At George House

Today I established a new writing spot. After getting a small, folding wooden table and plastic garden chair from Hassan I set myself up on one of the stilted wooden platforms at the bottom of the garden, just where it begins to fall away to the lip of the gorge.

There are four of these platforms standing one beside the other, tacked on like an afterthought at the end of a row of cabins. According to Hassan, who refers to them as ‘treehouses’, visiting campers set their tents up in them, although they are also, he says, a pleasant place to sit on hot afternoons. Structurally they are not going to win any design awards, being cobbled together from rough-hewn timber planks, with a low parapet around the sides and overhead a pitched plyboard roof. But the outlook is fantastic, of verdant terraces rising upwards from the gorge beneath a billowing of trees – olive mostly, but also pomegranate, fig, citrus and carob – with here and there the red roof of a village house protruding from the greenery and, higher up, pine-clad slopes that evolve into jagged cliffs of grey-and-ochre-coloured limestone. The latter enfold the valley in an amphitheatre-like arrangement; they are fissured by gorges and shattered by rockfalls and ultimately drop some four hundred metres into the depths of a canyon that, named after an elusive species of butterfly, opens to the sea. Overlooking all this, visible away in the distance, is the earthquake-ravaged pinnacle of Baba daǧ, ‘Father Mountain’, from the peak of which paragliders launch themselves, forming daisy chains of colour across the sky as they waft down to the beach at Ӧlüdeniz. All in all it’s quite a sight and I confess myself smitten.

When I arrived here, in the middle of March, I entertained plans to live fulltime in one of these outposts. Partly my inspiration was economical; a platform would be cheaper than a cabin, I reasoned, and I could put the difference towards wine (not a negligible consideration in a country where alcohol is relatively expensive). But I was also attracted by the picturesque quality of living out of doors. Hassan, who is nothing if not considerate, advised me to think about it. And, sure enough, it soon became apparent that at this time of year the allure of an al fresco existence was limited by the weather, which was chronically unstable and often wet. As the days went by and I became increasingly attached to my cabin the idea faded from my mind; it seemed to make sense, given that I was travelling with a laptop and camera, to have a door that I could lock behind me. Not that there are too many miscreants in these parts; Faralya is a farming and beekeeping village, with almost as many animals as people, and the clientele at George House consists of an internationally diverse and relentlessly transient population of trekkers who are, quite literally, here today, gone tomorrow. The atmosphere as a result is reassuringly secure. 

For the record, it was as a trekker that I first discovered this spectacularly-sited and amenable camp. It was May 2006 and I had recently embarked on the Lycian Way, a long-distance walking trail that unfurls around the southwest Turkish coast between Fethiye and Antalya. The trek is some five hundred kilometres in length, but my first day had been inauspicious: I was hot and out of condition and taken unawares, what’s more, by the heat which was extreme and like nothing I had experienced up to that point in Greece. The problem, I gathered, was the mountains which soared almost vertically out of the sea and acted like a natural windbreak, creating an oppressive hothouse atmosphere in which walking was, to be frank, a drudge. I’d been in Turkey less than a week but already I was heartily sick of it, dreading the thought of the road ahead and longing for my windswept Greek island home.

I arrived at George House on the afternoon of my first full day on the trail, with aching feet and a hole in my trousers. A sign on the village road directed me down a steep drive, past tiers of ramshackle gardens lush with fruit trees. Tumbledown houses appeared here and there among the foliage. Goats grazed in sun-dappled shadows and I startled a flock of chickens who fled at my approach, sprinting comically down the road as fast as their little legs would carry them. At the bottom of the drive I came to a solid-looking two-storey house; it had been recently whitewashed and on the lower veranda sat a couple of people, a rather stern-faced man and a woman wearing a headscarf and tinted spectacles. The man was bald and, I noticed, missing his right hand – a striking combination. He glared at me for some time with an expression that not even the most optimistic traveller could describe as welcoming – in fact, I received the impression that he was building up a head of steam – before suddenly blurting out, with disconcerting vehemence, ‘Full!’

This was a blow, as George House was highly recommended. I was also less than thrilled by the idea of trudging back up to the road and seeking alternative accommodation in the village. (I didn’t even know if there was alternative accommodation.) Possibly the bald man noticed my ambivalence about leaving, because the next thing I knew he shouted again, this time for ‘Eric’.

The latter appeared with an alacrity that made me suspect he’d been hovering just around the corner, awaiting his summons. He was a slender man of average height, dressed in impeccably faded jeans and a pressed white shirt, with pale, delicate features, sandy hair that flopped low over his forehead and a blonde, neatly trimmed beard which gave his face an aristocratic cast. In a story I subsequently wrote about the episode, I described him as being straight out of a nineteenth-century Russian novel – a dissident poet, perhaps, or a closet revolutionary – and this basically nails it. He greeted me with a curt nod (I must, after all, have been a sight, covered in sweat and dirt from the trail) conversed briefly in Turkish with the bald man and, looking unimpressed with the role that had been assigned him, led me away into the garden.

We passed a row of wooden cabins that had all the simplicity of a loggers’ camp. Beyond them a path of well-tramped earth wound downhill through a jumble of trees, past dense growths of sage and yellowing grass and clumps of cistus whose flowers had long ago shrivelled to nothingness. Insects cavorted among the undergrowth and I was aware of the buzzing of bees, loud in the hot, mid-afternoon stillness, and the occasional rustle of a scarpering lizard. At last we came to several large and venerable oaks, high up in one of which Eric pointed out a rough assembly of boards reached by an apple-picker’s ladder and hung with what looked like bedsheets for curtains. He called the structure a ‘treehouse’, speaking in a sceptical tone of voice that seemed to indicate he wouldn’t sleep in it if you paid him. ‘Mind the scorpions,’ he added, before wandering away back through the garden.

