Pamukkale – Cotton Castle in the Snow

Pamukkale was one of the places that I really, really wanted to take Mum to in Turkey. It’s such a unique place, plus it’s kind of exciting having to take your shoes off and walk barefoot up the travertines – calcium carbonate deposits that look kind of like someone poured a giant bucket of white icing down the slopes. The name itself describes it in quite a fairytale fashion: Pamukkale means ‘Cotton Castle’.

Sure, it’s fun walking barefoot up the travertines…except when they’re covered in snow!

It doesn’t snow very often in Pamukkale, and a few of the locals told us that it hadn’t snowed there in six or seven years. So really, we should count ourselves lucky to be able to see the place in a different light, and truly I believe we were. What I found funny though was how the pristine white snow made the travertines look discoloured, as if they were tobacco-stained. I remember them seeming a pure, clean white on my last visit – with the snow they turned a strange yellowy-beige colour. Still, the calcium formations remained fascinating if not so pure.

I’d warned Mum that we’d have to walk up barefoot, but we were both kind of hoping that given it was below zero outside they wouldn’t be enforcing this. We were mistaken. And so we dutifully removed our shoes and socks before tentatively stepping foot on the snow-covered travertines. Need I note that it was cold? Bloody freezing? Our feet were soon a lovely warm red colour as our bodies sent all available blood to our freezing extremities.

The other thing that should be said about walking barefoot along the calcium deposits is that the damn things can be sharp! They may look soft and fluffy from afar, but up close it resembles coral – the kind of coral that likes to viciously cut up your innocent feet. The ripples in the travertines are quite beautiful though, and if you walk softly it’s not too much of a problem.

Unfortunately visibility was pretty low as we were ascending – a fog swept in over the mountains and the clouds threatened to dump a load of snow upon us.
I led the way, trying to find the safest path so that Mum wouldn’t slip over. As we got higher, much of the travertines were snow free – at least the parts we were walking on, due to the water running across them. This water started off icy, unsurprising given much of it was snowmelt. However, the closer we got to the top the warmer the water became, being fed from underground mineral springs, and we would seek respite in the increasingly warm waters. Along one side of the path a torrent raged down a narrow gutter. Against the wall, the pools where last time people had been relaxing in bikinis were empty, the pale blue waters overflowing and leaking across our feet while rapidly cooling. By the time we’d reached the top, the warm waters had marginally restored the life in our feet. Socks and shoes were put back on to enable us to explore the ancient site of Hieropolis without fear of future amputations.

Hieropolis is an ancient Roman city dating to the second century BCE, and the remains of the city are quite impressive – especially when covered in snow. We hadn’t been walking for five minutes before the heavens opened and we were treated to a gentle fall of tiny white snowflakes. The snow on the ground was deep, and in the centre of the paths was either grey and slushy or thinly frozen over; either way, walking down the centre was a surefire way to wet feet. And so we had to watch where we stepped, although given that we both wanted to explore it wasn’t really possible to avoid stepping into ankle or mid-calf deep snow on occasion. The snow soaked through my old, cracked Doc Martens to freeze my ankles and stiffen the leather.

We walked down what remains of an old colonnaded street, with Mum insisting that I climb beside every other column for a picture, thus increasing my likelihood of ending up knee-deep in snow. I think she secretly wanted me to lose a foot to frostbite. We walked through what was the old Roman latrines – today they’re far cleaner than the average Turkish public toilet, most likely because they haven’t been used for millenia. I doubt many public loos today have columns. The Romans liked things to look nice apparently!

We avoided some of the bigger buildings, as it didn’t look too safe to get to them in the snow, and headed down towards the necropolis. A necropolis, or City of the Dead, is a cemetery, and this one would have cost a lot to get into. Today it’s a disorganised jumble of old tombs, mausoleums and sarcophagi, most broken and lying open, that is a delight to explore in the autumn but a little more difficult in winter. The different styles of tombs I found quite interesting – some were rounded and quite large, big enough to fit eight or ten bodies, but only on one level; others were more traditional mausoleums with three or four shelves on which coffins could be deposited; yet others were single standalone sarcophagi with varying levels of detail. Many have fallen sideways and cracked open; centuries ago an earthquake ravaged the area, destroying much of the site and leaving it in the condition it is today.

