Taking stock

The Family and I had breakfast on a narrow terrace on the top floor of our hotel in Kusadasi, looking out towards the harbour. We talked about what we’d seen in Turkey. It seemed to me that it had been months, but it was less than a week since we’d landed in Istanbul! The incredible sights of Cappadocia: fairy chimneys, balloons filling the sky, underground cities, now seemed so far removed. Trudging through the ruins of famous Greek cities, looking at the remnants of what used to be the wonders of the ancient world, had driven those older experiences into some far corner of the brain.

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We looked at our phones together, swiping through the galleries of the last few days. Did we really see that? Remember the wonderful wine there. And that great Turkish coffee! Can you get me another glassful of that superb lemonade? Too soon it was time to leave for a drive to Pamukkale.

Pigeon Island

It was a windy afternoon as I strolled on the sea face next to the Ataturk Bulvari in Kusadasi. When The Family proposed visiting Pigeon Island, my inclination was to go back to the hotel and have a long hot coffee instead. So this story of Pigeon Island comes from her. The Island contains a sea fort which dates from the 16th century CE, when the Ottoman empire was vying with other European powers for control of the Mediterranean. The walls around it were built in the 19th century. A causeway joins the island to the shore, and it is studded with piers.

This is part of the port of Kusadasi, which, after the decline in commerce in the 19th and 20th centuries, has regained some importance as a port of call for tourist ferries plying the Greek islands. We’d seen these immense ferries come and go. At the time that The Family visited the island, none of these giants were moored there. That made it easier to take photos of the small two-masted sail boats moored at the piers on the causeway. In our search for things to do around Kusadasi, we didn’t come across the possibility of hiring sailboats.

Barbaros Hayreddin Pasha, whose statue can be seen in the fortress, was the Ottoman admiral whose victories gave the Ottoman empire its dominance in the Mediterranean during most of the 16th century CE. He was also instrumental in forging an alliance with France. even in a history filled with great navigators and admirals, his success is quite outstanding. His statue is appropriate here because he was responsible for putting a sea-fort on this island.

The fort itself is a little museum to Ottoman sea power in the Mediterranean. There are rusting cannons on the battlements, and a small tour through the fort which left little impression on The Family. What she came back with was an impressive photo of the skeleton of a whale which had been washed ashore. Once you see the skeletal remains of the pentadactyl flippers, you cannot mistake a whale for a fish. I hadn’t thought of the Mediterranean as a sea where cetaceans could be found, but after seeing this photo I recalled stories of ancient Greek sailors being helped by dolphins. On checking up, I found that there are eight cetacean species in the Mediterranen Sea. Maybe on another trip we will try to spot some of them.

Turkish Coffee

I’d got to like the Turkish çay (pronounced chai) so much that I neglected the coffee for the first half of the trip. In Şirince it was impossible to neglect the coffee. Most of the restaurants in the village had tables with the beautiful pattered trays set out with the cups that you see in the featured photo. Some time in the afternoon we decided to sit down at one of these and have a coffee.

I looked inside the restaurant. A couple of old men sat there chatting. In Turkey you would probably suspect something is wrong if a restaurant or cafe does not have a few people deeply engrossed in conversation. It was the second day of Ramazan, which was probably why these two were not nursing glasses of çay. Reassured, I went out and sat down at the table where The Family had already ordered the coffee.

This style of coffee was heated in a bed of sand at the center of the tray. Clouds had come in a couple of hours earlier, and there was a slight drizzle. The day had turned cold, and it was nice to sit at a table which radiated heat. I’d forgotten how hot sand could become. In a short while the coffee started to boil, and we could pour a small shot into the little cups in front of us. We sat at our warm table, nursed the strong and sweet coffee, and waited out the drizzle. The crowd of tourists we’d seen in the morning had disappeared. Perhaps everyone had found a nice cafe to warm themselves in.

A charming market

Has Şirince village been changed by tourism? There is no doubt that it has. The village contains only about 700 people, and at least that many tourists probably come by every day. The restaurants and cafes that we saw would not have been there without the tourist trade. Most definitely the charming market that straddles the square next to the mosque is solely for tourists. However, it is charming, and many of the things we saw seemed local; we never saw them elsewhere.