I spent the afternoon beneath a mulberry tree in the yard, mending my trousers. The air grew fresh as shadows lengthened and the heat went out of the day. From up here there were airy views out over the gorge and across the sea to a complex of islands and peninsulas, each set in a frothing glacé of white mist. People came and went, providing diversion. Most noteworthy was a fire-eater from Munich whom I christened ‘Siegfried’ – lean, blonde and sun-ravaged, and trailing behind him a small, harassed-looking wife, this fantastic, if somewhat garrulous, individual was pure Teutonic myth.

The pair emerged, running with sweat, but magnificently triumphant (at least he was; she looked more than a little worse for wear although willing, I sensed, to follow her husband to hell and back if necessary), from the Kelebekler Vadisi, or Butterfly Valley, the gaping, sheer-sided canyon that originally put the otherwise unremarkable farming village of Faralya on the map. Helping himself freely to George’s complimentary instant coffee – in theory at least reserved for guests of the establishment – Siegfried explained how he and his wife had caught a boat from Ӧlüdeniz to the beach at the end of the valley, went for a quick swim and then tackled the ascent.

He spoke in German, which he obviously assumed I understood. The climb had been ‘sehr schwer,’ he assured me, ‘very difficult’, but because he and his wife lived in the Alps and were accustomed to mountains, they had managed it easily. Tomorrow, he intimated, they would attempt some equally daring exploit, in another part of the country far from Faralya. Having proffered this information he drained his cup, gave me a cheerful wave and strode off with his wife in tow, presumably to catch a dolmuş to the scene of their next adventure.

I meanwhile went for a stroll among the trees in the garden, where I was surprised to meet another bald man who was also missing a hand. I have since considered that it may well have been the same person, although at the time I was convinced of the existence of two bald one-handed men. I found the coincidence intriguing – was it, I couldn’t help wondering, a congenital family defect or merely a simple case of poorly executed dynamite fishing? At the same time it put me in a quandary: clearly there was more than one candidate for the title of George.

Eventually I returned to the yard, where fires burned in a number of outdoor ovens and pillars of smoke, wonderfully fragrant, billowed into the evening sky. There was also a new buzz around the place, the two walking groups that occupied it having returned from their respective adventures. One of these groups was English, the other French; utterances in the two languages flew back and forth on the now pleasantly temperate air. As the dinner hour approached the two individual camps coalesced and I felt momentarily at a loss, unsure of where I should fit myself in, but then Eric appeared at my side. ‘Unless you’d like to eat with the French,’ he said, somewhat drolly, ‘I suggest you go upstairs.’

I did as he said, only to find myself baled up by a cheerfully grinning old woman who insisted that I check my shoes at the door. After complying with this instruction I joined a rowdy assembly of English men and women sitting in a circle on the floor of a large room attractively panelled in pale blonde timber. Through the open windows, just as I sat down, the sunset wail of the local muezzin unceremoniously crashed. For long and, I must say, rather dreary moments the man’s cracked and mildly demented-sounding voice filled the room, although the Brits, to their credit, remained unmoved, their attention focused solely on the many pots and dishes that occupied several low, round wooden tables in the centre of the circle. These contained staples like rice and salad, as well as a number of casseroles made of pulses and vegetables – speedily emptied, they were replenished just as swiftly by a team of smiling women in headscarves and loose-fitting trousers who came and went with the fleet-footed elegance of culinary djinns.

I can’t remember what exactly I ate, only that it was delicious; I washed it down with a can of Efes pilsener and finished with two large helpings of yummy homemade yogurt laced with local honey. Throughout the meal I chatted with Eric, who, unlike me, sat comfortably in an enviably loose-limbed full-lotus posture; I learned that he came from Belgium and worked as an anthropologist, mostly in Morocco, and visited George House several times a year in order, he said, to relax. He listened politely to the tale of my afternoon’s adventures but claimed to be unaware of the existence of a doppelgӓnger. ‘And by the way,’ he added, ‘the man’s name isn’t George.’    

The experience made an impression on me. I wrote a story about it, a patchy and irreverent piece that subsequently appeared in the travel pages of The Australian. And recently, when I was trying to think of a place where I could hole up for a while and do some work, George House Pension came to mind. Twelve years had passed since that original, and very brief, visit, but I had the feeling, as I recalled the stunning location, great food and friendly, warm-hearted people, that it might just be the place for me. After more than six weeks in residence, I’m happy to say that for once in my life my instinct appears to have been right on the money.

 

 

Ian Smith Written by:

Ageing and mildly deranged travel writer, recently let loose in the southern Aegean following years of captivity.

2 Comments

  1. Tania
    May 9, 2018

    It has taken me a few days to read your latest post but I have enjoyed it! I liked that you compared your experiences from your last visit until now – the platform/treehouse is visually captivating – do you have a photo as it would be amazing to see if it matches my imagined version – great story!

    • May 17, 2018

      I’m very pleased you enjoyed the story, Tania. I’m afraid, though, that I’m a bit short on pics, as I found George House extremely difficult to photograph.

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