Saturday, August 16, 2014

İzmir is a turn for the best in western Turkey

İzmir is a turn for the best in western Turkey

Pedestrians stroll along İzmir's famous waterfront. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
March 12, 2014, Wednesday/ 14:54:00

We were lost the moment we left the parking lot at the İzmir Adnan Menderes Airport. The rental car company had provided only a map of the entire country, I'd forgotten to download directions to the hotel on my phone, and I hadn't paid for international data before heading overseas for a three-week trip to Anatolia and Cyprus. Perhaps this car rental idea of mine would prove to be a terrible one.

Except, it didn't. And if you're up for a slightly harrowing series of road trips, the southwest Turkish coast is a fantastic place to explore by automobile. Some of the stretches of roadway are straight out of a James Bond car chase, or a round of one of my favorite childhood video games: Cruis'n World. And some of the destinations, from the magical calcite travertines of a national park outside a tiny town called Pamukkale to the spectacular ruins atop the panoramic hillside village of Behramkale, were well worth the number of times my knuckles turned pasty at the wheel of that Ford diesel sedan.
First, though, my girlfriend and I had to get to the hotel in İzmir. It was way outside the town center, along a waterfront road to the west, and I had no idea how to get there or even where we were or which direction was north. So I drove, hoping to find someplace with obvious WiFi so that I could download a map. It was half an hour before we found a little cafe with Internet access north of İzmir, on the road back to Istanbul. But even after I'd connected, I couldn't get either Apple or Google Maps to locate the hotel and pull up a route.

I started asking the restaurant workers for help, with little result, until an older gentleman sitting at the table next to me told the guy who spoke the best English to tell me this:
"Follow me. I'll show you."

For the next half hour, I did my best to keep up as his white cargo van zipped in and out of traffic at a pretty consistent 70 mph. At one point, he pulled over on the highway shoulder, ran to my car window in the pouring rain and pointed in the direction of the exit. Helplessly, I showed him on my phone where my hotel was and did my best to pronounce the name in a Turkish accent. He looked at the phone, looked at me, and motioned for me to follow him again.
Ten minutes later, he pulled right up to the lobby of the Wyndham İzmir Ozdilek. That entire leg of the trip was completely out of his way. I leaped out of the car and thanked him profusely. He smiled and drove off.

The next day, undaunted, I charted a course in Apple Maps for Pamukkale, some three hours away. Google Maps doesn't maintain its turn-by-turn function once you disconnect from WiFi, but Apple Maps does. As long as you stay on the route you've chosen, the app will continue to tell you when to turn right and left, and which leg of the roundabout to veer into on your way out of a circle.
So the trip to the park would allow absolutely no room for side ventures, which was fine. We didn't have much time to get there and wander around before sunset, and that pressure gave me license to drive fast and furious, as if I were being chased.

Pamukkale is best explored in a circular fashion, beginning at the south gate and traipsing up the hill above those travertines, a series of saucers and cliffs formed over centuries by tooth-white calcite deposits, to the ruins of Heirapolis, an ancient Roman and Byzantine spa city. Paved pathways and wooden-bridge walkways lead from one relic to the next, allowing visitors to explore a tourist attraction that dates to 190 B.C.

A highlight is the Roman theater, built for 12,000 spectators and completely accessible today. From there, we sauntered past the Arch of Domitian to the Roman baths, imagining what it must have been like to take a dip here two millennia ago. At the park's north gate, you turn back in the other direction and look across the "Cotton Castle" (pamuk in English means cotton), discovering the first glimpses of calcite blanketing the hillside like snow and petrifying leaves and twigs that have fallen into its path over the years.

A path meanders atop the travertines back toward the entrance, where the best part awaits. Here, warm mineral-rich water flows over the cliffs and into pools cut perfectly into the rock. Visitors take off their shoes and step onto the calcite, which is a perfect texture for barefoot walking, soft but stable, and our bare feet clung to the tiny ridges in the travertines. Even underwater, it's nearly impossible to lose your footing.

This side of Pamukkale is the payoff, and as the sun set it cast a long, gorgeous light across the cliffs. You could theoretically lie all the way down in some of the bigger pools, but the water is only a few inches deep, and the substrate is a milky white mud. Swimmers head back toward the entrance, to the antique pool. I found that part a little commercialized, but in the summer, I'm sure that it would be a nice place to cool off.