The other reason that I wanted to bring Mum here was so that we could swim. Sounds crazy, right? Swimming when it’s snowing outside? And it’s not even an indoor pool. What it is is a mineral spring, naturally heated to 35.7 degrees. Hieropolis was known in ancient times for its springs, and the elite came here to bathe in the mineral-rich waters. The earthquake caused the collapse of parts of the site and the formation of a new, natural pool – complete with ancient blocks and columns in the water where they fell.

Here’s what the pool looked like in October of 2010, when it was about 25 degrees Celsius outside and warm enough to laze around afterwards on the grass to dry.

Now imagine it surrounded with snow, coming up to the edge of the pool, with clumps of snow falling from the branches of overlying trees into the water. And subtract most of the people – we shared the pool with only five others. In summer there might be four hundred people in there all at once. We savoured the solitude, swimming languidly through the warm water, which tastes of minerals and metals and leaves a sour tang in your mouth, dragging ourselves over columns only inches under the water and covered with soft green moss. Steam rising off the waters meant that we couldn’t see far, and the few other tourists there took photos of the weird Australian women swimming while it’s snowing, not really believing us when we told them it was deliciously warm despite the signs displaying the temperature.
Just before 5pm we were told it was closing, and we had to get out. This was the tricky part – how to get out of the heated mineral springs into the snow. We had to make a run for it. Delaying as long as possible, we jumped out, wrapped ourselves in the towels one of the staff had kindly given us [after the reception told us we had to purchase a towel if we wanted one] and quite literally ran from the pool into the changing rooms thirty metres away. The ground was covered in snow and therefore quite slippery; Mum slipped a bit but we made it to the change rooms, which were as icy as outside. We’d carefully ensured that all our clothes were turned the right way before getting in the water, and that they were packed in the right order, to minimise freezing time. I think we set records for time taken to get dressed!

Mum didn’t seem to realise how quickly it would become dark, and so I had to be very stern and make sure we went down the travertines straight away – I didn’t want to wait until it was dark before we left. Within minutes of taking our shoes off again and starting down the sun was gone and darkness fell instantly. I had my little torch to guide us down, and the mist once more rolled in limiting visibility. In the darkness the travertines turn a strange, eerie blue colour, and the lights of the town were merely hazy glowing dots, like stars too close.

What was really difficult about going down was that the water got colder the further we got. By the time we’d reached the bottom the warmth our feet had absorbed in the water had well and truly seeped out and the cold had soaked right to the bone. Our feet were cold and stiff and almost numb as we stuffed them back into dry socks and wet shoes.
Rather than head back to the hotel and then have to leave again, we decided to get dinner on the way back, and found a place that had a wood heater. I could hardly drag Mum away from it to eat – as soon as we entered she pulled up a chair right beside it and didn’t move. A few glasses of wine with dinner soon warmed us up.
Despite the cold, I believe we were very lucky to be able to see Pamukkale under snow and I’m so glad that we had the opportunity. And swimming up to the edge of the pool to find snow? It just seems crazy. There’s something magical about snow – at least there is if you’re an Australian and have to drive for hours to see it. And in Australia it only really snows in the mountains, so exploring an ancient city covered in snow is something pretty special. We don’t really have ‘real’ winter – in Melbourne, winter temperatures fall below zero only overnight, and only occasionally. We’re cold when it gets below 15 degrees. A world blanketed in white only exists in the ski fields to most Australians – or in other countries. Like Turkey, for example!

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6 responses to “Pamukkale – Cotton Castle in the Snow

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  3. Hi Cat! I loved reading about your Pamukkale adventure. I’m planning to go this New Years day, and your insight, and detailed account will be useful! Best of luck with your next journey! Safe travels…

    • Hi Donna!

      I hope you enjoy it as much as I did! A few tips – take a towel, and if you’re not going to swim still take a small one to dry your freezing cold feet after the barefoot walk up the travertines through the snow!

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