Beside the road a curve of solid white is cut into the hillside for all the world to see, as if some passing pastry cook had scooped it out, poured sugar icing over it, then patted it down, smoothed it over and pressed her fingers into it, leaving hollows which could be filled in with blue. These are the famous travertines which, along with the ruins of the Roman town of Hierapolis above them, have landed Pamukkale UNESCO world-heritage-site status, and it's a rare visitor to the country who does not have the site penciled in on their itinerary.
For the non-scientists amongst us, Wikipedia defines a travertine as a form of limestone deposited by mineral springs, especially of the hot variety, and cites other examples in venues as varied as the Yellowstone National Park in the US and Badab-e Surt in Iran. Pamukkale (Cotton Castle) is not unique then, although it is the only place where the travertines come paired with spectacular ancient ruins. Indeed, for some people the remains of Hierapolis, scattered across the hillside, may prove more exciting than the travertines themselves.
Over the last 10 years much work has been done to improve the presentation of Pamukkale, including tearing down a string of motels which used to perch on the ridge and creating a small lake at the foot of it. The site can now be accessed via three separate entrances scattered over a distance of several kilometers. Which one you should use depends mainly on your primary interest: If it's the travertines, you should aim to walk up the ridge and enter from the pedestrian entrance near Pamukkale village. If, however, you're more interested in the ruins of Hierapolis, you should take the bus towards Karahayıt and use the northern entrance, which wends its way gradually through an enormous necropolis and along the ancient Frontinus Street to the travertines. It's a two-kilometer walk or you can hop on a shuttle bus that does the loop every 15 minutes.
The city of Hierapolis (Sacred City) is thought to have been founded around 190 B.C. by King Eumenes II of Pergamum and flourished right through the early Byzantine era until it fell on hard times in the seventh and eight centuries. After that the history books are strangely silent about what was clearly such a large and impressive place, and home to a bishopric to boot. The bishopric of Hierapolis crops up in the records for the last time in 1385. After that the city may have fallen victim to a devastating earthquake or simply faded quietly away. As an archeological site, though, it has the singular advantage, like Ephesus and Aphrodisias, that it was never reoccupied, unlike for example, Pergamum, which evolved into the modern Bergama. This has given archeologists a freer hand to dig up as much of the ancient town as funds permit (as they have also been able to do, and for the same reason, at nearby Laodikeia).
If you come into the site from the northern entrance, you will find yourself wandering amid a vast necropolis where the Italian Archeological Mission has identified four distinct styles of burial, ranging from huge freestanding sarcophagi, through mini-temples to a cluster of tombs that resemble tumuli (burial mounds), and has helpfully picked out and labeled the most interesting. In between coach parties this is a quiet and awe-inspiring place that you may share only with the odd owl.
The necropolis comes to an abrupt end against the massive walls of an ancient bathhouse, later converted into a church, that stood right beside the Arch of Domitian, itself flanked by stone towers. Beyond this you will have the pleasure of strolling quite literally in the (worn) footsteps of the Romans as you amble along what was once Frontinus Street, named after the then proconsul of Asia. Romans popping to and from the necropolis would have paused to relieve themselves first at a communal latrine just beside the arch, which was later turned into a storage depot.
Frontinus Street leads to the site of an agora (market place) that was once one of the largest in the Roman world. Disappointingly little now remains of it since much of the stonework seems to have been reused when walls were built round the city in the fifth century. That is certainly not true of the enormous theater, set high up on the hillside and probably destroyed by an earthquake in the seventh century. Work on restoring the stage is currently nearing completion, which should mean, hopefully, that the theater will be available for use again soon.
By the time they reach this point most people will be starting to flag, but if you do still have the energy, it's well worth cutting across the hillside to visit the unusual octagonal martyrium built in the fifth century on the site where it's believed that Saint Philip the Apostle was crucified upside down around A.D. 80. This year Italian archeologists announced that they had identified, although not yet opened, what they believe to be the tomb of the saint, also at Hierapolis.
Turning back down the hill you will be able to admire the remains of a truly enormous nymphaeum (public fountain) and the Plutonium, a spring that emitted fumes so poisonous that it would kill the small animals and birds routinely tossed into it by heartless priests. Finally, you will reach what is really the heart of the site at Pamukkale, a disappointingly featureless piece of land with, to one side, another large bathhouse that managed to survive the vicissitudes of history almost intact, perhaps because it was reused as an administrative center. Today it houses an impressive small museum showing off many of the finds from the site.
Here, too, is the Antique Pool, a cafe, restaurant and spa complex built around a glorious pool dotted with pieces of column from the ancient city. What could be more enjoyable than to swim over these scraps of ancient masonry while pondering the long lost past? Don't fancy it? Well, these days you can also opt to have your toes nibbled by the tiny doctor fish that were once found only at Balıklı Kaplıca near Sivas. It's a curiously tickly sensation.
All over Turkey dog-eared posters depict the travertines in their 1970s' heyday when tourists could frolic freely in pools of thermal water that trickled down the hillside. Unfortunately, that water soon started to dry up, so stringent controls were introduced to protect it. You can still paddle in some of the pools under the watchful eye of custodians whose whistles shrill whenever anyone strays from the straight and narrow. Come here at sunset, though, and you're unlikely to be disappointed since the view across the travertines to Pamukkale village is exceptionally beautiful.
If you don't want to roll up your trouser legs, a wooden walkway makes it possible to wander right the way round the travertines, backed most of the way by a pleasingly landscaped garden. Most impressively you will eventually stumble upon a section where the remains of a medieval castle have been completely colonized by the travertines. Almost nothing certain is known about its history, not even exactly when it was constructed. No matter. It looks almost as if it's floating on ice, an eerie and romantic sight.
Enjoyed the travertines? Then don't forget that you can also visit an underground version at Kaklık Mağarası (Kaklık Cave), 40 kilometers east of Denizli.