The next day, after the Indy 500 drive back to the hotel, we headed north, to another mystical destination: Behramkale and Assos, at the southern end of Turkey's Biga Peninsula, 160 miles from Izmir. Like the trip to Pamukkale, most of the drive there had more interesting traffic-dodging than scenery, save for a worthwhile stop in Ayvalik, renowned for its "tost," which is the most overhyped delicacy I've ever experienced. The basic version is nothing more than a grilled cheese panini. Ask for "everything," and they slap a few canned meats, peppers and onions on top. Eat it because you're basically required to at some point, but don't expect anything amazing.

The last 10 miles or so of the drive is a beachfront stretch of narrow, potholed roadway that winds its way among olive trees and past seaside hotels with hammocks calling out to weary travelers. It's what I expected this entire length of the coast to be, but most of the road is a fast-moving highway, tucked inland and away from any sublime views.

In the former Greek settlement of Behramkale, narrow cobblestone streets wind their way up to the top of a perfect dome of a hill, where a kindly old man finds you a place to park. A short, steep walk to an entrance gate gets you into the Temple of Athena, a 6th-century B.C. Ionic temple, whose 360-degree vista is much more impressive than the ruins themselves. On the January day we were there, we had the place to ourselves. But for the wind, rolling up from the sea, it was the quietest place I've been in months.

There isn't much in the way of signage at Behramkale, so it's hard to tell when you're in the village and when you're not. The Lonely Planet guidebook described this as a place of "twin villages," not just Behramkale but also Assos. I assumed at first that the two were indistinguishable, that you skipped through one and then the next on the way up that hill.

I was, happily, wrong. On the way back down, a somewhat terrifying cliffside road drops like a meteor into the seaside village of Assos, founded by Mysians in the 8th century B.C. Today, its roads are barely an automobile wide. Aristotle lived here from 348 to 345 B.C. A nice place to write, surely.

Eager to begin the long drive home, we only cruised from one end of the village to the next, wishing that we'd rented a hotel room here so that we didn't have to haul all the way back to İzmir after only a couple of hours at our destination. Next time.

At the end of both of our long road trips from the busy seaport of İzmir, we dined at the same place: Sakiz, just off the main waterfront drag of Ataturk Caddesi. The first time, it was a deliberate choice, a restaurant that both Lonely Planet and TripAdvisor agreed was worth a stop. That night, we ate some of the most delicious and different food we'd had in Turkey, where restaurateurs don't typically veer far from the standard mezze options of grilled lamb and eggplant. Sakiz burst at the seams with creative dishes and fantastic seafood. We had baked octopus on a bed of eggplant and calamari.
Here, we got a real feel for İzmir's reputation as a more laid-back, progressive answer to Istanbul. A pair of local folk artists — a singer and her guitar accompanist — played an assortment of Turkish traditional hits, evidenced by the chorus of people in the restaurant who knew the words to every song and, at their favorite parts, belted them out loud.

After dinner, a professorial gent in a tweed blazer stood and invited the man at the table next to him — a stranger, as far as I could gather — to dance. The man smiled and got right out of his seat, and before long, half the people in the restaurant were spinning and twirling. This is not the kind of thing that you'd see in buttoned-down Istanbul, and it was delightful.

The second night, feeling adventurous, I asked Apple Maps to guide me to a restaurant called Gozlemicim, at the top of a monstrous hill in İzmir, that allegedly served the best gozleme in the city. It wasn't until we'd spent a frustrating hour hunting for the place that the proprietors of a small Internet cafe informed us that gozleme is a breakfast food (it's a Turkish pancake) and that Gozlemicim is a breakfast joint. We moped back down the hill and hoped that Sakiz was still open. It was, and we dined there on sea bass and seafood pasta.

The next day, we were supposed to go to the region's crown jewel: Ephesus, which Lonely Planet bills as the "best-preserved ruins in the Mediterranean." But we skipped that, a decision that has drawn some wide-eyed disbelief from travelers who've been there. We were suffering from ruin ennui by that point, and even after nearly two weeks in Turkey, our only bazaar experience had been a whirlwind trip through the spice bazaar in Istanbul. The Kemeralti Bazaar in İzmir was supposed to be a better deal than Istanbul's Grand Bazaar, and we'd finally gotten sick of driving. So, yes, we skipped the most touristy thing you can do in the region and never looked back.

The Kemeralti wasn't amazing or anything, but on the sleepy Monday we ventured there, it was easy to navigate and uncrowded. The only pushy shopkeepers were cafe proprietors, surprisingly enough, demanding that we have a Turkish coffee or smoke some shisha. Everyone else let us browse and keep walking, unmolested.

