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Turkey proffers beauty and rich historic legacy

Honeymooners find people warm and welcoming

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KAS, Turkey — "Who goes to Turkey for their honeymoon?"

That was the question from the cab driver as he pulled up to the terminal at Boston's Logan Airport.

It was by now a familiar question. Friends, family members and colleagues had similar reactions when Michele and I said we'd be spending two weeks in Turkey following our June wedding.

Americans who venture into Asia Minor find it, as we did, a warm and welcoming place — not at all threatening, though most travel guides warn against visiting volatile eastern precincts near the Iraqi and Iranian borders.

Turkey is a place of stunning natural beauty, and with a historic legacy rivaled by few places on Earth. There are miles of unspoiled coastline, where jagged peaks plummet to turquoise waters. Just inland, life remains as it has been for centuries.

Each dawn, we awoke to the chant of the muezzin, the crier who summons Muslims to daily prayers from the mosque minarets. Though governed by a staunchly secular political system, Turkey is 99 percent Muslim.

The country's current economic crisis has been trying for Turks, but it created a windfall for travelers. In our 14 days there, the Turkish lira devalued by more than 15 percent against the dollar. As a result, a three-course dinner for two can be had in most areas for less than $10.

Like most visitors, we flew in and out of Istanbul, capital of two of the world's great empires — Byzantine and Ottoman.

Reminders of the past are everywhere, particularly in the neighborhood called Sultanahmet. This is the heart of ancient Constantinople, where the Aya Sofya — built as a church in the sixth century, and later converted to a mosque — dominates the skyline. But modern Istanbul is also a vital city of gleaming office towers and trendy discotheques.

Swissair tickets round-trip from Boston to Ataturk International Airport cost us $800 apiece last December. We rented a car from Budget Rent-a-Car, $438 for 10 days. After two days in the city, we set out across Anatolia, the Turkish heartland, bound for the Mediterranean and a mountainous peninsula known as the Turquoise Coast.

The drive was fascinating. It's a vast country of undulating, golden-brown grasslands that seem to roll on forever. There are red-rock canyons carved into the earth and towering snowcapped peaks that dominate the horizon.

Veiled Muslim women crouch in the fields or escort donkeys along busy ribbons of highway. Goats and hens scuttle out of the way, and children stand at the roadside hawking honey and bunches of grapes.

We caught our first glimpse of the Mediterranean from a pass high in the Taurus Mountains, then spent hours winding around hairpin turns until we arrived in Antalya in the midst of a stifling heat wave.The old city, called Kaleici, is a warren of narrow streets that emanate from a fortified harbor built by the Romans.

These days Kaleici is devoted to tourism. As you walk its steep streets, carpet sellers and jewelers get right in your face, imploring you to have a look at their wares, a common experience in places that are popular with tourists. Any expression of interest sparks a relentless sales pitch, making browsing in these markets and bazaars almost impossible.

The next day we headed west along a frighteningly narrow road that hugs the cliffs hundreds of feet above the sea. At Cirali we stopped for a swim and to explore the ancient city of Olympos, just a few steps in from the beach.

The ruins are still partly unexcavated and overgrown with vines. To visit the amphitheater you have to wade across the river that runs through the site.

Hundreds of classical ruins are clustered along the Mediterranean and Aegean coasts. Some, like Ephesus, draw thousands of visitors daily to what are some of the best preserved archaeological sites in the world. Others, like Arykanda, perched at 5,000 feet among wildflowers and the peaks of the Ak Daglari (White Mountains), are seldom visited.

We had Arykanda to ourselves when we visited this high, lonesome place

Arykanda dates from the second millennium B.C. and was an important trade station in Roman times because it occupies one of the few passes over the mountains and into the interior of Anatolia. The amphitheater has been partly restored and now is host to occasional opera performances.

Seven days after landing in Istanbul, we arrived in Kas (pronounced Kahsh), a small, prosperous seaside town commanding a glorious position on a bay studded with rocky islands. Even here there is evidence of the economic crisis in the vacant holiday villas left unfinished on some of the choicest parcels of waterfront property.

Basic rooms in Kas can be had for as little as $15 a night, but $66 buys you total luxury at the Hotel Hadrian, including breakfast and a four-course dinner. We opted for the latter.

We spent hours basking in the intense sun, cooling off with frequent dips in the Mediterranean and watching the majestic wooden motor yachts called gulets.

We chartered a boat one day in Ucagiz (pronounced oo-chaz), a tiny fishing village 15 miles east of Kas, for $40. Our boatman, Abdullah Tezcan, was a cheery old man who made the most of the nine or 10 English words he knew.

Abdullah took us first to Kalekoy, a village accessible only by boat and built atop the ruins of the ancient port of Simena.

Kalekoy is in the shadow of a crumbling Byzantine fortress that dominates the hillside. We climbed the rocky path to the top of the battlements, where there is a stunning view of the village and its harbor, along with dozens of islands.

After six nights in Kas we drove back to Antalya, returned our rental car at the airport, and flew back to Istanbul for the last two days of our honeymoon.

Early in our trip, Omer Tosun, the tour company owner in Cappadocia, asked me why more Americans don't visit Turkey. After two weeks there, I still don't know the answer, but I do have a pretty good idea of what they're missing.