George House – A Day in the Life

Hot again this morning with not so much as a breeze to break the monotony. I find it strange and a little bit depressing, having become accustomed to the windy isles of Greece, to live in a place where the atmosphere is so incorrigibly in stasis. Apparently it’s the fault of the mountains, which, soaring vertically out of the sea to an altitude of almost two thousand metres, act as a kind of natural windbreak. The air as a result is not only sweltering, but uncomfortably soupy and humid.

Yet despite the heat I managed to complete a decent amount of work either side of a large breakfast, which I ate alone in the dining room because I was early and no other guests were awake. On my first visit to George House, twelve years ago, we ate sitting on the floor of upper room; nowadays meals are served in a conventional dining room with big windows and rows of glass-topped tables, which I suppose counts as progress. The food is arrayed on one long table, from which guests help themselves; beside it on another table stands a large, stainless steel urn dispensing tea and hot water. (Instant coffee, supposedly Nescafe, is also available, but tastes atrocious.) As is my habit these days, I started proceedings with two cups of black tea heavily laden with butter and a large pinch of salt. A bit odd, perhaps, but it’s the only way I can make the stuff palatable, and it’s quite the thing – or at least so I’ve read – in the mountains of Nepal.

Hassan, his wife Xenihar and his sister Tuli all smile and shake their heads when they see me ladling butter into my tea. ‘It’s how they drink it in Nepal,’ I explain, trying to sound worldly, although I have never been to Nepal or drunk tea with butter in it, for that matter, before coming to Faralya. Hassan begins to reply, but is forestalled by the ringing of his phone – the dial tone is a crazy, fast-paced melody, like a mazurka played backwards on an out-of-tune xylophone.

‘Efendim,’ says the head man of George House, with impressive enthusiasm, and the voice that erupts on the other end of the line is so loud I can hear it here where I’m sitting, all the way across the room. The voice bangs on and on, like it’s got a genuine grievance. When at last it stops and Hassan is allowed to speak his tone is soothing, conciliatory, eager to please, as befits the mukhtar, or mayor, of the village. In his late thirties, Hassan is young for a position of such responsibility, but he possesses an enviable composure and ease of manner that no doubt goes down well with the hotheads of the village. He’s also no slouch with a joke, as he displayed to good effect the other day when I remarked that the wine at George House was a trifle expensive.

‘Maybe we think of you,’ he replied, quick as a flash, with his trademark grin. ‘Is more healthy this way.’ 

Breakfast is three boiled eggs, several slices of soft white goats’ cheese, tomatoes, cucumber and a large pile of wrinkled black olives – the traditional Turkish way of starting the day. Over this ensemble I drizzle a copious amount of olive oil, which is neither as thick nor as green as the oil in Greece and, to me at least, not nearly so tasty. The yogurt, which is homemade, is also noticeably thinner in consistency than its Greek counterpart, although quite delicious, especially when laced with the local honey. I drink a last cup of butter tea and while I’m at it the two gloomy young Turks who have pitched their tent at the end of the yard trudge into the room, nod sourly, and proceed to fill their plates with food. They eat sitting opposite one another at the next table, together but apart, each of them gazing wordlessly at his phone. Since arriving here I have met many friendly and outgoing Turks, but these two are hard going. It’s like they’ve taken a vow of silence.  

I’m back in the yard, scribbling at one of the wooden platforms, when Benjamin and Ilse appear, fashionably late as always. The two Turkish silentaries have packed up their tent, paid their bill and taken to the road. Benjamin and Ilse smile and wish me good morning and then Benjamin, who is wearing the same baggy shorts and drip-dry, brightly coloured shirt as yesterday, asks whether I can spare a moment to advise them about a walk. They’re planning, he says, with a quick glance skyward, to explore the terraces above the village. It’s a gorgeous outing through luscious countryside, with tremendous views out over the sea and the possibility of continuing, on an anciently cobbled path, up to the yaylas, or high pastures, in the mountains above the valley. I draw a map on a piece of paper that Benjamin takes from his pocket and which proves to be a kind of report slip for students. Benjamin, a mathematics teacher by profession, grins broadly.

‘I carry them everywhere I go, eh,’ he says. ‘They always come in handy.’

