Grand tour

Grand tour
The ceiling of the St Polycarp Church in Izmir, Photo Credit: Sopan Joshi

From Istanbul to Izmir via Efes and Sirince

Sopan Joshi
April 24 , 2014
15 Min Read

The little drama that headlined Turkey in my mind occurred outside the Blue Mosque in Istanbul. It was an argument between a woman and a guard screening people for appropriate clothing. He had ready a pile of blue drapes. He asked the woman to wrap one around her waist and shoulders. She argued that her skirt was knee-length and that her blouse had sleeves, even if short.


The guard was insistent so she relented. But only as far as entering the mosque, because once inside she took off the fabric of questionable hygiene that had provided instant modesty and entrance to numerous women before her. Our Turkish guide spoke to her. She said she came to the mosque every day to offer prayer and knew what constituted appropriate clothing. She felt insulted by the authorities’ ad-hocism.

In a moment, she provided a glimpse of contradictory values at peace in her. The guard, her adversary, looked more a harried and salaried employee and less an enforcer of the faith. His expression made it clear he’d rather be somewhere else. Their encounter animated Turkey to me in an instant. For millennia, this has remained the international capital of cultural confrontation. Modernity faces a world it has not conquered completely. Historicity faces an ahistorical consciousness. Asia itself looks straight at Europe across the strait of Bosphorus.

So the Bosphorus was where we started. The boat cruise as a tourism routine is a well-established earner. But not too many other places afford a similar transcontinental view. The Suez and the Panama canals must be impressive, too, but they are engineered waterways that separate, even as they shorten naval distances. The Bosphorus brings together the East and the West, but keeps them at a safe, natural distance.

Back on Thrace, our first destination is Istiklal Street, a pedestrian haven with an old-world tram. On busy weekends, some three million people visit it. Just standing at a corner and watching the world walk by can buzz you. If that doesn’t, there are bars, cafés, boutiques and everything else that makes an urban area into a city.

The three-kilometre drag begins atop the old Genoese neighbourhood of Galata and winds down to Taksim Square. The Galatasaray football stadium is nearby. There are art galleries and street painters and a wide range of street music, from a saaz-playing bluesy howl to peace-mongering hippie material with gypsy children dancing for effect. If all of this gets too heady, you can burst it in soap bubbles the size of beachballs.

Istiklal set us up nicely for the next day, which was dedicated to the Istanbul Shopping Fest. We began at the L-shaped Spice Market (also called Egyptian Bazaar) in the Eminönü district, in front of the Yeni Mosque. This was Istanbul’s main spice market, but the encounter with tourism means most shops now cater to tourist interests. It is mildly annoying to have shopkeepers accost you with names of Bollywood stars, but one gets used to it.

The Grand (or Covered) Bazaar near the Nuruosmaniya Mosque, though, is a completely different beast. At the Ottoman Empire’s peak in the seventeenth century, this was one of the world’s greatest markets, with traders from far corners plying their merchandise. The market has withstood the decline and fall of the Ottoman Empire, earthquakes, fires and shopping malls. It has congestion, a lack of toilets and loads of character. Each deal is a personal experience.

There was a time when the merchandise included slaves. Today, jewellery shops are the most abundant. But there are shops for every item, a bargain for every shopper. If you ask for options to what is on display, you are likely to be taken to a back alley where the godowns are tucked away. It is a little township and a world unto its own. It’s easy to get lost in, as I did after walking around the shops for two hours. All around the bazaar are workshops and restaurants, where once stood sarais.

It was in one such unassuming restaurant that we ate lunch. Aslan Restaurant near Nuruosmaniya Gate is the kind of place where shopkeepers and workers eat. The menu is modest and traditional, the prices low. The customers are mostly regulars who have many options in the area; the slightest deterioration in quality can turn them away. The meal was one of the best we had in Istanbul.

Dinner at the Kervansaray Restaurant was not of the same order. But the food was hardly the attraction; we had gone there for a Turkish Night. The vaudeville had knife-throwers, fire-eaters, singers, Caucasian dances and belly-dancers. The top billing of the show was Asena, a famous belly-dancer, who appeared right at the end to exhibit her craft. Our appetites sated, we retired to our hotel for an early start to the next day, themed history.

