Monday, October 3, 2011

Water and Rock: Izmir and Ephesus

When I went to the bookstore to buy a guidebook for Turkey, I was annoyed.  The selection for Turkey is dismal, and while every company has a guide for Istanbul, the rest of Turkey gets no love.  First of all, there was no "Let's Go Turkey" ("Let's Go" has never let me down until now).  My choices were Frommer's (for old people), "Turkey on a Shoestring" (for hippies), or Lonely Planet (of questionable authenticity).  So, Lonely Planet it was.  And it lived up to my expectations of mediocrity.  So I've decided to make this week of posts a recap of our trip, and also my own sort of guide for any of you out there who might be planning a trip to Turkey!  Today, I'll start from the beginning in Izmir.

Our first stop in Turkey was Izmir, where my dad's family lives, and where my cousin's wedding was held. We spent three days in Izmir, mostly visiting my grandmother and introducing Brian to my family members. I love seeing my dad's side of the family, and it was even sweeter this time to have Brian with me.  The wedding was such a fun night that even Brian and my 84-year-old grandma joined in with the "light-bulb dancing" (as my friend, Sara, refers to middle eastern dancing).  I would show you pictures if I had taken any (I know, I'm sorry!), but I was too busy taking in the love and trying to not look like a clumsy American on the dance floor.

Although I had been to Izmir before, this was the first time that I had the chance to get to know the actual city.  What I found was a lively, beautiful city that was more modern than I had expected, and more welcoming than I could have hoped for.

A little context:  My dad calls Izmir the San Francisco of Turkey, and the analogy rings true to me now (except that Izmir is way hotter).  It's a city on the western coast of the country, and it's the third largest city in Turkey with 14 million people living there (a fun fact learned from our favorite bartender ha).  Izmir attracts far fewer tourists than Istanbul, but ironically, it seems to be more westernized in many ways than its popular sister-city.  Almost everyone we met there spoke English (and very well), and it's shoreline is lined with very modern, business-y hotels like the one we stayed at, the Movenpick.  Izmir is also known as the most liberal of Turkey's major cities.  Ataturk posters and flags are ubiquitous, and covered women are not.

{my parents, strolling}

My favorite part of Izmir is the walking path that runs along the shoreline, with grassy parks and outdoor cafes on either side. 

{the main plaza along the shore}

The southern part of the city along the walkway is called the Alsancak (all-san-jack), and that's the fancier area of town where you can find cute shops, gourmet candy stores that sell all different flavors of Turkish delight, and trendy cafes that spill onto the shore.  I think my favorite part of the day was eating breakfast on the Alsancak with a view of the water.

{traditional Turkish breakfast spread -- tomatoes, cucumbers, cheese, beef salami, honey, jam, and bread}

At night, this area turns into the partying hot-spot with outdoor bars serving Efes (the national beer, and basically the only beer anyone drinks in Turkey) and Raki (like Turkish ouzo, and Brian's new jam), and clubs that blast music until dawn.  If you thought Turkey was too conservative to have a good time, you were wrong.  And if you thought belly dancing was just for women, you were also wrong.  I should just call this series "Turkey: land of surprises."  JK.

Lest you think that Izmir is a Swiss-like business center that has completely denounced its Ottoman roots, here are some shots I took around town that verify that Izmir is, in fact, in Turkey.

{Ottoman-style houses}


And then there is the bazaar.  The bazaar is in the older part of town, and is a far cry from the modern urban feel of the Alsancak.  It's wobbly cobblestone streets are lined with shop windows full of gold so shiny you can't quite look straight at them, and the air is heavy with the smell of roasted corn from the street vendors (why they decided selling hot corn in the 90-degree weather was a clever business strategy is beyond me).  You should go here to buy locum (Turkish delight) because it's cheap and delicious.  And if you want to buy jewelry in Turkey, this is also the place to do it.  Gold is priced by the ounce (they weigh the bracelet/necklace/ring and give you a price based on the price of gold, and then you haggle), and it's much cheaper here than in Istanbul.

Some of the jewelers at the bazaar will also make custom jewelry if you bring a picture or drawing of what you want.  You get to pick out the stones you want and everything!  They literally just have these trays of sparkly jewels laying around and you just point to the one(s) you like and they make you exactly what you want.  It's amAzing.  We went to one of these magical places and I was in awe of the sparkliness.

{the jeweler's workbench, and Ataturk in the background}

What stood out most to me and Brian about Izmir was how friendly the people were.  We only spent three days there, but by the time we left, the bartender at our hotel was calling me his sister and Brian his in-law, and the cabbie that picked my dad up from the airport (and then who became our exclusive driver for the trip) had taken to calling my dad his "brother," like for reals.  Even the waiters and shopkeepers were super polite despite our embarrassing lack of even the most basic knowledge of the Turkish language.  Being there made me proud to say that my family is from Izmir.

I'm cramming Ephesus into this post (which has now become the longest post ever) because if you go to Izmir, you HAVE to go to Ephesus.  Actually, if you go to Turkey at all, you HAVE to go to Ephesus (and conveniently it's only about an hour and a half drive from Izmir).  It's easy to book a tour to Ephesus from Izmir (just walk into one of the many tourist agency offices) and it will set you back about 65 euros.  Since there were four of us going, we just had my dad's new "brother"/personal cab driver take us there and back (with a stop in Kusadasi, a lively beach town that I totally failed to visually document) instead of doing the tour thing (also, I hate tours).

Ephesus is one of the best preserved Roman cities, and the ruins will absolutely blow you away.  It had a population of 250,000 people in the 1st Century BC, making it the second largest city in the WORLD.  Yeah.  Lucky for us, enough of the city has been recovered that you can really feel the opulence of what it must have been like for the Romans.  (P.S. if you come here, don't bother getting an audio guide; just eavesdrop on an English tour guide or read the Lonely Planet description and you'll get the same info.)

{the main drag - they had sewage pipes that ran under here in the 1st Century BC}
{the coliseum}


{the Trajan Fountain}

On the Trajan Fountain somewhere (I can't quite locate it now, but I swear it was there...) is the inscription "I have conquered it all, and it's now under my foot" accompanied with image of emperor Trajan with his foot on a sphere.  The sphere is meant to represent the world, which proves that the Romans knew the Earth was round!  If that doesn't make you want to quit your job and become an archeologist, you might not have a heart.

{the Temple of Hadrian}
{Medusa, warding off evil spirits with her snake hair}
{the library}

Sure, I've seen Roman ruins before.  I lived in Florence for a while, remember?  But Ephesus blew me away.  So much has been recovered and pieced together, and you can really really feel how grand the city must have been in its heyday.  It's just one of those places that you just have to see before you die.

Come back tomorrow for recaps of our trip to the Turkish Riviera!

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