slider top

Sailing to Byzantium

A painting course brings together an intimate group on the sun-drenched waters of Turkey’s Mediterranean coast

Rock cut tombs, Myra, Lycia. Photo: W. Lloyd Mackenzie. Source: Flickr, via Wikimedia Foundation.

Rock cut tombs, Myra, Lycia. Photo: W. Lloyd Mackenzie. Source: Flickr, via Wikimedia Foundation.

There were eleven of us, and we were meant to learn painting. Every morning, we were out of our cradles within minutes of waking, endlessly rocking to the mild swell of the wine-dark eastern Mediterranean, the same sea first called “wine-dark” when nobler men dwelt on the earth and sang their warrior songs. Up on deck we would find bread and fresh butter, feta cheese and olives and cups of good strong Turkish coffee. The youngest of the crew served our meals. His name was Ibrahim, and he called us “sir” or “madam,” and he was always at your elbow just when you wanted the honey or the yogurt or the Antalyan cherry preserves. Usually the sun was quite high by then, and the light soaked the air. Some people complained of having had too little sleep and too many of the captain’s special cocktails, but mostly there was only happiness that it was another day on the Arif Kaptan B. None of us minded getting up early, which, had you known us under other circumstances, you would hardly have believed. We hardly believed it ourselves.

After we had sated ourselves, the engine would start up or the sails would be hoisted, and we would journey along the contours of the land, following them as if they belonged to a lover’s body whose every curve we needed to know. Tom Johnson – the winsome managing director of London-based Westminster Classic Tours – would tell us which of the old men on the piers were café owners in competition with one another, or about how new houses in traditional styles had been built “just there” (he would point) on foundations from the fourth century B.C. Andrew Hobson – the Oxford University classicist who had helped found the Friends of Classics, dedicated to preserving knowledge of the great early civilizations in a world divorced from its own origins – would tell us about events that were taking place when those foundations were laid. These shores seemed so busy with ancient history that they could hardly contain the present; when you looked at them, you saw their past. We talked about this as we smoked Turkish cigarettes and finished our coffee, reclined on pillows, rubbed sunscreen on one another’s backs, and began to turn the seaworthy color of our captain and crew.

Then came the morning painting lesson. We were amateurs but keen, and the lessons were made for us. Susannah Fiennes is all sensibility delivered in a voice of sense; she sees the world with a precise but passionate eye. Her one-woman show at the National Portrait Gallery in London was praised for both its expressive accuracy and its austere poignancy. Looking herself like a Gainsborough – her face a perfect English pink, her clothes fluttering in the wind, a large straw hat held on with a frayed white satin ribbon – she would teach us the vocabulary of primary colors and their opposites, of suffused and diluted tones, of rich washes and negative space. “Saturated color is freedom from gray,” she would say as she set us up with our palettes and watercolor paper. Her voice would lift as she directed us toward all the forms and tones that are hidden along the coast of Lycia (an ancient region in the southwest of Turkey) and in its monuments. She could be forceful. “Did Charles ask you for advice when you were painting together?” one of us asked Susannah, who has, at royal invitation, accompanied the Prince of Wales to paint his state visits. “No,” she said, “but he got some anyway.”

Sometimes she read aloud from a book about color theory, or from Cézanne’s letters. She would instruct, “Painting must analyze the natural world and still be subjective.” All of us, under her tutelage, learned to see anew; she opened our eyes by the lashes so that in Lycia we might find loveliness everywhere. “Look at the beauty of that shape,” she’d say, “where the sky is between those two peaks.” She once exclaimed, “Look at that! It’s not really a nose at all; it’s the most remarkable broken triangle of light!” – which rather alarmed the bashful cook, who until then had been sure it was his nose and not a bad nose at that.

And then we would go ashore to see some historic place, or swim in water so transparent you could scarcely tell it from the light (but it was a bit more alizarine, Susannah would explain). We breathed in sharply when diving from the height of the deck, because we were always overwhelmed at first by the deepness of that sea; but then suddenly we would find that it was not overwhelming at all, and we would swim past one another, or tread water holding hands, or splash up onto some deserted beach or bit of rock, or play at being sea monsters. One of the women had a pink bikini that she had bought in Saint-Tropez, and though the rest of us had nothing of the kind, we all felt equal in the common salty, clear element. You could swim once around the boat, or you could swim a mile to an inviting rock. It was delicious: so sweet and so cold.

