Adventurer challenged, charmed by Turkey’s St. Paul Trail
In the middle of Turkey, in the heat of midsummer, tired, hungry and dripping with sweat, I was faced with a decision – set up camp next to a well of fresh water before sunset or push on, hoping to reach the Roman ruins of Adada before dark.
According to the guidebook, Adada’s watchman, Hasan, provides accommodation to tired trekkers who trickle in from the St. Paul Trail.
I decided to carry on toward the possibility of a bed, a shower, a sink to wash my socks and a main course that didn’t require building a campfire.
Kate Clow, author of the St. Paul Trail guidebook, makes no promises this trek is easy. In fact just the opposite – she says it’s fairly hard.
Originally from England, Kate has spent the last two decades working with volunteers and
government officials to showcase the rural riches of Turkey. In 1999 she opened the Lycian Way, Turkey’s first long-distance trek which links Antalya to Fethiye along the southern coast.
Her next project, completed in 2004, was the St. Paul Trail. It’s loosely based on St. Paul’s first journey from Cyprus into Asia Minor; although the Bible gives no record of his exact route, local archaeologists confirm that it follows Roman roads St. Paul may have used.
The 310-mile route is waymarked in Grande Randonee style with red and white paint stripes. Two separate branches climb over the Toros mountains, passing through limestone canyons, then meet at Adada. The route continues north, cuts across the middle of Lake Egirdir then through rolling hills to the biblical Antioch in Pisidia.
The day before setting off into the wilds of Turkey I dropped by Kate’s apartment in Antalya, looking for reassurance that doing the trek solo was not an act of stupidity.
“Do you speak any Turkish?” was her first question.
“None.” I said, slightly embarrassed.
“Well, you’ll know plenty of Turkish by the end of your trip” she said nonchalantly in her British accent.
“You have a GPS? Right, well then you’ll be fine.” We both laughed at her weak effort to quell my anxiety.
Each day on the trail was a different landscape.
I basked in the gentle breeze along a high ridge overlooking the blue waters of Lake Egirdir, weaving between massive stone towers along a dirt path lined with patches of wild oregano.
I walked through the spectacular stillness of a thick forest filled with giant junipers and pines. Only a slight movement from a stone spooked me out of my backcountry bliss. The strange rock quickly turned into a tortoise, neck outstretched, glancing up at me as if to say “Watch it, I’m trekking here too.”
Hours spent hiking in sweltering heat, coupled with long sections of steep scree induced sporadic outbursts of profanity, cursing at every trip and slip.
During my most intense tirade I assumed I was alone with my frustration. With a look of disbelief, two Austrian hikers greeted me with justified hesitation. Beyond embarrassed, I attempted to explain the trail behind me was overgrown with thorny bushes and littered with loose rock.
It was no use. To them, I was hiking solo because I was insane. Some days I could not help but think the two went hand in hand.
Transitioning between a vast network of village footpaths, migration routes and ancient roads, the St. Paul Trail is rich with remnants from the past. I felt like I was spit out of a time machine as I walked on square slabs of limestone from a main Roman trade route.
Climbing around the crumbling theater at Selge, I belted out a line from “Julius Caesar.”
I passed the crippled arches of a Byzantine church one morning and explored the ruins of a hilltop fort from the Hellenistic period later the same day.
After a few nights of camping I was eager to reach the village of Caltepe to find Erdinc, described by Kate as a great resource who speaks English and offers accommodation and home-cooked meals. After a comfortable night’s rest in his guesthouse, he took me to a hidden spring used by the Romans.
Later we floated down a section of the Koprulu river. The turquoise-blue water started to chill my body as the current carried us into the shade between the canyon walls.
Erdinc suddenly pointed up at a tomb of an ancient tribal king, cut into the stone high on one side of the canyon.
A world away from WiFi, the St. Paul Trail took me far from the life I knew back home. Putting the tent near a shepherd’s stone hut often led to a dinner invitation. Seated on a tablecloth laid over the ground, armed with a spoon, I traded smiles with the shepherd as we took turns scooping tomatoes, olives, rice, and potatoes out of bowls.
Drawing water from a well, using old rope and a rusty can, I savored the feeling of cold, clean water rushing over my head and down my neck.
No matter where the tent was placed, there was invariably a late-night Turkish lullaby. A symphony of natural sounds, croaking toads, crabs crawling under the tent, mysterious calls and whistles from shepherds communicating with their herds, distant nickering from a band of wild horses or the unnerving grunting and sniffing from a wild boar, its beastly silhouette lingering under the moonlight.
Homestays along the St. Paul Trail often lead to an adventure within an adventure. Coming down from the mountains to the water’s edge, I had to find Mustafa, a local fisherman who provides the only transport across Lake Egirdir to rejoin the trail.
Locating him led to a lazy afternoon swimming off one side of his skiff while the gregarious chain-smoking fisherman jumped off the other side into the thick reeds with a harpoon gun – only to return with no fish and leeches on his face.
Later that evening, after a short exchange of hand signals and one-word sentences with Mustafa, I gathered that he and his brother were going to make a trip to Isparta and I was to join them. After each of us had received a quick shot of cologne from Mustafa’s son, I found myself sitting shotgun.
I greeted Mustafa’s brother with a handshake; his grip felt like I slipped my fingers into a vice. A few minutes into the drive, as we bombed past a village that had taken me two days to reach by foot, he turned to me and said in a deep, gladiatorial tone “ISPARTA.” Flustered by his intensity and not knowing what else to say I repeated “ISPARTA!” The men erupted in loud cheers.
We arrived in town, taking seats around a small coffee table in the office of a used car salesman. Friendly banter lasted until the tea was finished and the last cigarette butt was placed in the ashtray.
Then Mustafa handed over a giant frozen fish he had pulled from the trunk of the car along with 300 Turkish lira to the salesman. It was then I realized we had driven to Isparta to make a car payment.
On my last day hiking the St. Paul Trail, I walked along a dirt road lined with apricot trees. A tractor rolled to a stop next to me. To my surprise, the driver was an English teacher named Engin. He was spending his summer vacation to help harvest the family orchard.
He listened intently as I explained my journey but struggled to understand why someone would hike over 200 miles through Turkey. He then asked if I would join his family for a barbeque that evening. Accepting his invitation I leaned my backpack against the trunk of an apricot tree and offered to help pick fruit.
It wasn’t long before half a dozen women on ladders started yelling “Kova” (bucket) at me. I had unwittingly transitioned from trekker to runner, replacing full buckets with empty ones.
After a few hours of picking in the heat of the afternoon we gathered under the shade to share snacks laid out on a blanket. I watched as Engin squished a Turkish delight between two crackers. “Turkish delight sandwich” he said smiling, his straw cowboy hat sat high on his forehead.
Licking the powered sugar from my fingers I began building my own sandwich as the women sang and danced in a circle.
One of the women held out her hand, inviting me to join them. I smiled and shook my head. I felt like my feet deserved a break.
Brad Myers, 32, grew up on a farm north of Spokane. He’s done postgraduate study in Italy and trekked the Via de la Plata pilgrimage trail across Spain.