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Turkey's Aegean Coast
By Terry Redding
Ascending the hillside upon the ancient cobblestone steps, I pause and turn towards the far-off, bluish Aegean Sea. Sprinkled just below me amid the deep-green evergreens are worn but dazzling white marble columns, some balanced precariously, some seeming as solid as they were 2,200 years ago.
On these same stone streets, perhaps, Roman politicians or Greek poets debated, various battles raged and western civilization was founded. But today I am alone, save for a lone shepherd and a few sheep casually grazing amid the centuries of history.
No tourist hordes, no trinket hawkers or souvenir vendors. Me, the sheep, the ruins, and history. In huge squares on the floodplain below are the fields of local farmers, who go about their toils. Perhaps they may glance up occasionally to look at the old ruins, but they have more important work to do than ponder the history here. It has always surrounded them, always been a part of their lives.
My isolated ruins are just one of many overlooked sites tucked along the western coast of Turkey. For thousands of years, Hittites, Greeks, Romans, Lycians, Persians and other civilizations colonized the region, most leaving few traces save for the silent, carved marble and stones.
The Aegean coast is the most westernized part of the country, and is a gentle introduction into Turkish culture should you wish to venture farther to explore some of Turkey's many other wonders.
The ruins of Ephesus are the biggest draw in the area. Located about 50 miles south of the regional center of Izmir, it is the one place where you will find plenty of other tourists. Started by the Greeks, Ephesus grew to one of the richest and most powerful cities of the Roman Empire. The ruins are extensive and striking, spreading over several acres. The theater was built to hold 24,000 spectators and probably still can. Stroll along the mosaic sidewalks past the two-storied Fountain of Trajan, then walk through the multi-tiered Library of Celsus, which has been undergoing major reconstruction.
A 30-minute walk from the ruins is what is left of the Temple of Artemis, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. All that is standing now is a single, 40-foot high column. Also near Ephesus is a shrine and the house said to be where the Virgin Mary spent her last years.
To make sense of all the history, visit the archaeological museum nearby in the town of Selcuk. Along the coast you will find various other small, historical museums as well. They offer a good introduction to their respective areas and help keep all the past eras in order.
To the north are the ruins of Troy, but there is not much to see in the rubble of this city made famous by Homer. You may meet lots of Australians and New Zealanders in the area, making the pilgrimage to the beaches of Gallilpoli to the north. Here in World War I both nations came of age militarily against the Turks, suffering huge casualties amidst great heroism in a brutal beach stand-off.
Farther to the south is the hilltop fortress of Pergamon. The contents of the once-grand library were said to have been given to Cleopatra by Marc Antony after the former's Library of Alexandria burned. There is a huge, steep theater and many other buildings, but the main treasure, the Altar of Zeus, is now housed at a museum in Berlin. A few kilometers away are the ruins of the sanitorium of Asclepion, with pieces of temples, baths and fountains forlornly scattered amidst the weeds.
Turkey's third-largest city, Izmir, was spared the fate which sent most of the other ancient cities into ruin; the silting of its harbor. These days Izmir is rather large and uninteresting, but the archaeological museum and the Roman agora are worth a look. If you are in need of some beach time to catch your breath, the peninsula to the west of Izmir is the most popular summer resort area among local Turks and increasingly among western tourists.
On to the south are three more sites to visit; Priene, a long-forgotten hilltop village, Miletus, an ancient port city, and the vast Temple of Apollo at Didyma. All along the coast, you can find lesser-known sites which will become your own special memories.
Just a bit more to the south, where the coastline turns south and east to face the Mediterranean, you can visit the sites of two other wonders of the ancient world. Near Bodrum are the bits and pieces remaining of the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, and from Marmaris you can catch a quick boat ride out to the Greek island of Rhodes, where the Colossus is said to have stood. Do not expect to see much at either site, though; in fact, there is not a trace to be found of the Colossus, and his very existence is in question.
You can also get out and find your own perfect beach hideaway in the area. Explore around Datca and down to Fethiye (do not miss the Lycian rock tombs carved out of the hillside there). Another splendid ruin is at Xanthos, 30 miles south of Fethiye near Kinik.
The coastline all along this southern region competes for your breath. Rugged cliffs of chalky white and streaky yellow stone plunge down 100 feet into pure turquoise waters: the roadway passes, it seems, just a few inches from the edge of the precipice. A bus window seat is worth triple the fare.
Turkey offers excellent prices, outstanding scenery, varied and impossibly accessible historic sites, good food and some of the most hospitable people on the planet. Do everyone a favor and bring a Turkish phrasebook and dictionary. Turkish shopkeepers often invite you in for tea, usually to try to sell you a carpet or leather but at times simply to show hospitality; never feel obliged to buy something. (The tea and coffee are both good; ask about the apple tea.) If they see you are learning a bit of Turkish, they may end up buying you dinner. In Turkey, anything can happen, and your discoveries may include those both ancient and modern.
For flights to or within Turkey, visit Turkish Airlines at http://www.thy.com/.
For local travel, there are taxis and dolmus. The latter are shared taxis in the form of a small van or pick up truck, which leave for their destinations when full. In most cases a dolmus ride will cost less than a quarter; taxi fares differ for time of day and distance.
I often hitched rides on tractors with the local farmers to reach some of the more remote ruins. As they pass by, wave to them and indicate with hand signals that you want to hop on. They almost always seem delighted to have you on board, but if you simply stick your thumb out as in normal hitchhiking they will return a "thumbs up", not realizing you want a lift.
For accommodations, there are hotels all along the coast, in all but the smallest villages. The best times, though, are experienced when staying in the small, family-run accommodations called pensions. Someone from the family (usually children) will meet you when you get off the bus to invite you to their pension--usually a few private rooms in the family house. Check your room before agreeing to stay. You can also bargain for a lower price (it is often expected) but since the room rate is only a few dollars nightly anyway, the effort is relative.
Turkish food is mostly based on lamb and is quite good. There is a vague version of pizza sold called a pide which is usually safe and quite tasty; it makes a great snack when you are on the run. Always look to see where the locals are eating. Lamb, rice, vegetables, yoghurt and soups will dominate the menu. The beer in cheap and good. Beware raki, the national liquor, which is similar to Greek ouzo. It can sneak up on you so indulge with caution.
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