(Reuters) - With thousands of refugees now taking shelter in Hatay after fleeing violence just across the border in their Syrian homeland, Turkey's panhandle province has been in the news over the past year for all the wrong reasons.

But spend a couple of days exploring this fascinating subculture of Turkey and you will discover an area steeped in ancient history, hospitality and tolerance - Jews; Orthodox, Protestant and Roman Catholic Christians; Sunni, Shi'ite and Alevi Muslims all worship here in virtual harmony.

Home to the ancient cities of Alexandretta or modern-day Iskenderun, the Mediterranean port where the whale is said to have spat out the prophet Jonah; and Antioch or modern-day Antakya, once the Roman Empire's third-most important city where St. Paul preached his first sermons and where Christians were first called Christians, Hatay is a lesson in Biblical history.

But most modern Turks come here for another reason: to eat. Once a part of Syria, Hatay has been blessed with its own rich cuisine that draws inspiration from northern Africa to the Middle East to Central Asia.

So with several airlines now operating daily flights to Hatay from Istanbul and Ankara, it's time to dust off the history books and put those diets on hold and discover one of Turkey's most well-kept secrets far off the beaten track.


Antakyan food (creative commons/charlesfred)

8 p.m. - Check in to The Liwan, a 1920s French colonial-style mansion typical of Hatay's main city Antakya that has now been beautifully restored into a boutique hotel. Built for the first president of the French Mandate of Syria, The Liwan boasts crystal chandeliers, carved wooden bed frames and velvet chairs that give a glimpse of what Antakya life was like in the 1920s. (www.theliwanhotel.com)

An alternative is Savon Hotel, a former soap and olive oil factory built in the 1860s around a large inner courtyard complete with fountain and arcades.

Both hotels are walking distance to Antakya's main sights.

9 p.m. - After settling in, stroll out for some dinner at Sveyka restaurant along nearby Kurtulus (Liberation) Street, which now sits on top of one of ancient Antioch's central colonnaded avenues said to be the world's first road to have street lighting dating back to the 4th century.

Sveyka serves some of Hatay's finest food in elegant surroundings on the first floor of another converted mansion. There are too many dishes to list so ask the attentive waiters for their recommendation but make sure you try the sour cherry meatballs.


(creative commons/bu)

10 a.m. - After a substantial breakfast in the hotel courtyard that could pass as a dinner anywhere else, take a slow walk down to the Hatay Archaeology Museum in the city centre just across the Orontes river that divides the city in two. The museum houses some of the world's greatest Roman and Byzantine mosaics. Climb the spiral staircase in one of the rooms to get a birds-eye view of the museum's largest piece, a pavement mosaic featuring hunting scenes with ancient Greek heroes.

12 p.m. - Cross back over the river and spend an hour getting lost in Antakya's Uzun Carsi or Long Bazaar, a series of winding covered lanes and alleyways where shopkeepers sell anything from plastic Chinese goods to gold jewellery. Spot the elderly craftsman still hammering out copper sugar bowls by hand or watch young men skilfully cook long thin strands of batter on rotating hotplates to use in kunefe, Hatay's signature dessert.

1 p.m. - Fight your way through the bustling crowds along the banks of the river for some lunch at Sultan Sofrasi or Sultan's Feast but make sure you spot the old parliament building across the river, a reminder of Hatay's brief period as its own republic just before World War Two.

Sultan Sofrasi offers some of Antakya's best lunch specials that change from day to day so forget the menu and walk straight up to the kitchen to see what's on offer. Try the yoghurt-based soup with bulgur covered meatballs, and for dessert how about some preserved walnut jam or crunchy stewed and sweetened pumpkin, drizzled with tahini and crushed walnuts.

2 p.m. - After all that food, it's time to take a walk around Antakya's winding cobblestone backstreets, taking in some of the city's religious sites. Make sure you see the Orthodox church which contains some striking icons as well as the Roman Catholic church whose Italian priest has been leading his small congregation for more than two decades. Several beautiful mosques are dotted around the old town too. Don't miss the Habib Neccar mosque which dates back to the 7th century and the Sermaye mosque with its lavish balcony around the minaret. Back on Kurtulus Street you'll also find a synagogue.

4 p.m. - Head back to the hotel to freshen up or grab a glass of tea or freshly squeezed juice at one of the street-side eateries in the town centre and people watch. Antakya's diverse make-up sets it apart from other more conservative cities in eastern Turkey. Most women will appear in public uncovered and young men and women can be seen strolling hand in hand.

9 p.m. - Head to Anadolu (Anatolia) Restaurant for a late dinner in a large covered outdoor courtyard where eager waiters hurl plates of hummus, kebabs and salads onto your table before you have time to sit down. But save some room for the kunefe dessert, a delicious white cheese covered with thin shredded wheat which is griddled and then doused in sweet syrup.


Greek Orthodox Church (creative commons/kmcfaddenh)

9 a.m. - Make an early start and explore some of Hatay's countryside and the sights outside Antakya. The easiest way is to hire a car with or without a driver. Selimgul Turizm in Antakya is a good bet, with well-maintained cars and helpful local drivers who also do airport pick-ups.

On your way out of town, stop by the church of St. Peter, a cave cut into the mountainside that is said to be the first place where the newly converted Christians met in secret. The facade on the outside was constructed by crusaders in the 11th century and in the corner of the church a small pool collects dripping water which is said to cure disease.

10 a.m. - Drive to the 6th century ruins of the monastery of St. Simeon, which sits on the top of a mountain around 20 km outside Antakya, and clamber over what is left of what was actually three churches. St. Simoen Stylites the Younger is said to have sat on top of a stone column here in religious observance for 68 years. The ruins are hardly ever visited and provide some breathtaking views of the mountains and the sea beyond.

12 p.m. - Grab a fish lunch in Samandag along Hatay's Mediterranean coast and carry on to Cevlik the site of the ancient town of Seleuceia Pieria which served as Antioch's port.

2 p.m. - At Cevlik walk through the incredible Titus tunnel, a 1.4 km tunnel cut into the mountainside in the 1st century on the orders of Roman emperors Titus and Vespasian to divert a stream away from the town. The tunnel is an astonishing achievement of Roman engineering which looks as though it has been carved out by a machine. Near the tunnel are also some Roman tombs carved into the rocks.

4 p.m. - Take a slow drive back towards Antakya, stopping at Harbiye or the ancient Roman Daphne where the Greek god Apollo is said to have chased the nymph Daphne. Stroll down the hill and drink a glass of tea in the shade of a laurel tree (daphne means laurel in Greek) and listen to the waterfalls spilling down the rocky hillside.

5 p.m. - Walk back up to Harbiye's Kule or Tower Restaurant perched on the edge of the hill and gaze out at the spectacular views across the valley and the Orontes river below. Try the spicy red pepper and walnut paste drizzled in fresh olive oil and mopped up with steaming hot bread. Then wash it down with a glass of Raki, Turkey's alcoholic drink made from aniseed while the sun sets across the horizon and live musicians play traditional Turkish and Arabic music, before heading back to the airport.

(Writing by Jonathon Burch, editing by Paul Casciato)