We were usually damp when we sat down to lunch. We noted the color contrasts of the salad and drank the local wine; sometimes the women put flowers in their hair, and we told one another our best stories, our intimacy quick and authentic. Perhaps this is something that can happen only when you are in Lycia and the weather is fine, the youngest of you is only 24 and the eldest over 80, the mahogany-paneled cabins all have their own showers and bathrooms, the boat is 85 feet long and has blue sail covers, and there is a red Turkish flag the size of a carpet flying at the stern. It is most likely to happen when the cost of going hasn’t been high, and there are two classicists and a painter with you at all times, and the four members of the crew would be invisible in their quiet attentiveness if they were not so pleasing to look at. It happens when you have all taken off your watches and do not put them on again for eight days. It happens when most of you have read too much Evelyn Waugh, have pondered but never fully understood both Aeschylus and Matisse, and can identify immediately most episodes of Absolutely Fabulous.


“Listen! What is that? I think it’s the bird we were talking about yesterday, that rare Antalyan eagle,” said someone. We were all silent for a moment.

“That’s Venetia’s alarm clock,” someone else said. And so it was, that time, but overhead there were birds flying and crying as though they too thought the simple fact of this day and this light warranted celebration.


After lunch, worn out by the morning’s exertions, we would lie in the sun on big blue mats at the bow of the boat, and usually we would sail on to yet another wonder. Later we would have tea and biscuits and halvah and then would disembark for the day’s site. Once it was a Greek theater built into the hillside, and once it was an eerie necropolis of the ancient Lycians, where the wealthy had had themselves placed in rock tombs that would last forever. We examined the inscriptions in the lost language of Lycia, and Andrew told us about modern efforts to break the code. Tom puzzled out the Greek epitaphs and translated them for us as we climbed with him to hear what funny things had happened on the way to a polis here, an acropolis there. Near Demre, Tom showed us where Gelasius the nut seller had carved his name into a theater wall, to claim a prime position at the top of the stairs in the main vomitory. He led us to the altar in Arykanda where the ancients worshiped Helios in the fifth century B.C.; and he sat with us beside the tomb of Archemdemos, son of Ermapios, in Üçağız. While we ran free in these ancient places, new knowledge was making itself felt in each of us.


Nothing was behind wire. Once or twice we had to pay an entrance fee at a famous site, but mostly the ruins we visited were empty, with wild thyme and clover growing between the stones. As we scrambled around, we felt as if we were the first travelers in these virgin realms of gold. It was the ancient world as it was discovered by the Romantics, and not the Disneyland museology of Pompeii or the scrubbed self-importance of tourist-trodden Delphi. Like the Victorians Sir Charles Fellows and Captain Spratt, we came upon the magnificent Roman theater at Myra, and saw the church of St. Nicholas and the spectacular integrity of Arykanda, where Alexander the Great conquered and where Hadrian dallied. At the stadium there, a shepherd stumbled through with his flock; two old women in head scarves moved on to tilled fields below; and we were the only other human beings. Each place we saw was magnificent in its decay, and we felt how the mighty must once have looked on all this and despaired. We regarded it in meeker bliss, leaving no further marks on so rich a palimpsest. Lord Byron himself never saw greater wonders or took greater pleasure in them.

The hills we painted were everywhere purple with blossom, and the red-roofed village houses were weighted with bougainvillea. No one had ever been more free from gray than we were as we sat here or there, recording our impressions of the crenellated rocks, while Susannah looked over our shoulders. “I want to see what the form of that pediment makes you feel,” said Susannah. “Think from the edges in.” Our work was quick, sketchy, expressive; doing it, we saw what would otherwise have been unknowable, and absorbed the prospects in which we dwelt.

