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Bodrum’s best bits: Simon Calder delivers his top 10 highlights

Millions of holidaymakers know Bodrum as a resort town tucked into an attractive corner of the south-west Turkish coast, where the meandering shore meets the clear waters of the Aegean Sea. Yet for anyone who cares to explore, Bodrum offers a wealth of experiences that enrich a visit. Natural good looks, a deep and rich heritage and a vibrant 21st-century way of life combine to magical effect.

Reaching this thumb of Turkish territory is easy, with direct flights from across the UK to Bodrum airport. And many arrivals head straight into town – where the first of my highlights awaits.

When you see the sugar-white houses of Bodrum sprinkled around a natural amphitheatre, it could be love at first sight. All eyes – and visitors – are drawn to the harbour at the heart of the town. Bodrum’s port has been an Aegean hub for millennia. The first known settlement was founded as Halicarnassus around 1200 BC. For centuries warring powers fought for control of the strategic location.

Today, Bodrum Harbour is a bay of tranquillity, offering safe haven to hundreds of boats: private yachts, fishing vessels and a network of ferries. One sails across to the pretty Datca peninsula, making a fine day trip.

Cafes line the quayside; my favourite is run by the Mariners Association. As you’d imagine, it’s popular with sailors. Visitors are welcome, too. The excellent coffee will power you along for a day of sightseeing – starting right next door …

The first fortifications at this location, guarding the entrance to the harbour, were built soon after the settlement was founded. The location was originally an island just offshore, but it is now joined to the mainland.

Bodrum Castle was created by the Knights of St John – crusaders from across Europe – during the 15th century. The builders used stones from a much earlier building and a former wonder of the world: the vast ceremonial structure housing the tomb of the Carian King Mausolus (of which more in a moment).

The crusaders named the fortress the Castle of St Peter. Today, it is a warren of walls, ruined chapels and gates, with insignia showing the national provenance of the various groups of knights (Italian, Spanish, English …).

The highlight, though, is the underwater archaeology museum: not a collection beneath the waves, but a display that reveals the past as discovered in shipwrecks. For thousands of years, seafaring was the main form of trade and communication in the Aegean region. Each shipwreck was a human tragedy. Yet the painstaking recovery of these vessels – and their contents – by nautical archaeologists provide insights into the craftsmanship and commerce of the ancient world. Think of these vessels – and their contents – as time machines.

Over 3,200 years ago, towards the end of the Bronze Age, a ship sank while it was sailing off the southern Turkish coast. In 1982, a sponge diver discovered a vessel and divers retrieved the cargo: amphora (pottery jars) filled with salted fish, olive oil and wine, as well as the tin and copper required to make bronze.

At the castle, you learn how important Bodrum and the rest of the Aegean were for the development of humanity.

The tomb of Mausolus, a Carian king who lived and died almost 2,500 years old, was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. The structure was completed in 351BC, decorated by magnificent sculptures and soaring to a height of nearly 50 metres. My guide, Sela Erkanli told me: “The term ‘mausoleum’ derives from here. This is the first time it has been used in history. For Mausolus.”

Around 800 years ago, an earthquake brought the original mausoleum down, and its carefully dressed stones were taken away to be reused and begin Bodrum’s next chapter. Yet even today, enough of the mausoleum survives to allow you to touch the past, sense the history and understand a little more about the world.

Just 200 metres inland from the mausoleum, another ancient triumph is hewn from a hillside. The theatre here in Bodrum is an entertainment highlight from the 4th century BC. It was created at the time of Alexander the Great and later embellished by the Romans. The theatre includes an altar, where sacrifices were offered to the god Dionysus before the performance.

Today, you can wander freely around what even by modern standards is a vast venue – holding 13,000 citizens – and get a performer’s view of the audience. Appropriately enough for a popular theatre, it’s in the West End of Bodrum. Twenty-four centuries on, the theatre is still used for concerts and dance performances. And there are no bad seats in this house: all yours to enjoy and imagine.

On the Bodrum Peninsula you’re never far from the next great shoreline view – and you’re never far from one of the marinas that dot the coast. Each is an inviting location for shopping, dining and relaxing.

Start in Bodrum itself, where the marina occupies part of the west side of the harbour. It doubles as a retail and entertainment centre – with excellent coffee and a rooftop view.

On the northwest shore of the peninsula, Yalıkavak Marina was named in 2022 as “Superyacht Marina of the Year” against hundreds of competitors around the world. Yet you are welcome to share the high life, enjoying the same blue skies and sea as people who perhaps have a touch more cash than you do.

Venture to the western end of the Bodrum Peninsula and you reach the fishing village of Gümüşlük. It is an excellent location for dining on fresh seafood taken straight from the Mediterranean while enjoying a superb view as far as Greece beyond.

Xural.com

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