New life for a Turkish ghost
Russell Crowe’s latest movie stirs hope of a visitor boom
Traffic rumbles unhurriedly past Bulentin Yeri, a traditional roadside pancake house in southwest Turkey’s Kaya Valley. The wall bordering the road is topped with a jaunty parade of rusting corn-oil tubs stuffed with trafficlight chilli peppers and pink trumpets of hibiscus.
Bulent’s family has run this small restaurant for 18 years, and the headscarfed lady sitting cross-legged in front of the open fire, ladling batter on to an iron griddle, is his mother. Locals are socialising around low tables and snacking on katmer pancakes — a speciality of the house, spread with a concoction of sugar and sesame paste. So far, so customary. But what is remarkable is what lies across the road: a steep mountainside terraced with layer upon layer of deserted stone buildings. Derelict churches, roofless houses and broken cisterns shimmer like a mirage as the sun beats down on the ruins and slants through the windowless gaps. This is the ghost village of Kayakoy, deserted since the Greco-Turkish population exchange of 1923, when its Greek Orthodox occupants were “returned” to Greece. Empty now, it stands sentry-like on the hillside, separated by a century from the rhythms of modern daily life, a silent witness to a lost past. The people eating pancakes below and the passing tractors with their trailers of pomegranates are part of another world.
Since 1988, when it was designated a protected archeological site, Kayakoy has increasingly attracted attention. Its haunting sadness was the inspiration for Louis de Bernieres’s 2004 novel Birds Without Wings, in which it became the model for the village Eskibahce. Since then, it has become a regular coach-trip destination for tourists.
But it is now taking a bigger step into the international spotlight with the release of Russell Crowe’s film The Water Diviner, in Australia late last year and in Britain and US last month. Set in 1919, the film tells the story of an Australian farmer (Crowe) visiting Turkey in search of his three sons, all missing following the Anzac landing at Gallipoli 100 years ago. The period time capsule of Kayakoy offered the ideal location and some of the closing sections of the movie were filmed there.
Shooting took place in the northern spring last year, and locals were still buzzing with gossip when I visited later that summer. There was disappointment that, for his directorial debut, Crowe (perhaps not a pancakelover) had brought his own catering vans, but delight that two well-known Turkish actors, Yilmaz Erdogan and Cem Yilmaz, had key roles. There was fascination — especially among older residents – in having been able to watch the ghost village rise from the dead, and see life being breathed back into its long-neglected streets. Local craftspeople had helped make wooden stalls for a bustling market scene, for instance. But, above all, there was hope that the film would encourage people visiting this part of Turkey’s exquisite Turquoise Coast to venture inland and discover the charms of the Kaya Valley.
A sleepy hotchpotch of rural communities and farmsteads snuggled into the backdrop of the Taurus Mountains, the valley is just 9km from the sea — equidistant from the bustling harbour town of Fethiye to the north and (to the south) the much-photographed blue-lagoon resort of Olu Deniz, where I was staying. Although breathtakingly beautiful, Olu Deniz’s seafront is very commercialised: there are breakfast joints galore and paragliders are scattered like DayGlo Smarties across the blue skies. But my hotel, the elegant Beyaz Yunus (White Dolphin), is a gorgeous hillside retreat, its gardens brimming with butterflies and birdsong. As far from the madding crowd as I could have hoped, it proves the perfect jumping-off spot for a drive into the silent heart of Turkey’s recent past and the peacefulness of its rural present.
The countryside of the Kaya Valley is given over to agriculture, and the pace of life is slow. Pomegranate and fig trees line the roadsides. Crumbling stone walls enclose silvery olive groves, vineyards and small holdings of courgettes and peppers.
Driving feels wonderfully timeless as you pass rustic stables and cowsheds where small groups of cows or oxen stand around sleepily in dry straw. An old shepherd sits smoking his pipe under a carob tree.
Kayakoy, the “new” village that sprawls below its ghost counterpart, is equally atmospheric, with its stone drinking fountain, traditional tea garden and alleyways fluttering with washing lines and patrolled by ambling chickens. What especially intrigues me is the clusters of galleries and arts and crafts studios that have begun to appear, many in recently renovated old buildings close to the ruins.
“It’s a circle,” Bulent says philosophically, as I tuck into one of his special pancakes. “The Greeks in the ghost village were craftspeople — that’s why their houses stayed empty when they left. Stuck on a steep hillside, without gardens or stables, they were of no use to the Turkish farmers who were offered them.” He smiles happily. “Now the artists are returning at last.”
I look up at the ruins and think about the days when their narrow streets hummed with life, church bells rang and the school playground swarmed with children. Then I picture them revitalised by actors and crew as the village’s broken shell was briefly reanimated. Those streets are all empty again. But how lovely to think that the incoming artists and craftspeople, the spiritual heirs of Kayakoy’s ghosts, are now bringing their own form of renewed life to the village. • goturkey.com
Clockwise from top, ghost town Kayakoy; a woman makes gozleme; Russell Crowe in