A Tale of Two Turkish Towns: Side and Kas are a study in contrasts
By John Caldwell
When you arrive at the outskirts of Side (see – day) on the Mediterranean coast of Turkey, you’re greeted by an ancient Roman theater bordered by a magnificent stone gate. Marble statues sit in colonnaded vestibules. Stone arches and towering walls, preserved for centuries, surround the entrance. It’s the kind of ruin you might go out of your way to see, one worthy of dozens of photographs.
But what’s just beyond the gate betrays its beauty: Hoards of tourists who couldn’t care less about its existence, or that this town is one of the most historic locations in the world. Hundreds of tacky gift shops and cheesy nightclubs line the streets of this former retreat for Anthony and Cleopatra.
Thousands of sunbathers, taking a break from the beach, wander in and out of the shops and bars in skimpy swimwear. For them, Side is a place for sun, nothing else.
Travel a hundred and fifty miles down the coast from Side to the little town of Kas (kaash), and there are no ruins, no arched stone gate with ancient marble statues. What once was a small fishing village has preserved its quiet, cobblestoned streets, now lined by artsy shops and boutique hotels.
If you’re lost, you’re likely to receive help from one of the friendly locals, who at times seem to outnumber the tourists.
The difference between these two Turkish villages is one of mindset as much as culture. Kas is Turkish. Side is not. Kas will have you. Side needs you, lying in wait with overpriced cocktails made by teenage boys who have no experience behind a bar. If all you want is a lounge chair on hot sand surrounded by hotels and restaurants that offer food that’s just like what you could get at home, then Side is your place.
“You dine with us and you’ll have the best dinner of your life,” one of the many restaurant “hawkers” says to my husband Todd and me, after jumping out to block our path as we stroll through Side. “Give us a chance.”
The view looks good so we take it. Once seated, the joy is gone. The food is a mediocre attempt at Western fare and the staff is painfully slow. We pay more for this meal than any other in Turkey. “I can’t wait to get out of this town,” Todd says. “This is not at all what I imagined.”
Side is in the middle of an adventurous itinerary. We’re traveling through Turkey in September, taking advantage of everything Istanbul has to offer before flying to Capadoccoia and picking up a car. After three days exploring cave churches and underground cities in that ancient region, we drive south to the coast.
I’m very happy about the car, despite a ridiculously high rental rate. Turkish roads are new, wide, and devoid of traffic.
The car allows us to stop and experience many out-of-the-way sites during our trip, including an 800-year-old Caravansary on the original silk road—no tourists, no tacky shops.
Side is a stop-over, a way to bridge the gap between Cappadocia and Kas. It’s a good choice, we thought. The ancient temple of Apollo is there, along with the Roman theater and the stone gate. What a perfect place to spend the night.
Take note, if you book a room for only one night in a popular destination during high season, there is a good chance you won’t get that room, especially if the hotel owner isn’t worried about repercussions. When we arrive at the Onemli Hotel they look at us like we’ve arrived from Mars, even though our room is prepaid. At first, we are told our room isn’t ready.
After 2 long hours in the outdoor lobby, I demand to see the room. But there is no room. We’re being escorted to an inferior hotel next door, where we’re given an inferior room. Later, we try to resolve this with Hotels.com, but they do nothing to make things right.
When we arrive in Kas the next day, our host at the Gardenia Hotel is waiting. He already knows our names and is eager to show us to our room, a beautiful space on the top floor with a view of the sun setting over the Greek island of Meis just off shore.
Our host recommends a couple of restaurants for dinner, and warns of places that are “just for tourists.” “I know the women who owns the Maya Garden,” he says. “Very nice food.”
Have dinner in Kas and you get warm smiles, attentive service by passionate people, and reasonable prices. We’re still recounting the pureed peppers and Ottoman stew we had at Maya, and urging friends and family to go and stay in Kas.
After dinner we wander along Kas’s narrow streets with its cute boutiques and unique little bars. There are no hoards of tourists or annoying hawkers.
In Side, you can buy a glass “evil eye” souvenir for $10. If you try and bargain, the shop owner is insulted. He doesn’t have to bargain. He’s got an endless parade of tourists, having embarked on their one big trip for the year, coming in and out of his shop with no regard for price.
In Kas you can get the exact same evil eye trinket for $4, and you get it with a smile. “I just want to say how much we appreciate you offering this for a fair price,” Todd says. “We were just in Side, and the guy wanted $10.”
Side Isn’t Kas
The shop owner laughs knowingly. “This is not Side,” he says.
In Side, you can order a cocktail and you’ll be charged $15 for a splash of alcohol and an abundance of sickly sweet juice. In Kas, you’ll get a quality drink made by someone who takes pride in their work. The price: $7.
In Side, wide streets are flooded at night with the stark lights that emanate from seemingly endless stretches of cheap tchotchke shops. The thumping sounds from a hundred identical nightclubs break the silence of an otherwise quiet little peninsula.
In Kas, the mood is relaxed and the lights are low. A little old man sits smoking a pipe at the base of an ancient lyceum tomb in the middle of the town square. A warm breeze fills the air with the smells of the ocean.
What really sets these two places apart are the people. Not the residents, but the visitors. I watch an older German guy park his car illegally in front of the Onemli hotel in Side, hop out with his bags and demand his room.
Within five minutes he reappears in the lobby wearing nothing but a speedo and a pair of water goggles.
“You can’t leave your car parked there,” the hotel clerk says.
“Well, can you tell the police I’ll be right back if they come by?” he snaps back, in a thick German accent.
It’s as if he’s been waiting all year for his chance to get in the ocean and nothing is going to stop him at this point. He grabs a towel and heads for the beach, where a thousand other sun seekers are already crushed together on lounge chairs they paid a fee to use, sipping overpriced tropical drinks.
Kas has no beach, only a series of large rocks that hang on the edge of the water like clouds touching the earth. On top of each rock, large platforms with padded chairs, each with its own umbrella, are available to the public. You can see the bottom of the ocean like a landscape through glass and there are numerous metal ladders to help you exit after a lackadaisical dive into the water.
We leave Side angry and disturbed, despite watching the sun set through the beautiful ruins of the temple of Apollo. It sits on the outer edge of town like a monument to majesty, with moaning Medusa reliefs that peer down at you from the tops of huge columns. But not even that can compare to relaxing on the platforms next to the crystal clear waters in Kas, a view of the islands on the other side of the bay—no crowds, no hawkers, just a cute young man asking if we’d like something cool to drink.
“Why would anyone go to Side when they could come here and get this for less money?” Todd asks.
“They need what they know,” I say. “They’re looking for a place like home, but with lots of sun. They don’t really care how they get it or what they pay.”
After two nights in Kas we move on to destinations further down the coast, including the incredible sights in and around Oludeniz and Kusadasi. But we can’t stop thinking of Kas. The next time we’re in Turkey, we’re going straight there.
Visit the Turkey Tourism Board website here.