Home » Hiking the Lycian Way: tortoises, tombs and the art of xenia

Hiking the Lycian Way: tortoises, tombs and the art of xenia

written by Justin Meneguzzi August 29, 2019
Travellers on the Lycian Way

The tortoises have arrived, and they’re hungry. To be fair, it’s been a long journey for them.

Every morning, they pop their little legs out and slowly walk down the hill to meet a local Turkish man. He stands out the front of his house waiting, and rewards them with two whole heads of romaine lettuce for breakfast. As we watch the tortoises greedily snap at the leafy greens, the man tells me this has been his morning ritual for years. By the way he smiles as he says it, I get a sense that caring for these turtles is a point of pride for him.

What’s more surreal about this peculiar sight is that it all happens against a backdrop of ancient ruins. Soaring Lycian tombs carved from the rock in the same Nabatean style as the famous Treasury of Petra. Anywhere else it would be swarmed by tourists, but here it is just us and the tortoises enjoying a peaceful sunrise.

Walkers on the Lycian Way in Turkey

Sunrise on the Lycian Way.

I’m taking my first steps on the Lycian Way as part of Intrepid’s 12-day Turkey – Hike, Bike and Kayak adventure. The famous trail, repeatedly crowned one of the top ten hikes in all of Europe, stretches over 500 kms (310 miles) along the Teke Peninsula to Antalya, and takes in the region’s stunning combination of Mediterranean shrub, pine forests and rocky terrain. Dotted along the way are tantalising glimpses of ancient Lycia, a kingdom that disappeared long ago, leaving behind only relics and intricate tombs. Completing the whole trail would take weeks, so today we’re tackling a small 15 km (9 mile) portion.


Setting off on an adventure

A group of travellers standing under a sign on the Lycian Way in Turkey

Ready to roll.

Moments ago we passed beneath the bright yellow arches proclaiming the start of the trail, which lies just outside the town of Ovacik. We’ve had to rise early to beat the harsh summer sun, but our reward is having the entire path to ourselves (with the exception of a few local joggers). Walking level with the treetops, we can see the seaside villages far below us, and Kayakoy Summit poking up between misty cedar forests in the distance. All we can hear is the sound of our muffled footfalls on pine needles and the occasional cry of birds.


The undulating path takes us beneath olive trees, through narrow passes between boulders, and eventually to exposed bluffs overlooking Fethiye Valley. We can see paragliders wheeling and arcing downwards towards the beach, both graceful and seemingly out of control (thankfully, we can also see them making soft landings on the sand far below). The dramatic combination of forests and mountains makes it almost too easy to pretend I’m exploring the Yosemite National Park or Australia’s Kimberley Ranges; too easy, that is, until I turn another corner to find the Mediterranean shimmering into the horizon.

A beautiful view in Turkey

That view…

Our small group of nine falls into a steady pace, chatting together and playing games, then falling into comfortable silences as we admire the view or pause to take photos. Occasionally weasels dart between the rocks and we all squeal like school children. Even though the trail feels remote, we’re reminded it is still very much working pastoral land when a small troupe of goats, who appear to have wandered too far from their farm, demand we step out of their way as they trudge through.


Along the way our leader, Atahan, drops facts about Turkey to keep us entertained. He tells us Father Christmas is originally Turkish and was a charitable man who would help the poor by throwing fistfuls of coins at their bedroom windows. Atahan warns us about malevolent jinns on the trail, invisible spirits who attach themselves to humans and give them bad luck. The only way to dispel a jinn, Atahan tells us, is to buy one of the blue and white talismans called ‘evil eyes’ that are ubiquitous around Turkey.

Trekkers making their way down a rocky path.

Watch your step.

For lunch we stop in at a small town called Kozagaç and refuel with gozleme, a traditional Turkish pastry stuffed with spinach, ricotta and minced lamb. It’s the perfect pick-me-up to see us through the afternoon, until we arrive in Butterfly Valley in the evening.

The spirit of xenia

A group of travellers in the Turkish countryside

Arriving at George’s house.

The sun is already getting low when the landscape starts to change again. Atahan leads us past grape vines and between rows of neatly planted vegetables to meet our host, George, and his family who will be welcoming us into their family-run accommodation. Even though he doesn’t speak a word of English, George welcomes us with a broad grin and lots of nods. Set among a hidden oasis of apricot and mulberry trees, and gnarly mint bushes growing out of recycled tires, George’s house feels like a hidden slice of Turkey; a place where trail-weary travellers can rest and put their feet up. It’s completely inaccessible to big coaches, which means we have its bucolic charms all to ourselves.


Bungalows in a garden in Turkey

Our home for the night.

After taking some time to freshen up, I realise the fragrance of rosemary and wild chamomile has got my stomach rumbling. I rejoin the group to find our hosts have laid out a banquet piled high with stuffed eggplant, lamb casserole, buttered rice and more. Our table overlooks the spectacular Butterly Valley, a deep gorge cut into the mountains that ends with a hidden cove. Atahan tells me our banquet is the essence of xenia, the ancient Greek concept of hospitality. Xenia is about showing generosity and courtesy to those who are far from home. The sanctity of guest-friendship is so important that Zeus himself is the patron god of xenia, and Turkish-Greek mythology is rife with examples of Zeus rewarding or punishing hosts for their generosity. Today, hospitality is a point of pride for Turkish people. If you ever visit their home, even to say ‘hello’, they’ll try to bring you inside and offer you a drink or something to eat.


Two people relaxing by a pool in Turkey

Not a bad spot to relax.

Soon the sun sets, and the stars are out in glittering force. Our group is picking its way through the constellations, debating whether it’s the Big Dipper or Little Dipper, or if Santa is actually Turkish. The strains of the call to prayer issue from a neon-ringed minaret poking out from the trees and, realising we still have a few hours of hiking tomorrow, we turn in for bed. Tomorrow we will leave for the next section of the trail and a new group of travellers will arrive, weary and hungry, at George’s house in the afternoon. Like the kindly old man feeding lettuce to his tortoises, so too will George’s family welcome and feed them.

Want to hike the Lycian Way for yourself? Check out our 12-day Hike, Bike and Kayak adventure through Turkey, or browse our full range of Turkey tours here.

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