Except, that is, for a charming adolescent who spoke great English and struck up an easy conversation with me after I bought a $5 Nike knockoff duffle bag to cart home the unreasonable number of Turkish sweaters I'd picked up here and there. His name was Ahmed, and he promised to show me the best of what the bazaar had to offer — including, of course, his family's leather shop.
Normally, I'd say something polite and push off, but I liked Ahmed and didn't mind having him show us around. My girlfriend did buy a smart Burberry-style leather jacket from his brother. We haggled and got a good deal, after which Ahmed found us excellent Turkish coffee, a good barber and a place to buy stained-glass bulbous lamps, all at reasonable prices and all in enough time to make it back to the airport with ample time for our flight — even without a friendly old guide to show us the way.


Wyndham Izmir Ozdilek
Inciralti Street No. 67, Balcova
A good five-minute drive from the city center, but many of its 219 rooms have panoramic views of the water. Rooms from $100.

Key Hotel Izmir
Architect Kemalettin Street No. 1, Konak
In the heart of the city, close to Izmir's biggest bazaar and the upscale shopping center Konak Pier. Rooms from $171.


Martyr Nevresbey Boulevard 9, Alsancak
Scrumptious seafood, live traditional folk music, unpretentious and perfect. Entrees start at $18.

Sir Winston Tea House
Dr. Mustafa Bey Enver Caddesi 20
Pop in on a cold day for dozens of varieties of tea, coffee, salads, pasta and sandwiches. Entrees start at $15.


A three-hour-plus drive from Izmir, but well worth it for the moonscape of travertine cliffs. Open dawn to dusk. $9 admission fee.

Temple of Athena
Top of the hill in Behramkale village
The temple is the pinnacle of the charming twin villages of Behramkale and Assos. 8 a.m. to 7:30 p.m., $3.50.



Saturday, August 2, 2014

Day trip Cappadocia: Gülşehir, Hacıbektaş, Özkonak and Paşabağ

Day trip Cappadocia: Gülşehir, Hacıbektaş, Özkonak and Paşabağ

Shrine at Hacıbektaş
April 13, 2014, Sunday/ 00:00:00

“One day Hacı Bektaş Veli was at a meeting with his followers, but although he seemed to be with them physically it also felt as if he was very far away from them at the same time. Eventually he seemed to come back again and some people asked him where he had been. ‘I went to the Black Sea to save two ships that were sinking,' he answered. Not surprisingly, they were reluctant to believe him, so to prove that he was telling the truth the hoca (teacher) shook the sleeves of his robe. When he did so two small fish fell out.”
We were standing in front of the grand entrance leading into the shrine of Hacı Bektaş Veli, an Islamic mystic who is particularly revered by the Alevis and the Bektaşı sect. As our guide Fırat talked to us so he pointed to the bottom of the doorframe and there, sure enough, amid the otherwise stereotypically geometric carvings I saw two tiny carved fish, symbolizing in stone this rather wonderful story.
Until recently Hacıbektaş has been something of a touristic also-ran, hunkered down on the northern outskirts of Cappadocia, rarely visited by foreign visitors except during the annual three-day festival in August when the town breaks out in song and dance and informal trips from Göreme are sometimes organized. Now all that is about to change with the introduction of a new day trip that takes visitors to the shrine. It's a particularly welcome development given that the museum associated with it has recently been given a complete make-over and now offers an intriguing insight into aspects of Turkish culture that rarely get a look-in in mainstream coverage.
Hacı Bektaş Veli was a mystic who is believed to have arrived in Central Anatolia from Horasan on the borders of what are now Iran and Afghanistan some time in the 13th century when this part of the world was under the control of the Selçuks, governing from Konya. In some versions of his life story he is said to have been carried here by pigeons and so on the insides of that same elaborate doorframe leading into his shrine the custodian pointed out small carvings that she insisted were stylized birds.
The Bektaşı order of dervishes was founded either by Veli or by Balım Sultan who is buried in a separate building across the garden from the main shrine. It became highly influential in Ottoman times mainly because most members of the powerful Janissary military corps signed up to its beliefs. That influence was largely lost in 1826 when Sultan Mahmud II overthrew the Janissaries. Such latent power as they retained was completely vanquished in 1925 when Mustafa Kemal Atatürk abolished all Turkey's remaining dervish orders. Today, Hacı Bektaş Veli remains hugely important to the Alevis and is revered by many Sunni worshippers, too.
The tiny fish and stylized pigeons aside, the shrine is full of symbols, including lions and double-pointed swords that represent the fourth caliph Ali, the son-in-law of the Prophet Mohammed. Much of the symbolism is hard for outsiders to understand although everyone will quickly grasp the significance of the number 12; like the Shiites, Alevis revere the 12 imams who are descended from Ali. Set into the walls of the shrine you will see small 12-pointed stones called teslimtası, while the museum showcases contain elaborately decorated palenktaşı, pennants that used to be worn by the dervishes. Most strikingly, in the museum you will see examples of the Hüseyin-i taç, a high 12-sided felt hat worn by the dervishes that is also reproduced in stone on the top of their tombstones in the graveyard outside.

