Inching to Izmir

Our first Turkish adventure was a bus trip to Izmir starting at the otogar in Ankara. Located on the Aegean Sea very close to Lesbos, Izmir is Turkey’s third largest city with a population over 4.5 million.

Let me digress for a moment with a few words about transport inside Turkey. If you want to fly, there are many regional carriers with frequent, cheap flights. If you have the time, there is also a fantastic network of inter-city buses with many independent companies serving all parts of Turkey. Ankara’s bus station or “otogar” is a sight to behold. It is enormous, more on the scale of an international airport than an American bus terminal. There are ticket counters for numerous companies and a metal detector at the door. We had made reservations with Pamukkule, one of the biggest carriers, so we checked in and headed to the gate. Note that advance purchase is recommended, seats are assigned and carriers work together so you may find yourself on a different bus line than the one you booked. The system works well so just arrive early and go with the flow. Tickets for our 600 km, eight hour journey cost about US$14 each.

The Turkish bus experience is first rate as are the highways. The buses are generally quite new, there are always two drivers so they are well rested and rest stops are frequent. Best of all, each bus comes with an attendant who makes hourly trips down the aisle dispensing coffee, tea and snacks. It’s part of the deal. Stops along the road varied from large operations with restaurants and retail space to small, simple washroom stops.

We didn’t realize there’s a free shuttle bus and took a taxi from the Izmir otogar to the Piano Hotel in the centre of the city. The Piano has a great location and comfortable clean rooms costing about US$30 per night for two people including breakfast. The hotel is a ten minute walk to the Aegean waterfront and about a 20 minute walk to the Kemeraltı Çarşısı, Izmir’s bazaar dating from the 17th century. We were there in pomegranate season and never failed to get a huge glass of fresh-squeezed juice. Good stuff!

The walk along the waterfront was fascinating on its own, even in winter. The clocktower, a 19th century German gift, is a symbol of the city. The city square is revered by Turks as the location where Ataturk claimed victory over the Greeks in 1922, leading to the expulsion of Greek Christians and the creation of Turkey.

We spent more than a day exploring — and getting lost in — the narrow alleys of the bazaar. Lots of things to see (and buy if you’re inclined) plus restaurants, coffee shops and excellent people watching opportunities. It’s not as massive and overwhelming as the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul but an adventure nonetheless. The street devoted to coffee shops was a favourite: comfortable seating, electric heaters for cooler days, and lokum (turkish delight) with every cup.

Looking up Mount Kadifekale from the bazaar

Just next door is the Agora Open Air Museum, the ruins of a Roman forum dating from the fourth century BC but rebuilt in 178 AD following an earthquake. Izmir was formerly known as Smyrna, a major Roman and Christian centre and the most important seaport in Asia Minor. The Agora is a fairly small site and 3-4 hours is plenty of time for exploration.

Inside the vaulted food market.

Next day we took a ferry across the harbour from Konak to Karşıyaka and it was a surprise. Like many shopping areas in Turkey there were wide pedestrian streets lined with shops and restaurants from world-brands to Turkish and local businesses. Very busy, very safe and endlessly fascinating. It really seemed to get going after dark. Don’t miss the fish market next to the Karşıyaka ferry terminal. Choose what you want and they’ll cook it up for you.

Izmir is a great small-scale introduction to Turkey. It’s got lots of shopping, archaeology and food and is a central location from which to explore Turkey’s Aegean coast. The ancient city of Ephesus is one stop south and heading north will take you to the seven churches of Revelation and the ancient city of Troy. There are car ferries to several Greek islands including Lesbos and Samos which are much closer to Turkey than to mainland Greece. If ancient and biblical history interest you this is where you want to be.

We had to save all that for other trips and after five nights it was back to the otogar for our return to a snowy Christmas in Ankara.

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