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Touring Turkey's Bodrum Peninsula

A view of Bodrum town; Maçakiz.

Photo: Cedric Angeles

While it’s definitely a scene in high season, Erozan does his best to keep the atmosphere refined, the crowd just this side of raucous. And the food—served on a breezy terrace just above the beach—is fabulous, particularly the lunch buffet, with its tantalizing array of Turkish kebabs and meze: flaky spinach börek, stuffed peppers spiked with cloves, and a smoky patlican salatasi (eggplant purée) that haunts me still.

But I couldn’t leave well enough alone. After a single day at the resort, I was anxious to explore. And so each morning—forgoing the beach club and that delectable lunch—my wife and I set out in the 4 x 4, armed with a stack of guidebooks and three useless maps. (More on those later.) We were, I think, the only guests who’d rented a car; most had arrived by boat, taxi, or limousine. We were definitely the only guests who took our car back out each day, after a hasty sunrise breakfast. The valets didn’t know what to make of us. “You want to go where?” Or, as one guest put it: “Why?” Everyone at Maçakizi seemed happy right where they were.

Too bad for them, for there’s plenty to see around the peninsula. The crumbling windmills and stone churches left by Greek Orthodox settlers. The white-domed gümbets, or cisterns, that dot the parched terrain (and inspire the look of so many villa developments). The rustic villages, tumbling down steep hillsides to the sea, with their beguiling, inscrutable names—Gündog˘an! Akyarlar! Yalikavak! Not least, the Old Town of Bodrum itself, with its trellised pedestrian lanes and its 15th-century Castle of St. Peter towering over the harbor.

Though Europeans tend to treat the Bodrum Peninsula like an Aegean St.-Tropez, in the more rugged corners it better recalls Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast: both share that moody, haunting beauty that attends any place where the long-dead outnumber the living. There were quotidian finds as well, mostly of the edible sort. On a commercial strip outside Bodrum town we stumbled upon a kebapci (kebab house) called Denizhan, and our favorite meal of the trip: skewers of spicy grilled lamb, brick-oven pide (Turkey’s improvement on pizza), and ethereal house-baked lavash bread. And at Bodrum’s Friday produce market, we were the only travelers in sight, ogling sunset-hued zucchini blossoms, musk-scented melons, and peaches plucked that morning, still dewy from the orchard.

What I hadn’t accounted for was the heat. We’d arrived in the vicious heart of July. That week the thermometer hit 104 degrees. Men slumped, like zombies, in café chairs, scarcely able to hoist their frappés. Dogs cowered in doorways, glassy-eyed and whimpering. In the sunblasted courtyards of St. Peter’s Castle—where kids have carved their initials into cacti—we watched one of the resident peacocks trot right up to a Swedish tourist and fan its spectacular plumage, in a vain attempt to cool itself. The Swede just stared blankly at the bird, too hot to bother snapping a photo.

And then there were the maps. At an Istanbul bookshop I’d purchased three Bodrum road maps, so intent was I on missing nothing. By the end of our trip I had torn the first and second to bits and crumpled the third into a tiny, unrecognizable ball. In hindsight, I see my rage was misplaced. It had been my impression that the maps were crudely drawn and poorly labeled. I now realize that Bodrum was crudely drawn and poorly labeled. Street names are nonexistent, road signs a rarity. Endless switchbacks defy spatial logic. Thankfully, locals are willing to help. Driving in from the airport, we stopped to ask three men if they could point the way to Maçakizi. After some confusing back-and-forth, one jumped into his car and led us the remaining six miles to the hotel. “Hard to explain,” he said sheepishly, then waved good-bye.

So the heat and the maps put a damper on our explorations. By 3 p.m. we’d usually turn back, exhausted, to Maçakizi, change into our swimsuits, and hit the decks. Here, people had more sense. None of them had broken a sweat. For the beautiful Maçakizians, sightseeing was limited to ogling their own cartoonish bodies: an all-day parade of gazelle-like women and the men who love them, or at least pay for their drinks. The women change bikinis after every dip in the water—seven, eight times in an afternoon, each swimsuit with a corresponding (and wholly ineffective) cover-up.

Suffice it to say, I have trouble picturing Supreme Court Justice Ginsburg here. What does she wear? A long, black terry-cloth robe? Watching the gazelles and their consorts, we felt simultaneously over- and underdressed: overdressed in that our swimsuits had more surface area than a cocktail napkin; underdressed in that they weren’t encrusted with rhinestones. And my footwear turned out to be all wrong. I’d brought along Havaianas, but in Bodrum the most stylish men wear leather sandals—and the best, we were told, come from Ali Güven.

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