Most travelers to Turkey head to Istanbul and for many of these travelers the ancient city of some 15 million souls is quite enough. The heart of the city, once Constantinople, stood as the beacon of power in the early centuries AD and showed its force in buildings still standing as marvels in the annals of architecture.
To be sure, traveling to and exploring Istanbul is its own reward. But beyond the pasha palaces, the religious iconography, the ancient bazaars and the thriving arts and fashion scenes of Istanbul are destinations of wonder, each bringing in its own stunning surprises.
Eye on Izmir
Just an hour’s flight (or four- to five-hour drive) south of Istanbul is Izmir, the gateway city to Alacati, the Çe?me beaches and Turkey’s celebrated wine and food region. Izmir is worthy of a day on its own. Formerly old Smyrna, the port city of four million people dates back to the days of Homer, who is said to have been born here in the 7th or 8th century BC.
Now, Izmir has a wonderful walkable (and bike-able) 25-mile strand along the coast of one of recorded history’s oldest port cities, which is flanked these days by top hotels and restaurants. The bazaar of Izmir’s Old City brings the usual ancient stone buildings, narrow pedestrian corridors and sunny café courtyards as the centuries play out in bustling market places and unpretentious shops. Find all manner of textiles here – from modern wedding dresses to traditional celebration costumes to flashy, trendy boutiques selling fancy, designer pasha pants. It is not hard to find hidden stalls selling possibly the best coffee on the planet.
For those in search of dying cultures, a smattering of 17th century synagogues inhabit the Old City. A thriving Jewish population found safety in these quarters during the Spanish Inquisition. A few synagogues are still in use today and may be visited, starting with a small make-shift museum that tells the tales.
Out and About in Alacati
From Izmir, Alacati is a quick 45-minute drive through mountains lined with wind farms and pine forests. The village was once a Greek fishing village and most of the homes and shops – dating from the mid-19th century – still stand, but now they are remodeled, repainted, revived and if you don’t pinch yourself you think you have wandered into an accidental corner of Greek Town in Walt Disney World.
The narrow, pedestrian stone lanes that define the town’s charm are a labyrinth of blue and white domiciles flecked with the occasional red or pink geranium box. Shops, cafes and precious auberges line the streets that are mostly given to stray dogs that everyone owns, and old men playing dominoes and backgammon on olive tree-shaded tables.
In the summer, the cobblestones are packed with tourists predominantly from Turkey, but also Europe and the Middle East. Eating is the thing to do in Alacati; ice creams, pastries and coffees are laced with delicious mastic gum pulled from local pistachio trees that give even the blandest of foods an addictive and sensual tone.
Every café has a special mezze – a lavish collection of Turkish tapas-style dishes with special breads and dips – that can serve as an appetizer or a meal. Expect tiny packets of prawns wrapped in grape leaves; octopus sautéed in wine; seasoned hummus; grilled sardines; fresh pasta with crabmeat and cheese. Foods here are fresh, local, just caught, saturated in olive oil and amazingly satisfying. For those who subscribe to healthy high fat, high protein regimens, Alacati is dining nirvana.
A Saturday market brings produce and herbal delicacies in the region. Shops do cater to tourists with cheap souvenirs but there are plenty of worthy fashion, decor, gourmet, antique and notion boutiques along these quaint alleyways to make up the difference.
A top place to stay the night is Bey-Evi, which overlooks the cafes and shops of Alacati but offers an oasis of calm with 15 rooms and suites. It has an alluring pool, and a décor scheme that pops right out of a shabby chic issue of Architectural Digest. Breakfasts here come as sumptuous mezzes with French pressed coffee – all strong fortification before a day of wind-surfing at Ilica Beach, exploring the nooks and crannies of old Alacati or heading out for wine tasting along the Urla Wine Route.
Turkey actually has a deep history with wine. Vineyards were at play in this area more than a thousand years ago. Collections of ancient clay amphora are still unearthed from time to time. Today the area around Alacati now accounts for a fifth of Turkey’s wine production. Find blends of Sémillon, Bornova Misketi, Carignan, Çal Karas?, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Alicante Bouschet, Shiraz, Kalecik Karas?, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay served in flights from villas overlooking golden fields of time-tested harvests.
Road to Ruins
With a little time to spare, a great road trip to take from here takes you from Alacati to Bodrum, passing the burgeoning cruise port and resort town of Kusadasi and taking in Ephesus and many less visited ruins on its way to the southern Aegean coast. The trip takes around four hours – more if you slow down to enjoy all the views and riveting historic preserves.
The cruise market has softened in Kusadasi due to unpredictable events in Turkey. But that means the great outdoor museums are virtually empty and ripe for the visiting. Side trips to the House of Virgin Mary (where she is believed to have lived out her years before ascending to heaven) near Ephesus may easily work into this road trip.