Benjamin and Ilse hail from Belgium. They arrived late the other evening, seeming to appear out of nowhere by the side of the fire where I was sitting with a young American couple and an Australian woman named Kate. The Americans were living and teaching in the capital, Ankara, which they claimed is boring. Kate had spent the winter in San Sebastian and was tired of being rained on, but was enjoying, she said, reading Hemingway in Spanish. In the conversation that ensued Benjamin said, with a slight French accent, that he and Ilse had come to do some walking, adding that the previous year they had attempted a stretch of the St Paul’s Trail, another long-distance outing further to the east. ‘It was a great holiday, eh,’ he said, ‘so now we’ve come here.’ He was keen to know what the local footpaths were like.  

To me they seem like the best kind of walkers, individuals who don’t get too worked up about things, but rather use walking as a way of meeting other people and having a good time. He’s forty-seven, a large, heavy-limbed man who reminds me of a European Chevy Chase; he has the same sort of long, humorous face and wise-cracking air, while laughter sparkles perpetually in his forthright blue eyes. Ilse is blue-eyed too, and beautiful, with high sculpted cheekbones, flawless skin the colour of porcelain and dark chestnut hair that falls loosely over her elegant shoulders. She speaks with the soft, almost lisping voice of a French film actress – while taking herself far less seriously – and is also a teacher, specialising in theatre and the plastic arts. She acts in her spare time and has an interest in poetry. According to Benjamin, her father was a forensic scientist.

I’m still scribbling when they head off, waving to me across the yard. By now my feet are itchy also and so after another half an hour or so of work I close the computer and return to my cabin where I put on my socks and boots, sitting on the steps outside, then take my sarong and hit the road. I walk to Kabak, the next bay along the coast. This is another epic place, a deep, tree-filled valley enfolded by vast cliffs of mottled limestone that go up and up, eventually topping a thousand metres. From Faralya I follow a partially cobbled path steeply uphill through shadowy pine forest; emerging from the trees at last I find myself on a verdant shelf of land overlooked by the high cliffs of the outlying Baba Dag massif, skirted by piney slopes and shrouded with gnarled old olive, turpentine and carob trees. A dirt track has been pushed through here, obliterating the path; it folds around a terraced valley that drops down towards the sea beneath yet more trees. There’s some enthusiastic development going on down there, which promises to be hideous, although up high everything remains lovely and serene and the walking is heavenly. The only blemish an ugly metal fence which some enterprising local has, with typical Turkish industry, erected around his (very pretty) meadow, ostensibly so he can sell water, freshly squeezed orange juice and honey to flagging walkers from his tumbledown stall.

The hives from which the man takes his honey, a row of gaily painted wooden boxes, stand to one side, while a trio of rather aggrieved-looking goats grazes among the pine trees on the slopes above. The fellow himself is short, bald, brown and unsmiling, and when I pass by is lying, flat out and cursing, underneath his battered wreck of a car which he has propped up on several large logs.Having shaken off some initial listlessness, it feels great to be walking through this landscape. Great clumps of oregano, smelling like incense, sprout from the drystone walls. There are wildflowers everywhere: limey-yellow euphorbia, papery pink and white cistus, scarlet poppies, bluey-purple tassel hyacinths and masses of sweet-smelling white-and-yellow camomile, plus copious growths of another green plant which seems to be a type of wild hellebore. Tortoises ply the road and rustle among the undergrowth, hissing comically if you catch them unawares. Not so long ago the lot of them were copulating madly, their prehistoric faces contorted in ecstasy, squeals of delight issuing from their rubbery Somerset Maugham lips. In the evenings I sometimes meet a smiling woman, in a headscarf and voluminous trousers, grazing a large flock of sheep with the aid of a frolicking puppy. On a side track among the pines a local farmer has, seemingly by chance, dug up what appears to be an ancient headstone carved with human figures. It is currently lying unattended, tipped on its side on a pile of red earth.

Beyond here a path of beaten earth plunges downhill through yet more pine forest; warmed by the sun, the trees exude a delectable aroma of resin, while  the ground beneath them is strewn with the wilting spade-shaped leaves of winter cyclamen amidst a carpet of dried brown needles. After what seems like ages the path debouches onto a dirt road which winds in turn down to the main street of Kabak, a fairly innocuous strip lined by modest houses, the majority of which have been turned into pensions complete with a restaurant and ‘market’. Fresh mountain water gurgles from a communal spring, olive, fig and peach trees throw great patches of shade and an assortment of vegetables grow in lovingly tended gardens. The only discordant note is the jackhammer chipping away at the mountainside above the village; the staccato clatter has echoed around the valley every day since I started coming here in March – ample warning, together with all the hammering and sawing going on in the depths of the valley, that one is entering an endangered realm.

