At the beginning of June I attended a wedding in Izmir. Since I have never been to that part of Turkey, I decided to take few days off and visit what once was the ancient Greek Ionia (on the way to Turkey I stopped in Sicily to hike the most spectacular volcano in Europe: read the report). If you are interested in “old stones”, this area is pretty much filled with unique archaeological sites that you will love. You definitely need few days just for those and on top there are other unmissable destinations. I did everything in six days, but I felt I was rushing a bit: I should have either extended my stay or cut something (Pamukkale for example, it takes too long to reach it from Izmir). Here is the itinerary:
Selçuk: a great base to explore Ionia
As soon as I landed in Izmir at around 2am, I went to collect my rental car at the Thrifty desk and to my big surprise it was not there! After 1 hour spent on the phone as none spoke English, the Thrifty clerk offered me a car at more than double the price! Obviously I accepted as it was too late to argue, but I learned the lesson: next time check the day before if the car is really there! After one hour drive I reached my destination, Selçuk: this is a small town famous as the ancient site of Ephesus lies here. I actually found that Selçuk is a great base to explore the whole Ionia: most of the tourists in fact come to Ephesus on a day trip from Izmir, so the town is not crowded yet lively.
The town of Selçuk is itself quite small, with the center being three intersecting streets and few shops and restaurants. Nothing really special but the relaxed atmosphere is great to enjoy a tea with baklava, your lunch at Mehmet & Alibaba’s Kebab House or dinner at Bella Hotel terrace. Apart from Ephesus, the town has also few interesting attractions. First of all, the Basilica of St. John: originally built in the 6th century, the basilica lies on the believed burial site of St. John Apostole: the story has it that he traveled from Jerusalem to Ephesus, where he lived for the rest of his life and wrote the Apocalypse. Some believe that also Mary traveled with him and settled in Ephesus.
Another notable place it the İsa Bey mosque, a jewel built in the 14th century. Its silent garden makes it a good place for relax and contemplation.
As a break from archaeology, a visit to the local market (Saturday mornings only, behind the Otogar, bus station) will make your mouth water and your eyes sparkle: along with cheap Chinese apparel, the local produce section is quite large with vegetables, fresh and dried fruits and all kind of spices. A visit early in the morning will provide a good opportunity for some street photography. Don’t forget to drink a freshly squeezed pomegranate juice!
Selçuk also offers something extremely unique! Many tourists (me too) nowadays keep count how many UNESCO sites they visited. But how many can say to have seen one of the Seven Wonders (the original ones, not the modern: check them out on Wikipedia)?? Yes, Selçuk is the town of the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus! The temple dedicated to the goddess Artemis (Diana) has been rebuilt three times, each time larger and more beautiful than before. The ancient Greek poet Antipatros Sidonios had a particular preference for this temple over the other wonders:
“I have set eyes on the wall of lofty Babylon on which is a road for chariots, and the statue of Zeus by the Alpheus, and the hanging gardens, and the colossus of the Sun, and the huge labour of the high pyramids, and the vast tomb of Mausolus; but when I saw the house of Artemis that mounted to the clouds, those other marvels lost their brilliancy, and I said, “Lo, apart from Olympus, the Sun never looked on aught so grand!”
And this is how the Temple of Artemis looks like today:
There is one place that needs to be avoided at all costs: Kuşadası. This is a sea resort where large cruise ships arrive every day and free thousands of tourists at once: it is the main source of day visitors to Ephesus and the city itself is really a giant mess! There is really nothing to see here unless you are looking for a disco club, in which case it is the best shot in the area. Otherwise there are two locations to see around Selçuk.
One is the House of the Virgin Mary: the legend says that the old Mary followed St John Apostle in his journey to Ephesus and lived here thereafter. Today’s shrine is built around a house found in the 19th century following the visions of a nun published after her death. Whether you believe it or not, the place has a nice spiritual atmosphere and it is worth visiting it also for its park and views of the town and Ephesus from the top of the mountain.
