Pumukkale, Hierapolis, and Roman Baths – plus Please! Don’t sit with shoes on the toilet

Way back in May, when we stopped in Kusudasi, Turkey on the Holland America cruise (the stop where it almost came to fisticuffs over the leather jackets) I noticed a sign in the window of a travel agency with a picture of Pumukkale.  Pumukkale means Cotton Palace – and the picture of the bleached white travertine pools holding turquoise water was seared into my brain.

Pumukkale
Pumukkale

Fast forward several months and we decided to fly home from Istanbul.  Right away I knew that one place we’d visit in Turkey was that magical place.  It was worth it!

We stayed in a small family run hotel in the village of Pumukkale – right at the base of the travertine hills.  It was far away from the mass tourism of the larger resorts in a nearby village, and while hot water would have been pleasant, our friendly hosts more than made up for the inconvenience.  There are three entrances into the site – which is a historic site (the Roman City of Hieropolis sat above the cliffs), a swimming area serviced by the calcium rich hotsprings next to the ancient Roman Baths, and the Pumukkale cliffs.  I only mention that because if you enter from either of the other entrances, you miss half the fun.  The village entrance is at the base of the hill, and as you walk up the road cut into the side of the hill, you arrive at a sign that instructs you to take off your shoes.

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Whether it is because they feel the slope is slippery, or because shoes would wreck the travertine, they are serious about people going barefoot.  A slew of guards keep a sharp eye on tourists and blow a whistle if they see anyone dare to slide on their flip flops.  Socks are okay.  Along the way are a series of artificial pools where people happily pose for pictures.  I’m not sure if they realized they were fake.

At the top of the road was a cluster of folks that presumably came in from another entrance, and didn’t make it more than 10 or 20 meters down the road.  I have to admit I found them very annoying as they seemed oblivious to people trying to walk past as they snapped their photos prancing around in the fake pools (the actual pathway around the upper pools was very narrow).  I did mutter under my breath things like “this is a bad place to stop – people want to get by,” but I did refrain from shoving  anyone out of the way – barely.

Entry into Pumukkale from the village - those dots on the hillside are people climbing the slope.  The terraces are only filled with water periodically - this section was dry.
Entry into Pumukkale from the village – those dots on the hillside are people climbing the slope. The terraces are only filled with water periodically – this section was dry.

The cotton-colored cliffs are formed by calcium rich hot springs that cascade out of the side of the hill.  The way the water flows caused pools and terraces to form all the way down the hillside.  The site (it is a UNESCO site) is managed to keep the hillsides white – and according to our host if they kept the pools full of water all the time they’d turn brown, so they alternate areas where they allow the water to flow.

At the top of the hill, the site transitions from that beautiful hillside into a set of fairly well-preserved Roman ruins.  The first are are the ancient Roman Bathhouse – which has been restored and serves as a small museum.  It has a small “extra” admission price but doesn’t have much in it that I found interesting – except this one statue of a man with a dragon tail.

Heirapolis Museum
Heirapolis Museum

Behind the Ancient Roman bathhouse is a newer complex labelled Ancient Baths.  Inside, beyond the restaurants, bathrooms, showers, lockers, and souvenir shop, and in front of the beach chairs, are the thermal pools.  I don’t really know why we bought a ticket for the pools without taking a good look at them – but we did – and regretted it.  Not only were they sort of dirty (filled with algae) and packed with people. but for some reason there were a whole bunch of ruins scattered in them (perhaps as a PH buffer or maybe to make them seem old) so you had to wade through really slowly or risk whacking an knee or ankle.  There was a small “ruin free” area for swimming – it was like swimming through molasses .

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But it was probably worth it to go in because the thermal waters apparently hold the secret to Cleopatra retaining her beauty as she aged.  Not only that, but they can cure all sorts of illnesses – at least according to the sign.

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Ironically, the site also contains the largest Roman necropolis (cemetery) in Anatolia.  In addition to Heirapolis being a Holy City, many people would come to the city to receive cures from the thermal waters – and end up dying.  I’m saying this all a little tongue in cheek – but the necropolis really was fantastic – truly the most interesting one we’ve seen out of all the sites we’ve visited on our trip.

The northern necropolis (there were actually three for the city, but we only walked through the northern one) stretched down the road outside of the city gates.  I should also mention the impressive HUGE olive oil press just outside the city gates – mass production of olive oil!

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Roman olive oil press
Roman olive oil press

Anyway -back to this amazing necropolis.  There were all sorts of tombs, including one called Tomb of the Curses – with an inscription that warns of fines, diseases, misfortunes and punishments in the next world for messing with tomb.

Tomb of the curses - Heirapolis, Pumukkale
Tomb of the curses – Heirapolis, Pumukkale

There were also a half dozen “Tumulus Graves” or round buildings that were fairly large and contained multiple coffins.

Tumulus Grave, Heirapolis
Tumulus Grave, Heirapolis

Then there were a huge variety of Sarcophagus – including this one that had a view of the travertine terraces!

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There was also a well-preserved theater – said to be the best preserved in Antolia – that was undergoing restoration.

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So it was a very eclectic visit to Pumukkale – I certainly had no idea what was in store for us when we entered the site.

One thing about traveling is you never do know what is in store for you, and public bathrooms can be either a pleasant surprise or – well – not.  I have to comment on the bathrooms at the “Ancient Baths” or the mineral baths – or at least on the sign on the door.

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“Please! Don’t sit with shoes on the toilet”

Now we haven’t run into any “squat toilets” so far in Turkey.  I’ve actually been pleasantly surprised at finding clean western style toilets (although and this may be too much information, but you aren’t supposed to flush paper in Turkey because of the pipes getting clogged – and the paper is only for drying – there is an extra nozzle for washing under the seat).  Anyway – the toilet behind this sign was a “western style” toilet, so I can only think that perhaps non-tourists had as much difficulty figuring out what to do with it as we would have with a squat toilet.  I don’t really know – I’m opening to guesses.

We ended up spending all day at Pumukkale so that we could capture the sunset.  Remember those guards I mentioned with the whistles – well the one watching the terraces full of water sure got a workout.  Even though there were clear signs that said to not enter the natural terraces – I guess many people didn’t think the signs were meant for them.  The poor guard – whistle, whistle.  He had to chase an entire group out of the pools!

Then there were the people determined to get themselves in a great sunset shot – but of course everyone can’t get themselves in a great sunset shot if everyone is trying to do it at once.  So a few enterprising people just took a few steps in front of everyone else and into the pools – whistle whistle.  It was amusing until this one couple just parked themselves –  obnoxiously – in front of everyone else – making me grind my teeth in frustration.  It’s like they didn’t realize the sunset was for a limited period, and others might like to get a shot without them in it.  I did wait patiently, but then I gave up and found another spot.  Thankfully I didn’t shove the lady out of the way or say anything rude, because it turned out she was staying at our small hotel. Now that would have been an embarrassing breakfast.

Ah Pumukkale – I’m glad I ventured into the “Cotton Castle,” it was a day I won’t likely forget!

Pumukkale Sunset
Pumukkale Sunset

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