A weekend in Izmir

Well, a few days ago we had another long weekend here in Turkey, and decided to take a look at one of the great cities and a fantastic architectural site of the ancient world: Izmir and Ephesus.

We booked our faithful hound Remi into the local kennel along with his best dog friend Willie Nelson the border collie – we found a great place that’s cheap and comes out to our place to pick up and then, when the weekend is over, delivers them back to us! Turkey as it turns out is a pretty cool place for dogs.


Reaching for street-level oranges.

Izmir’s a beautiful portside city surrounding a large bay in the Aegean sea. It’s surprisingly big – the third largest city in Turkey – but once you’re there it has a nice, intimate feel. We’d been so used to Ankara’s dry brown climate that Izmir’s green landscape was a shock. Every hill was covered in foliage, and the plum trees had just started to blossom. Our lungs and nostrils opened up in the humid salty air. Palm trees lined the beach, and many streets were furnished with orange trees filled with bright, full fruit.

We took the shuttle up to the Alsancak district, then hopped a cab up to our AirBnB neighborhood. The cab drivers are all very proud of their city – of the green grass and the wide ocean and deep and history. It’s one measure of how great a city is – how much do the cabbies love it? Our hotel was just off a main shopping district, above a jam-packed bookstore and next to a convenience store.

We went with our friends, one of whom was under the weather the first night so we went just the three of us to look for a nice fish dinner. There’s a whole row of restaurants along the waterfront, a strip you’d call touristy for Turkey but didn’t have the overbearing souvenir shops and kitsch factor that ruin a lot of tourist districts. Just nice restaurants with patio seating and acceptable prices. You’d be heartbroken, Minnesotans, who are suffering through a miserable winter, to know we sat outside until nine in the evening, drinking beer/raki and eating fresh fish!

Saturday we wandered along the coast, looking at the statues, then hopped on a ferry for a mystery trip to the northern shores of Izmir bay. Here we discovered a cute shopping district and a Muppet themed bar/restaurant where we ate a nice burger and  had a complimentary shot of Jagermeister. For some reason we didn’t get a good picture of the muppet menu, even though it seemed odd that Bunsen Honeydew and Beeker were selling mixed drinks.

The next day we took the train down to Selcuk, the town nearest to the ancient ruins of Ephesus. It was only six lira per person, and a comfortable ride. From there it was another 10 minute ride out to the ruins. It sounds like a lot of transfers, but it was really quite a nice little adventure.

On stage and ready for action at the great theater, Izmir

On stage and ready for action at the great theater, Izmir

Once inside the park you walk down a nice walkway and suddenly looming on your left is the giant 25,000 seat auditorium, once the highlight of a thriving metropolis of 300,000 people here on the western coast of the Anatolian penninsula. A grand walkway led from the auditorium down to where the harbor used to be, a thousand years ago, but which has now silted up. There have been some renovations, and the great facade that once stood behind the stage is long gone, but it is still one of the most impressive sights we’ve ever seen. It’s very impressive when you consider that much of it was carved from the rock of the hill behind it.

From there a path leads to the great library of Celsus, a two-story edifice recently rebuilt. It’s a beautiful, elaborate construction of yellow marble with statuaries and delicate columns that once held the library of the city. It stands in the sun and kind of glows. It was amazing.

So was the weather, I should say. It got into the seventies, just a touch of the heat that would come if we visited in the summer. The crowds weren’t bad, but there were tour groups from all over the world. We heard snatches of Chinese and German, lots of British English, and yes, even a group of Koreans! On the way in we’d even seen a Korean restaurant, so there must be enough tours coming through from Korea to keep that place in business.

We walked up the rest of the path, past the latrines (narrow holes, very close together, not much privacy in the pre-water closet days), an enclosed terrace house, then up to the second entrance. To go back we took a winding path that led down to where the archeologists are headquartered – this gave us a chance to see the ruins from the top of a hill, and they were just as impressive laying out in the sun as they were up close.

And so we returned to Selcuk, then took another dolmus – dolmus are minivans that carry fifteen to twenty people on pre-determined routes, kind of a cross between a city bus and a carpool – out to Serince, a small town nestled into the sides of a green mountain. Serince is famous as the center of local winemaking. Here you can sample and buy dozens of varieties of wine made from all kinds of fruits – strawberries, raspberries, peach, and quince, just to name a few. Traditional grape wine is also on offer. We spent a few hours here sampling, had a nice lunch of meze – small dishes of spreads for bread – with a bottle of red, and just watched the sun move over the mountains for a while. Mountain living would be wonderful, we all decided.

Then it was time to head back to Izmir. The trip was kind of winding down. Next morning our friends left on an early flight, and we had just enough time to wander down to the clock tower and get a last meal of traditional Turkish breakfast – a variety platter of cucumbers, tomatoes, cheese, honey, simit bread, and various other local delicacies. Then it was time to head out to the airport. This cab driver was no less convinced that he lived in the best city in Turkey, and we could find not reason to argue with him.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Iyi Bayramlar 2013

One advantage to living overseas is learning new holidays, and taking advantage of the time off. Kurban Bayram is an Islamic holiday that commemorates Ibrahim’s willingness to sacrifice his son.

rams for the slaughter

rams for the slaughter

During this festival, which lasts a whole week in Turkey, people head home to have plenty of family time. People who can afford it make the pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in their lifetime which ends in the sacrifice in commemoration of Ibrahim and Ishmael. For everyone though, the sacrifice is important. Families who can afford to sacrifice animals.  They distribute meat to those who can’t afford it, their neighbors, and their family.

For us, Bayram meant renting a car from a local family company and hitting the road. It’s our first time outside Ankara, so we decided to keep it simple.