The second is Şirince, a tiny village settled in the 15th century by freed Greek slaves when Ephesus was abandoned. I heard beautiful things of this village so I decided to spend a night here. I arrived at around 5pm, just in time to see everyone go: this is a place that is visited only during the day and it is very crowded between 11am and 5pm. Outside that window, there is noboby. No, really, nobody: I was alone (I mean the only tourist) in the entire village. I even had issues in finding dinner. In the end I got something to eat and went back to my lovely room, but walking around the deserted streets was kind of freaky. An early wake up and a stroll around the village for some good pictures. On the way back, breakfast was awaiting for me and it was really the best one I had in Turkey.
Obviously the main reason to come to this part of the world is to visit some of the many sites: there are really a lot and you should focus on few of them. I took one day to visit the fantastic Ephesus (in Selçuk), one another day to visit the three sites of Priene (60km south of Selçuk), Miletus (80km south of Selçuk) and Didyma (90km south of Selçuk); I also visited Aphrodisias on the way to Pamukkale, and Pergamon north of Izmir. I really liked all of them, maybe I was a bit disappointed by Pergamon: not much is left on site, the famous altar is actually in Berlin’s Pergamon Museum. I loved Priene for the very scenic view. More on the sites in a separate post!
Just 30 mins south of Selçuk, the Dilek National Park covers a peninsula that end just in front of the Greek island of Samos. Locals call it Milli Park and it is one favorite place to have a Sunday’s picnic. It offers possibilities of hiking in the mountains (there is even a canyon), walking in the woods or even bathing in fantastic emerald waters. For some reasons it was completely empty when I was there, so I had the beach for me only (actually there were plenty of mosquito like insects, so I stayed most of the time in the water). There are few beaches in the park, all very nice but I recommend to drive till the end of the peninsula and go to that one. Just be careful when driving in Milli park as wild animals are free to wander!
I heard lots of enthusiastic stories about Pamukkale so since I was already in Turkey I decided I could also go there, stopping in Aphrodisias along the way. Pamukkale is 200km east of Selçuk, it took me a LONG time to reach it as my satellite navigator lost its mind when we encountered a diversion on the highway, but generally it should take around 3 hours.
The name Pamukkale means “Cotton Castle”: it is in fact a series of travertine terraces built after centuries of accumulated carbonate minerals left by hot spring waters. The view from below is really nice and walking up to the top of the mountain on the travertines (bare foot, can be painful: travertines are very hard and sometimes razor sharp) is quite an amazing experience. Hot water is basically springing out of the mountain and constantly flowing downhill on the travertines. Sometimes centuries of sediments created large natural pools where you can bathe. The water is warm, so not very pleasant in summer 🙂 On the top of the mountain there is also a thermal complex if you want to experience the benefic properties of this spring water, otherwise you can walk around the Hierapolis, another (!!) archaeological site which has an outstanding theater.
I have mixed feeling about Pamukkale: the mountain and the climb are really nice. Luckily I started hiking at 8am and arrived on top at around 9am (I took some baths too), just in time to have a clear view before gazillion of tourists arrived directly by bus. Also the town down below is surreal: I arrived the night before and booked a very cheap hotel which promised to be a 4 star. The hotel not only was a 4 star, but it had something like 200 rooms completely empty. The porter told me that few years ago, when Pamukkale became famous and tourists started to arrive, lots of investments in infrastructure and reception have been made, including my super hotel and many more. Unfortunately a couple of years ago overnight tourists disappeared in favor of same day visitors: arriving by bus in the morning, leaving by bus in the afternoon. Suddenly the city had an over capacity of rooms and prices collapsed. It was not another Şirince, there was some life after dark, but not much. In the end, I don’t suggest to take the time and effort to go there from Selçuk unless a visit to Aphrodisias is on the plan.
Have you also visited these places? Any different impression or some recommendations for next time? Share your thoughts!