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From Turkey’s Mediterranean shores to its mountainous interior, the 500 km St Paul’s Trail is a wild and rarely walked treasure. Which makes discovering it all the more enjoyable, finds Pete Coombs 

We enter a glade of bizarre moss-clad rock spires, thrusting skyward through a surprisingly rich carpet of long grass and wild flowers. A reverential hush has fallen over our small group of trekkers, as if we’ve entered a place of worship, when suddenly the silence is broken by a shout on the wind.

It’s late spring, and the mountain rivers and streams are running cold and fast with melting snow – a snow which sits tantalisingly just out of reach on the high Taurus mountains that shadow our trek all week.

We’ve been climbing all morning in the dappled shade of an ancient forest of oak and walnut trees, catching momentary glimpses across the valley of the Koprulu Canyon National Park, to the high peaks on the horizon to our east. Our climb has been slow and steady, with Genk, our local guide. He’s keeping a tight group, so as not to lose anyone on the numerous goat trails which criss-cross the mountainside. Our small group is accompanied by a snow-chilled breeze, which cools us wonderfully as the midday sun does its best to warm the lethargic lizards basking on the region’s strange conglomerated rock formations.

There’s that shout again, breaking through the almost constant bird song.

“Helllllloooo!”

Finally we spot her; a shepherd woman perched on a drystone wall in the shade of a huge oak, frantically waving at us, while her long silky haired black goats graze on a sea of daisies.
She’s not trying to sell us anything, she’s simply pleased to see us. Her enthusiasm to say hello is testament to how few people hike the St Paul Trail, as are the untouched dry leaves from last autumn that crunch beneath our feet.

 

On the trail of St Paul

I’m walking part of the St Paul Trail, a 27-day 500 km long  distance hiking route, which starts near the shores of the Mediterranean. Unlike the Lycian Way, which skirts the coast, the Trail heads almost due north inland, climbing to 2,200 metres at its highest point. The route, where possible, endeavours to follow in the very footsteps of St Paul: along Roman roads, ancient footpaths and forest tracks.

The Trail is far wilder than the Lycian Way, seeing just a fraction of  the numbers of the better-known coastal trail, and as such, accommodation is very basic, often limited to homestays. The St Paul Trail is also a far more culturally immersive route than its coastal counterpart, with lunches spent sitting on a rock eating bread and cheese, chatting to a shepherd, rather than in a coastal taverna.

It’s my first ever trip to Turkey, and having travelled extensively in Islamic lands, I am surprised to see a group of teenage goths dressed in black, with both the male and females members of the group wearing thick mascara and swigging beer straight from the bottle. As I continue my exploration of the dimly lit narrow streets of the Mediterranean city of Antalya, late on a Saturday night, I feel somewhat odd as I watch a typical European style Saturday night unfold before me. Behind is a backdrop of minarets, the call to prayer mingling with thumping house music. I’m not too sure what St Paul would make of it all!

Antalya is as secular as my experience of Turkey will get on this trip, and following a breakfast of tomatoes, olives and sheep cheese, our small group of eight trekkers climbs into a mini bus. Leaving the majority of tourists who travel to this part of turkey to bronze themselves on the sun drenched beaches, we drive due north, through a flat landscape, passing acre after acre of polytunnels beneath which grow soft fruit, vegetables and orchids for the western European markets.

Leaving the lush fertile plains behind, we climb – slowly at first and then more steeply – towards the towering snow-capped peaks of the Taurus Mountains. These snowy spires continually shadow our journey, offering inspiration for a different kind of trip.

Stopping beside a man-made lake, complete with trout farm, I quench the day’s heat with a freshly squeezed orange juice, for a paltry 60p. Hoteliers and market traders from the coast bargain over boxes of freshly packed trout, enthusiastically waving fistfuls of bank notes until a price is agreed and a deal done.

 

Trekking the Taurus

Three hours after leaving the coast, we climb out of the minibus into a mountainous landscape of subsistence farming and semi-nomadic shepherds. Gone are the make-up and western clothes, replaced with headscarves and a heeded call to prayer.

We start our trek a little before lunch by heading uphill on a very rough 4x4 trail, through a lush green meadow of wild daisies. Within moments we’re offered our first cup of tea, from a well-used dented and blackened kettle, which sits boiling over an open fire.

