Stalking Santa Claus

Strips of cardboard boxes form narrow bridges across the street where pools of liquid tar are held captive by the hollows and depressions in the road surface. Tiny reservoirs of black rain that smell of over-ripe fruit. Its splatter leaves permanent stains on clothes and cars. It is an incomprehensible mess of bad timing and planning. The merchants, builders of the cardboard bridges, are desperate to lure the thronging crowds from the other side of the tar river to their stalls. These crowds are indifferent to their encouraging calls. Reluctant. Uninterested. The flimsy bridges, within seconds, become imprinted with black tyre tracks and the occasional brave footprint. The busses drop their cargo not in the car park, which, today, lies on the wrong side of the tainted road, but directly across from the glaring bridge builders.

These tourists are spared the bother to navigate this obstacle and unexpected mess. We are not, and have to use one of the newly constructed bridges to slip into the raucous throng of bodies jostling through an avenue of commerce to reach the ticket booth and gate to the ancient city of Myra.

Not much is left of the Myra in which Saint Nicholas lived as Bishop in the late 3rd and early 4th centuries AD. There are only two groups of structures left. Lycian rock tombs against the cliff face that pre-dates Christianity, and an enormous Roman amphitheatre that came much later. Here, two modern-day gladiators earn their living by flexing their muscles and employing their charms to create imaginative tableaux that the young, tanned girls, who are seduced by their smiles, can carry off as mementoes. Frozen bits of over-exposed skin, flashing swords, red cloaks, twisting bodies.

Striking just the right pose becomes the pre-occupation of the majority of tourists, who surge into the amphitheatre, wash over its steps, and retreat. Their movements mirror the ebb and flow of the ocean. Never-ending and relentless in its repetitive rhythm. Smiles are forced. Tempers flare. Rivulets of sweat glisten on exposed skin. A husband clumsily struggles with a camera, while his wife poses, frowns, instructs, poses, forces a smile, and eventually storms closer. She plucks the camera from his hands, and my imagination involuntarily translates her clipped foreign words. “How difficult can it be? You never do anything right!” She turns on her heel and stomps off with pursed lips. He follows with hunched over shoulders.

The late Bishop of Myra would surely be shocked at the people who trudge around the remnants of his once thriving city. Shocked ourselves at the amount of package groups, we retreat into the shade of an umbrella and glasses of fresh, sweet orange juice to stave off the heat, thirst, and onslaught of tourists. It is time to search for the Church of St. Nicholas. Perhaps there we will find some respite from package tourism. To escape we have to brave the rows of merchants lining the pathway and street to get to our rental car. The choice of merchandise they hawk holds no surprise. There is nothing different or unique. Or cheap. The items on display appear tired and tacky in the midday heat. Both heat and merchants become suffocating and intolerable. I lower my eyes and march with a purpose.

We search for signs, make u-turns, spot a sign that we think indicates parking for St Nicholas that leads into back streets, before simply reverting to our intuition and sense of adventure to try and locate the elusive Church of St Nicholas. It is, in an ironic twist of fate, the presence of those big, droning tourist busses that give its location away, and allow us to find it before being tempted in to relinquishing our search.

This church, which has been repeatedly rebuilt and restored through its existence, sits serenely amidst a hive of tourist activity. It is a place of pilgrimage. Where the devout offer rituals and prayers. A space that harbours a cool interior. Where beauty in unexpected detail and textures can be found. And where people glide and whisper.

Orphaned when still young, St Nicholas used his substantial inheritance to help those in need. He was especially known for his love for children, and his concern for sailors and ships. Hence, it comes as no surprise that he is also the patron saint of sailors and students. Stories and legends about his life and deeds abound, and it is not difficult to see how it came about that the myth of Santa Claus was inspired by the wondrous deeds of this saint.

And so, after a day of adventure and exploration, we are ready to leave Demre. By far the ugliest town in this corner of Turkey.

Next stop, Patara, where St Nicholas was born.

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* If you are interested in learning more about St Nicholas and his link to Santa Claus, as well as read more about his life and miraculous deeds, you would do well in visiting this website.