Ceramics are everywhere in Turkey. We’d seen wonderful ceramics in Cappadocia, but the things we saw here were quite different. In a little shop in the market a man sat over baskets of colourful fruits. They were brightly painted ceramics (see the close up in the featured photo). I saw a little group of Russian women utterly charmed by them. They chose a few and moved on while I stayed behind to take these photos.

We kept seeing this painted blue ware in many shops. From my experience this was peculiar to Şirince. The blue and white ceramic with flowers hand painted over it was not something I saw elsewhere. The Family was quite taken by them and thought long and hard about how to carry it. Eventually she satisfied herself with taking photos. That did not turn out so well for the shopkeeper, I thought. He continued to have a smile on his face though.

A nearby shop had lovely tiles. I’m not expert enough to figure out how local these are. We saw cheerful tiles in use through the village, but were these designs local? Could we have found them elsewhere? I didn’t really keep track. I think of flower patterns in these colours as Iznik tiles. Perhaps that’s too generic, and the patterns change in detail from place to place. But with the kind of mobility and fluidity of style that governs today’s market, I would think that successful patterns would be copies quickly.

I passed this Aladdin’s cave full of ceramics and moved on. The Family was braver. She walked in. I had a long time to examine the rest of the very charming market before she emerged. I couldn’t complain. I’d done the same at the shops which sold fruit wines. There is a lot of variety, and you can spend a while in tasting.

One of the first things I noticed while waiting for The Family was this man with his cats. Before visiting Turkey I had the impression that an enormous population of cats was special to Istanbul. Not so. Cats are everywhere in Turkey. I saw them in the ruins of Ephesus, in the Seljuk mosque in Selçuk, in the streets of Kusadasi, and, of course, here. Most Turks seem to be cat persons.

The market was not very large, but it seemed to have a disproportionately large number of restaurants and cafes. There must be times when when several tourist buses arrive together and the square is very crowded. This was not one of those times. I found the cafes very charming, and examined each of them. We would have coffee at one of them later, and I had to make sure that we chose one which we found to be the most gemütlich.

In most parts of Turkey an absolutely essential ingredient in a cheerful and friendly cafe is that there should be a crowd of old men sitting deep in conversation or playing a game, usually with çay. This village was not like that. Several cafes had no locals, and the one we eventually chose had only two, but without çay. The lack of a drink was probably due to it being the second day of Ramazan, but the lack of people meant that most of these cafes were meant only for tourists. Presumably the locals gathered in a completely different place.

I walked down to the end of the market, past the last shop selling wine, past the last cafe, past even the shop with olive oil. At the end of this path was another square. This is where the local buses, dolmuş, arrive to leave and take on passengers. It should be possible to come here by dolmuş from Selçuk. I’d heard that Şirince has the best peaches in the locality. I realized that the market did not have fresh fruits. I would have to look elsewhere for the peaches, olives, and figs that the village is known for.

Two churches in Şirince

More or less at the highest level of the village of Şirince, not far from Selçuk, is the old Orthodox church named after St. John the Baptist. Entrance to it is through a courtyard which contains a bunch of shops, a restaurant, and an interesting wishing well, under a statue of Theotokos Miriam, to give the Virgin Mary her proper Orthodox name. The bottom of the fountain is lined with coins tossed in by those who need a little luck in their lives.

I don’t know how Lonely Planet found that the church was completed in 1805, because I didn’t notice a plaque. However, it is true that the church is being restored. The door was open, and we could walk right into the dim interior lit by halogen lamps. I guess smaller Orthodox churches usually have the same floor plan as this: a central dome with the main altar on one side, with secondary niches on other sides of the rectangular room.

The dome was made of brick, as we could easily verify since the plaster work here has not been completed. The simple design in the interior of the dome was also incompletely restored. There are vaulted roofs on all sides of the dome, and one end held some frescoes. I wished that the lighting inside had been neutral, because it is hard to judge colours when a painting is illuminated by halogen lamps.

