Head to Ephesus and Izmir, on the Mediterranean coast of Turkey, to discover impressive ruins, browse through fantastic markets and drink some surprisingly great wine
Three hours and a bit on a plane to get out here can be a nightmare, but there’s one thing you can bank on in Turkey, and that is that the food is quite magnificent – even extending to the gorgeous beef kofte served on Turkish Airlines. The carrier isn’t the only one that travels this way but it’s the biggest and most comfortable. After dozens of trips on budget airlines, our eyes have been opened to an entirely new world of plane travel. A comfortable, enjoyable one. Can you imagine?
Still, we’re not here to play about with Wall-E movies forever, and we alight at Izmir airport to find one of Turkey’s major towns stretching out in front of us. It’s the third most-populated in this vast and wonderful country. The Gulf of Izmir is on the Mediterranean side of matters, with a working port that ensures a regular turnover of visitors and cultures. It’s been pretty much that way for 3,500 years, dynamic and prosperous and with a real forward-looking attitude that blasts away many preconceptions you might have of this incredibly intriguing part of the world.
We’re pushing the boat out here and book into the Swissotel Grand Efes Izmir
– five-star luxury with a beautiful spa and an absolutely top-class restaurant. Sometimes you just want to pamper yourself and anyway, we’ve been saving up for months. The hotel is, of course, only one of many options in this city of 2.5 million people, but it is everything you could wish from something so opulent. A better base you could not have. This trip’s turning out to be rather fun.
No time to loll around for too long, though: this is part of Turkey with an important historical bent and we join a tour toward Ephesus, once one of the most important port towns of the Roman Empire.
Ephesus - the small part that’s been excavated so far, anyway - is mightily impressive. It was an incredibly busy port of 250,000 inhabitants before the estuary silted up and the town was gradually abandoned to the elements, as the beautiful countryside re-took the city. Every day new discoveries are being made here, making it a must-visit for anybody remotely interested in Roman architecture and history. The temples, libraries, shops and magnificent facilities are still hugely impressive feats of architecture. So we do the sensible thing and pose for photos sitting on the ancient communal toilets.
Surrounded by the weight of history, the ingenuity of the Roman civilisation is brought home vividly, not least in the coliseum, where a group of Japanese musicians suddenly bursts into rehearsed and wonderful song. Ephesus – Efes, in Turkish – was an incredibly advanced city, with shopping streets, high-spec underfloor heating and even street lighting. Fantastic stuff; narrow your eyes and you can imagine the bustle and bluster of a city here. In many ways, not much really changes over the millennia.
Near Ephesus is Meryemana on Mount Koressos – the house where many believe St John brought Mary, mother of Jesus, to live out her final days in tranquillity. Usually it is crawling with tourists but today the only thing breaking the silence is the twittering and calling of the birds of the air. Whatever your religious belief, the peace is warm and wonderful up here. As we descend the mount, we buy some tangerines fresh from the nearby fields; juicier fare there never has been and the locals are welcoming and hugely friendly, a recurring theme throughout the trip.
They all want to feed you, too. Be it from a street stall or the poshest restaurant, the meze-style spreads on offer are a dream for lovers of salad and kebabs. Most surprising of all, there are some extremely good Turkish wines such as Centium, a long-lasting and full Shiraz to rival anything the New World has to offer. Although it must be said that Tavuk Gogusu – a semolina-like pudding made from chicken breast – is something of an acquired taste.
Back in Izmir, we plunge through crowds of locals surrounding the bijou mosque in the middle of Sarı Kışla toward a truly superb market. Everything from cats to chickens, teapots to peanuts can be bought here, and much more besides. Picture the most widdly, winding set of streets you can imagine, fill them with fresh fruit, vendors selling chestnuts and delicate pastries, shut your eyes and you can almost breathe in the heady aroma of exotic spices and fresh coffee. You’re not even close to the sensory magic that Izmir market provides.
The feeling is that – although, of course, we are tourists – we’re right in the middle of what makes this town such a great place to visit. All around us are people doing their weekly shopping, with nary a tourist trap in sight. The stallholders and shop owners are friendly and though our Turkish is minimal, with a mix of gestures and the locals’ excellent command of basic English, we manage to return with some wonderful saffron and linen for our mams.
It may not be the most obvious stop on the travel map, but Izmir provides a superb retreat into a familiar but utterly compelling part of the world. Turkey is a country where discovery really does await at every corner; like the spices of the bazaar, it’s a heady, sensory experience that has changed our view on life, people, culture and ultimately ourselves. And it’s absolutely, unutterably addictive.