Pamukkale is a weird place.
Bright white terraces climb out of this little section of southwest Turkey, stretching away for a mile and half. Springs bubble a continual stream of warm water, flowing downhill and depositing minerals as it has for millions of years.
Sunlight reflects harshly off the travertine and colours seem to fade. Everywhere there is white. The name means ‘cotton castle’ in Turkish, and it’s easy to see why.
Squinting as I climbed up the hill, though, I noticed something other than bleached rocks and oddly-coloured pools of water. Something that, while occasionally more attractive, was no less bizarre.
There were literally dozens of eastern European women in bikinis who suddenly seemed to believe they were supermodels. Hair was flicked. Lips were pouted. Backs were arched and cleavages extended. All the while, long-suffering husbands and boyfriends were dashing around, pushing each other over in their eagerness for the perfect calendar shot.
I didn’t get it.
The town itself is small, just a few streets of travel agents, restaurants and hotels to service the thousands of visitors that turn up each day. There are two entrances to the travertine area – up top, where all of the tour buses disgorge their contents, and down the bottom beside the town.
We chose the bottom, and it was definitely the right choice. Most of the large groups only descend about half way down the terraces before turning round and heading back up, leaving the lower part far quieter. In a few cherished spots, for a minute or two there was hardly anybody there at all.
Different minerals in the water result in a wide array of coloured rocks and pools, all of which looked a little unnatural. Much like the cleavage of those bikini models, now that I think about it.
One of the biggest surprises about visiting the terraces at Pamukkale was that, unlike elsewhere in the world, visitors aren’t relegated to a path or boardwalk. Instead we all removed our shoes at the gate and just walked up the gradual incline, a shallow river of clear warm water flowing over our feet.
Only a small section of the terraces are accessible to visitors, a legacy of damage caused by over-commercialisation of the area in the 1980s. Swimming (and, apparently, excessive posing) is allowed in the man-made pools, but the natural versions are now largely untouched.
Even though we arrived in the early afternoon, the crowds were out in force. September is peak time in much of Turkey, and the steady stream of people walking along the terraces was visible even from the town below. By far the biggest crush was around the top two or three pools, where it was almost impossible to find a spot to squeeze between large group photo shoots and Russians in skimpy swimming gear.
Having forced our way through the crowds complaining about the heat and sore feet, we emerged into an open area at the top of the terraces. Containing the remains of the ancient city of Hierapolis – including an enormous theatre – it was an unexpectedly worthy diversion. Nothing compared to Ephesus, perhaps, but still an enjoyable way to sweat excessively pass the time for an hour.
We had only allowed ourselves two and half hours in Pamukkale after arriving from Selcuk, and it turned out to be enough. With little else to do in the town except buy over-priced gifts, and bus services leaving regularly for several other destinations, there was no need to stay the night.
And so we didn’t.
All in all, Pamukkale was a delight. Despite the crowds, it was a remarkably enjoyable experience. Wandering barefoot around such a bizarre landscape, the warm water cooling our feet, was quite unlike anything I had ever done before.
Was it worth the effort and 20 lira entrance fee? Absolutely.
I still don’t get what those bikini shots were all about though.