb represented, or the satrap’s extraordinary vanity. Or indeed, the vision of the architect who designed and embellished it.

Bodrum’s Hellenistic amphitheatre requires less imagination to appreciate its splendour, despite the fact a main road now bisects the view across the castle and out to sea. Partially restored and used for summer arts performances, its tiered, worn stones were once thought to seat 10,000 people. The Myndos Gate is another remnant of Mausolus’s city of Halicarnassus and stands like two jagged teeth made from perfectly laid stone blocks. Dusty and rather unloved today, it’s the only surviving portal along a seven-kilometre-long ancient city wall that failed to keep Alexander the Great at bay.

With a morning tour of the local sites ticked off, I’m thankful to be heading away from Bodrum Town and back to the far other side of the peninsula to Mandalya Bay and the newly reopened Amanruya resort.

Amanruya Arrival Pavilion. Courtesy Aman Resorts
Amanruya Arrival Pavilion. Courtesy Aman Resorts

Set in 60 acres of forest above its own private bay, the resort is hidden by red fir trees ­studded with black pine cones, far down an unmade road, and is intended to resemble a rustic village.

The 36 stone cottages, each with its own heated swimming pool, fan out discreetly around landscaped terraces, a 50-metre infinity pool, library and numerous pavilions, all designed for eating or lounging as you take in the spectacular views. The desired effect is of “humble” vernacular architecture, but it’s as richly executed as you are ever likely to find: from hand-laid pebbled pavements to its hand-built beehive cistern that houses a carpet shop. Wherever you look there’s an expanse of spotlessly clean and polished local stone or a neat architectural detail.

The resort began life as Demir Holiday Village back in 1970 when the influential Turkish architect Turgut Cansever conceived a plan to offer a sort of tourism wildly out of step with contemporary development. Its great hope was to turn a development of 35 villas aimed at ­middle-class Turkish families, into a much larger hotel resort attracting wealthy foreign and local tourists.

The Pavilion bedroom. Courtesy Aman Resorts
The Pavilion bedroom. Courtesy Aman Resorts

The village was originally ­designed to be an antidote to the “uncontrolled development” that was only just starting to blight the local landscape; its architects complained about “insensitive, repetitive house types” piled on top of each other that were being sold off to “hapless buyers” as holiday homes. Their vision stalled, but a holiday village of some 18 villas would go on to win an Aga Khan Award for ­Architecture in 1992 for those very reasons.

Today’s guests at Amanruya are just as well protected from crowded “luxury”. I could easily be tempted not to stray from my pool villa; it’s undeniably elegant and has enough design touches to elevate it from the blandness of five-star good taste. The service provided by the small team of local Turkish staff is not quite excellent, but it is unobtrusive and I suffer no irritations to burst my cocoon-like bubble.

The pool on the terrace at Amanruya. Courtesy Aman Resorts
The pool on the terrace at Amanruya. Courtesy Aman Resorts

As I launch myself quietly from the privileged vantage point of the resort’s Beach Club pontoon, it’s easy to appreciate the natural beauty that brought tourists to Bodrum in the first place. Mass tourism is a world away as I swim out into Aegean, and once I’ve shaken off the waters’ icy cold, I look back

to the shore, legs outstretched, my toes silently breaking the water. The experience of taking in the pine forest and breathing in its scent can only be described as life affirming, and I find myself wondering whether I would return to Bodrum? Doubtful. Would I return to such beautifully soft waters from where I could admire this coastline? The best answer is to decide for yourself.

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If you go:

Where to stay

A Pool Pavilion with a Garden View at Amanruya costs from €1,318 (Dh5,618) per night, including taxes. There is a two-night minimum stay until August 31. To book, visit www.aman.com.

The flights

Pegasus Airlines (www.flypgs.com) flies from Abu Dhabi to Bodrum via Istanbul Sabiha in around eight hours. A return flight costs from Dh1,152, including taxes.

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