Tuscan Turkey

Charlotte and Alan fancied a day trip and invited us along for the ride. We decided on a pilgrimage to The Virgin Mary’s House (or Meryemana – Mother Mary, in Turkish), near Ephesus followed by excursion to nearby Şirence. We travelled the now familiar Izmir road arriving at Selçuk for a tasty and inexpensive pide lunch. Replenished, we ascended the mountains to Meryemana (or Mary-enema, as Alan calls it).

Completed in 1950 in neo-Byzantine style on 7th century foundations, Mary’s gaff is a cute, unassuming little bungalow, now a consecrated church but with the character of a shrine. It’s the centre piece of well-tended park overlooking a pretty wooded valley.  We entered the house reverentially and gazed upon the small effigy of Our Lady. It felt contrived to me. I have little time for religion and give more credence to the tooth fairy. Outside in the courtyard Liam lit a candle as is required of a fallen Catholic.

There is scant biblical evidence that Jesus’ mum found her last resting place there (before her Assumption, of course). This hasn’t stopped the place becoming a side show on the bible tours circuit or various popes cashing in on the act with papal sponsorship. Naturally, there’s the obligatory tacky gift shop selling Chinese made plaster figurines and vials of holy water. Liam procured a small woodblock icon of the Madonna and child that is now proudly displayed on a shelf in the loo.

Onwards to Şirence, a small village perched high on the hills above Selçuk. Surrounded by vineyards and orchards set within a serene Italianate  landscape, Şirence had been a Greek populated settlement until 1923. During the exchange of populations between Greece and Turkey the inhabitants were told to pack their bags and leave for Athens. After being left to rot for decades, the village has re-emerged as a bolt hole for wealthy Turks attracted by the fine wood-framed stucco houses that clutch precariously to the hillside. Despite teeming hawkers serving the mob of tourists, both Turkish and foreign, the village retains a real appeal. We grazed at the stalls, drank beer, sampled wine and infused the charm.

We thought of  dropping in on fellow jobbing blogger and good egg Kirazli Karyn who lives only a spitting distance away but we didn’t want to descend unannounced and mob handed.

Communal Crapping

Image: Thomas Depenbusch

Selçuk is a handsome town, host to a fine museum and spitting distance from the wonder that is Ephesus: world heritage site nominee and arguably one of the most impressive open air museums anywhere. And, since we were in the vicinity anyway, it would have been rude not have a look around the imposing ruins. Ephesus (or Efes to give the place its Turkish name which is also happens to be the name of Turkey’s favourite ale), was one of the most sophisticated cities of antiquity, adorned with grand civic buildings, marble-clad pavements, street lighting and home to the Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Sadly, just one lonely, forlorn re-assembled pillar remains of Artemis’ once vast shrine rising up precariously from a mosquito-infested bog. What a lunatic hadn’t destroyed by torching the place, the Christians had finished off. The rest of the city is a magnificent affair and in impressively good shape after decades of excavation and partial reconstruction. We had decided to drop in at just the right time of the year. As Turkey’s second most visited attraction (after Sultanahmet – the old city – in Istanbul), Ephesus is best avoided at the height of summer when the unforgiving sun and the rag-tag of camera-toting tourists conspire to make the place Hell on Earth.

The city was of immense significance to the early Christian Church. St Paul wrote his Epistles to the Ephesians (to damn them for their debauched ways I suppose, having never read them) and the Virgin Mary is reputed to have lived out her dotage nearby. It can be reasonably argued that Christianity, as an organised religion, was born in Ephesus. Not a lot of people know that.

We hired a guide but soon wished we hadn’t. A serious academic type, he droned on about the fine and upstanding Ephesians: civilised, cultured, always kind to their slaves. We fancied the alternative history, the salacious version, where the same fine and upstanding Ephesians visited the hungry whores via the secret tunnel connecting the great library to the brothel. After the sombre tour, we paid off the guide and re-roamed the ruins unescorted. Something not to be missed is the public latrine. The Romans were particularly fond of communal crapping, artfully combining conversation with evacuation.

