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Touring Turkey's Bodrum Peninsula

A view of Bodrum town; Maçakiz.

Photo: Cedric Angeles

Güven is 69 years old and has made sandals in Bodrum for more than four decades. He has intense blue eyes and a shock of white hair and refers to himself in the third person. “Ali Güven works by hand,” he told us in halting English, displaying his long, shopworn fingers. “Ali Güven works very hard.” Güven is also semi-famous, having custom-made sandals for Mick Jagger, Sezen Aksu—the Madonna of Turkey—and Madonna. When we visited his Old Town store he had a backlog of several hundred orders. He used to hire apprentices, but “they were impatient with Ali Güven.” Now the master works alone, surrounded by sandal parts and stacks of newsprint bearing the traced outlines of famous and not-so-famous feet. I might have ordered a pair if they didn’t cost $600.

In 1966, the year Güven set up shop, the town of Bodrum was a backwater of 5,100. It has grown around him in seeming correlation with his prices; the summer population now tops half a million. Sahir Erozan recalls a quieter time. When his mother arrived in 1977, “Bodrum was like a little Positano, or Key West in Hemingway’s day—full of bohemians, writers, painters,” he says. “You’d sit at a café and see Nureyev; at the other table, Mick Jagger.” (There he is again!) In the shadow of Bodrum’s castle, Ayla Emiroglu opened a modest bed-and-breakfast, and called it Maçakizi—after her own nickname, Turkish for queen of spades. Over the years she upgraded and expanded the place, eventually relocating it to the north coast. “There were no roads in Türkbükü at the time,” Erozan says. “If you wanted to build, you carried everything in from the sea.” In 2000, Maçakizi moved across the bay to its current site. Emiroglu still lives above the resort, in a house with views of the once-sleepy bay that she, as much as anyone, helped put on the global map.

Erozan admits to misgivings about Bodrum’s explosion of development. All around the peninsula, hillsides are filling up with extravagant villa complexes (including one designed by Richard Meier), while formerly isolated coves are colonized by international resorts. “Sometimes I think we grow too much in this country,” Erozan says. “In Italy, the old things stay in place, like in a painting. But here we build so much that we’re losing the charm of what Bodrum was.”

Bodrum today is really two places, depending on when you visit. July and August bring the Arabian princes, Scandinavian swimwear models, and assorted Eurotrash scenesters. Better to come in late spring or early fall, when the peninsula returns—somewhat—to its quieter, less pretentious self.

Or you could go at any time of year to Gümüşlük (pronounced ga-moosh-luk), on the peninsula’s west coast. Since the seventies, the village has drawn a hippie/lefty contingent; in the shops along the main drag, women with henna-dyed hair sell scented oils and evil-eye bracelets. The beach is lined with fish restaurants, from boisterous family joints to romantic, votive-lit spots with tables in the sand. A sign outside one of the latter, Mimoza, proclaims: we are probably the best in the world. I’m not sure about that, but their grilled octopus and calamari were sensational. A few hundred yards offshore is Tavsan Adan, a.k.a. Rabbit Island, which you can wade to at low tide to hike among the resident colony of wild bunnies. When the sun is high and the water clear, you can glimpse the remains of ancient Myndos—the Hellenic village that now lies submerged in the lagoon, yards below the surface. You’d hardly notice if you didn’t know to look.

Speaking of things hiding in plain sight, I’m ashamed to say that it took us six days of driving all over the Bodrum Peninsula before we discovered that our favorite place was right next door: the pedestrian promenade that fronts Türkbükü Harbor, starting from just south of Maçakizi. Why we didn’t venture here earlier is a source of great embarrassment. (From our cove it was obscured by a hill.) It turned out we could walk there in two minutes. The promenade traces a half-moon along the shore, winding around (and occasionally through) the many waterside restaurants, guesthouses, boutiques, and nightclubs. The northern section, closer to Maçakizi, is trendier, louder, and more international; farther south, the crowd and vibe grow more local. Here, Turkish music—not Kanye—plays in the bars. Families stroll the waterfront until late in the evening, stopping at snack carts for roasted mussels, grilled corn, and cups of tart, fresh-pressed mulberry juice.

And if you really want your mind blown, you’ll follow the path almost to the end, until you come upon the perpetual line outside Dogal Dondurma. I’m going to go out on a limb here and call this the best ice cream in all of Turkey, because I simply can’t conceive of anything better. Dogal’s ever-shifting flavors include kavun (honeydew), visne (sour cherry), seftali (peach), and, best of all, mandalina, a sorbet made from tart Bodrum tangerines.

Once we found it, a walk along the harbor became our twice-daily routine—always ending at Dogal Dondurma to try some exotic new flavor, usually consumed on a pier with our feet dangling in the water. Afternoons on the promenade proved far preferable to sweating in the 4 x 4, which we now happily left to bake in the hotel parking lot. There was surely more to see, but here in Türkbükü we had all we needed: the sun warming our backs, the Aegean cooling our toes, and untold flavors of ice cream to taste.

Peter Jon Lindberg is Travel + Leisure’s editor-at-large.

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