Izmir: Ancient ruins and Ataturk

With the brooding face of Ataturk looking down on him, Michael McHugh explores the past glories of Ephesus.

Izmir as seen from Kadifekale. Photo / 123RF
Izmir as seen from Kadifekale. Photo / 123RF

A gainst the backdrop of the velvet blue Mediterranean, Turkish flags ripple in the breeze, "soldiers" in mustard tunics goose-step and women in purple bolero jackets and yellow pantaloons twirl to music as heads bob joyfully up and down.

The crowd has gathered for the party-style Independence Day celebrations in the port city of Izmir, a fiercely patriotic city that commemorates the Turkish army's decisive entry in 1922, heralding victory over Greece and subsequent independence.

The face of state founder Kemal Ataturk is carved into a mountainside overlooking the city.

The carefully sculpted granite contours are a reminder of how influential his nationalist secular values still are today.

Columns of the Ephesus Agora. Photo / Creative Commons image by Flickr user Guillen Perez
Columns of the Ephesus Agora. Photo / Creative Commons image by Flickr user Guillen Perez

Izmir, home to three million people, is halfway down the west coast of Turkey, and a short distance from the Greek islands. Former residents of note include the epic Greek poet, Homer.

I am reminded of the city's GrecoTurkish heritage when I chat to Evrim Atesler, a rotund half-Greek, half Turkish musician with a voluminous grey beard. At a poolside restaurant that night, afterasuccession of traditional songs, he performs an uninhibited spinning dance whose roots are in thousands of years of tradition.

Turkeyhas beendubbed themost beaten path of mankind — a reference to its millennia of civilisation — and one of the best places to illustrate this is Ephesus, an ancient site notfar from Izmir.I stumble down an uneven pillar-lined hill in the ruined city, heading towards the skeletal remains of the once grand Roman Celsus library. Tourists pose for photos outside its beautiful two-storey stone building, which used to contain a quarter of a million books.

Ephesus was once a seat of learning, as demonstrated by its semi-circular amphitheatre, which formerly hosted philosophical discussions. To the uninitiated, though, it looks a bit like Rome's Colosseum, where gladiators once fought.

But as my guide pithily says: "This theatre is culture, the Colosseum in Rome was chop, chop."

Recently, the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra, Phil Collins and Sting have played in the Ephesian arena.

Pondering the cultural merits of Sting, I meander along a Roman-built, stone-paved road lined by pine trees, where bright orange berries hang from palm trees, branches bending slightly under the weight of bunched fruit.

The Ataturk sculpture above the city. Photo / Getty Images
The Ataturk sculpture above the city. Photo / Getty Images

Ephesus attracts millions of tourists every year, but nearby Izmir is trying to capture some of that market with its easy charms and authentic bazaar.

Squeezing my way through packed streets and Aladdin's Cave-style shops, I arrive at a central courtyard and stop to sip a cup of frothy black Turkish coffee.

This symbol of Turkish culture has been challenged by the rise of instant coffee and tea, one of several traditions slowly changing in the country.

I look up and again see the mountainside granite carving of Ataturk, guardian of Turkey's secular past, and wonder about the future of this intriguing republic — with one face to the east and one to the west.

Where to find the best . . .

SHOPPING

Among the more atmospheric shopping options in Izmir is the bazaar in the old town. Expect to find small wooden ship wheels and hand of Fatima trinkets — a symbol of protection against the "evil eye" curse. Konak is a modern shopping centre in Izmir and includesacinema, fashion stores and baklava shops.

EATING

Close to Ephesus, Artemis is a popular haunt for tourists. Highlights include Turkish pancakes with cheese, and vegetables and meatballs, washed down with pomegranate fruit wine.

COCKTAIL

The Sky Bar, on the roof top of the nine-storey, 50-year-old Swissotel Buyuk Efes, has spectacular views of the bay of Izmir. If you're feeling decadent, try the sweet and tasty $62 Flames of Fig cocktail. This hotel is notable for its extensive art collection. Colombian artist Fernando Botero's 2.5m sculpture, Manon Horse, stands at the entrance to the hotel amid landscaped gardens.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Helloworld's 15-night 'Glories of Turkey & Greece' tour takes in the highlights of the eastern Mediterranean.

- AAP

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