It’s early May and the men of the large family unit we’ve come across are busy shoring up their summer lodging; a chipboard hut complete with corrugated sheet metal roof. The women and young girls are tending a newly dug vegetable patch, already showing a good crop of courgettes and climbing beans, as a couple of young boys watch a large herd of goats further up the slope.

Over time, and even in the mountains, the population of Turkey has become increasingly static. Many older people we encounter seem resigned to the fact that within a few generations, the traditional life they have grown up with could simply have disappeared. Many of the young now leave the hardships of mountain life behind for the bright lights of the more modern coastal cities.

The semi-nomadic family offering us tea on the other hand, is taking advantage of this exodus – being paid by other families to tend their livestock in the lush high pastures, while they remain in the villages far below.

Politely declining the tea, we hike on through the early afternoon sunshine to a wonderful vantage point high above Lake Egirder, one of the biggest lakes in Turkey at 482 square kilometres. Sitting beneath a huge Turkish flag, steadily rolling on a chilling mountain breeze, I realise the vastness of the Taurus range, which peels off to far horizons in all directions. Directly below my aerial vantage point is a narrow causeway out to Yeşil Ada, ‘Green Island’, which until 1923 was home to a Greek community, and is our base for tonight.

I’m travelling on an Explore eight-day holiday, with five day hikes – rather than a linear series of hikes, we are being driven each day to different sections of the St Paul’s Trail; highlights if you will. So having stocked up for lunch with coconut covered Turkish delight, a small box of honey-rich baklava, and a flatbread stuffed with spinach, I climb on board the minibus for a short drive to our second day’s hike.

We hike through an ancient oak and walnut forest, enjoying its dappled shade, before passing through areas of planted cherry and apple trees. We eventually emerge, late afternoon, into the village of Yukari Gökdere.

 

Hanging with the Locals

My eyes slowly adjust to the interior of the dimly lit café from the bright sunshine I’ve been hiking in all day. A table of elderly men laugh raucously in one corner, as one of them slams his hand down to signal he’s won that round of Tamam, a local version of dominos.

As they redistribute the pieces, I am beckoned with a wave and a smile, as a round of coffees is ordered. I am immersed into village life within moments of arriving! Thinking it wise not to join in a game I’ve no idea how to play, I simply sit watching and enjoying the contagious laughter, which each round’s winner can’t contain.

We then drive to the next village, where we are treated to some fine home cooking, served on low tables which we sit around on rugs. Our host, Serpil, supplements her father’s cherry growing by offering hikers the only accommodation in the area. Post dinner we drink bitter coffee through our teeth, compensated by sweet pistachio halva, as her father sings heartfelt laments, playing his rose wood Saz, a type of lute.

Continuing on our journey, the trail leads us through a landscape of pine forests, over dramatic rock outcrops, and through a series of conglomerated rock spires – possibly best described as miniature Cappadocia. On entering a glade after lunch, I’m surprised at the labour which has gone into building a series of level terraced fields, but in which no crops grow. Genk, our local guide, explains they were built in Roman times.

Shortly after the terracing we climb a Roman staircase, flanked by high rocks.

“St Paul would have climbed here. You’re literally hiking in his footsteps!” states Genk.

It is a joy to detach from the modern world, and slow to the pace of a mountain tourist. I’m in a privileged position, sheltering from the midday heat under the forest’s canopy, and hiking at a slow pace from village to village, while my luggage is transferred by minibus.

For the locals, it’s often a life of endurance – growing crops in stony soil and tending livestock under a boiling summer sun and through harsh winters. It’s easy to see why many of the young leave the villages, exposed to the glitz of city life through the internet and watching Istanbul soap operas in the village cafes. Yet those who remain always greet us with a wave and a smile, often offering to share with us what little they have.  

My detachment from the pace of modern life comes to an abrupt end on our final day’s hike. I’m chased down by a group of local women, selling trinkets and headscarves, as I hike towards the village of Selge and its magnificent Greco-Roman amphitheatre.

I climb away from the marauding women, whose attention is thankfully now focused on the first group of other tourists we’ve encountered in days – a large group of scantily clad Italians who have arrived from the coast on a jeep safari. I sit alone high on the sun baked stone steps, marvelling at the setting and wishing for a time machine to go back and watch a play here, with the snow-topped Taurus peaks as the backdrop. In fact, if I did have a time machine, I might just nip back a week and start the trek all over again.