Friday, 25 April 2014

Days 393 to 398: Efes vs Ephesus

Efes is Turkey's national beer.

And Ephesus (which the Turks also like to call Efes) is a ruined Roman city in Turkey.

Which is better? Well, let's see.

The trio of Danielle, Burness, I arrived in the city of Izmir, population 3.4 million, knowing very little about it except that two friends of ours lived there - Nadia and Bowman. Both these characters have appeared on these pages before - I visited them in South Korea at the tail end of my Asian travels. They were teaching English in Korea back then, and they are teaching English in Turkey now - it seems that, very conveniently, they choose to teach English to perfectly coincide with my travels.

Izmir -formerly known as Smyrna - is a massive coastal city that spreads all along a huge arcing bay, and in a different universe could be world class. The setting is spectacular - the city wraps around the coast, almost folding back in on itself, so that half the city faces the other side. Ferries link the sides, although a bus will get there if you've got an extra hour or two to spare. At night, the city becomes a swathe of twinking lights within the darkness of the sea. Hills and mountains back the city, as though Izmir only exists in a magical zone between the mountains and the sea, although Bowman assures me the city continues to go on and on out of sight beyond the hills. What holds it back from being a world great is the city itself - mostly, it looks terrible. It suffers the fate of the majority of cities in the world, being packed full of shabby concrete blocks: the (much nicer) older buildings were mostly pulled down a long time ago. Or burned down: during the Greco-Turkish War in 1922, the Turkish Army effectively burned down the city, killing anything up to 100,000 people, winning the war for the Turks in the city, at the cost of the actual city. As a result, by day, a lot of Izmir is a featureless mess of concrete. With a different twist in its history or at least some intelligent town planning, something great could have been made here.

On our first night, we put Efes drinking to the test. Not a stern test, as we all had plans the next day, but meeting old friends in foreign countries is a special thing, so we ate, drank, and exchanged tales of Turkey and afar. Both Bowman and Nadia are enjoying Turkey and Izmir, but finding it a lot more of a frustrating experience that Korea. The life for an English teacher in Korea is a fairly charmed one, in an efficient nation with a good quality of life and a large expat community. In Turkey, Istanbul might have that, but Izmir doesn't. It may be changing in these regards, but that's not much use for them right now. Izmir is apparently one of the most liberal parts of Turkey, moreso than Istanbul even, but still, the nightlife isn't stellar - not helped by Bowman and Nadia being fairly far away from the centre, and even further from other hubs. And after the joys of universally cheap alcohol in Korea, Bowman has had to come to terms with Turkey being a Muslim country - the booze just isn't cheap. At least there's lots of kebabs.

We ate and drank at a restaurant by the coast, then returned to Nadia and Bowman's, to drink Efes for a while. They were working for the next few days, so Danielle, Burness, and I had a short trip planned. We were off to see some ruins - Ephesus and Pamukkale.

The ruined Greek and Roman city of Ephesus is just outside the modern Turkish town of Seljuk, around an hour or so from Izmir, although a lot more from Nadia and Bowman's place. Turkey has an infuriating intercity coach system - all their otogars, i.e. bus stations are placed on the outskirts of the city. Which means you need to travel for an hour just to get to the bus station! Sure, when your coach leaves, it's straight onto a motorway, but after almost an hour getting to the station in the first place, the only person this system helps is the bus drivers themselves. As a result, a lot of your time in Turkey can be spent simply getting to the bus station. Anyway, we still made it to Seljuk in good time, and got a cheap shared minibus to Ephesus, where we immersed ourselves in ancient ruins and hordes of tour groups.

Ephesus was a Greek city that flourished under Roman control, and among other things it was famous for having one of the original World Wonders - the Temple of Artemis. What remains of this temple (and there's very little) is actually outside of the main touristic Ephesus complex and needs to be visited separately, so I intend to deal with it in the next entry. The main parts of Ephesus are mostly ruined, and so you've got to use your imagination to reconstruct how it might have once looked, but there are a few pretty spectacular set pieces. The large theatre is one.

As theatres are usually built into hillside, they are a little more robust that normal upright buildings as there's less opportunity for them to fall down. Restoration, as with the entire Ephesus site, has helped greatly too of course. Also to help us picture the theatre in its heyday were a group of children, who put on an impromptu singing performance on the stage, and it was a pretty decent demonstration of how the sound would travel up in days well before loudspeakers. The theatre was designed for plays, but the Romans being Romans, it was later used for gladiators to hack chunks out of each other. The singing children failed to demonstrate this aspect.

Surely the headline act of Ephesus, however, is the library, the Library of Celsus. It's a Roman building, built in 135 AD, and designed as both a library for around 12,000 scrolls, and as a tomb, for Celsus. Celsus was a popular senator, and had been governer for a while of the Roman province of Asia that Ephesus belonged to. The library and tomb was built for him by his son, and if you think it's rather unusual having your tomb in a library - then it is. But people did things different back then.

Sadly, the whole thing only lasted a little over a hundred years, as in 262 AD an earthquake struck, and destroyed all but the facade. It went the same way as the rest of the city and the Roman Empire after that, succumbing to general decline and occasional raids and earthquakes. What we see today is actually a full-on restoration, and an excellent one at that, done in the 1960s and 70s. The facade has been put back up, and it's absolutely gorgeous.

