East of Antalya: 7 spectacular reasons to visit Cukurova, southern Turkey, right now

 

From atmospheric streets, to castles in the sea and monasteries on mountain tops, we leave one of Manchester Airport’s big summer destinations behind to discover an incredible landscape. 

Covering more than 300,000 square miles, spanning two continents, and bordering on eight countries, it doesn’t take long to realise Turkey is rather difficult to define. Although dwarfed by the size of the Ottoman Empire that once used Constantinople- now Istanbul- as its capital, even the modern borders are vast enough to incorporate a multitude of cultures, landscapes, and people.

Nevertheless, for the majority of Britons Turkey invokes one of two stereotypes- either the sprawling metropoles of Istanbul and Ankara, or endless beach resorts catering to sun worshippers eager to sit back and do very little indeed. Granted, everyone loves a break, and the two biggest cities are unarguably impressive, but ignoring just how much more there is to explore beyond the major tourist traps is foolish.

One of the lesser known regions, Cukurova, is guaranteed to leave you gobsmacked. Located in the geographical centre of the south, although first impressions would suggest this isn’t a Manchester destination, everywhere that follows can be reached from Antalya providing you have a car and a desire to do some driving. Roughly six hours by road from our landing point, the effort is easily worth it to see this spectacular corner of the world, and the journey to get there an experience in itself. Apologies for the wanderlust.

 

Varda Bridge & Kapikaya Canyon 

Some will remember Varda Bridge from the James Bond movie, Skyfall, but it’s far more awe-inspiring when you see it in person. Spanning 172 metres at a height of almost 100 metres above the rocks below, thankfully trains are infrequent meaning it’s possible to follow 007 onto the tracks and secure some amazing holiday snaps. Better yet, there’s a small hut at one side of the bridge which comes complete with babe sleeping in hammock, and freshly brewed local tea.

Not so far from there you’ll also find Kopikaya Canyon, which is pretty much the epitome of natural drama. The scale of the cliff face is gargantuan, and walking through this giant-sized valley is a remarkable experience that can easily put things into perspective. Truly humbling, there’s a well-maintained trail to ensure you don’t stray too far from the path, and in wetter months plenty of water if you fancy a dip. It’s worth noting the closest city is actually Adana (itself home to a few million inhabitants with flights from Manchester via Istanbul), but those going for a real road trip can definitely get this far in a couple of days before heading back to Antalya.

 

Tarsus 

Less individual sight, more fascinating town, Tarsus was one of the most important cities in ancient Turkey, and although times have changed it still offers plenty. In addition to all the archeological sites waiting for you, the working streets provide entertainment in generous spades, too. From narrow, historic lanes to eye-catching street decorations, this is a great destination if you really want to immerse yourself in local life, do some proper people watching, and hit up authentic bazaars.

According to scripture, Paul the Apostle was born here, and it’s also said to be the place where Anthony met Cleopatra- hence the Cleopatra Gate and many, many references to all three figures. Best estimates suggest the town dates back more than 6,000 years, giving some idea as to how much there is to read up on, and how many ancient remnants are still in situ, sans proper signposting. And, when it all gets a little too hot, head to the waterfall for traditional food and shade in a picturesque setting.

 

Cennet & Cehennem

Translated into English as Heaven and Hell, these two enormous holes in the Taurus mountains are intimidating beasts, even when looking down from viewing platforms behind the safety of robust barriers. Hell is, thankfully, completely inaccessible- fall in and you’re definitely a goner. It’s also where the god Zeus supposedly trapped Typhon, the most deadly creature in all of Greek mythology, adding to the reasons you really, really don’t want to go down there.

In contrast, it’s possible to descend into Heaven using a less than sturdy railing, passing a ruined 5th Century monastery en route. Reaching the bottom gives a real feeling of accomplishment (just before the worry sets in about getting back up top), and once in the depths there’s a subterranean river and an incredible ambience- part serenity, all a little spooky.

 

Aynaligol Cave 

You need to be in relatively good shape just to make it down the dusty trail leading to the entrance of this enormous underground layer, so those travelling with very young children, or elderly comrades, should definitely mind their step. But, after stepping inside, you quickly realise how magnificent this coastal gem is.

At the epicentre lies a shimmering pool of sea water, connected to the tides by its murky depths, yet still as a millpond on the surface. A large population of bats inhabit the darkest recesses of the rock, and their droppings are said to have healing properties, meaning the government had to ban people diving into the hidden lake in an effort to live longer. Potentially not the most appealing idea given the freezing temperatures (most of the water doesn’t see daylight), those who helped excavate and make this super-size grotto safe swear blind going for a swim was a lot of fun. I’m less sure.

 

Kizkalesi 

Ever wanted to find a real life Lord of the Rings, Chronicles of Narnia, or Game of Thrones set?  Kizkalesi is actually the new town that sits where the city of Korycus originally stood, but the name also references an iconic offshore castle, which is understandably the main reason to flock here. You’ll need to commandeer a small boat to reach it (obviously), and the short voyage alone is wonderful- especially at sunset.

After disembarking the power of the place becomes immediately apparent, then you hear the story. Also known as the Maiden’s Castle, apparently a fortune teller told the King of Korycus his daughter would die from a single snake bite, and so he opted instead to have her live on this tiny fortified island, certain it was void of such dangers.

Sadly, though, it was all for nothing, as a fork-tongued menace did find a way inside via a basket of fruit, and the girl perished as predicted. Arguably the more logical reason for this place existing is to protect the old town and port, which would explain the other castle back on the mainland (also worth a look), but who wants to believe something so resolutely practical?

 

Alahan Monastery 

Even if you’re not religious, Alahan is breathtaking. Located in the smalls of the Isauria mountains, the 5th Century buildings occupy a precarious position, and therefore also boast unparalleled views across southern Asia Minor. Some say that, rather than a monastery, this was actually built as a shrine, and either way stopping off here should be compulsory.

Comprising a number of churches, not to mention an entire complex built into the rock, unsurprisingly UNESCO awarded this spot World Heritage Site status 17 years back, and it’s unlikely you’ll find anyone on the planet up for contesting that decision. As with many entries on this list, you’re pretty much free to roam as you please, with few restrictions, accentuating the sense of wonder pervading every corner and colonnade.

 

Manchester Airport serves Antalya direct, with regular flights on easyJet and Thomas Cook Airlines. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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