In Assos
In Search of Peace and Antiquities  -  By Sara Nieves-Grafals and Al Getz

    Sitting on the steps of the hilltop Temple of Athena gave us a bird's eye view of the turquoise Aegean Sea. Segments of Doric columns and ornamental carvings littered our surroundings as if strewn in a divine temper tantrum. The warm autumn wind whistled past the half dozen standing pillars of the temple. In the distance, the hilly outline of the Greek island of Lesbos lay shrouded in a lavender mist. Its inhabitants had ventured across the waters 2,500 years ago to build this acropolis honoring their goddess.
Down below a fishing boat circled the waters spreading nets just outside the one-street hamlet of Assos—our home base on this part of the Turkish coast. After a week of wrestling throngs of videotaping tourists and sweet talking carpet salesmen in Istanbul, we dreamt of an uncrowded seaside village rich in antiquities and a relaxing pace. Did such a destination exist or was it a figment of our imagination? Semih Sen, a twenty-something university student we met in Istanbul, had raved about Assos: "It looks like it belongs in the movies. You will not see tourists there; only Turkish artists and intellectuals". So we set out for Assos hoping to find the peaceful village of our dreams.
Reaching the town turned into an odyssey. We glimpsed ancient buildings on top of a mountain as we circled up a narrow pot-hole studded road. After a series of dizzying hairpin turns we burst upon a straight dirt path leading downhill to a collection of hotels on a white sand beach --a rarity on this coast of pebble shores. Not a single beachgoer could be seen on this mild October day. A newly built whitewashed hotel caught our eye. Its sunny indoor dining patio glistened with white china, starched linen and hanging greenery. Only the attentive caretaker and the maid peopled the surroundings. The rhythmic drift of the waves created a hypnotic background. The unspoiled village of our dreams had materialized.
Later that night we set out for a pre-dinner stroll down the moonlit deserted dirt road. All the other hotels had either closed for the season or were still under construction. We walked the length of the beach without seeing anyone and began to wonder whether we would find an open restaurant. Where hid the artists and the harbor that Semih had described? We felt like Adam and Eve—the only two guests in the whole town of.... Eden Beach, we later came to find out. In our haste to settle in we had bypassed Assos. Our wish for an "off the beaten path" destination had become a reality. Fortunately a bright light at the end of the dark road signaled one open restaurant where we feasted on fresh fish and hearty Kavaklidere wine for about twenty dollars.
Although our stay was not unpleasant, being in a ghost town had its disadvantages—as our ice-cold showers proved. The hotel management could not afford to heat water for just two people. We had taken our search for solitude to a ridiculous extreme. The next morning we decided to look for Assos after all.
A few kilometers back we discovered the sign that we had overlooked the day before. A steep winding coastal road carved out of red cliffs led us downhill to Assos. We watched as a van crammed with people—luggage tied to the top—teetered along the narrow street. This type of local transportation is known as dolmus (pronounced dull-MOOSH), the Turkish word for "stuffed". With the help of a bystander we secured one of the four precious parking spots in the entire village.
After finding a hotel we peered at our surroundings from the terrace, immediately concluding that this time we really had located Utopia. Burnt orange tile roofs glowed in the sun atop gray buildings made of locally quarried stone. We could hear the laughter of locals who shared food and stories at waterside rattan tables unperturbed by the well-nourished cats who slunk around eyeing their food. Knee-high boulders decorated with red geraniums doubled as a sea barrier. Overhead, woven straw awnings flapped in the breeze. A backdrop of sapphire blue water brought back Semih's words: "Assos looks like it belongs in the movies."
   The next morning we lingered over a typical Turkish breakfast—earthy feta cheese, crusty bread, oil-cured olives, cucumbers, tomatoes and a hard-boiled egg.
From our table we could see the tiny harbor across the water where five tanned fishermen rowed close to the rocky docking area. A burly man lunged into the water and helped the others tie their blue boats. In well choreographed teamwork the crew hoisted nets ashore and emptied squirming silver fish into buckets --the restaurants' catch of the day. We resolved to order fish for dinner later that evening.
Satisfied with our peaceful village, we eventually we set out on a thirty minute uphill hike in search of antiquities. Right below the entrance to the acropolis tiny stores featured regional crafts. Kilims (flat weave rugs of tribal designs) and carpets in a rainbow of colors were draped along the sides of the street. One shop specializing in Ottoman-style jewelry displayed its wares on the walls. The silversmith priced each piece by weighing it on a hand scale. On the street a youthful blue-eyed shepherd in his seventies sold us a pounded wool cap for about $6.

