Flight Centre’s Susan Wonders skips the tour option and makes her own itinerary exploring some of Turkey’s ancient classical ruins.
‘Tourist, tourist!’ the hotel doorman screamed, running ahead of us into the building.
My husband and I exchanged a glance of trepidation. Either we were rarities here, or something was very wrong. Thankfully, it was the former.
We were in Izmir, Turkey’s third-largest city and gateway to the archaeological sites of Anatolia. However, most tourists skip the city itself, bussing their way past on organised tours to the area’s big historical attractions. A shame, as the three days many tour operators allow for the whole region can be easily spent on one stop alone. And, for those interested in classical culture and antiquities, a whistle-stop tour is too fast to take everything in.
Once the ancient port of Smyrna, and birthplace of Homer, Izmir was all but destroyed in the Turkish War of Independence in 1922. And despite a mountainous backdrop and wide open bay, today’s modern, bustling incarnation is not immediately endearing to the visitor. Yet beyond the wide commercial boulevards, Izmir has a surprising number of attractions, easily enough to occupy a leisurely couple of days.
The labyrinthine bazaar hides an ancient agora, dating from the days of Alexander the Great, the only remaining pre-Ottoman structure in the city. It’s not in great shape, yet it gives a hint of what’s to come elsewhere in the region, with 14 lofty columns defying gravity and years of earthquakes. Also in the bazaar is the restored Kizlaragasi Han (caravanserai) built in 1744, selling water pipes, carpets and, allegedly, the best coffee in the city. It’s famously hard to find – in fact, we never found it, out of time and distracted by the stalls selling roasted pistachios and more-ishly fresh Turkish Delight.
Nearby, the worthwhile archaeological museum has three floors of ancient artefacts and exhibits from the region, easily an hour’s browsing or so. Meanwhile, north of the city, the historical district of Alsancak has lovely old Ottoman-era houses, some converted to cafes, restaurants and bars. It’s easy to imagine that most of Izmir once looked like this.
If you have another couple of days, there are several laid-back fishing villages which still remain blissfully undeveloped compared to those further south towards the main tourist centre of Bodrum. Alaçati is one of the prettiest, with old stone Greek Ottoman houses, boutique hotels, and a safe, family-friendly bay for swimming (and excellent windsurfing).
To be fair, even on a slow trip, further outside Izmir is where the big-ticket items lie, and it was time to move on after a few days. We hired a car and headed two hours south to Selçuk, a small town grown wealthy on the influx of tourism, yet still with a measure of charm. Visitors to Selçuk come to see almost one thing: the ancient classical site of Ephesus, which must rank among the most impressive in the world. Despite being very ‘discovered’ – there were no less than 32 tour buses already there the morning we visited – it still ranks as an un-missable site for even the least enthusiastic history buff. It was, after all, the second-most important site in the Roman Empire (after Rome) in its heyday in the first and second century AD. Theologians love it too – the city was reputedly a base for Saint Paul, and it is claimed that the Virgin Mary spent the last years of her life here.
Parts of the site are still being excavated, yet it already boasts some of the most imposing Roman remains outside Rome, offering a clear view of what life must have been like in Roman times. One of the most magnificent buildings is the Great Theatre, the largest in Asia Minor, which had a capacity of more than 24.000 people and is in a very well preserved condition. However, it is the much-photographed Celsus Library, built in 117 A.D., that left us wishing that we had allowed more time. Sadly, we had allowed only a day to discover both Ephesus and the superb Selçuk museum, and had to whizz through far faster than our usual meandering pace – our next stop was booked for the following night.
Back in the car, we drove north to Bergama, a sleepy town which boasts the Acropolis and Asklepion of once-mighty Pergamum. With little in the way of accommodation – just guesthouses, pensions and small hotels – few people stop long in Bergama (even for a night) and it retains a village air, especially in its back alleyways, filled with brightly-painted old houses slowly crumbling to dust. Instead, tour buses drop their passengers at each site, swing by the carpet shops if they have time, then move on to the next stop.
It pays to organise accommodation here in advance, as choice is limited and the best places, naturally, fill up. We had booked a room in a small traditional pension with such a relaxed ambience that some swallows had built their nests in the lobby. Later that evening, we sipped our local Efes beers there, watching the adult birds dip in and out, feeding their hungry babies until night fell.
Next morning, we went to the town’s small but wonderful museum, rammed with finds from the sites; such numerous pieces, in fact, that many remained unlabelled. At lunchtime, we walked five minutes down the road to get fresh Turkish pizza made on request, at a tiny, hospitable pide shop, where we communicated by sign language and smiles. When we thanked the waiter in Turkish, Teşekkür ederim, he beamed like the sun, and when we added an ‘iyi’, Turkish for good, we had all three members of staff grinning and waving goodbye.
We saved that afternoon for a visit to the Asklepion, one of the earliest therapeutic and medical centres on record, and the world’s earliest psychiatric hospital. Built in honour of the god Asklepios, the centre has existed since the fourth century BC, and was using dream interpretation to help with health issues 2000 years before Sigmund Freud. We timed our arrival just as the last bus left, and had the site almost to ourselves–apart from the turtles inhabiting the remnants of the centre’s sacred pool.
Back in the pension that night, we counted the other tourists we’d seen in town on one hand and reflected on the number of buses we’d seen at Ephesus the day before. ‘You know, time is a luxury worth taking’, mused my husband, as he cracked open another Efes. ‘Why more people don’t do it, I have no idea.’
And we booked in for another three days.
For hot deals to Turkey and other exciting destinations, visit the Flight Centre website at www.flightcentre.co.nz or phone 0800 427 555.
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