I had never heard of Pamukkale until we started planning for this trip. In fact. I knew very little about what there was in Turkey to see and do other than the main headline of Istanbul. But flicking through the guidebook one day I saw an incredible image of turquoise water cascading down a terrace in scalloped pools with white edges. This was in a place called Pamukkale. So I did a bit more digging and found hundreds of images of this other-worldly landscape, pools of water held up by walls that looked like white candle wax has been dripped over them. The map suggested it was located between two of our planned climbing destinations, so very quickly I decided this should be added to itinerary.
These stunning pools are made of travertine. Thermal water from 13 local springs flows over the edge of a plateau, as it cools it releases carbon dioxide, and a form of hard chalk (called travertine) is deposited and starts to accumulate. The plateau is slowly advancing as the white travertine is deposited in pillows and drips along the plateau edge.
As we approached Pamukkale in the late afternoon we could see an anomalous band of white standing out against the green hills behind it. It seemed completely out of place and, from a distance, looked like a quarry of some sort. As we got closer it looked more like snow. And this led to a really surreal sensation, my eyes were seeing snow, but the air was too warm so I knew it couldn’t be. There were zones of brilliant white mounds, like snow drifts, other areas, tinted with brown, were more like grubby, slushy snow. But it wasn’t snow.
We decided to walk up the travertine path from the town and watch the sunset from the top of the plateau. We approached the area on foot, my brain still telling me it was snow. Once through the entrance gate we took of our shoes and socks (footwear is forbidden in the pools) and stepped onto the white travertine. Again my mind was totally confused, the snow was solid and rough! The white travertine rock along the wide path is hard and has the friction of sandpaper. I was expecting to be slipping all over the sloping surface, but the grip was superb. The water flowing freely from the springs was warm as it lapped over my feet and flowed over the rock. In the large pools beside the path the water had cooled and the thick chalk deposits at the bottom felt like soft gel, soothing my toes, a lovely feeling after months of abuse in tight climbing shoes.
Taking our time and enjoying the full sensory experience, we slowly made our way up the travertine path as the number of other visitors rapidly reduced. The bright sun was being filtered by clouds enabling the turquoise waters to stand out against the white rock. It was a totally surreal place to be.
The full story however, is not so pure and clean. In the 1960’s hotels were built on the plateau, over the top of the ancient Roman town of Hierapolis, and a road was built through the travertines enabling access by motorbike. These hotels have now been removed, the ancient ruins conserved, and the road has been converted into the travertine path that we walked up. Free access to all the travertine pools caused pollution of the water and the travertine rock itself. Now, the only pools that visitors are allowed to access are the ones on the travertine path which were artificially recreated and are slowly being covered again by natural travertine. The flow of water is also carefully controlled after the hotels in the town started syphoning it off to feed their swimming pools. When we were there large areas of the natural travertine pools were dry and devoid of water, a skeletal structure which displayed the grace of nature but was gaunt without the substance which gave it its beauty.
Although somewhat overshadowed by the white natural wonder, the ancient Roman town of Hierapolis, built to take advantage of the natural springs, is one of the most impressive Roman sites I have visited. Covering a vast area it includes an impressive amphitheatre with a complete backdrop, a massive necropolis with tombs stills being excavated, a colonnaded road, and two sets of city gates, in addition to multiple temples and houses and workshops etc. Having “done” the travertines the evening before, we spent most of the next day walking around the ruins and exploring even the most far flung areas (mostly in an attempt to get away from the tour groups!). This gave us a very different perspective on the city, seeing it from the top of a hill rather than from within. Not only could we see the layout of the major aspects of the city where the ruins were quite extensive, we also saw glimpses of other things that were overlooked by most tourists: the site of another amphitheatre, parts of the city walls, sentry posts, and even more tombs.
I am really glad we had one and a half days to fully explore Pamukkale. It is very easy to get weary after two or three hours walking around ruins, but by splitting the experience over two days we left feeling that we had properly explored the site. It was a visit that I will remember for a long time.
There are more photos available in our Non Climbing Gallery