Embarking in the ferry at Gallipoli and gliding across the Dardanelles towards the Troas peninsula (now known as the Biga peninsula), you leave behind the concrete memorials dedicated to the fateful World War I campaign – almost in its centenary – and approach a land of ancient wars and legends. With the dizzying musk of pine tress wafting your way from the shore, the short boat ride evokes Charon, the ferryman who in Greek myth carried his passengers across the river Styx to the underworld. Upon disembarkation you find, not Hades, but an Aegean port town bustling with activity: cargo ships now unload their steel containers where, Homer tells us, 1,000 wooden ships once floated, waiting for Achilles' war with the Trojans to end.
Pitted with archaeological sites, the Troas Peninsula has been a major centre of ancient-world excavation going on for more than 100 years. I have worked as an archaeology student in several of these sites, in pursuit of a career Indiana Jonesing. My most memorable experiences so far have been in Troy (yes, that Troy); Assos, a town where Aristotle once lived (yes, that Aristotle); and the Apollon Smintheus Temple, where cowering Hellenic devotees once worshipped the great and terrible, er, Lord of Mice...
Standing in ancient Troy
Our first stop is the city of Troy or, rather, Troys. The city made famous by Homer and Brad Pitt is in fact thought to be the seventh of nine cities to have been built on the same spot, each one successively destroyed by earthquake, fire or war. As a foundation myth of Western culture, Homer's epic poem 'The Iliad' is buried at our deepest layer of storytelling, and continues to inform the modern epic imagination from Tolstoy to Hollywood. To recap the archetypal winning formula: boy meets girl, boy steals girl, horse-partial Trojans fall for the oldest trick in the oldest book, girl is retrieved and 1,000 comparative literature courses are launched. Classic.
One hundred and fifty years ago, the story also inspired amateur archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann to go searching for a city then thought to be fictional. With a determination that would have driven him to unearth the city of Oz if he'd put his mind to it, Schliemann fixed on the Troas peninsula, swung his pickaxe and struck the foundations of what he thought was Troy. He was partly right: scholars argue that what Schliemann came across was not exactly Homer's Troy, but a former settlement on the site.
It is easy for a student of archaeology to say that Troy was home to more than one settlement. The hint lies in the fact that Troy sits on a large 'tell': an archaeological mound created by centuries of human settlement on the same spot. The fact that Troy has different settlements located at different depths is interesting for archaeologists and visitors alike. Indeed when I visited Troy, I could tell how the primitive walls of Troy I (early 30th century BCE) were expanded and improved by the successive settlement of Troy II (latter 30th century BCE). I was able to trace pre-history's emergence into the ancient world and the arrival of Hellenistic forms of architecture in Troy IX (4th century BC), represented by the large amphitheatre. The remains of Troy(s) truly bear witness to the trajectory of human advancement.
The good news is that all this revelatory rubble is just as available – and as fascinating – to the untrained eye. Thanks to the efforts of Manfred Korfmann, a German archaeologist who was head of the excavation until his death in 2006, the site has become increasingly tourist-friendly. There are walking paths that lead through the ruins as well as tour guides on site. The Excavation House serves as a provisional museum, with plans unveiled this year for a larger complex to be built on the site.
Nearby places you might dig...
Stay in Çanakkale just 30 kilometres away at Hotel Limani and eat at their Café du Port restaurant overlooking the harbour. Be sure to see the Trojan horse used in the 2004 film, which was donated to the Çanakkale local government and now stands outside the municipality building.
You can also to stay in the same building Heinrich Schliemann himself once rested his head. The Hotel Des Etrangers, as the oldest hotel in the area, has many original features - though with a few more mod cons than the pioneering archaeologist would have enjoyed in the 1860s.
Hotel LimaniKemalpaşa Mh Yalı Cd No: 12, 17100, Çanakkale, Turkey. +90 286 213 5970. www.hotellimani.com