Why I didn’t love Pamukkale but why you should visit anyway
Pamukkale! One of Turkeys top tourist sites is highly advertised and you can visit it from nearly any resort. Its pictures of people bathing in gleaming white travertine terraces have mesmerized me since I was a teenager. We finally had the opportunity to see them on our recent road trip in the Turkish Aegean region. I didn’t love Pamukkale, for various reasons. But it started so well and ended on a high note. The region around Pamukkale is highly under-visited and definitely merits a visit.
Here is the reason why I am publishing Turkey posts right now.
Yazir Haci Omer Mosque
We set off from Patara in the late morning, and drove quite leisurely up the D400. Following a nicely maintained road, we got onto the D330, then onto the slightly busier E87 through pretty mountain scenery. Finally we descended into the plains around Denizli, where a lot of Turkey’s cotton is grown. Near Acipayam, we visited a beautiful village mosque, painted with frescoes.
It is just a few kilometres off the main road, in a tiny village. How did a simple wooden mosque get these amazing frescoes? I am not entirely sure. The mosque was built over 200 years ago by a fairly wealthy local. The building is in traditional local style – a rather cubist-looking stone building with a wooden interior and a gently slanting roof, not dissimilar to the village houses. The minaret looks like it may have been added at a later stage. There are frequent earthquakes in this region. So buildings often have repairs and additions to them. But of this I am not entirely sure.
The images painted in this mosque were simple: fruit, flowers, images of cities and their mosques, all in a ochre-orange-olive green-red colour scheme, probably by a very talented local craftsman. The colour scheme in this mosque was orange-olive, very harmonious. When we arrived there, the door was open. No one was inside – just a few old men from the tea house across the door watching us curiously.
As we left, men were beginning to congregate for prayer. One of them told us how old it was and that it had recently been restored. But that was all we managed to find out! It is very much an active village mosque and the villages main house of worship.
A true roadtrippers lunch
This true cultural highlight was followed by a dirt cheap roadside truck stop lunch and conversations with Turks who reside in Germany and who were somewhat bemused about the Germans with no Turkish family roaming their provincial roads. Round Denizli, which we skipped – apparently its worth a visit as asome unexciting yet pleasant Turkish town with some good shopping opportunity for cotton linens, and so is Buldan, north west of Denizli.
Aphrodisias: A detour well worth it
I pleaded with my husband to make the detour to Aphrodisias, set in a pretty mountainside. Despite some sizable and pretty well-preserved Hellenic ruins as well as a wealth of statues and sarcophagi, the most intricate housed in a calm and cool museum, hardly any one visits. Anyway – Aphrodisias merits another post, so let’s go to Pamukkale. We arrived there in the dark after a somewhat adventurous drive though cotton fields on some back roads that our maps app told us to take, the famous terraces gleaming in the back.
A night in Pamukkale
We checked into the Hotel Ozbay and walked to dinner. My plan was for us to get up very early, walk up the path along the travertines visit the ancient site of Hierapolis on top of the hill that has the travertines, then walk back down along the travertines and somehow take some decent pictures of the water-filled travertines at 6am.
For this, the Hotel Ozbay is an excellently situated hotel. It’s not going to win prices for style or service, but it was very clean, very cheap, and the path to the main attraction, the travertine terraces, begins right at its door step.
About five restaurants were open in early November, so we chose the one with the most visitors and enjoyed our worst meal in Turkey as well as a minor kitchen fire. Despite a bit of noise coming from outside the hotel, I slept okay until the early morning when I started to feel rather sick.
Tip: Check out the online reviews. Especially of Pamukkale restaurants. The ones with bad reviews are usually really bad. For someone who checks them out a lot, but not this time, I paid for this. Don’t go to a restaurant on the main road, but stick to those further back on Ataturk Road if you need to eat in Pamukkale.
Access to Pamukkale
Followed by the worst breakfast in Turkey, I reluctantly left he cool safety of the hotel room and adjacent bathroom to explore the site of Hierapolis and the travertines.