It started at the Dolmabahce Palace, a tribute to the decadence of the Ottoman Empire. Built by sultans propped up with borrowed money who watched their power ebb, it is markedly West European in décor and pomp, indicating the tilt of power in the mid-nineteenth century when the term Sick Man of Europe was coined for the Ottoman Empire. The grand architecture, gold plating and gargantuan chandeliers don’t tell the story that the name does: this was a garden (bahce) created by filling up (dolma) a bay in the Bosphorus. The sultans who lived here wanted European modcons and luxury, and had descended from the security of the Topkapi Palace on the hilltop. As the empire got smaller, the palaces grew bigger.

The Topkapi Palace is modest in design and understated in decoration. Our guide tells us that an American tourist went through it and then asked where he could find the palace. Yet it once housed the world’s most powerful emperors. The exhibitions in the Topkapi area are exhaustive and the café at the end is a great place to catch your breath and rehydrate. I had realised by then that it is not a very good idea to try to squeeze a lot of Turkish history into one day. There is way, way more than the mind can process.

Because next to the Topkapi are two of the most breathtaking structures of the world. There is the Hagia Sophia Museum — or the Aya Sofya Museum, depending on your favoured selection of history (after a while, one gets used to several names — Greek, Roman, Persian, Turk — for the same site in Turkey). Although secularised in 1935, the scale of the edifice very nearly makes one believe in a power supernatural. There is still public pressure to open it for prayers, but the government has held on to the law that made a museum out of a mosque which was earlier the world’s largest cathedral for a thousand years. It sits under the world’s most famous dome, more a tribute to Byzantine engineering than any one religion. Not far from it is one of the grandest buildings it inspired, the Blue Mosque with its six minars.

All this is in Sultanahmet Square, which calls for at least one full day. A short walk can take you to the Basilica Cistern, the largest of Istanbul which provided water to the Topkapi up until recently. The descent into the cistern is a dive down a rabbit hole; the temperature drops, the light dims, the upside-down and sideways heads of Medusa promise to ward off the evil eye.

The next morning, we abandoned Thrace for Izmir on the western fringe of Anatolia. One of the world’s oldest urban sites dating back to perhaps nine thousand years, it was a contemporary of Troy and it is believed the Greek poet Homer was born here. Its name in antiquity was Smyrna. Today, Izmir is a busy port and industrial metropolis; its major tourist attractions being St Polycarp Church, a Roman agora and the Kadifekale fortress. But it figures in tourist maps because it is the approach to Efes, sixty-five kilometres away.

An old Greek city (they called it Ephesos), it went on to become a major Roman city (Ephesus) of two hundred and fifty thousand people. This is where was built the Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. This is where John the Apostle retired to after the death of Christ. This is where he may have written his Gospel. Along with Izmir, it is one of the seven churches of the Apocalypse in the Bible’s Book of Revelation. After the crucifixion of Christ, this is where John brought the Virgin Mary. The Catholic church has attested that she lived in a house on Mt Koressos near here. Her house has been reconstructed and several popes have visited it.

Efes today is an archaeological wonder. Its major artefacts are displayed in a museum in the nearby town of Selçuk. The museum is along expected lines — besides I feel museum fatigue creeping after an overdose in Istanbul. I spent more time in the souvenir shop and prepared for the visit to Mt Koressos and Efes.

The Virgin Mary’s reconstructed house is a simple structure and its big charm is a wall on which people leave their prayers, tying a thread (or a letter with it). The location itself is peaceful and one can see that its dignity has been aggressively protected. But nothing can prepare you for the sight of the ruins of Ephesus. The walk begins on top of a hill; the city was laid out on its slope, at the end of which was a road that led to a harbour. The remains of the past begin to impose as you go down the hill, beginning at the council house, past the reconstructed houses of rich merchants and the public toilet towards the Library of Celsus.

A little beyond is a grand theatre on the western face of the hill. As I climbed the steps to the balcony seats, I first heard a troop of Japanese tourists sing on the stage down below a song they must have practised for a few days. When they left, two young boys took the stage to enact a fight sequence from The Gladiator. From the stands, one can see the street that went down to the harbour. But the harbour has moved back about a kilometre; it was silted by the water that drained down the slope, leading to the city being eventually abandoned. This is a lesson modern cities refuse to learn.

