Ephesus, Izmir, & Ayvalik

The scale is astonishing as one walks along the weathered marble road into the center of Ephesus. At the fulcrum a massive amphitheater, once capable of seating over 25,000 roaring onlookers still stands its ground triumphantly welcoming visitors. The largest preserved citadel of ancient Mediterranean civilization, Ephesus is a sprawling maze of temples, housing complexes, libraries, markets, and public spaces. It’s a tangible testament to the might civilization’s early champions wielded. Perhaps the most notable structure of the city’s remains, The Library of Celsus, is a reconstructed marvel of the exceptionally ornate Roman architecture of the early first century AD. Marveling at the obscene detail carved into the imported marble it is not unreasonable to argue that this caliber of architecture hasn’t been created since.

The facade of the Library of Celsus at Ephesus, the ornate sculpture and Corinthian columns marking the stylistic high water mark of the Roman Empire

In complete contrast to the historic focus of Selçuk, the museum heavy home of Ephesus; the city of Izmir is an industrial metropolis teaming with modern life. Though not necessarily a highlight on most Turkish itineraries, it’s a must hit if good food and Turkey’s legendary market scene is of interest. Unfortunately, it also has a bit of a reputation as a less than savory environment once the sun goes down, something I can say appeared to be fairly true come early evening. But all is forgotten and forgiven once you enter the Kemeralti Market and sensory overload takes over. An endless tributary system of winding alleys feeds major through-ways jam packed with people. Stalls seem to be in no semblance of an order and vendors sling everything one could imagine in a chaotic onslaught of excitement. Down any given alley a wedding dress shop may yield to a fishmonger, followed by technicolor Turkish delights, a proprietor of firearms, a blacksmith operation, and ultimately a stand full of all the fake Nike and Gucci apparel one could desire is never far away. Without rhyme or reason to what comes next it is impossible not to be drawn into the chaos.  

Somewhere lost in the maze of Kemeralti Market

Following the smells and yells coming from all directions, I found a few true treasures tucked away into long lost corners of the sprawl. My first run in with Turkish delight occurred at a small single aisle shop within the market. Perhaps the number one regret of my time in Turkey was not shoveling more of their delicious, colorful, cavity educing cubes into my gob, but I suppose it’s for the best based on my lack of dental coverage. The delights provided a nice sugar high, but my desert habit is well established these days so I needed to move on to harder stuff; enter Sambali. This sweet cake is soaked in simple syrup, coated in cinnamon and pistachio powder and then, for good measure, stuffed with clotted cream. Even the hardiest of sweet addict can only take so much of this incredibly potent, uber sweet, brick of goodness. One is enough, two is insanity. With my body approaching a hypoglycemic state, a home style Bosnian feast balanced me out with a delicious savory spread of stuffed peppers, manti, and salads.

Within the endless maze exist entire ecosystems of tea runners, product movers, mosque worshipers, and backgammon hustlers. It’s truly a sight to behold and easily warrants multiple days of exploration. Beyond eating until uncomfortable and haggling for ‘handmade’ lamps, Kemeralti Market provides a truly unspoiled look into the daily life of the Turkish people. It’s a society rich in tradition and generally unfussed; never sacrificing an opportunity to sit-down and have a tea among friends. This laze-fair attitude is likely not the number one driver of productivity, but it does seem to leave most with a smile on at the end of the day.

Turkish Delight’s in all their glory

With no space left for another bite of anything I continued my quest North up the Aegean coast to the small port town of Ayvalik. On the surface, Ayvalik was not dissimilar to the rest of the Turkish coast. A protected bay provided a serene foreground for flaring sunsets each evening, and a wraparound pedestrian path was loaded with vacation makers flocking in from Istanbul and Izmir for some summer R&R. But just off the main strip, a quick wiggle down one of many tight alley ways transported me out of Turkey and into a Greek coastal village.

The quiet back streets of Ayvalik’s Greek old town

At the end of WWI the vast majority of this region was Greek by heritage. This was not an ideal situation come the war for Turkish Independence that followed soon after. When the war was over the now independent states of Turkey and Greece conducted a population swap, literally trading people of Greek heritage living in Turkey for those with Muslim backgrounds living in Greece. The swap left most of Ayvalik and its surroundings abandoned. Many beautiful estates from the period still remain unchanged as no documentation of land ownership remains leaving the properties in limbo. However, the Greek influence still lives vibrantly through the architecture of the city. Substantially more European in look and feel, bright town homes line narrow streets adorned with lavish floral landscaping in vibrant colors. Artsy shops sell hand crafted (for real this time) pottery, clothes, and decorative fair, and artisanal coffee, baked goods, and plant shops fill in the gaps. It’s a truly unique vibe for the country and a slice of Turkey even the most traditional of holiday maker could thoroughly enjoy. With my stomach again filled to the brim, obviously that Greek history had no choice but to translate into some delicious sea food offerings, I was back on a bus in route to my final Turkish destination.

A glimpse into the beauty of the Turkish coast