Otherwise the church was bare. This simplicity actually made it look good. This niche for example, with a window which is not shut tight, was a beautifully serene space. I wonder what was placed on top of the pedestal. A baptismal font? The restoration of the church is being paid for by the Governor of Izmir province, under the assumption that this is improve tourism. I was happy to spend myu few minutes inside, adding to the statistics.

There is a road that runs on the ridge on top of the village from this church northwards. As we followed this picturesque route, a strong breeze made me zip up my jacket. The clouds were being blown away by this breeze, so when we reached St. Demetrios Church at the other end of the road the sun was out again. A battered but sturdy door stood open in front of the church, inviting us into this mid-19th century church. All that I could gather about it was that it was built after St. John’s, and that it had been used as a mosque for some years after the population exchange which came at the collapse of the Ottoman empire in 1923.

Cars parked in front of the church (I wondered how they had got up here) had prevented me from walking back to take a photo of the church. So it was fortunate that inside, propped up on a window ledge was a large fading print of a photo of the exterior at a time when the roof had caved in. At least that basic structural repairs had been completed. The sunlight seeping in from the windows and the open door in the western wall lit up the bright white interior of the church.

The sunlight was just right to give us a grand view of the incredible sight of the iconostasis, the wooden framework which formed a wall of icons which you can see in the photo above. The wood requires repair, and I wonder whether the gaps where icons once stood can be filled again. The marble floor was in very bad repair. This could very well be the showpiece of the village if only it could be restored. I looked up at the frescoes and painted plasterwork that remains in one part of the celiing. “This could become a grand structure again,” The Family said, and I agreed.

Demetrios was Greek by birth, died in the early 4th century, and was beatified soon after. In medieval times he came to be associated with the same function that Demeter performed in ancient Greece: farming and cattle. Until the population exchange, this church was the starting point of an annual pilgrimage, on August 15, up to the so-called house of Mary in Selçuk. The drive would be less than half an hour today, but on foot this could take several hours. There was a cafe right next to the church, but I wanted to move down into the shelter of the village, and out of the breeze.

A famous unknown village

It had been a long day, so, on our first night in Kusadasi we decided to sleep late and spend the next day doing something fun and easy. A quick search showed us that the right thing was to visit a village called Şirince thirty kilometers away. In recent years it has become famous as a casual day trip out of Kusadasi or Selçuk. We left late in the morning, drove through Selçuk, and turned on to a charming country road. The village sits at the tip of a hill and is surrounded by farms. The history that we read claimed that the village has been occupied since the early Ottoman times, perhaps the 15th century CE, and that in the 19th century CE it was mostly an Ottoman Greek village. During the Balkan wars of the early 20th century the villagers sided with the Greeks, bringing down on them the full force of the Ottoman empire. A post-war settlement forced an exchange of populations between Turkey and Greece. The village was then settled by Macedonian Turks.

Cars are not allowed into the village. We parked in one of the several large parking lots just below the start of the cobbled roads. Near the parking lot we saw a familiar car: a Tata Xenon. India and Turkey do significant trading these days. We had sturdy shoes which had taken us through Ephesus, and they were certainly even more useful on the steep paths of this village. It seems that you can hire a horse or a small cart if you want, but to us it looked like it would be difficult to negotiate parts of the village if you have difficulties walking.

One of the intriguing things about this village is that it is known for its fruit wines. About 4000 Turks from Macedonia were settled in this village after a piece of rebranding. Apparently the village used to be called Çirkince (meaning ugly). In 1926 the governor of the province, Kazim Dirik, renamed it Şirince (beautiful). Still, there wasn’t much of a life to be made here, and many families moved away over the years. In the 1993 an Armenian Turkish linguist, Sevan Nişanyan, settled in this village and began to restore it so that tourism from nearby Ephesus could be tapped. He has been stunningly successful, as we saw. It is due to his efforts that the village is now a national heritage site. His own story does not end too well; he was jailed in 2012, escaped, and is now a political refugee in Greece.

