At Pamukkale in southwest Turkey, travellers get to climb a strange and wondrous calcite hill, only to come upon the beautiful Hierapolis, Sheila Kumar writes.
I have climbed steeper hills. And on one occasion that stays in my memory, for wince-making reasons, I have climbed a gritty hill without footwear…don’t ask. And here I am, climbing the 2,700-metre-high calcite hill in Pamukkale, in Turkey’s Denizli region. So why am I so tensed, teeth gritted painfully, muscles knotted hard, bare feet tentatively seeking purchase on the ridged rock, telling myself grimly to take one step after another, that I can do it?
It’s because of the water. This is a wet hill, with terraces carved out of sedimentary rock deposited by water from the hot springs in the vicinity.The hillside is dotted with troughs holding as many as a dozen or more aquamarine-tinted water pools; the water in these basins is warm, even mildly hot. And these pools run over, trickling down the hill in rills and runes here, in broad swaths there. There exists the very real danger of me falling on my backside on this wet surface. A danger I am all too keen to avoid.
It’s a striking sight, these hills. When the water from the hot springs beneath the earth’s surface come up, carbon dioxide de-gasses from it, and calcium carbonate is deposited as a soft jelly, which eventually hardens into travertine. Tourists climb these terraces barefoot, to protect the deposits, which is why this mass of pristine white stands as Pamukkale’s pride and joy.
Of course, when one is climbing the feature, one comes across hardened limestone that is a dirty brown in colour, but that is eclipsed by the whiteness of the landscape. A singular whiteness, to which many thousands flock, season after tourist season. I do wish though, that I had asked Tufan, the man behind the reception counter at the hotel below, just how many people had suffered accidents that left their backsides dented, and er, painted white.
All this nervousness, this treading gingerly, does not, however, come in the way of my noticing things. As I ascend the hill, Pamukkale’s green lands seem to fall in picturesque place below. The gardens at the base of the hill are speckled with blood-red, loose-leaved roses, which give off a heady scent. All that red amidst patches of green manicured lawns and this white mass looming besides it, make for a picture postcard scene. As do the petrified waterfalls on the sides of the travertine.
The sun is not harsh, and after I have done three-quarters of the climb, I see people splashing about in designated water pans on the hillside. Some sit on the calcite edges, happily dipping their toes in the light clear water of the basins, others are in swim trunks and bikinis, going about their immersion duties most happily, squealing when they find miniscule tadpoles in the water. There is a road on the other side, leading to the top, but quite a few venerable elders have undertaken the climb up the slippery slope, more power to them.
And then, what seemed at times an interminable climb (it actually took about 40 minutes) was done, and I was at the top. And after I cross the ubiquitous restaurant and gift shop areas, the Hierapolis opens up before me. Hoary ruins lie in a vast open sprawl, with wildflowers growing from cracks in the ancient stone, hedged by poplar groves, from where birdsong is heard loud and clear. There are inquisitive sparrows flying about fearlessly, there is a strong feeling of history in the air.
It holds all the requisites, this Hierapolis where, back in the day, Anatolians, Graeco-Macedonians, Romans and Jews lived together. Apollo’s stadium, a very impressive arena, an agora, hamams, the huge necropolis, Apollo’s Temple built on a fault, from which noxious vapours are still believed to emanate. The former Roman Bath is now the Hierapolis Archaeology Museum, and well worth a visit. The Theatre, which once could hold 20,000 people, still holds a vestige of its former grandeur, as does the wide-colonnaded street stretching to the imposing Arch of Domitian.
At this spa, like no other spa, the hot springs continue to be the major draw for tourists who can take a dip in the Ancient Pool, for the sum of 30 Turkish lira. There are poppies everywhere, a splash of crimson amidst the giant stones, and I reflect that all about Turkey, ancients long gone are pushing up poppies, not daisies.
There is more to Pamukkale than the hot springs, the travertine and the Hierapolis. Once I came down the hills (the way down was inexplicably easier and faster than the climb up), I went for a walk and came upon the rambunctious Mustafa at his eponymous café; the man regaled me with spot-on imitations of British, American and Irish tourists, while I sipped the most divine apple tea, thankful that he was giving Indian tourists amiss.
Dinner some time later was another treat, this time at a small restaurant, which had kilims everywhere, on the floor, on the walls, even on the ceiling; birdcages hanging from hooks, embroidered slippers mounted on display, gorgeously embroidered kaftans pinned in spread-eagle fashion. Tucking into bulgur pilavi, cacik, humus, boregi, winding up the meal with strong Turkish coffee, staring at the moonlit expanse of the travertine in front of me, was a truly unforgettable experience.
Would I do this again, pigeon-walking up the hill, only to walk miles and miles amidst the ruins of the widespread Hierapolis? Yes, in a shot!