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SANTA'S HOMETOWN

Saint Nicholas traveled, but not to the North Pole. In his youth, he journeyed to Palestine (Israel) and Egypt, prerequisite stops in those days for future saints. But his legend begins in Myra (also known as Kale or Demre) east of Patara. A boat ride in Saint Nick’s time, today Myra is a three hour bus journey over Turkish mountains from Patara. (Bus fare 50,000 lira -- last bus back at 20:30.) On the shorter bus routes, like on the Santa Claus trail, you usually travel on a "dolumus"-- a minibus. "Dolumus" means "packed" and often, especially in the morning and evening when locals are traveling to and from work, dolumus is a well-choosen adjective. You may have the pleasure of experiencing the locals with all five senses.

Home base: Kas

The inviting, but somewhat touristy city of Kas lies about an hour east of Myra, and makes a good base camp as lodgings are sparse in Myra. An attractive fishing port, Kas is chock full of inexpensive but comfortable lodging. Recep Bilgin Caddesi (a street) is full of nice pensions. Prices around US $14. Some lodging advice, which is valid throughout Turkey and, in fact, any Muslem country: do not stay in a pension next or close to a mosque unless you like to rise early to loudspeakered Muslem prayers. (And listen to them all day, if you're in your room.)

Kas is also a good place to buy a Turkish carpet, if you so desire. We recommend Magic Orient, where we bought ours. Located on the waterfront, Magic Carpet has a reputation for honesty, amazing for a Turkish carpet seller. Visa/Mastercard accepted. (Carpet tip 1. If your itinerary takes you into Central Turkey, carpets are much less expensive there. 2. Buy your carpet at the end of your Walkabout -- they're heavy.)

Kastellorizo (Meis in Turkish) lies a short distance to sea and makes an interesting day trip. Despite the fact it is far from Greece and just off the Turkish coast, the island is officially part of Greece. Not surprisingly, Turkey disputes ownership. Kastellorizo is where that wonderful Italian film Mediterraneo was filmed.

Santa's life

Saint Nicholas lived his adult life in Myra, becoming the bishop of the city. More than just the patron saint of children and travelers, he is also the protector of prisoners. (Thus if you are a teenager arrested while visiting Turkey, you'd better pray to St. Nick.) The origin of Saint Nicholas’s involvement with children and gift-giving is believed to have arisen from a legend in which a shopkeeper was too poor to supply his daughters with dowries. When Saint Nicholas heard of their plight, he threw three bags of coins into the shopkeeper’s yard, saving the daughters from prostitution.

The Church of Saint Nicholas is in Myra, built after his death. Noel Baba’s remains were placed in a rock sarcophagus. The church is a quick walk from the bus station. The way is marked (look for “Aya Nicola” signs) but if you get lost just say “Noel Baba” to any local and they’ll point the way. The entry fee is 50,000 Turkish Lira. Outside the church, set in a quiet, plant encased garden, is a modern statue of Saint Nicholas, complete with beard, bag of toys, and children. It’s the Turkish Santa Claus, however, thin and dressed in a robe. Myra contains other impressive ruins, a mile north of Saint Nicholas’s church. Lycian tombs are carved, stories high, from the hillside above a Roman amphitheater. They are an impressive sight and should not be missed. An easy walk, unless the temperature approaches the surface of Venus, which it sometimes does on the Turkish Coast. Taxis are about $2 from the church.

Last stop on the Santa Claus Trail:

Jolly Saint Nick's Bones (Really!)