Retreat to silence

Sometimes the affinity of children and technology can be irritating. The tipping point for Sophie came when she asked five-year-old Maddy if she’d like to paint a picture and, instead of running for brushes, Maddy headed for the computer.

In seconds she had the machine booted and the Microsoft Paint program rolling. It was later, when Maddy talked about saving her picture on a memory stick, that Sophie started planning an extreme simplicity, non-technological holiday.

The place she came up with was Yuva, a vegetarian yoga retreat situated down a remote track on the Lycian coast of Turkey. As well as doing week-long taught yoga retreats suitable for couples and singles, Yuva also has weeks for anyone who needs peace and quiet, children included. The nearest shop is a half-hour drive away; the internet is unheard of. “We’ll get up every morning at six and do yoga,” says Sophie, “There’ll be no computers, mobiles or electronic gizmology, nothing like that — not even ice cream.”

This shocked Maddy to attention. Sophie continued waxing lyrical about this puritan fantasy.

“Just sun and sea and exercise and wholesome food.”

When we came to pack, I got the laptop ready. “There’s some work I’ve got to finish.” Maddy winked and slipped a DVD in the case: her latest favourite, The Sound of Music. “Don’t tell Mummy.”

We arrived at night in Dalaman airport, southwest Turkey. Night lasers sliced up the sky above the tourist towns of Hisaronu and Olu Deniz, but then came darkness. The road went higher and lower, then higher again. The stars came out and we could sense rather than see huge cliffs, forested gorges and craggy peaks all around.

We descended slowly through a forest of black fir trees, lurching and bouncing until we reached a hand-painted gateway which led us to a cool stone cabin with veranda. There we slept.

Rising at nine, not six, we explored the 400-acre site with Nihat, assistant manager at Yuva and old friend of Atilla Sevilmis, the owner.

Nihat had first walked the precipitous Lycian coastline three decades ago, a time when there was only a narrow footpath along the 10-mile section between Olu Deniz and Yuva. Changes such as the new road, however, do not seem to unduly depress his enthusiasm.

“Once you get beyond Olu Deniz, it’s still a beautiful, quiet, wooded coast with Lycian tombs in the undergrowth and a few beekeepers.”

The Yuva site is certainly quiet. A few cabins and cottages built by hand with local timber and stone are dotted among the trees on a steep hillside. Vines curl around eaves laden with tiny sweet grapes.

Maddy browses. It is 10am and there have been no DVD or ice cream demands. Sophie is smiling. Nihat takes us down to the eating area with its large, open vegetarian kitchen full of smiling Turkish matrons who sweep Maddy into their welcoming bosoms and start feeding her by hand.

Sadly adults do not get quite the same level of service, but we tuck into local produce galore: olives, cucumbers, yoghurt, fat tomatoes, walnuts, almonds, peaches, and various local specialities — the poppy-seed paste was delicious, so was Atilla’s concoction of mulberry jelly and tahini. The bazlama spelt bread is warm from the oven.

Afterwards I snooze in a hammock in an elevated gazebo that is stocked with cushions and books. Maddy curls up with Mehmish, the tabby cat, under the kitchen table while the matrons start work on a walnut and honey sponge cake. No one has asked me to do any yoga. I’m in heaven.

Atilla Sevilmis is something of a pioneer in Turkey. Starting out as an economist in Istanbul, he initiated the first attempts to link village farmers and city consumers, part of his belief that food production should be small-scale, local and organic. Ten years ago he extended that philosophy to tourism, building the Yuva retreat in the same spirit.

“We take a maximum of 20 guests. We make very little impact on this environment: the wild pigs still come and eat the carob seeds at night, the tortoises are everywhere. We live in the forest.”

Quiet is the operative word. That first day the noisiest thing I encountered was next to the shady yoga platform: two tortoises making mad passionate love.

As the sun lost its heat, Nihat showed us around the swimming options: a sheltered cove, a more rocky outcrop and a second cove with a smattering of shingle. Smaller children would find all these options too challenging, but Maddy was fine despite being a weak swimmer. In fact we could not get her out of the second cove until sunset, finally dragging her back to the kitchen for a feast of home-made pasta and stuffed peppers.

Wine and beer, I discovered, were available, reminding me of my first visit to Turkey when an imam in a mosque assured me that wine and beer “were not strong enough to be called alcoholic.”

Soon enough we had entered that heady lotus-eater routine of sleep, swim, eat — one we repeated around three or four times a day. The laptop stayed in its case. We forgot where our money was as there was nothing to buy, nor any reminders of that world. Yuva is a wonderfully economical place to be.

I even started a few yoga stretches, usually in the afternoon when the tortoises took a break from their love-making.

After a few days Atilla took us to see the farmers’ market in Fethiye, over 200 stalls selling the best of Lycia’s food: honeycombs, tiny sweetcherries and various types of fig. We snacked on borek, spinach and cheese fried in flat bread, then had a late lunch in a restaurant at nearby Yakakoy, where tables are set up above tumbling streams of spring water under the shade of ancient chestnut trees. Finally on the way home, and at my insistence, we stopped in Olu Deniz.

In many ways the lagoon at Olu Deniz has been a barometer for the Turkish tourist industry. Thirty years ago the place was empty: a long coarse sand beach protecting a placid lagoon and surrounded by wooded mountains. Now it’s a low-rise town of medium-size hotels, restaurants, bars and shops. By the standards of such places it is not at all bad, but there is no escape from the commercialisation of relaxation. On the beach sunloungers are packed in ranks with warning signs, “Do not sit between the loungers!” “Sunloungers are for rent!” and even “Warning: Slippery when wet!”

To reach the prime spot, the finger of double-sided beach that stretches between sea and lagoon, one passes through a turnstile and pays a small entry fee. Security guards patrol and warning signs remind visitors that this is “a protected natural place”. One local lady, trying to dry her daughter’s tiny swimming costume on a tree branch was assailed by two burly guards and told to remove it. “This is a nature park,” they reminded her and stalked back to their cabin next to the ice cream stall.

After this our return to Yuva felt like a home-coming. We swam in the deserted cove, ate dinner together, then Nihat played his flute, the Turkish ney, while Atilla sang a traditional Turkish lament.

“I am on a long and narrow way, I’m walking night and day.

I don’t know how I fare, I’m walking night and day.”

On our leaving, we packed our bags sadly. Maddy glanced at my laptop case but said nothing, Julie Andrews was silent and forgotten in the side pocket. Yuva, however, will not be so easily forgotten and this remarkable experiment in responsible tourism deserves every bit of its quiet success. —

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