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The "Monster" at Olympos

One of the highlights of a visit to the Antalya coast is the Chimaera, near the ancient city of Olympos and modern-day beachfront Çirali. It's a good idea to combine a visit to both the natural and archaeological sites, keeping in mind that the undisturbed -- even unkempt -- shoreline of Çirali is one of the best-kept natural secrets of the Mediterranean coast and a major nesting site for sea turtles.

The Chimaera, or mythical, fire-breathing monster with the head of a lion, the torso of a goat, and the rear of a snake that allegedly roams the hills is actually a series of eternal flames flickering along the rocky slopes above the ancient city of Olympos, which would account for the Lycians' worship of the fire god Hephaestos (Vulcan). But never fear: According to legend, the Chimaera was slain by Bellerophon on his winged horse, Pegasus, from his base over at Tlos. The fires are caused by the combustion of a predominantly methane gas mixture seeping out of the earth and igniting at the point of contact between serpentine and limestone rocks. Although they can be extinguished briefly by covering them, they always reignite. The path up the hill to the site is at the far end of the modern village of Çirali, about a 6- to 7km (3 3/4-4 1/3-mile) hike from the beach end of the ancient city of Olympos. It's about a 20-minute hike up to the Chimaera, where a fresh pot of tea perks atop one of the flames. Although the flames are no less impressive by daylight, it's best to come at dusk, when the flames are most visible -- just don't forget a flashlight.

The ancient site of Olympos hugs both sides of the Ulupinar Stream near the seashore, and dates to Hellenistic times. It's a bit overgrown and spread out on both sides of the stream, so come with a good map of the site. From 100 B.C., Olympos enjoyed the status as one of the six primary members of the Lycian League and was later absorbed as a Roman province. During this period, the area gained renown as a place of worship for the cult of Hephaestos, or Vulcan, the God of Fire.

Admission to the ancient city ruins during daylight hours (when the booth is manned) is 3TL. There are two entrances to the site: To combine a visit to Olympos with a climb up to the Chimaera, exit the Antalya highway at the exit marked "Çirali 7, Yanartas 11 (Chimaera)" (Yanartas is Turkish for "burning rock".) From here, it's a 10-minute drive along a dry stream bed bursting with oleander, wild orchids, and lavender. You can either cross the bridge and continue straight for about 1.6km (a mile; don't be discouraged by the poor condition of the road during the final mile or so) until you arrive at the "base camp" for the well-marked path up to the Chimaera or turn off onto the rocky road before the bridge into Çirali for access to the beach. (Walk to the right to find the beach entrance to the site of Olympos.) The other main entrance to Olympos can be accessed from the turnoff from the Antalya road marked "Olympos 11, Çavusköy 15." Dolmuses pass regularly along the Antalya highway, but transportation down to the beachfront via either turnoff is less reliable, which is why I recommend this excursion be approached by car.

Where to Stay & Dine -- The road that loops through the village of Çirali is lined with small, family-run pensions with varying degrees of appeal. But until that fated day when Çirali becomes polished and unauthentic, the best place to stay is the Olympos Lodge, Çirali, Kemer, P.O. Box 38, Antalya (tel. 0242/825-7171; fax 0242/825-7173; www.olymposlodge.com.tr), just over the bridge into town (take that quick right). With only 12 rooms, this small slice of paradise is like an exclusive country club, the parking lot is consistently full of shiny Mercedes, BMWs, and collectors' Rolls-Royces. The grounds are gorgeous -- a Mediterranean garden bursting with color and home to wandering chickens and peacocks abuts the beach. The rooms are rather unadorned and basic, but feature old cedar wood floorboards that reportedly repel mosquitoes. The room rate of 100€ for two people per night includes breakfast and dinner. (Rates lower off-season; closed Oct-Apr.)