The unexpected highlight of Ephesus was the Terrace Houses. We almost didn't bother going in, as it cost an extra 15 lira (£5) on top of the 30 lira entry fee. But the day before, Bowman had expressed a tinge of regret at not visiting when he'd had the chance, and we also recognised that who knows when or if we'd ever return, so we thought we'd give it a go. Upon entry, it seemed like a poor decision - just a boring archaeological site. But then, as we travelled through the site, walking up the slope it's built upon, we changed our tune. The Terrace Houses are the remains of wealthy residents' homes, and although obviously not exactly liveable in today, the details that have survived are astonishing. Numerous mosaics and fresco paintings decorate the walls. I don't think I've ever seen Roman art, in the form of paintings, before - I was hugely impressed. Turns out the Romans weren't just good at building roads, building incredible structures, sculpture, empire-running, and winning wars, but they were really good at home decoration too.

Our visit to Ephesus was just a day trip; it was followed by a train and bus to Pamukkale. It's a small town with some weird stuff above it.

Looks like snow? It isn't. The white stuff is mineral deposits, like salt, left behind by flowing water from hot springs. They leave a blanket cover that looks just like snow, although feels closer to rock, and numerous wall-lined pools. These pools are called travertines, and they are naturally-formed terraces made by the water and deposits, although to the untrained eye they look about as man-made as you could imagine.

It's weird, it's pretty cool, and to top it all off, the Romans have yet another ruined city at the top, called Hierapolis.

The Romans in many ways were like us - they saw strange natural formations and they liked them, and with natural springs and minerals, Hierapolis was a spa town for them. There's plenty to explore, lots and lots of ruins, and the size of the site meant that we were able to get away from the roaming packs of tourists pretty easily. The tourists gather along the pool-dotted deposit-white path that leads from Pamukkale town to the top of the hill, and at the over-priced modern pool complex at the top. We were stupid enough to pay for this - it's just a (naturally) warm outdoor pool, with old Romans columns and ruins within the pool. It's fun, but very overpriced at something like £8 - especially when we'd already paid the same to get into the site itself. We even had to buy our own towel!

Given the luxury of more time, we could easily have spent another day at Panukkale - it combines interesting stuff to see with good old-fashioned relaxation. The tourist town is dotted with bar and restaurants, with almost all them catering heavily to Koreans, who seem to be the dominant tourist force in this part of the world. But Izmir was calling, and more Efes with Nadia and Bowman.

And so began Efesfest. We arrived back late, around 10pm, meeting them in the city centre, getting drinks and food, then heading back to theirs and drinking. Till 5am. The next day we had a beach visit planned, and so somehow we were all out of the door by around noon. In typical Izmir style, it took two hours and three buses to get there. The beach... wasn't quite as Bowman had remembered it. Him and Nadia had visited last year, at the tail-end of the on-season, when the beach was being kept in a good state. In late April, still before the on-season commenced, the beach was not in such a good state after months of neglect. Litter and a few scattered broken bottles were at home among the sand and pebbles. Nobody came back from the public toilets the same person. But, it didn't matter - we had Efes, and good company, and we sat around, drinking, munching crisps, listening to music, and later on playing football with a level of skill that I would flatteringly describe as "low". The ladies were too afraid to try the water out, but the men were game.

It was dark by the time we were back in Izmir, but the night was still young as we hit the city centre to sample the Izmir nightlife. Which mostly seems to revolve around a single, incredibly loud, neon-lit street jammed with bars and clubs. The night ended back in Nadia and Bowman's apartment, with Efes and wine and whatever was around, and I crashed out at around 5am. But not Burness. Poor Burness had a flight at 11am, meaning he had to leave the apartment at 8am, meaning there was no point going to bed. He later sent me a text saying he was in an airline lounge at Istanbul, on his third gin-and-tonic, and people were giving him funny looks.

The rest of us had the luxury of a lie-in till afternoon, whereby we went on Bowman's patented "Three Views" tour of the city, although due to our late start we only managed two of the views, missing out the one from the old castle wall on a hill above the city. The first one, a short bus ride then walk away, was from the Asansor, or the Izmir Lift. This is simply a large lift built on the side of a cliff, originally built by a wealthy banker in 1907, and refurbished fairly recently. It was built after the banker felt sorry for pregnant women and the elderly having to make their way up the steep slopes, and remains free to use to this day. At the top today is a bar-restaurant.

The next view was from the sea, as we took a ferry across the water to a different district. From here, you can see the city curling around you, ringed by hills. The sun set for our return trip, and the lights of Izmir came out.

We took a walk into the centre, and had dinner. For that one meal, we left off the Efes, having the favourite drink of the Turks, raki. This is a strong, clear, liquorice-flavoured drink, that you add water to turn cloudy. It's not particularly nice - better stick to Efes.

The following morning we were off, continuing the travels after a few days of hospitality from Nadia and Bowman. As it happens, they'll be back in Scotland before we are, as their contracts finish at the end of the summer. When travelling, spending most of the time in unfamiliar places surrounded by unfamiliar people, it's great to see a familiar face. It's also great to get legendary breakfasts every day - Bowman cooked up something a lot superior than the usual bread and jam you get in most hostels.

To, to answer my opening question: Efes or Ephesus? Which is better? I say - why compare the two. Why not just combine?

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