    After purchasing tickets to uninhabited Old Assos we marched to the summit where the Temple of Athena towered over us. The white stone marble steps and columns stood in defiance to multiple plagues—wind, earthquakes, human hands and acid rain. The 530 BC structure resembled a small scale Parthenon, predating it by about one hundred years. But unlike the Parthenon, it was not roped off so we could climb inside.
Many parts of Athena's sanctuary had tumbled and lay scattered creating a stone jigsaw puzzle for the archaeologists who have been piecing the building back together over the past one hundred years. Looking downhill we could see subsequent layers of history. A second century BC marketplace, known as an agora (pronounced ah-gu-RAH, the Greek word for market) now lay in ruins. Further downhill a scattering of empty carved stone coffins marked a second century AD Roman necropolis. In the Middle Ages dwellers had abandoned Assos in favor of more prosperous nearby settlements.
As people had done for millennia, we indulged in a memorable sunset watch from the temple. A glowing full moon rose among the columns outlined against clear cobalt blue skies. The sun reddened and appeared to grow before hiding in the water as we watched in silence. We wished we could bottle the magic of the moment and bring it home. The chill of the brine scented breeze compelled us to reach for our windbreakers. Gradually the acropolis darkened, and before we knew it two hours had passed. The long downhill walk back to our hotel took us past the two-story high stone walls that enclosed the acropolis. Pre- Christian era masons had chiseled slits at regular intervals to allow townspeople to throw rocks or boiling water on would-be conquerors.
Having experienced the peaceful modern village and its ancient predecessor we decided to investigate Assos' artistic bent. Intrigued by a sign announcing "traditional music" we banged on the door of an inn later that night. The owner ushered us through a dimly lit smoke-filled room to the only table left. A swarthy man in a cableknit sweater and jeans strummed the guitar and sang mournful ballads interspersed with upbeat folk tunes. His blond counterpart played the ut, a bowl shaped stringed instrument that resembled a lute and wailed like a haunting mandolin. The Turkish audience in Western garb clapped along and played small percussion instruments. A table of people in their thirties vocalized in unison and took turns caring for a 3-year-old girl who seemed intent on dancing. We had the feeling that we were visiting somebody's home. The party went on until the wee hours of the morning; we left when we could no longer keep our eyes open. Music trailed behind us as we strolled back to our hotel.
The following morning, after a walk on the jetty and a final seaside breakfast we drove south. As the outline of the acropolis faded in the distance, fig and olive groves surrounded us. Goddess Athena's Assos and its divine simplicity would long live in our memories.

GETTING THERE: Assos and its harbor village (also known as Behramkale) lie about 250 miles and about a five hour drive Southwest of Istanbul.

ACCOMMODATIONS & FOOD: Throughout Turkey it is advisable to ask whether hot water is available before checking into a room. Because you can walk from one end of Assos to the other in five minutes and there is only one street, establishments do not have street addresses as you cannot miss them. Most hotels include dinner in their rate. We stayed at the functional Behram Hotel (Tel. 0-286-721-70-16 or 721-73-28, Fax 721-70-44). A double room with bath, including breakfast and dinner, cost $47. The dinner buffet featured outstanding Turkish cuisine. At nearby Hotel Assos (Tel. 0-286- 721-70-17 or 721-70-4, Fax 721-72-49) rates for a full pension for two people ranged around $50 per night.
ATTRACTIONS: We listened to live Turkish music at Kucuk Ev Pension Restaurant & Bar (Tel.0-286-721-70-11 or 721- 74-03). No cover or minimum. We had wine by the glass at $3 each. Admission to the ancient acropolis was $1. 

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