Like Faralya, Kabak is essentially a farming and bee-keeping village. However the slopes on this side of the valley are sufficiently gentle to have allowed a dirt road to be built leading down to the beach and numerous establishments catering to tourists have taken root among the trees. Twelve years ago there were three or four places to stay and eat in the valley; now, according to Hassan, there are thirty-five. The first place I pass, Mama’s Pension, is one of the originals, although its upper storey is currently being entirely rebuilt to embrace a rustic look and a rooftop bar. Descending the road beneath it I pass a series of newer places, each with wooden cabins, a bar and a pool, the latter invariably set on a lavish terrace strewn with cushions, sunbeds and other touristy miscellanea. The most impressive of these is the ‘Olive Garden’, through which the path diverges; this venerable establishment features an infinity pool that is actually worthy of the name, seeming to hang in mid-air high above the sea, while its stilt-borne cabins are shrouded in pink-flowering oleanders and the eponymous olive trees. With its sumptuous views the Olive Garden could feature in the glossy pages of Conde Naste, although the overweight Brits sunning themselves on the lounges, and trying to drown each other in the pool, strike a slightly discordant note.

Meanwhile the alluring strip of beach, flanked by cliffs and lapped by the turquoise Mediterranean, still lie a forbidding number of fathoms down… 

By the time I reach it I am lathered with sweat and hot to the core, also mildly depressed by all the rubbish – tissues, cigarette butts, tinfoil wrappers from packets of biscuits and chips, beer bottles, the odd pair of women’s panties – strewn along the path. Turks are lovely people, but, I think it’s fair to say, hardly ecological warriors. Rubbish in black plastic bags is piled up at the rear of the beach, awaiting collection. It’s been there for almost a week now, steadily accumulating, and is starting to smell.

A Turkish woman I met in Marmaris described Kabak as ‘the place where people go who want to get high, only not on wine’. This seems to me right on the money with valley being particularly popular with young Turkish hippies. These genial folk are the stuff of President Erdogan’s worst nightmares: sporting long hair and beards, dressed in loose-fitting and colourful, albeit faded, clothing, they have no interest in flying jet planes over Greek airspace or chasing Kurds across Syria, preferring to sit on the beach and drink beer instead. On two occasions, whilst minding my own business, I’ve been invited to smoke marijuana, once by a fellow sitting cross-legged under a pine tree looking so blissfully relaxed that Nirvana, it seemed, was but one toke away.

The beach itself is not that great, and is, what’s more, beginning to get crowded as the weather heats up, but the sea is lovely and it’s always wonderful to hurl myself in after the long walk from Faralya. Today is no different and I feel my body relax as I swim out across the bay, coming to rest under the high cliffs and the more gentle slopes beneath them where a handful of dome tents have materialised among the trees. Here I let myself drift, treading water and admiring the vast dimensions of the valley, before swimming back the way I’ve come and hurling myself down on the shingles to dry out in the sun. Someone nearby has a boom box, from which ghastly music issues loudly. Like Byron I’ve begun to pine for the sunny isles of Greece.

Evening is falling and the sun setting over the sea, an orange disc sinking into a nacreous haze, as I hurry home across the upland. Sunlight burnishes the flank of Baba Dag, away in the distance, and sets the pine forest aglow. The honey-and-orange-juice man has gone home, leaving his goats, now more dissatisfied-looking than ever, safely penned up for the night. I arrive back in Faralya, plunging downhill along the path, feeling happily revitalised and looking forward to an ice-cold Tuborg or two and a big dinner.

Sitting in the yard outside the dining room I meet Benjamin and Ilse. A broad grin bisects Benjamin’s face as soon as he sees me. ‘We got lost, eh,’ he cheerfully admits, after I ask about their day and whether they made it to the yaylas. Then, as Isle looks on with a dreamy expression on her face, he proceeds to tell me at length – and with the aid of my map – just where they went wrong.





Ian Smith Written by:

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

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