A longer route could take in the UNESCO World Heritage site of Pamukkale, a striking frame of some 17 turquoise thermal pools cascading down a cliffside of natural limestone terraces. The waters were believed to be healing and were the foundation for Hierapolis, once a Roman and Byzantine spa city, now a museum and labyrinth of abundant ruins. Some of the heated pools can be enjoyed by visitors.
A good way to manage this trip is to book a private car and guide through CITTUR, an inbound destination specialist. They can smooth the way from arrival at Izmir through stays in Alacati and onward to Bodrum, offering educated interpretations of the ancient sites in English, as well as assisting with restaurants, meals, shopping and destination choices. As the Turkish lira is currently at about four to the dollar (up from two in 2015) the values all around Turkey are at a premium.
Best of Bodrum
The Bodrum Peninsula in southwest Turkey is oft considered the country’s French Riviera with its hundreds of sunny, sandy coves that hug the Aegean. Some 32 islands and islets ring the 108-mile stretch of dazzling coastline that runs between the bays of Güllük and Gökova.
Dozens of fishing villages-turned-hidden-resort-hamlets dot the coastline and cater to sun-seeking Europeans who take up temporary residence in tasteful villa developments and boutique beach B&Bs. A quaint two-lane road passes sheep farms, windmills and gleaming white houses with blue doors framed by red bougainvillea trees – the stuff of postcards – all along the rugged cliffs.
Bodrum itself is a charming city of 120,000 people – probably double that in peak season – but for all its history, beauty, action and shopping, it is well worth the trip. It dates back to the Lydian people of the 6th century BC and was ruled by Persians, Seljuk Turks, and Ottomans before it started catering mostly to sun-starved holiday makers in the late 20th century.
Unfortunately, the well-known castle of St. Peter (the Egion castle), built in the 1400s for Christian refugees and the accompanying Museum of Underwater Archaeology is under renovation currently and likely to be so until the end of the decade. But a special treat in this destination is the Greco-Roman amphitheater visible from the main road. The ruins are well preserved and serve as a backdrop in the summer months for the area’s numerous concerts and music festivals.
Bodrum and many of the villages surrounding bring the night to life with buzzing outdoor beachside bistros and dance clubs. During the day, it’s about sunning, dining and shopping, and there is plenty of all of it. The bazaar is a tangle of old shops selling finery, famed Roman sandals made in the region, cashmere pashminas, perfumes, jewelry, sweets, beachwear, bags – all from approachable medieval storefronts that have been there for centuries, although modernized and offering very reasonable deals.
For many visitors, Bodrum is a jumping off point to an exquisite sailing adventure. Richly appointed wooden gulets, or small chartered yachts, sleep four to 12 friends and family quite comfortably. It’s possible to wander the harbor, find the perfect vessel and crew for the right price and take off on a heavenly sailing vacation for $4000 for up to 12 people, all inclusive, seven-day minimum. CITTUR can pre-arrange these adventures as the boats do fill up in the summer high season.
Visitors to Bodrum do not have to stay in the city. There are splendid resorts hidden in spectacular coves and bays around the region. The Six Senses Kaplankaya, a luxury spread an hour north, offers its own wellness agenda as the property had been run by Canyon Ranch. The new Bodrum Resort by Paramount offers 134 guestrooms, villas and suites and caters to mostly Middle Eastern and GCC guests with California-style elegance in a hidden cove about 50 north minutes of the city.
The five-star Kempinski Hotel Barbaros Bay brings dramatic city views from its spot just out of town. The Hilton and the Mandarin Oriental share a perch over Paradise Bay, about 30 minutes north of town.
For those who want to splurge, the Mandarin Oriental offers dedicated butler service with its 86 villas and 23 apartments. Each has a view of the water and most come with their own private deck terrace and pool. Accommodations run from 775 to 6,500 square feet with the junior villa configuration the most popular choice. Dining is buffet style in the morning with indoor and outdoor view seating, beachside in the afternoons with mezzes, salads, light seafood and sandwiches. In the evening the romantic seaside dining venue features an elegant Japanese sushi restaurant.
Recommended: the hammam experience at the Spa at Mandarin Oriental. In an inner sanctum of the spa is a marble hammam where steam rises from a central stone platform as an attendant rubs, scrubs, massages and washes with the care that would be given to the pasha’s favorite concubine. The 50-minute experience leaves the body tingling and fresh, perfect preparation to relax on a hanging chair in the garden or on a lounge bed by the saltwater pool, to listen to Aegean waves crashing on the shore.
Water taxis and complimentary shuttles are available for those who want to explore surrounding beach towns or head to the city. Accommodations start at $200 per night and an ongoing fourth night free promotion makes the visit even sweeter.
For more information about this beautiful and historic destination, visit goturkeytourism.com and turkishairlines.com.