When the Olympos Lodge breaks the news that it's full, the Arcadia and Arcadia 2, Çirali (tel. 0242/825-7340; www.arcadiaholiday.com), located farther down the beach in a garden of flowers and lemon trees (Arcadia II is across the road in a lemon grove), offer a total of 10 spacious and extremely comfortable pine bungalows. All were built by Ahmet, the owner, assisted by Canadian-born Ann, a welcome font of local information in English. Together, they've created a cozy, romantic, and rustic environment stocked with all the creature comforts, plus coffee, a tea station, and a wine rack. Arcadia has delicious on-site dining on request, eat under the beachfront pines or relax on the shady platform kösk. The room rate for two people is 90€ to 125€ and includes breakfast.

A Side Trip to Side

One of the endearing historical footnotes to this ancient seaside town is that after having been abandoned for centuries, a village of Turks exiled from the Greek islands sprang up atop the ruins. Ancient walls, aqueducts, and temples coexist with low-budget pensions, waterside eateries, and souvenir stands flanked by an endless stretch of beautiful white sand to the east and west of the ancient promontory. Imagine the romance of a secret tryst between Antony and Cleopatra, as they came here and surveyed the open seas centuries ago.

But sadly, the tourist industry has run amok, now a nightmare of aggressive shopping, overcrowded beaches, and a vast and crowded shoreline of back-to-back four- and five-star all-inclusive hotels. The ruins of the ancient city still exert their charms. Keep it to a simple day trip, where you can stroll around for a few hours and lunch at a harborside cafe, avoid the main shopping street of Liman Caddesi, and get out of Dodge before nightfall, when things really get ugly.

The quickest and easiest way to get here is by car, via the main D400 coastal highway (Side lies around 2km/1 1/4 south of the turnoff). Buses and dolmuses running along the Antalya/Alanya highway will either take you directly into Side or to Manavgat, 4km (2.5 miles) away, where you can change for service into Side. You can also ask the driver to leave you off at the crossroads to Side, where you can flag down an incoming dolmus into the otogar. From there, it's about a 5-minute walk to the ruins and the main pedestrian drag to the beach.

On the road leading to the ancient city walls and the City Gate are the consoled houses strewn with toppled columns. The second gate is the Monumental Gate, flanked by the marble nymphaion, or city fountain. The fountain, erected in honor of the Emperor Vespasian, was supplied by the Manavgat River 29km (18 miles) away by means of a system of tunnels and aqueducts. Immediately to your left is the theatre, a mammoth structure with a capacity of 15,000. Unlike other Hellenistic theatres that were traditionally carved into the side of a hill, this theatre was erected on flat land and supported by an infrastructure of vaults and arches -- a construction unique to the Eastern Mediterranean. The theatre was altered by the Romans to accommodate gladiators and lions -- a high wall was erected to keep the spectators out of reach of the wild beasts. In the 5th century, the theatre was used as an open-air basilica.

From the theatre, the best approach to take is to avoid Liman Caddesi and turn left into the agora. Cut across the agora towards the beach, stopping for a camel ride if the mood strikes you. Cut back in through the city walls and follow the walkway along the harbor until you come across the two Temples of Apollo and Athena rising above the sea in all their grandeur. The twin structures were built at the end of the 2nd century to protect the port but didn't do such a hot job, as they were destroyed in an earthquake. The temple ruins were used in the construction of the Byzantine basilica.

The harbor walk follows the path of the ancient city walls, and dozens of restaurants have set up tables along the edge. Pick one for lunch or a drink, and then explore the narrow backstreets to discover what else Side has hiding behind those bushes. Much of modern-day Side was constructed without a permit, which accounts for the rickety yet offbeat appearance of the town. The historic baths opposite the agora gate house the Side Museum (tel. 0242/753-1006). Exhibited are artifacts and sculptures covering the Late Hittite, Hellenistic, Roman, and Byzantine periods, recovered primarily during excavations that took place between 1947 and 1967. The museum is open daily from 8:30am to noon and 1:30 to 5pm. Admission to the site (mainly the theatre) is 10TL. There is an additional admission of 10TL for the museum.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.