Stephen Goodwin introduces Turkey's newly opened St Paul Trail.
For some time now we have been ascending on a steady, comfortable gradient over worn limestone paving. At intervals a juniper or prickly kermes oak has forced its way through gaps where the slabs have shifted over centuries. A Persian squirrel (similar to our own red) hurries into thicker scrub, startled by our intrusion. And the paved way stretches on, curving up the hillside, its outer stones overhanging a plunge to a dry streambed with cliffs high above on the opposite bank.
For lovers of old roads, this wild corner of western Anatolia is a romantic treat. Roman engineers reorganised the natural limestone layers of the hill into coffee table-size blocks, a foot thick, creating a pavement wide enough for legionnaires to march abreast into the city of Adada whose ruins stand above the defile at the head of the streambed.
Conjuring images here is easy. The only sound comes from bees on the wild thyme, ortolan buntings and a woodpecker in the pines below the cliffs. The heat at 1200m is dreamily pleasant after the humid 35C of the coast; a half moon hangs in a searing sky.
But it's not marching soldiers we're thinking of on this June morning. A very different Roman citizen walked up this road to Adada almost 2000 years ago - "a man of little stature, thin hair upon the head, crooked in the legs, of good state of body, with eyebrows joining and nose somewhat hooked..."
It isn't, thus far at least, the most attractive portrait. It was given for accuracy to arrange a meeting, not flattery. But this man would change the world. And for a week we are treading in his footsteps, with occasional diversions into the Toros Mountains that rise to either side of the route.
We are walking the 300km St Paul Trail (well, bits of it) from the ancient city of Perge, near the Mediterranean resort of Antalya, to Antioch in Pisidia, near the typically rural Turkish town of Yalvac. To be fair to our subject, here is the rest of the description of him by Titus, who went on to say that Paul was full of grace; 'for sometimes he appeared as a man and sometimes he had the face of an angel.
I hadn't intended to stray into theology, having little competence in that department, but there is no denying that as you walk in the canyons, forests and bare hills of this challenging trail, you do find yourself dredging up memories of school RE lessons. Who did Paul write all those epistles to? Galatians, Corinthians, Ephesians and so on. The scatalogical mind picture lurches between the Acts of the Apostles, Monthy Python's Life of Brian and thse colourful maps at the back of the Bible depicting the Journeys of St Paul through Asia Minor and the eastern mediaterranean.
The bones of this story are that Paul, after his blinding conversion on the road to Damascus, went to preach Christ's message to the Gentiles, a heretical act in the eyes of Paul's fellow Jews. He sailed via Cyprus to Perge and then journeyed on foot through the Toros mountains to Antioch. There, by preaching for the first time to non-Jews, he started the process that turned Christianity from a troublesome Jewish sect to a world religion.
Paul's hike north with Barnabas in the year 45 would have taken about 10 days, though he may have lingered in Adada (a later name for the city was Karabavlu, or 'Black Paul'). The mountain passes were infested with brigands but Paul was nothing if not tough and determined, enduring several stonings for his preaching and being left for dead on one occasion. There are no brigands today, though guns are commonplace, by sheperds' camps and carried by Turkish commandos whose mountain training ground abuts a high stretch of the trail.
There were three of us on the Roman road by deserted Adada; Kate Clow, ebullient creator of the St Paul Trail, Israeli journalist Ya'akov Scholnik, a fount of knowledge on the Ancients, and myself. Here we were walking through a Muslim country in the footsteps of a Christian saint persecuted by his own Jewish people. Religion and politics, ancient and modern, were definitely on the agends. Debate was lively, with interruptions if a Boneli's eagle soared into the thermals above a ridge or Kate and Ya'akov stopped to identify a particular variety of orchid or juniper. Some of these twisted survivors (the junipers, that is) had been sculpted by the goats into a form of mountain topiary.
The St Pau Trail 'opened' this spring and is the second long distance trekking route to be created in turkey, both of them thanks to the indefatigable energies of Kate. The first was the 450km Lycian way, shadowing the rugged coastline of the Teke peninsula, west of Antalya. Kate's guidebook, The Lycian Way, was published in 2002 and over the last year the route has attracted some 2000 walkers. It is hard to be precise about numbers. Some people tap into the trail for day walks while on a beach holiday at Kas or the backpacker honeypot of Olympos (below one of the severalmountains f that name). Others hike for a week or so, staying at simple pensions that are reviving some hill villages, or wild camp on the higher stretches.
Kate reckons that only about 20-30 people do the Lycian Way from end to end in a single shot of about 5 weeks. Some wayfarers have become extended family, calling in at her Antalya home, and many use the web to pass on tips about springs and other water points, overnight shelter and missing markers.
So far only one person, a Belgian, is known to have walked the St Paul Trail in a single trek - about 260 km by its shortest route. It is a very different proposition from the Lycian Way, crossing sparsely populated terrain and less easy to dip into for short stretches. Quickly off the steamy coastal plain, it winds athwart the grain of the western Toros, exploiting canyons, old trade routes and shepherds' tracks. The trail touches 2000m on a Cairngorms-writ large upland beneath snow-streaked Mt Davraz (2635m), onne of several major peaks that can be climbed to add mountaineering spice to the route. Beyond Davraz and its superior neighbour Barla (2799m), it descends to Egirdir - more an inland sea - and then for the last few days strides out towards Antioch across a rolling plateau of stony fields. Some are white with opium poppies, permitted for hospital morphine.
Turkey's trails are not tamed and tidy like the Countryside Commission jobs, nor as obvious as the European Grande Randonnees, though Kate has sensibly used the GR's standard red and white paint flashes for the waymarking. (if this offends you, wait until you're prospecting through thorny maquis in 30 degree heat, anxious to reach a spring or hamlet)
What makes Kate's achievement doubly remarkable is that Turkey has no public rights of way as we know them and no legislative framework for creating any. The Lycian and St Paul routes are national trails becuse Kate has made them so by writing her wonderfully comprehensive guides - the St Paul Trail came out in March - and making the routes.
