A family restaurant

Some of our most memorable meals in Turkey were in family-run restaurants. In the village of Şirince (pronounced Shirin-je), not far from Ephesus, we walked through a large door, up some stairs, and into a courtyard with a verandah running around it. Tables were set out on the verandah, and we chose one looking out on the trees in the courtyard.

The restaurant was run by a young couple. One part of the house was given over to the restaurant, and they seemed to live in a part with a separate entrance, but looking over the same courtyard. My translator app was not needed very often because the lady spoke some English, and I’d managed to pick up enough words to make rough sense of the menu.

They had wonderful salads, with flavourful carrots and greens (that’s one nice thing about eating in a place with its own kitchen garden). I’d been missing salads, so I ordered another one made of pumpkin and walnut. For the mains we had ribs. We’d grown fond of gözleme (pronounced goez-li-may), which is something like a stuffed paratha. The Family adventurously ordered one with eggplant. This was surprisingly good.

The couple didn’t mind us watching them at work in the kitchen. The division of labour was interesting: the lady made the gözleme while the man frenched and grilled the ribs. There are hundreds of questions which rise in my mind, about methods and material, when I watch people cook. While we ate, a group of women, from a town, going by their looks, came in to eat. Listening to their easy chatter with the couple, I wished I’d known enough Turkish to be able to ask the questions which had come to mind while I’d watched the couple in the kitchen.

The day had started sunny but clouds gathered as we ate. There were even a few drops of rain. Our table got windy and cold, so for coffee we moved to a corner which was better protected. This part of the verandah had a bunch of photos on the wall: all of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. Was this a family of staunch republicans? A hundred years of history has made everyone a republican. The lady was sharing work with the man, talking to customers, head uncovered.

Walking through Şirince

Şirince is a beautiful village, and walking through it was a wonderful experience. I’ll let my photos of it speak for themselves.

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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.