And then we would leave, perhaps to see other vestiges, another tomb with a view; or perhaps if we were near a village we would sit in a bar and drink aniseed-perfumed raki. We might buy kilims and postcards and old Armenian silver belts, or we might run into some local who was a friend of Tom or of a crew member, and climb with him into hidden streets where women with a few gold teeth were doing laundry and cooking, and where men, fat with success, sat smoking and playing backgammon. “A man without a belly,” our captain, Hasan, told us, “is like a house without a balcony.” Sometimes the chaps in our party went to see the village barber, who would shave us with a straight razor, massage our faces and shoulders, and comb and oil our hair. Consuming plates of Turkish delight back on the boat, we balconied ourselves like some sultan’s palace, then went swimming in the lingering twilight, our paintings strewn about the deck.

Usually around nine, we sat outside again. The sun would at last be setting, and Ibrahim would bring us more wonders from the kitchen below: roasted meats and spiced chicken and stuffed eggplant. When the moon was up we played charades or told stories, and we drank more raki, and talked more about art, or lapsed into epigrams and aphorisms, everyone’s wits sharpened by our intense pleasure. On the night of the full moon, we turned off all the electricity; the crew put orange peel on the candles to scent the air, and Andrew picked up The Iliad and read us the narration of Hera’s seduction of Zeus. Then we went for a midnight swim, splashing one another with luminescent water. Even the crew joined in the fun: the captain did a belly dance that put us all to shame.


“Listen,” someone said in the small hours. “You can hear the bells the goats are wearing. They’re awake, too.” And we were all silent for a moment.

“That’s the ice jingling in Jasper’s glass,” someone else said, and so it was, that time. But in the light of the moon we did see the goats, wild goats without bells, climbing up and down the hills. That night, most of us slept side by side on the foredeck, waking up suddenly when rosy-fingered dawn touched us and turned the stones all around an unsaturated pink. We drifted in and out of sleep until Ibrahim brought our coffee.


Always, there was the dancing; it seemed that we were perpetually dancing, old and young alike. Some evenings we would go out to the small bars of the port villages and dance with the swashbuckling locals to music as old as the hills, our shoulders thrown back and our arms raised as we went in a ring. Tom was a champion Bodrum efe dancer, and he had taught the men these local traditional steps (“You have to make it look very high-testosterone,” he explained encouragingly). In Kaş, some of us ventured to a provincial disco, where Turkish wind surfers and scuba divers were rocking to Rod Stewart while their women gyrated like latter-day Salomés high on Olivia Newton-John.

But most of all, there was the dancing onboard. After breakfast, and again after lunch, some of us would nap while others, listening to music on a cassette player or imagining it in the sounds the wind made as it touched the cliffs, would twirl along the main deck. Susannah, wearing one of her trailing dresses, would laugh as someone dipped her over the bow so that her hair hung down toward the sea, and the crew would peek out from the main saloon. And in this world of teak and sailcloth, we fancied ourselves bacchants.

During a sudden rainstorm one hot day, we all rushed out and stood with the water streaming down our faces, halfway between dancing and swimming, sliding on the deck while, on one of Tom’s tapes, a Turkish man sang in a throaty voice about his burning, burning love. It was very strange, because we had met only recently, but now we were so engaged with one another, and so infatuated with Turkey and with the sun and the painting and the boat; and Tom was besotted with a Turkish woman he’d met a year earlier; and all the women on board had crushes on Tom; and all this flooding affection caught us off guard and we were drenched in sentiment, as surprised by it as we were by the sheer number of stars in each night’s sheltering sky. It seemed that, though we had a concentration of that quality of irony that is the essence of English humor, we had somehow left ashore ironic distance from our immediate circumstances. This was the first and only odyssey; all our new wisdom added up to an experience that was very much like love itself, and everything we did on that boat seemed more real than our real lives. And if we thought of the long trip back, we no more imagined that we might have stayed at home and contemplated Lycia than did Alexander the Great, who first touched these still-unspoiled shores in 333 B.C.

The magnificent Roman theater at Myra. Photo: Ingo Mehling. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The magnificent Roman theater at Myra. Photo: Ingo Mehling. Source: Wikimedia Commons.