If you've read any of my previous blog posts, you know I have a bit of an obsession with getting lost. All of my best travel stories come from times I strayed from my routine or went where the map told me not to. The world is full of surprises-ones you can only find by going the wrong way, ditching your original destination, and being unafraid of the winding mountain road that seems to lead to nowhere.
It was the winding mountain road that my dad and I faced when we were driving across Turkey. We'd been told there was a nice fishing village in the area named Assos and that it might be worth a stop for lunch. Our expectations were lower than low; maybe that's why we were so awestruck.
If you think you're going to die, keep driving anyway
We were in a foreign country and my dad was driving a stick shift for the first time in years. As we inched around the blind corners, cars twice as big as ours zipped toward us, unconcerned about the narrow roads. Then again, we were the ones just a few feet away from the edge of the cliff, not them. Neither my dad nor I was convinced that this was a good idea, but we'd come this far, and we are both too stubborn to turn around just because the road was a bit windy.
Half way down the mountain something caught our eyes. My dad quickly pulled into the dirt turnout on the edge of the cliff and we got out of the car to explore the massive amphitheater that sat unmarked and completely deserted.
An unlocked gate stood between us and the amphitheater. We saw no signs or ticket booths, so we pushed the gate open and walked in. By this point my dad and I had already toured Istanbul and Troy and we were on our way to see Bergama and Ephesus. Sure, this wasn't as massive as any of the other sites we would visit while in Turkey, but it quickly became our favorite. Neither of us had any clue it was going to be there when we began our trip and we didn't see a single tourist (or a single person, for that matter) while we were there.
Stumbling upon this ancient ruin and having it all to ourselves made it feel like ours. It made it feel special. We climbed to the top of the stairs and gazed out at the ocean. We saw boats and rooftops that signaled there really was a town below. Suddenly our spontaneous detour didn't seem like such a bad idea.
Why you always follow the unmarked road
Assos is not in many guide books. There was only one parking lot in the whole town and it fit about five cars. We thought we were going to crash the whole drive there and never really believed the town at the bottom would be worth it. Now, four years later, Assos is my number one highlight from Turkey. I tell everyone to visit and my dad and I even took the rest of our family there a few years later.
When we finally parked our car and walked into town, we knew we had made the right decision. One stretch of restaurants and a few boutique hotels lines the coast. The rest of the five-street town is local residences. We picked one of the sea-side restaurants to sit at and were taken to the ice box where that morning's catches lay. We each pointed to a fish and they quickly cleaned and prepared our lunch. We ate, waiters chased off stray cats, fisherman came in and out of the docks, and the blue water sparkled in the sun. It was our hidden paradise.
The incredible site that we almost missed
Once we finished lunch, we decided to explore the town. That consisted of walking along the coast and looking at the three or four stalls where women sold jewelry, souvenirs, and Assos-themed trinkets. Then we got in the car and made our way (a bit more confidently) back up the mountain.
When we reached the top, we found the ticket booth that we had bypassed earlier. Turns out the amphitheater was part of the acropolis at Assos. We immediately bought tickets and explored the rest of the site. The ruins at Assos were not the most impressive ruins we saw during our time in Turkey, but they were our favorite. They were our favorite because we found them... they came with a story.
Travel is better when you make your own stories
Everyone who has traveled to Turkey shares some of the same stories: shopping at the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, learning the history of Troy, exploring the ruins at Ephesus... it's practically required that every traveler visit these sites. And for good reason; they are amazing. But Assos is the memory I will treasure forever.
Even after returning with the rest of my family, Assos still feels like a special discovery my dad and I share. My experience in Assos has become a part of my story, and it is by building and changing this story that travel continues to change my life. The tourist destinations are what bring us to a place, but the little towns like Assos are what we take with us.