It’s not every day that you get to romp around a UNESCO site like it’s your personal playground. But our day in Pamukkale, Turkey was just that. Pamukkale—which means cotton castle—is named for its otherworldly landscape of bone-white travertine terraces housing cascading hot springs. Splashing in the mineral rich pools is like wading through the clouds of Care-a-Lot.
I’ve never seen anything like it. Apparently similar travertine hot springs occur in Yellowstone National Park. On a related note, Wyoming just leapfrogged way up my travel wish list.
Pamukkale’s blanched beauty and warm waters have not gone unnoticed. Travelers have used the hot springs as a spa since the 2nd century BC.
Under Greco-Roman and later Byzantine rule, the spa town grew into the ancient city of Hierapolis. Ruins from the era include a 15,000-seat amphitheater, several temples, and a growing sculpture collection.
Roman Hierapolis thrived. Its hot springs and health center were renowned throughout the empire. Thousands of pilgrims sought treatment in the thermal baths. It’s said that Cleopatra owed her beauty to their water. Then, in the 7th century, disaster struck. Persian armies sacked Hierapolis. As people struggled to rebuild their lives and town, an earthquake rocked southwestern Turkey. The city and its baths became a ghost town within 30 years.
The earthquake knocked the bathhouse’s marble pillars and sculptures into the water. And that’s where you find them today. This might be the only place on Earth where you can swim with perfectly preserved Roman ruins in 55°C water. It’s thrilling.
Fallen sculpture heads call out. Like Sirens at sea, they beg you to dive down and bring them up to breathe. You take a deep breath and dive. But soon the water is too thick, too fiery with minerals, and too hot to make any progress. You resurface and concede that Cleopatra’s lost artifacts must remain anchored in her pool. Too bad for your personal collection.
Walking on 15 centuries of history
As if all that weren’t enough, let’s not forget that this is a major national and European tourist destination. As such, Pamukkale offers some pretty fabulous East meets German Tourist photo ops.