There are several access points to Pamukkale. The Pamukkale Town entrance, which I had planned to take, takes you on a foot path along the travertines up onto the hill of Hierapolis. It is a bit of a steep and slippery half-hour climb, and you are only allowed barefoot. You can in theory leave you car for free at the small car park at the foot of the hill.
The South Entrance is that used by the majority of groups and tour buses. We didn’t go there, but it involves a lot of walking unless you are on a tour/have your own transport but there are minibuses/toy trains that will take you all the way to Hierapolis and the travertines from the parking, so this is the best option if your mobility isn’t good, but also the most crowded.
The North Entrance is 3km out of town but has regular minibus services. From here, it’s a relatively long walk (2km) through the necropolis on a slight downhill path past some ruins and some dry travertines (totally tourist-free) . If you are lucky, a small trolley will run along here as well to Hierapolis Gate,but the service was very erratic in November and not advertised at all.
The Path to Pamukkale – and why we turned around halfway
Given my somewhat poor and desiccated state, we drove to the North Gate, parked in the huge empty lot, and walked along the path towards Hierapolis, which seemed a very very long way away.
Hierapolis is the Hellenic Spa Resort on top of Pamukkale. It grew to a decent size, and had its own facilities, including a Basilica and enormous necopolis. Most of what you can see is just under 2000 years old, as the city was destroyed by an earthquake in 17 CE, and then again in the 1300s.
There was a bit of shade, but every step of the way made me like I wanted to faint by the road side. Thankfully, there were various very well-maintained bathrooms.
And here’s where I flagged
I made it to the first lot of travertines, then asked whether we could return. We were close enough to see the Hierapolis site teeming with people and full of coaches, despite the low season. It looks like the Southern approach involved a lot less walking, but somehow I was glad to have taken the longer route, but barely encountered anyone but a few caretakers.
It was becoming unbearably hot, even in November, and I wasn’t sure I would make it back on foot if I went one step further. So, goodbye gleaming white waterless travertine terraces, goodbye small overtouristed village of Pamukkale! Our visit was brief, but I am not sure I’m returning.
The Painted Mosques near Pamukkale
We had another mission, though: I had read about the painted mosques near Pamukkale on a Turkey blog and no matter how rubbish I felt, they mustn’t be skipped. Now the easiest would have been to stay another night int eh region, for example in much more local flavour hot spring resort of Karahayit and rest and get whatever rotten food or bug from the Ottaman House out of my system, but we already had booked a lovely hotel in Alacati for the night, 300km away.
Akkoy Yukkari Mosque
For the first mosque, we didn’t have to go far – just 5km to the village of Akkoy. The Map App was sending us round in circles, so we got directions for “the mosque” from a bemused shopkeeper. After a fully sugared cola, I felt a smidgen of strength returning. Well enough to leave the car and go for another tiny walk, anyway! Once we parked out and check out a rather large mosque – brand new and built in traditional style. Fortunately, an old man who was passing waved at us and two minutes later, the imam was on site and seemed to know what we wanted, and fetched the key an opened up an inconspicuous small green house next to the mosque.
The only way to guess there was something very precious behind these walls was an ornate wooden door. Sadly, the mosque is no longer in use and its roof is leaking, which has led to some damage to the ceilings. I had a nice look around while my husband chatted to the two men, then we gave a donation to the imam and moved on.
Belenardic Koyu Mosque
The village of Belenardic and site of the second mosque, is high up in the mountains, a very scenic drive made even more exciting by tractors plying the narrow road at breakneck speed. Belenardic is even smaller than Akkoy. Regardless, our map sent us to some community sports centre with no sight of the mosque. As the mosques are rater built in loca. style, low and squat, looking for tall minarets didn’t help us much either. So, we saw a family enjoying lunch in their garden, and asked to point us in the direction of the mosque.
