The Pull of an Idyll as Years Pass By / By Vendela Vida
I discovered the Datca Peninsula, in the southwestern corner of Turkey, purely by accident. This was in 2005. I’d never been to Turkey and was trying to find a rental house somewhere — anywhere on any coast of the country — where my husband and I could spend the month of June.
I was trying to finish writing a novel that took place above the Arctic Circle in midwinter, and a waterfront town in Turkey in the summer seemed about as far away as I could get from the setting of that book, as well as from the day-to-day distractions of my life in San Francisco. I envisioned a month of solid writing in a country where I knew no one and where the water and people were warm. So I typed the words “Turkey,” “water,” “rental” and “cheap” into a search engine.
In Datca, in southwest Turkey, a promenade runs along the harbor. Five years ago the author and her husband visited for the first time.
The first house to appear also happened to be the only one available. It was, in fact, inexpensive, but also clean-looking and appealing, with vines and purple flowers covering the front of its facade. It was in the town of Datca. I located the eponymous peninsula on a map, and was immediately intrigued; it is where the Mediterranean and the Aegean come together, and I conjured romantic visions of swimming in alternate seas each day. After consulting several guidebooks to Turkey, I became more interested — no guidebook devoted more than a page, and some only a paragraph, to the area. Its nonpresence convinced me that this house was our destiny. At least for a month or so.
To get there, we flew to Istanbul, and then took a Turkish Airlines flight to Dalaman — a more developed area where many vacationers land for the short drive east toward cruises, boat charters or plush beachfront hotels. From there we rented a car and drove two and a half hours west on increasingly shaky roads, which, once dusk arrived, became gravel paths cutting through olive plantations. We arrived at the rental house late at night.
In the light of day, Datca seemed simple and charming and a bit raw. There are about 10,000 residents in the town, located on a gentle hill rising from the waterfront. Most of the houses face the harbor, dotted with small fishing boats. Most of the streets have no signs, save for the main one — Iskele Caddesi — which runs adjacent to the harbor. This road is lined with small grocery stores, bakeries and rug shops. But the loveliest part of Datca is one block away from the main street — the promenade that runs along the water.
There, restaurants at beach level face the sea and the boats bobbing in the bay. At night, couples and families stroll the promenade in search of dinner; many of the restaurants provide outside seating, and all of them serve fresh fish. For dessert, several outdoor stands sell ice cream by the scoop.
To judge from appearances, Datca might have seen better days — large hotels were closed, while small ones along the beachfront seemed to be surviving. Many of the houses had “For Sale” signs in their windows. There was something peaceful, though, about being in a town no longer in its heyday; that we didn’t encounter any other Americans during the month we spent there made it feel even more of an anachronism.
I would spend the mornings writing, and in the midafternoon my husband and I would seek out a new beach where we could read and swim. Sometimes the only other creatures we encountered in the small private coves were a family of goats. In the evenings, we’d dine on the promenade before returning to the house to work. A few times a week, we’d walk to the outdoor market, where we’d buy cheese, olives, fresh pomegranates and ruby red cherries. I quickly began to fall in love with the smoky sunsets, the stray cats, the quiet lapping of the tide on the beach, the outdoor games of chess I observed, the recording of the call to prayer that filled the town.
On our last day in the house, we decided to explore the northern part of the peninsula, and in particular Knidos, with its ancient Hellenic-period amphitheater — now a casually kept archaeological site. I had read a few sentences about it in a guidebook, but we had been too lulled into our daily rituals to venture there earlier. The drive took 45 minutes, winding through the town of Yakakoy. Mules walked on the side of the road, and elderly women sat on small chairs or tree stumps and sold nuts and honey to the occasional passing car. The road threaded up a bald mountain, the rocks white, until it reached a peak, and suddenly there it was: the wide, glimmering ocean and a stunning harbor. We made the curvy descent down to Knidos.
Knidos itself has no hotels and only one restaurant. It’s primarily a harbor for those chartering boats and gulets (Turkish yachts that provide extra space for sunbathing). Most people arrive by boat and spend the day exploring the ruins, or eating at the restaurant. We swam — this time in the Aegean — and at the restaurant ate a dinner of meze — fresh fish, beyaz peynir (“white cheese”), kofte (meatballs) and cacik (yogurt with cucumber). In traditional Turkish style, everything was served on small appetizer-size plates.
The sand in Knidos is white, and though not many people swim there, the water is a pleasant temperature, and the salt content so high that staying afloat seems to require little effort. And it’s only from the water that you can truly appreciate the amphitheater. Constructed out of white stone, the half-circle of the amphitheater faces the sea, where I imagine performances and staged battles once took place. The only problem with Knidos was discovering it so late. After the rough-hewn charms of Datca this more glittering and pure bay felt impossibly indulgent and dreamlike.
I took no notes while I was on the Datca Peninsula because I had no intention of writing about Turkey; it was purely a place to finish my book about the Arctic Circle — or so I thought. When I sat down to write my next book, however, these twin towns of Datca and Knidos continued to present themselves in my mind. They were so different — Datca with its year-round inhabitants and promenade, and Knidos with its yachts and ruins — that I found myself wanting to go back. And so, two years later, and with two friends, I did.
I returned to Knidos, arriving this time by boat, and I saw what the land looked like when approached from the water. It was still stunning, even on an overcast day. And as we explored the ruins — an old sundial, a church — I inhaled a sweet scent that one of my travel companions identified as honeysuckle. I also spent a day in Datca, still undiscovered by Americans. The beach scene was more vibrant, with many young people sunbathing and enjoying ice cream in the hot, hot sun.
Still, I was slightly disappointed to find it not exactly as I remembered. It seemed louder, and more popular, but its blemishes less romantic and more ragged. I suppose this is what happens in travel, and why we enjoy it. We know when we are traveling that we’re experiencing a particular moment in time. We know that every vacation is ephemeral and can’t be relived.
I began to think about what kind of character would return to a town and be disappointed to find it was not as it once was. And that gave rise to Yvonne, the protagonist in “The Lovers,” my most recent novel. Yvonne is a 53-year-old widow who returns, 28 years later, to the place where she and her husband had honeymooned. Because of the twin towns, I made her the mother of grown twins — one the golden child, the other troubled. The story grew from there.
I look back at Datca now with the conflicted feelings you have about your hometown. I love it sometimes, and sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I want everyone to see it, and sometimes I want to keep it to myself. I love it as I remember it, but when I see it again, I want it to be better. And the next time I’m there I’m sure I’ll feel altogether different about it.
VENDELA VIDA is a founding co-editor of The Believer. Her third novel, “The Lovers,” has just been published. Imprint is a new column in which authors write about a place that inspired a book.