The shores are alive . . .

Beaches, ruins and blaring pop music await visitors to Turkey's lake district

Egirdir is difficult enough for English-speakers to pronounce (imagine the consonants as items of furniture and the vowels as the sound of them being shoved around a room; it worked for me - sort of), but the town already long had problems with the Turks. Or rather, Egridir did: note the different spelling. Its predicament was rather like Middlesex's would be were its name to be taken literally, for egridir, in Turkish, means "bent".

Twenty years ago the people of this Anatolian lakeside settlement, sick of all the ribbing ("Bent lad, are you?"), decided to change the town's name. But, not wanting to disorientate their many compatriots who holidayed there every year by adopting an entirely new name, they simply swapped around two letters in the old one. "She spins", egirdir means, more prettily, with vague reference to the legend of a princess thus occupied in the surrounding hills.

My search for European beaches to match those of my native Australia had taken on a legendary quality of its own. They all had feeble swells, or were suffocated with development, or both. Turkey's (though most of its beaches are actually in the Asian part of the country) were no exception; indeed, I found there a special kind of spoliation - the division of the sand into privatised strips marked out by competing strains of muzak.

So I hit upon the idea of spurning salt water altogether. Few of my fellow travellers had had the same idea; we were a tiny minority in Egirdir, the centre of the Turkish "lake district". Lake Egirdir itself is enormous - you can barely see the opposite shore - and there are swimming spots all around it, but for the choicest bays you will need to take up the offer of one of the underoccupied old men to ferry you around in a little putt-putt boat for the equivalent of a few pounds for half a day.

The lake water is lovely: in the summer, it's very nicely chilled - and also drinkable, so the townspeople say. It changes colour dramatically with the weather and time of day: a milky turquoise under a clear sky, turning to a deep, strong navy blue as night falls.

Yet it is not only inaccessibility that might make you stick to the main beaches. The army owns half of Turkey. You can spot the bits it owns by how clean they are. It's all the conscripts; they are always sweeping. One of them beckoned me over as I was walking the two miles or so from Egirdir to Altinkum Beach - better, I had heard (certainly bigger) than the one in town.

I had tried to walk all the way along the water's edge but had come up against a fence around a patch of scrub, claimed for some reason by the military, so I took the road. The conscript, who was behind another fence, guarding yet more army property, waved me over, pointing at the Nikon around my neck. He was rebuking me: there are signs all over Turkey forbidding you to photograph anything military. No: he wanted me to take his photo.

"Quick!" he indicated, striking a pose, and I was about to snap him, when - "Yok! . . . Yok!"

I turned around, sheepish smile at the ready. It was his officer, striding down the hill opposite and accompanying that imperative Turkish "No!" with short karate chops in the air. No time to argue; I kept walking. The mischievous conscript had wilted away. I wondered what would happen to him. Double latrine duty, perhaps; I doubted he would be severely punished.

My freshwater inspiration might have been clever but I hadn't escaped all the problems of the coast. Turks do not, as might at first appear, so much abhor silence as prefer to confine it to the mosque. Everywhere else they are apparently wary of it, which presents problems for the raw-nerved among us.

My experience on a beachlet off the cause- way to the little lake island of Yesilada (once mainly Greek, before the horrendous "exchange of populations" that took place following the First World War) was typical. I was drifting off, post-delicious-swim. A fine example of Turkish middle-aged manhood, bearing a paunch and a moustache, was guarding the crest of the beach. His family (covered wife, wet children) sat around their car, but he wasn't leaving it, all the easier to unleash upon us suddenly a stream of syrupy arabesk.

It is as ubiquitous as the army in Turkey, this Arab-inflected pop, simultaneously wailingly heartfelt and frothy. It assailed me again on Altinkum Beach. I moved; it pursued me. I gave in.

Never mind; there were distracting pleasures, such as observing the beach behaviour of this people, equally western and other. Through the smoke from an industrial revolution of charcoal grills (their mouth-watering produce available, with a beer, from beachside stalls), I detected evidence of changing mores. True, relatively few women swam but it was the younger ones, some daringly hand-in-hand with boyfriends, who refused to swelter in the heat.

Bathing in Egirdir had that quasi-quantum quality of some of my best travel experiences: it was irritating at the time but enjoyable in retrospect. You can find contrasting solitude on Mount Davras, looming over the lake. Ruins litter the ascent. Turkey has been civilised, over and over again, for 10,000 years or more, but the Turks themselves, perhaps suffering from a surfeit, paid the remains of their antecedents little mind until nosy German archaeologists began turning up in the 19th century.

Nothing is left of Prostanna, a Pisidian settlement, except its monumental foundation stones - slim pickings, but, I find, all the richer for the imagination. Beyond the craggy site, the path soon dwindles to near invisibility. Your ascent becomes ever steeper until, the summit remorselessly beckoning, you are scrabbling along with the surrounding goats.

Along the final ridge you come across crumbling lookout posts that are still suggestive, millennia on, of approaching mortal danger. Then an unsurpassed version of the sight that has been missing for hours comes into view: in the foreground, the pink excrescence of the joint-diseases hospital, which the tourism office suggests visiting as part of an "alternative tour", and, beyond, the cool expanse of the lake, into which you could surely dive from here.

This article first appeared in the 21 January 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Art is the new activism