We left on a Sunday morning, heading out around noon, leaving Remi with a neighbor. Our first stop was a dried salt lake about 25 miles south. At a roadside pull-off, we parked and walked out into the flats with many other families hiking. One family was even flying a kite. Typical of roadsides here (and in Korea when we were there), vendors sold melons and nuts and dried fruit. Free enterprise flourishes on the open road.

Writing in the dried lake bed

Writing in the dried lake bed

A bit down the road we stopped for lunch in a small town just outside Nevsehir, where a friendly family cooked up some chicken doner and salad, and then it was on to one of the great highlights of Turkey and the world: Cappadocia.

Carved from soft volcanic tuft, the Cappadocia valley covers about twenty square miles of central Turkey. Over the years erosion has carved out huge cones of soft rock that generations of humans have carved into churches and villages. Currently no one lives in the cave cities, though they are filled with shops and hotels. We stayed in the Guven cave hotel in Goreme. It was fabulous, very clean and romantic.

Our first view of Cappadocia

Our first view of Cappadocia

All Monday, we walked up the Cappadocian valleys. We found orchards filled with apples and grapes, quince, plums, and pears. We found a kind couple selling some of the sweetest dried fruit we’ve ever had – we bought a mixed box for 2.50 tl (about US 1.25). Later, there was a small cafe in the valley where we rested with a glass of wine.

Then we hiked up into one of the churches carved into the mountainside. These churches were built during the Byzantine era; some have beautiful frescoes painted into the walls and domes. I have no idea how these churches functioned, being so remote and relatively hard to access, but they are an amazing accomplishment.

Byzantine church, the red was ochre painted on the walls

Byzantine church, the red was ochre painted on the walls

We left Goreme and headed out to Konya on Tuesday morning.  Along the way we stopped at a small city that has an amazing wealth of well preserved, functioning architecture from the 1,100’s, Nigde. This was Akasha’s favorite spot.

Our kind host and his amazing home

Our kind host and his amazing home

There was no sign of tourism, the town is beautiful and the people were so warm and kind.  We were taking a picture of an amazing Seljuk home when the owner, Bekir, came out.  He didn’t speak English, but he spoke slow, patient Turkish and offered to take us on a tour of Seljuk buildings, especially mosques.

He took us to his mosque and introduced us to his imam, Yusuf. Yusuf spoke English and explained various features of a typical mosque and told us what we should see in the region. Bekir took us to the Aladin Mosque and the  Hittite castle that dates back to 8 B.C. It was a major holiday and most of the castle was closed, but they opened it up and showed us around. It gets very cold here in the winter and many people come to the castle to socialize and keep warm.  Ali showed us the brazer that they fill with coals to keep everyone warm and the cafeteria where folks hang out. A soldier on military duty joined us and translated for a bit. I think we were all exhausted after an hour of speaking Turkish or speaking to foreigners with limited Turkish.  Everyone was so warm and kind, we were sad to leave.

We went on to Konya. In the 13th century, Konya was home to the Sufi mystic known in the west as Rumi. He was also a poet and philosopher, and is credited for founding the mevlevi order, also known as the whirling dervishes. His tomb, which also houses the Mevlani museum, is near the center of town. Konya remains one of the most religious cities in Turkey, and you can feel this when you walk down the street. We spent an evening strolling down to and around the Aladin hill, exploring side streets and passing mosque after mosque, hearing calls to prayer that went on for minutes. You could also see evidence (as in, remains) of the lambs and cows sacrificed for the ceremony on many street corners, or being wheeled down the street in carts.


We can say Konya is a beautiful city, but unfortunately our dog sitter got sick, so we had to cut our visit short and head back to Ankara the next morning. We never got to the museum, but we got to see Remi a day early, and we still had a car. So: day trip!

The next day, we went out to another great historical sight, the tomb of (not mythical) King Midas.

A view in king Midas' tomb

A view into king Midas’ tomb

Minnesota has a beautiful history and many great locations to explore. Some have a long history, but nothing like this.  It seems like, if you keep your eyes open you will see history everywhere you look here.

The Midas tomb is an hour from Ankara, near the current town of Polatli. His tomb was built in 670 BC as a tribute to the Phrygian king immortalized by legend as the king with the ‘golden touch.’ It seems he survived that curse and lived a long life, dying after a war. When they opened his tomb they found evidence of a huge feast that was held there.  It’s a log cabin that was filled with relics from his life, and his body, and then covered in a 50 foot mound called a tumulus. There are dozens of these mounds in the Gordia region, but Midas’s is the largest. It lay undisturbed for thousands of years before being excavated in the 1950’s.

It was sobering to walk down the long narrow tunnel, perhaps a hundred yards long, that led deep into the heart of the mound. There we saw the tomb itself, made of ancient logs still a deep rich red, and the chamber that used to hold the King’s remains. The museum nearby holds many items from the region, which was an important crossroads for hundreds of years and several empires, from the Phrygians to the Romans, the Byzantines and Ottomans. Turkey has seen it all.

Korea was also rich

The road from Nigde to Konya

The road from Nigde to Konya

with history, but they did so much in wood that burned in the many invasions and wars they have suffered. Here, the stone construction has endured.  One exhibit at Gordia showed an ancient mosaic tile floor a local villager found while working on the foundation for his house. You can’t dig ten feet without finding history here, it seems.

One other thing that struck us was how much central Anatolia reminds us of home.  We could have been driving in Western Minnesota or the Dakotas. It was beautiful to see the golden rolling hills, farms, and fields. It made us miss Minnesota.

Here is a gallery with a bit more of our tip.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.