On the way back, we took a detour to Sirince, an old Greek village abandoned in 1923 when Turkey sent off its Greek Orthodox residents in exchange for Muslims living in Greece. What became a ghost village has in recent years been restored as a tourist town. It has the quiet charm of a Mediterranean village with several shops selling the local fruit wines and souvenirs. We settled into a cosy restaurant for a lavish dinner spread. I washed down the proceeds with Efes, Turkey’s best known beer made in a brewery in Izmir. The bubbles and froth lightened the weight of history, but I was refreshed still. After a few rounds, the past disappeared in the buzz of Efes.

The Information

Planning a trip

Four in five passengers from India to Istanbul get there only to take a connecting flight to other destinations. Plan to break your journey in Istanbul for a few days. Istanbul has at least three clear reasons to stay: historical sites, shopping and food. But plan your itinerary with care; the city offers many things, and can get bewildering if you try to pack everything into a tight schedule. Izmir, while not a major tourist destination, is the hub for Ephesus and Selçuk. Sirince, a frozen-in-time Greek village, is a great setting for honeymooners or those looking for a romantic getaway.

The website is a great online resource to plan your Turkey experience.

Getting there

Turkish Airlines, naturally enough, has the corner on this sector. Delhi-Istanbul economy return fares begin at Rs 40,425; business class is yours for Rs 1,21,232.


Turkey gives visas on arrival to passengers with valid US, UK or Schengen visas. However, visa policies keep changing, so check with the embassy before you travel. If you do need a visa (Rs 3,300), contact the Turkish Embassy (011-26889053, 26889054) or see Visas are also issued at the Turkish missions in Mumbai, Chennai and Kolkata.

Getting around

Izmir is connected to Istanbul by air, road, rail and boat. A bus or train requires a ferry connection at Bandirma. Buses typically take nine hours from Istanbul and the better services offer food and drink as part of the ticket price of about Turkish Lira (TRY) 50.

To get to Efes, the nearest town is Selçuk, which is 65km from Izmir. There are commuter trains from Izmir (Basmane Station) to Selçuk six times a day, and these can be boarded at the airport station about 15 minutes later. But they can get quite crowded, making it difficult to get in the train at the airport station.

From Selçuk, mini buses called dolmus ply to Efes (4km) and Sirince (9km). But there is no public transport to Mt Koressos (10km) for seeing the house of the Virgin Mary; one has to hire a taxi or rent a car. If you can ride a motorcycle or scooter, renting one is a good idea, given that all the tourist attractions are within range. The closest beach from Selçuk is Pamucak (7km).

Where to stay

Istanbul We stayed at the Legacy Ottoman Hotel (from € 140 doubles, including breakfast; in the Sirkeci area. Five-star comfort was never better located; this is the only luxury hotel in the old city peninsula, a short walk from the Eminönü area, the Yeni Mosque and the Spice Bazaar. Sultanahmet Square is a 15-minute walk. The restaurant on the top floor offers splendid views. The Yesil Ev Hotel (from € 140 doubles, including breakfast; is close to the Topkapi Palace and has charming rooms and a wonderful garden restaurant.

Izmir The Mövenpick Hotel is located very close to the shore and the shopping districts. It has all the amenities, and if you get a room on the higher floors, the rooms offer views of the Izmir bay (from € 120 doubles, including breakfast;

SELÇUK The Kalehan Resort (from € 63 doubles; has a beautiful, Mediterranean décor and fruit gardens to go with it.

Sirince Staying in Sirince is worth it almost for the boutique experience alone. Try the Markiz Konaklar? Inn (from TRY 250 doubles;

Where to eat

Istanbul The city is crawling with delightful restaurants and smaller joints. The Hamdi Restaurant at Eminonu is an old tourist attraction. Istiklal Street has innumerable restaurants and bars. We made our repast at the small Gourmet Boncuk in a bylane near Taksim Square. If you want high quality and traditional taste at down-to-earth rates, visit the Aslan Restaurant at the Nuruosmaniya Gate near the Grand Bazaar; the claypot lamb is delightful. At Sultanahmet Square, the Pudding Shop is a hippie joint from the 1960s and serves a delightful range of snacks and food. The Yesil Ev restaurant is at the other end of the Sultanahmet Square, and its garden is a great place for a sit-down meal after a long day of walking around this great city. If you want the Turkish Night experience close at hand, try the Kervansaray Restaurant (

Elsewhere The Kalehan Resort in Selçuk runs a neat restaurant right on the main road. Topcuk Restaurant in Izmir served outstanding meatballs. But my best dining experience was at the Koy Restaurant in the tiny village of Sirince. There is a great wealth of local wines, and most establishments here are family-run.

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