The idea that people might want to walk long distances across country for pleasure is still a pretty alien concept in Turkey. Kate has had to struggle to arouse interest at ministry level, let alone material support. She did get help from the country's Garanti Bank towards waymarking the Lycian Way, but so far the expense and effort of creating the St Paul Trail has been borne by Kate and her multi-national band of volunteers. Undergrowth has been cleared, precipitous moves secured with cable and slide shows given to villagers to enlighten them about the trail and its benefits to local economies.
Gradually officialdom is coming round. The forestry ministry, who own much of the route, have been enthusiastic and the culture and tourism ministry have recognised the attraction of long distance trails in diversifying the country's tourist economy. While the coast has boomed wit sun-and-sand holidaymakers, the mountainous hinterland has slumbered in a timelessness of migrating shepherds and croft-like farming. It's perfect for the wanderer, but there has, as elsewhere, been a drift from the hill villages to the urban centres. Eco-tourism through trekkers might help stem the flow.
There's a touch of St Paul's resoluteness in Kate's determination to bring her trails to fruition, though there is nothing religious about her. The saint just provided a convenient excuse for a splendid walk. There's something crazily impressive about this 56-year old Englishwoman who came to Turkey 15 years ago doing technical sales for a computer giant and stayed on, turning to travel writing and trail blazing. She speaks Turkish fluently, chatting affably with the shepherds who lavished hospitality on us in the hills and teasing and chastising a commando officer who demands to see our passports.
Kate's toughness was amply demonstrated when just 100 metres from the end of a 10 hour mountain and forest hike I heard a shout behind me and turned to see her faling backwards down the narrow woodland path. She picked herself up and finished the descent clutching a broken arm. Two hours later, after efficient hospital treatment, she was getting the hang of holding a glass of beer in her unfamiliar left hand.
Friends rallied round, amongst them Atil Ulas Cuce, an extrovert Turkish climber who runs Middle Earth Travel, an agency specialising in mountain treks. Atil and Kate work fairly closely and now he took over as our guide on the final leg of the journey, For those daunted by the prospect of an unfamiliar language and culture, trekking or climbing with a lively agency like Atil's is a good way to get acquainted with Turkey.
Ninety percentof Antioch remains under soil, but even so from the extent of the site with its crowning imperial temple dedicated to Augustus and remarkable aqueduct it is clear that this was a splendid city in Paul's time. Part of the charm of the place today s its emptiness. There were only a handful of other visitors (there had been none at all at Adada) making space to take in the incidentals, the tortoise by the bathhouse wall or the colony of beeeathers by the perimeter fence. Is there any creature more appropriate to the baked stone and timelessness of an ancient ruin than a tortoise?
Acts tell us that Paul and Barnabas 'came to Antioch in Pisidia, and went to the synagogue on the sabbath day and sat down.' The synagogue's location is one of Antioch's many unknowns. Christian pilgrims have assumed it to be beneath the remains of the 4th Century Great Balilica. We watched a group of Koreans holding a service in the church's main aisle. They sang clutching umbrellas to ward off the sun, all-in-all a strange sight at mid-day against the shimmerig vastness of the Anatolian plateau.
Though historic sites do form the key points of the trail - Perge at the start, Adada in the middle and finally Antioch - there are days when it wanders well off the route likely to have been trodden by St Paul and heads higher into the Toros mountains, One such day stays in my memory until senility sets in, and not only because it ended with Kate breaking her arm.
It began at the ski lodge below Davraz Dag, a building of the usual jarring incongruity of ski facilities in summer but nonetheless a comfortable stopover. Once out of its orbit and into a stony gully twisting up above the last of the black pines, we left the modern world behind. The crossing between the settlement of Yukari Gokdere and the ski lodge is one of the wildest on the trail. It takes a couple of days and should not be tackled in poor weather. Walking it in the opposite direction with much more downhill than up, we were able to fit it into a single long day. Davraz Dag draws the eye, a five kilometre long ridge of limestone, holding snow in its northern corries well into the summer. The climb to the summit (2635m) is an eight-hour round trip from the ski lodge; and be warned, there is no water to be found on this arid peak save in the snow patches. The trail skirts Davraz' east flank, with another long, bare top, Asacak Dag away further east. The pass between the two brushes 2000 metres, beyond which lies a plateau land of hummocks, outcrops and level pans of sparse vegetation where shepherds bring their flocks for the summer.
The sound of bells on lop eared sheep indicated that we were drawing near to a camp. Then the dogs announced our arrival. Grandfather Osman Altintas and his extended family had arrived at the traditional yayla pasture only that morning and were erecting the 'tent' that would be their home for the next three months. A stout wooden frame was almost complete, over which would be layered plastic sheeting and woven awnings of coarse black goat hair. Piled around were jars of food, cooking pots, bedding and carpets.
All hands were busy - five men, wives daughters and several excited children - but with the arrival of visitors, Osman downed tools to welcome us and two younger women slipped off to the well for water. Turkish hospitality is renowned and on the yaylas it is truly humbling. As the tent took shape a little more slowly, we were seated on carpets, sipping tea and dining on a spread of bread, cheese, olives, tomatoes, cucumber, honey and cake. Osman talked of summer on the yayla, how he would take the sheep higher on Davraz, and the lone wolf he suspected was about. Life must have been like this on the shielings of the Scottish Highlands. In the Toros mountains this closeness of man and nature is still strong, and to see it is, for me, the greatest joy in following the path of St Paul.
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