This village of about 600 to 700 people is utterly charming. Of course, the local population is completely outnumbered during the day by visitors, so don’t go looking for authenticity. We had a very relaxed day walking about, having lunch, and coffee, and, most important, trying out the many different fruit wines that they have. They are all very sweet, of course, but one can think of lots of uses for them. I would have liked to carry several bottles, but The Family pointed out that we had limits on how much weight we could take with us. Too bad. I’m talking to you, airlines management.

On the streets of Kusadasi

After a big iftari dinner in Kusadasi we decided to take a walk through the streets. Most shops had closed; their staff were off for their own iftari dinners. If it wasn’t for that, I would never have noticed this vibrant piece of art on the rolling shutter of a shop. My feelings about Kusadasi could not remain the same after this.

Kusadasi is a big town, but it is on the tourist circuit because cruise ships which come through the Greek archipelago stop here. In our three nights in Kusadasi we saw two such ships come in and leave. There is a wonderful promenade on the sea along Atatürk Bulvari, reminiscent of seaside walks on the Cote d’Azur. Behind it is a warren of streets with cheap shopping. Later, while chatting with the concierge at our hotel I would discover that British, Chinese, Russians and Indians are deemed to be the most frequent visitors. That is a mixture you wouldn’t find in most tourist destinations.

After that wonderfully wacky shutter decoration I wasn’t surprised by other business establishments. This one was shut, but the door was clearly made up to look like a cave. Roma hamami! Was this one of the Turkish hamams? There were several more hamams along the road, so it would well be one.

Further on I was reassured to find the usual internationally recognizable street art. It had an innocuous message in English. Either the youth here is not disaffected, or they get very pleasant tourists with time on their hands.

Off in a side street we came across a travel agency which advertised itself with these folksy paintings on its wall. One of them showed an embroidered head dress. Could it be traditional? It showed too much hair for a traditional Islamic woman’s headgear. But then, the Ottoman empire included Greek, Bulgarian, Albanian, Egyptian, Arab, and Irani people. The traditional Ottoman headgear could have come from anywhere in the Balkans, central Asia, or the middle east.

No conversation in Turkey is complete without çay. I saw a taxi business open late at night, with two on-call drivers whiling away their time in conversation, with cups of çay. They smiled and waved as I took their photo. Kusadasi is a base from which one can explore the major Aegean ports of antiquity: Ephesus, Priene, Miletus. We had hired a car for this leg of our trip, but if we hadn’t, then tour buses and taxis were not hard to get.

Thalassa! Thalassa! The snotgreen sea.

Kusadasi could have made me cry out like Buck Mulligan of Dublin in James Joyce’s great novel about an evening of drunkenness. I live in a city by the ocean, and I’d been away from towns for four days. The sea front of Kusadasi had the look of laid back small towns along the Cote d’Azur, at the other end of the Mediterranean. The day had been hot, but here a lively breeze whipped up waves. I walked along the strand, on the seaward side of Atatürk Bulvari, enchanted by the light on the sea-facing buildings.

Kusadasi is a port of call for many cruises in the Aegean, and the Aegean itself is one of the most widely traveled seas in human history. On World Oceans Day (June 8) it is interesting to think about the ecology of the Mediterranean. There are only about 17,000 different marine species in this sea. That is about 1% of all marine species. And it seems that many of them are endangered. The 1988 Convention on Biological Diversity was followed by a setting of targets; one aims to protect about 10% of all seas and oceans. Until now about 7% of the Mediterranean is protected (but see this contrary article).

Driving into Kusadasi earlier, we had passed a wild stretch of land on a cliff high above the sea. This part of the world is beautiful in the middle of spring. The air is cool, wild flowers cover the ground. The setting sun painted everything in shades of gold. We stopped to take photos of the green land and blue sea. A postcard put out by the UN for World Oceans Day reminds us that 70% of the earth’s area is covered by oceans and seas, and that 70% of the oxygen comes from there. All the oxygen in the air is due to plants, created by photosynthesis, as they soak up carbon dioxide from the air and release oxygen. It seems surprising that the oceans contain proportionally as many plants as the land. We do not see a green ocean, after all. But these numbers are not lies. Contrary to the evidence of our eyes, the sea is green. Maybe even snotgreen.