21 May, 2010

Demre, day 3: Noel Baba, Myra

backdate: 19 May

You'd never guess that on this same gravel lane is my host's flat in a 4-story building. Would you be surprised that his colleague who lives upstairs has a chicken tractor out front? 


So what is there to see in Demre, you might be asking? As you might guess, i'm easy to please: just show me a bunch of greenhouses, some Mediterranean flora, and passive solar water heaters and i'm happy. But what of all the other tourists who visit Demre with carefully planned itineraries? And why are the signs on some gift shops written in Russian?

The answer lies at the center of town. A couple minutes' walk from the bare-bones bus station, past the short strip of souvenir sellers and the Santa Claus statue. Near the Noel Baba restaurant and the Noel Baba barber shop. Wait, you're saying, why is there a Santa Claus statue in a random tomato-growing town in Turkiye? The answer to all those questions is a small orthodox church.

Today it is partly obscured by a large awning, and undergoing renovations, but it is this church which draws people - particularly from Russia - to Demre. It was this church where, near the village of his birth (circa 270 C.E.), Nicholas of Myra served as an Orthodox bishop. And thus you have the answer, and the reason why Demre has seen a procession of Saint Nicholas statues - the controversial red bakelite one replaced in 2008 by a careful attempt to merge the various icons in a Turkish father Christmas. The recent statue is still a subject of controversy - and in this revisionist incarnation, without his orthodox garb, the current Nicholas of Myra seems to be missing something.


May 19 just happens to be a national holiday, Ataturk Youth and Sports Day. Thus my host Ertan was free, and we set out to see the sights of Demre. Having forgotten my museum card in Ankara, we skipped the church/museum in favor of Myra, an ancient Lycian site nestled into the hills behind town. The walk to Myra was a nice one; at ten AM the weather was mostly sunny and warm, not quite baking yet. Seeing workers standing in a greenhouse entrance, Ertan asked if i'd like to go inside, and a few minutes later we were shaking hands, taking pictures, and leaving with a handful of fresh cucumbers. For any sustainable ag enthusiasts out there, the greenhouse was much to my surprise a polyculture: several varieties of peppers alternated with the cucumbers, and parsley grew in shade along the drip irrigation lines. While cukes were there major product, i was surprised to see these and other plants - since the majority of the greenhouses i'd seen were wall-to-wall tomatoes.

At the pleasantly shaded entrance to Myra, next to the open-air tourist cafe, we met an old neighbor of Ertan's selling fresh-pressed juices - and found ourselves gifted with a glass of portakal suyu. This was another of the recurring examples of generosity. The night before, buying saladings for dinner at a small greengrocer (who sells nothing but produce, and of which there are two or three in Demre),  we realized after we paid we should buy an onion too. The onion was given to us. These, and other instances, made me wonder if Turkish collectivism is behind all this sharing - the idea that we're all in this together.

Myra was, well, old. Carved into the steep hillside are a collection of elaborate graves, and beside them, the largest amphitheater in Lycia. Ironically, Ertan observes, present-day Demre has no cinema.

Ancient ruins, of course, you can read all about elsewhere; i'm a wanderer, not an archaeologist. The interesting things happen where the tourist buses don't go, which is where we're going next. Atop the hills behind Myra, a Turkish flag flies from an ancient Lycian fortification. Ertan had never climbed to it, so we asked his neighbor for directions and set off up the back streets. On a porch we saw several women and children sitting. I don't recall how the conversation began, but a moment later we learned that one of the women, who spoke clear English, had moved here from Germany with her husband. Whose father was our taxi driver two days ago. Small town.

Now, i've been curious for the longest time about carob. I knew the carob tree is native to the Mediterranean, but since i've been in Turkiye i have seen no references to carob. I noticed a common leguminous tree beside this porch and asked if i could take a picture of it. The oldest woman, who didn't realize what i was doing, said, no! They're fresh! Wait… and in a moment, someone had fetched a grocery bag full of the dried pods and everyone was chewing. A taste, spit out the seeds, and taste again - strengthened my suspicion, but all i got was the local name, keci boynuzu (goat horn).

Munching carob beans, we set off again up the narrow trail - which turned left at their doorstep, up past their cow shed, past other tiny homes, past a man carrying stovewood up the stone stairs. We ascended until, surrounded by sharp-edged holly, thistles, and brown grass, we could see the whole of Demre with its greenhouses and orange groves spread before us to the sea.

In the middle of the day, folks in Demre take a long break. At well over 75F outdoors, temperature in the greenhouses becomes unbearable by noon, and workers' schedules include about four hours of break. Midday the teahouses are full, and men sip cay on sidewalk tables shaded by grape vines. Despite the carob beans, by one we were quite hungry, so we descended and walked to Damla Restaurant for a feast of pide and soup. But the day was not over yet.