Escaping the Tourist Crowds with Turkey's Hidden Charms

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Turkey may be one of this summer's major tourist destinations, but it's still possible to escape the crowds. Steve Clarkson explores the Aegean coastline and unearths some hidden gems

It's likely you know someone who's been to Turkey on a package holiday. Blazing sunshine and great deals attract crowds eager to do nothing more than laze on the beach for a fortnight with a good book in one hand and a cocktail in the other.

But if you're willing to venture off the beaten track and explore a little further, this country has plenty of hidden charms to uncover. Backed by hills and valleys dotted with small villages, the Aegean coast, in the west, has wonderful food, beaches and historic ruins - yet still hasn't been swallowed up by the mass holiday market.

Eager to explore the real Turkey, I flew into Izmir (Turkey's third largest city) and visited towns in the surrounding area.

My first taste of Turkish culture - quite literally - was in Alacati, a town 80km west of Izmir. I arrived at dusk to find the rustic streets busy with young men on mopeds returning from work and shopkeepers gossiping with customers in their doorways.

The pretty town is popular with wealthy Turks and has an impressive choice of restaurants. Scanning the different menus, it quickly became clear that Turkish food is nothing like the greasy tray of doner meat that's served up in many British takeaways.

After taking my seat outside the Roka Bache restaurant, I was soon ploughing my way through a meze of juicy olives, crusty soda bread and mustard greens, followed by a grilled seabass, caught only a few hours before by a local fisherman. An ice-cold Efes beer completed an evening's consumption that was more than satisfying.

Food isn't the only thing that produces a smile here. The beaches in the region are beautiful, and with temperatures pushing 40C, enjoying the scorching sun is not just socially acceptable - it's an essential component of the Aegean experience.

For a chic beachside experience, I chose to take a sun lounger at the Babylon Beach Club. Launched by the Istanbul-based Babylon venue in 2005, Beach Club provides a great selection of food, drink and entertainment - including its annual Soundgarden festival, with a good selection of international headliners.

As the cool Mediterranean waters licked the pebble shores of this secluded resort, palm leaves danced gently in the welcome sea breeze. Babylon Beach Club is the sort of place that sways to the mellow rhythms of Jack Johnson and Norah Jones, where the people are friendly and the atmosphere tranquil.

As beautiful people relaxed underneath wicker umbrellas, I headed straight for a bar stool next to a giant fan in an attempt to control the ungraceful beads of sweat dripping down my back. After ordering another slushy strawberry cocktail from the bar, I learnt one of my first Turkish words - 'serefe', which means 'cheers'.

After a few days of relaxation, however, it was time to delve a little deeper into Turkey's history. This is a land that has been fought over by many of the world's greatest powers - thanks to its position along the ancient trade routes of silk from China and spice from India - and pretty much everything here is steeped in history.

An afternoon spent in Foca - a small fishing town further up the Aegean coast - gave me a great insight into Turkey's vibrant past.

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