The Açık Saray and St John's Church, Gülşehir

The new tour kicks off with a visit to another under-visited site just north of Nevşehir. The so-called Açık Saray (Open Palace) was not actually a palace at all. Instead, it was the setting for a series of what are thought to have been sixth or seventh-century rock-cut monasteries, all of them long since collapsed although their facades, inset with horseshoe-arch-shaped blind arcading, clearly reveal their locations.
The monasteries are set in a quiet valley full of silvery poplars that is also home to one of the more bizarre of the rock formations created over time by the wind and rain eating away at volcanic deposits. The Mantarkaya (Mushroom Rock) is indeed shaped like a giant frilly-edged toadstool from beside which you get a fine view out over the valley.
But the real gem of Gülşehir is the hidden church of St John (also known as the St Jean Church or the Karşı Kilise). Today modern housing on the road leading to the church somewhat detracts from its setting, but once you arrive you're in for a wonderful surprise. Externally there's nothing to suggest what you will find when you step across the threshold of a seemingly small and unexciting conical rock formation. Once inside, however, your eyes are drawn immediately to what was once the upper floor of a small church, its walls and ceiling completely covered with vividly colored frescoes.
These are some of the finest frescoes to be seen in Cappadocia, a region that is justly renowned for its medieval artworks. Our guide runs through the various Bible stories to be seen on the walls, and draws our attention to the image of St George, the patron saint of Cappadocia, battling his dragon above the window. But perhaps the single most interesting image he points out to us is the large one of the Last Judgment with angels weighing souls, then assigning the dead to heaven or hell that sits just beneath it. This is a common image in English churches, but in Cappadocia this is the only example that has ever been discovered.
Unusually, a surviving inscription means that the frescoes in the church can be dated with precision to the year 1212. The portrait of a female donor can be seen in all her Byzantine finery just to the right of the Last Judgment scene.


On the way back from Hacıbektaş our tour takes us to Özkonak, a dusty, small settlement near the pottery-making town of Avanos, which is home to one of the more than 30 “underground cities” currently open to the public across Cappadocia. The story of its discovery is worth recalling. Apparently an imam was out tending his garden when all of a sudden a hole opened up in the ground and he found himself staring down into an underground cave labyrinth complete with narrow tunnels and huge rolling stones that could be used to close them off from intruders.
Cappadocia's underground cities are one of its most attractive features as far as visitors of a non-claustrophobic disposition are concerned. Oddly, though, very little can be said about them with any certainty given the absence of written records. It's thought that some at least date back to Hittite times although all were probably expanded in the early Middle Ages during the years when the newly invigorated Arabs were riding north from their homeland and the early Christian residents of Cappadocia felt the need to hide underground for months at a time to protect themselves.
Özkonak is not as large a complex as the better known ones at Derinkuyu and Kaymaklı. Once underground, however, it's virtually impossible to get any sense of how far down into the earth you have gone, so for most people it will serve as a perfect introduction, not too cramped, not too crowded and not taking too long to visit so that there's still time left in the day to see other things, too.

Wild fairy chimneys, Paşabağ


From Özkonak our tour brought us home again across Turkey's longest river, the Kızılırmak, in Avanos before concluding with a quick look at Paşabağ, home to some of Cappadocia's most striking fairy-chimney rock formations including the three-headed ones that always remind me of bunches of asparagus spears. It was a scene that offered the perfect ending for a tour that had taken us just far enough off the beaten track to make us feel like real Cappadocian explorers.
Pat Yale's tour was sponsored by Heritage Travel in Göreme (; tel: 0384-271 2687)

Lion fountain at shrine of Hacıbektaş

Museum at Hacıbektaş

Museum at Hacıbektaş



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