Having had our fill, we returned to the car and journeyed back south but were unable to resist another detour, this time to Priene. Built on a natural escarpment high above the Meander River flood plain, Priene is the most complete Hellenistic site in Turkey. Whereas Ephesus overawes with its monumental scale, Priene seduces with its intimacy and superb aspect. We loitered a while as the sun began to set over the Ege bathing the ruins in a soft warm light.

It was time to top up the tank, so we pulled into a service station. Such establishments in Turkey are a joy, belonging to a gentler age, with staff on hand to fill your tank and sponge down your dusty windows. In fact, it wasn’t that long ago when a friendly chap with a cheesy smile and handlebar moustache would fill your car as a lit fag dangled from his gob.

Are You Being Served?

Despite our genuine fear of death or permanent disability, we left for Izmir at first light, driving by hire car due east to Milas, the next sizeable town from Bodrum. From the outskirts, Milas seems to have little to commend it; a nondescript minor provincial town of concrete awfulness. We swung north inland. Ascending into the hills (well, mountains by British standards) we passed alongside Lake Bafa, a stunning expanse of water that reminded Liam of the Italian lakes. Reaching a high plateau, we stopped off near Soke at a long row of giant discount outlet stores built in the middle of nowhere. We breakfasted in McDonald’s: a fondness for egg mcmuffins is a guilty secret of ours. Replete with 50% of our daily allowance of saturated fat, we continued onwards towards Izmir. We hit the toll motorway near Aydin which came as something of a relief. Neat, newly constructed and four lanes wide, it wouldn’t look out of place in Germany. As we descended from the plain back towards the coast, Izmir stretched out impressively before us.

Izmir’s IKEA is located in suburban Bornova, adjacent to a smart shopping centre. We had already pre-selected our major items by thumbing through the catalogue and ambling around the Edmonton branch in London, so I asked a nice young man if there was anyone available to help us. He duly obliged and presented us with our very own personal shopper to guide us around the store. We simply pointed at items indicating “one of those, two of these” and she did the rest, checking stock levels and suggesting alternatives as needed. I felt like a Harvey Nicks celeb and loved it. Liam, on the other hand, found the whole exercise rather unsettling. I’m very much a smash and grab shopper, whereas he’s more of a grazer and likes to take his time, lots of it. We had a bit of a row; our first in Asia. He eventually tolerated the experience with sullen resignation.

After we concluded our business, we took tea in the restaurant and went to accessorise in the market place. The genius of IKEA is the canny strategy of pricing so much so low as to seduce shoppers into buying things they don’t know they want and probably don’t need. Naturally, we complied like proverbial sheep. Two trolley loads later, we sauntered towards the tills. There waiting was a trolley train assembled on our behalf by half a dozen co-workers (as IKEA likes to call its shop assistants), all arranged by our efficient personal shopper. The same brigade of eager workers then packed our market place goodies and wheeled the whole lot to the home delivery desk. I was staggered. What an experience: inconceivable back home where IKEA has taken self-service to an entirely new level of indifference.

Darkness had fallen by the time we left the store, and we were in urgent need of somewhere to bed down for the night. The thought of driving through the bustling city centre during the rush hour terrified us, and so we headed out towards the airport. I thought it reasonable to assume that the international airport of Turkey’s third city would be ringed by hotels. Not a bit of it. The entire vicinity is devoid of inns. As time had marched on and we had grown weary, I suggested a diversion to nearby Selçuk, a small town south of the airport. I had a vague recollection of a decent hotel from a previous visit. We were decidedly relieved to learn that my powers of recall were still in reasonable working order and that the hotel was open for business so late in the season. The Kalehan Hotel is found on the main road into town nestling beneath the citadel. It is a bit of a treasure crammed with gorgeous Ottoman-style antiques and bric-a-brac. Though a little tatty around the edges, it was, nevertheless, a clean, reasonably priced and comfortable place to stay. The breakfast, though, was inedible.