…With a side of heartfelt hospitality
He’ll show us, an older man promised, and why don’t we sit in his garden while he goes to change. We were ushered to the table, and before we knew it and could protest, the lady of the house served us one of the best and most wholesome meals we had in Turkey from what she still had from lunch. Potatoes, some aubergine dish, various dips, soup and molasses with bread for dessert and grapes. My stomach was still churning but not eating that wonderful meal.
By the time we walked towards the village square, we had gathered considerable interest. We waited unti l after prayer time,where a few men gathered in the mosque anteroom to pray. Then our host plucked a key from some hidey-hole and opened up the mosque. We speak about ten words in Turkish so conversation was rather sparse but somehow it didn’t feel awkward. He seemed quit at east letting us walk around and take photographs, even moving things around. He patiently smiled at I crouched around the womens prayer gallery.
There’s always a German speaker anywhere in Turkey
When we exited the Mosque, a fluent German speaker had materialised to guide us to the village tea house. There we finally were able to have a conversation with the friendly local who showed us around. Yes, few people come there, he said, but people come – and the locals sniff them out by a mile, of course, let them visit the mosque and seem quite happy about the few foreign visitors. The last ones came… three weeks ago, from Italy. No, they don’t feel annoyed by them, it’s not that many visitors!
They welcome them with open arms, rather, they provide a bit of change in the rather hard life up here. More people came to take a look at the strange tourists, smiled and went bout their business. Our German-speaker was a Turkish retiree who’d worked as a paramedic for many years in Germany and had now retired “for the good life” in the village, just minding his family smallholding.
So – Pamukkale was a bit of a flop but the region isn’t
This is our most memorable example of Turkish hospitality, but literally anywhere, the locals were friendly, even in touristy places. We Germans are the second-largest nationality (after Russians) that holidays in Turkey. This general attitude to foreigners will always make me want to go back to Turkey. Now it may not be Pamukkale, but Turkey is such a wonderful destination well beyond Cappadocia, Pamukkale and the big coastal resorts. And I am still working on ways to return the hospitality we received as visitors to Turkey! Because helping random strangers to get to Berlin from the airport and buying them coffee perhaps isn’t enough but you see I am working on being a nice enough local when it comes to visitors to Berlin.
And as for our day that started so low but ended on a high note, my husband drove the 300km to Alacati, with me languishing in the backseat, mostly sleeping and signalling for him to stop for regular bathroom breaks. Not really attention to the tantalising local roadside stalls (carpets! dried fruit! cotton towels rustic pottery!) until we got to our hotel, where I slept another 12 hours. The next day, I stuck to a diet of brioche and watered-down coffee, and two days later, that bad Pamukkale meal was just a distant memory.
We had a hire car and drove from Patara in the South to Alacati on the Cesme Peninsula, making Pamukkale our overnight stop. I highly recommend you have your own transport to explore the region, It will be easy enough to get tours or even public minibuses from larger towns and resorts like Kusadasi, Fethiye or Izmir, but to visit the Painted Mosques, a car is necessary. There os no public transport to Aphrodisias, either. Our car was from Sixt (the cheapest, a fairly large model not available in Western Europe) and despite a few hiccups (slow puncture, running low on AdBlue) we made our ten-day trip with just a tiny bit of anxiety whether we break down in the iddle of nowhere.
We stayed at the Hotel Ozbay in Pamukkale because it was cheap, clean, and very close to the pedestrian path to the travertine terraces in the middle of Pamukkale. It was nothing outstanding but given our bad luck with the restaurant, I think this place was excellent value for money for a touristy place like PAmukkale.
If I were to visit again, I would try to stay in Denizli, half an hour away, or in the nearby Thermal Spa Resort of Karahayit. Both get mostly national tourists, value for money is better but you need to factor in the trip and finding parking in Pamukkale.
The Small Print
We visited Turkey in October and November 2019, on a self-organised road trip we paid entirely ourselves. None of this is sponsored but this post contains some affiliate links to Booking.com. This means I may earn a small commission if you book your accommodation through any of the link. Thank you!