A beautiful yet disconcerting sight greets visitors approaching the low, rolling mountains that rise from the broad Lycos valley in western Turkey.
The hillsides appear covered with snow, but the ridge is only a few hundred feet above the plains. The warm wind brings a thirst for water, not hot chocolate.
Drawing closer, it becomes clear the ground itself is white. Stranger still, people in bathing suits are walking through pools of water that seem to jut out like frozen steps down the hillside.
Sadly, the incongruous sight of bathers roaming this winter-like landscape may soon disappear as officials try to protect the setting from the ravages of more than 5 million tourists a year.
This is Pamukkale -- set among the Selpak mountains, a three-hour car ride from the Aegean coast. Here, mineral springs cascading down the ridge for almost 3,000 years have bleached the earth and formed hundreds of small pools and waterfalls.
Visitors through the ages have been drawn to this spot by the supposed healing powers of the waters, which contain a mixture of carbon dioxide, calcium chloride and other elements. Emerging from the earth, the chemical-laden liquid separates from the gases. The calcium forms white layers that color the ground and hang in sheets from the edges of the pools.
To the Turks of a thousand years ago, it looked like cotton, and they gave the site its current name, which means "cotton fortress."
According to the local tourist office, the "fortress" is being overrun by too many sightseers who keep their shoes on as they walk out into the pools. Dirt is tracked into the water, turning the "cotton" brown.
Continuing discoloration may force the government to limit access to the hills, probably as soon as next year. One proposal would leave only a small section open for photo opportunities.
The area's popularity is not hard to understand.
In this breathtaking spot, known to the ancient world as Hierapolis, the Romans built magnificent public buildings and baths. Since then, generations of Romans, Byzantines, Seljuks and Turks came to bathe in the soothing waters and enjoy the scenery.
They sought cures for everything from eye ailments to rheumatism. Emperors and noblemen joined commoners who, if they weren't ill, just wanted to go to the mountains and have fun.
By the second century, the area had become such an attraction that a large public bath complex was erected to accommodate the crowds. The covered and vaulted building enclosed almost 21,000 square feet and included 10 private rooms for the emperor. It has been partially reconstructed and now houses a museum.
Shopping and entertainment were also part of the ancient spa experience. Ruins outline the marketplace where visitors strolled through carpet shops, flower stalls and fruit stands. Performances were held in a 20,000 seat amphitheater, which has been expertly restored by a team from the Italian Archaeological Institute.
Remains of a temple honoring Apollo as well as a martyrium believed to house the body of St. Phillip, an apostle who came to spread Christianity, still exist as evidence of the early struggle here between mythology and the new religion.
With more than 2,000 years of history all around and inviting mineral waters to melt away the aches and pains of travel, the area is best enjoyed with an overnight stay.
Pamukkale is several hours away from the Aegean and Mediterranean tourist centers of Kusadasi, Marmaris and Antalya. Hotels and tour operators organize one-day bus visits from these towns, but the ride is long, limiting time to see the ruins and enjoy the waters.
If you plan to spend the night, reservations are a must. The Turkish government has ended new construction here, so the number of rooms at the site is limited.
The five motels on the ridge all have mineral water pools, some overlooking the white cliffs and valley below. There is a modern municipal bath house as well.
A special treat can be found at the Pamukkale Motel, where oleander gardens surround guests languishing in the 85-degree
water of a former sacred ceremonial pool that still holds the tumbled fluted columns and stones of an ancient spa. The pool is also open to visitors who pay an entrance fee of $1. The small charge and setting does, however, attract a large number of sometimes noisy day-trippers.
Each motel also has a restaurant, with food geared mostly to the bus tour groups. Restaurants and additional rooms can be found in Pamukkale Koyu, a small town at the base of the ridge.
Wars, earthquakes and time have taken their toll on many placesaround the globe. In Pamukkale, millions of dirty footsteps lTC may soon bring walks along the "cotton fortress" to an end. But the motel pools will still provide travelers with a unique chance to relive life in an ancient civilization.
Soaking in the warm springs, today's adventurer here can look out over the beautiful scenery and well-preserved ruins and almost make 2,000 passing years stand still.
If you go . . .