"My soul is elsewhere, I'm sure of that. And I intend to end up there." -- Rumi

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Izmir: a much-needed escape

I've meant to get to this all damn week.

Now all of a sudden it is Saturday again.  I should be out seeing more of the city, or hemming/taking in my work pants, or cleaning the apartment.  But instead I decided to use the sad, broken state of my body as an excuse to spend the day sitting on the couch and obsessively refreshing Facebook.  Oooh, and a new level of Angry Birds came out just last night!!

Quick whine indulgence -- I've had a cold for over two weeks now.  I more or less feel okay, just easily tired.  But the cold's developed into a nasty hacking cough that feels and sounds a lot like that last persistent cough I got in Georgia right before the onset of my Myositis.  With absolutely no exaggeration, I live in daily fear of that illness ever coming back.  I never want to feel pain like that again.  So my hypochondriac self is having a great time right now.  Oh, and I also threw my back out on Wednesday for apparently no reason.  I have never in my life had back problems before.  I woke up at 4 AM last night with totally stopped-up sinuses, a sinus headache, back pain and an upset stomach.  And it wasn't until after the first call to prayer this morning that I was finally able to fall back asleep.

...so... Saturday on the couch!! :)

Fortunately blogging is something I can do on the couch.  So let's talk about Izmir!

One of the -- no wait, the very best thing about my job is that I only have to work four days a week.  I am off on Mondays.  My co-worker, Sarah, is off on Fridays.  A couple weeks ago she asked if we could shuffle our days around a little, as she needed to be away for a long weekend.  Of course I said sure, and that meant that I got MY four-days off this past weekend.

I knew I probably shouldn't spend a ton of money, but school was getting me down.  Three weeks doesn't sound like enough time to be needing a break, but no lie I feel like these little buttheads have already aged me.  They're like that torture machine in The Princess Bride, painfully sucking years of my life away.  I needed to get out.

I booked a last-minute flight to Izmir and flew out on Friday, March 1.

It felt so good to have (a lighter, trimmer, 7.5 kilo) Sisyphus on my back again!  I was so happy to be striding through an airport, finding my gate, and doing some proper journal writing at the ubiquitous airport cafe overlooking the tarmac.  I get so jazzed up from the high of going somewhere.  Seriously, I would do this all the time if I could.

The flight to Izmir was something like 55 minutes.  All told, that was probably the single shortest leg of my journey!  But I navigated from the airport to my hotel, the Guzel Izmir Otel, without a hitch, and checked into my very basic, very tiny single room.  I'd wanted a hostel dorm, but Izmir is irritatingly lacking in those.  This was the cheapest I could find, and I hoped I wasn't going to get my discount dividends back in bedbugs.

The hotel itself was pretty much what I've come to expect from the Budget Hotel category.  Reception was nice enough, the staff charming, but my room was small and dumpy and the bedspread looked like it had seen a lot of use since its purchase in 1945.  At least the bathroom was clean.  I dropped Sisyphus off and headed down towards the water and the Kordon, the center of Izmir's waterfront scene and nightlife.  It's really little more than a few blocks of expensive restaurants with lots of outdoor seating and cocktails that start at 20 lira.  I picked one of the more modest ones and had a pretty tasty lunch/dinner along with my 10 lira beer.  After I ate, there wasn't much else to do along the Kordon except walk along the (increasingly chilly) waterfront, unless I wanted to change my mind about those 20 lira cocktails.  So I walked back to my hotel to rest for a bit before trying to find some quiet nightlife a little closer to my budget.

Izmir waterfront 
Turkish Aegean at sunset
Back at Guzel Izmir, I asked at reception if there were any bars nearby that were both inexpensive and safe for a lady by herself.  The guy told me I'd be better off going down to the water.  I explained I had just come from there, and that it was both quite a walk and full of limited (budget-blowing) choices.  He suggested a bar called "Cheers!" near the Hilton, about a 15 minute walk away.

Me:  Well, what about this bar that's right next door?
Him:  .... No....
Hooray for being in the really super part of town!

I walked to Cheers.  It was pretty empty.  I sat at the bar next to an older guy with an impressive mustache, and quietly kept to myself, reading my Lonely Planet book by blacklight.  But I couldn't help laughing when Mustache Guy answered his phone and tried to tell whoever he was talking to where he was.  "Cheers!"  He said emphatically.  "Cheers!"  And then he cheersed himself by clinking his empty beer bottle against his glass.  I guess now that the ice was broken (sort of), guy seized his opportunity and bought me a heart-shaped bowl of mixed nuts.  We ended up chatting.  He was nice but I left after my second beer, politely refusing his offer to buy me a drink.  And that was Cheers!.

For my first full day in Izmir, the thing I most wanted to see was the ruins of Izmir's Roman Agora.  It was only a short walk away, but when I arrived I got a sinking feeling it was closed because the grounds were absolutely deserted.  But no -- it was definitely open.  Just empty.  Can you imagine how jazzed I was to have an gorgeous ancient site completely to myself???

Much of the Agora looks like this.  There's not a lot left above ground.  I was enjoying my stroll but sort of mentally composing a blog post in which I lamented the fact that there just isn't much to see here.  But then I made my way over to those free-standing columns over to the right, and noticed a small red arrow directing me down a flight of metal stairs and into THIS.

This is the Agora's basilica, and as you can see a large part of the bottom level has been excavated.  They let you walk right down in there!!  It was absolutely incredible.  This kind of thing was exactly what I'd always wanted so badly to be able to do at places like the Palatine, and of course never could.  I could touch the walls!  Duck my head through doorways and explore little side rooms.  Take all the time I wanted.  And I was the only one there!  It was awesome.  Hands-down, one of my favorite experiences exploring ruins.

As I finally made my way back to ground level, I saw a few other tourists had finally joined me at the Agora. Bummer.  Then a Turkish school group showed up and I knew it was time for me to say my farewells.

Basilica arches from the top
Interesting note about the Izmir Agora -- the Muslims used the grounds as a cemetery for a time. So over to one side, inter-dispersed among the fragments of Corinthian columns, are these lovely Muslim tombs and gravestones.

After the Agora, I decided to be brave and attempt to blaze a trail through the crazy Izmir bazaar.  It was packed and full of everything you never knew you wanted.  I poked my (carefully covered) head into two mosques.  It was interesting to see the contrast between all the famous huge museum-like mosques, and these far smaller, simpler places definitely not geared for tourists.  I only stayed a moment and didn't take any photos inside because both times they were full of people praying.  I did see more than one tourist not being nearly as respectful as I was trying to be though!  Shame on you.

I couldn't resist taking photos of the food section of the bazaar however! :)


I stopped in for lunch at this little hole-in-the-wall cafe and had my first Iskender, a Turkish specialty.  I was the only tourist there and they were incredibly sweet to me, even when I got a coughing fit the moment they brought my food.

There's cubed flatbread under there.  Delish.
I wanted to go to the Archeology and Ethnography museums, and to get there I had to walk through Konak Square.  Lonely Planet listed it as a "must-see", and I don't know about all that; it was just a square full of balloon sellers and gypsies pushing carnations into your face.  But hey, I saw it.

Looks like the Turkish Leaning Tower here.  Promise it's straight in real life.
Got a little lost finding the museums, but that was okay because it meant I got to visit a very cool art gallery that had a good collection of modern art, sculpture, and photography.  An adorable old man at the gallery set me straight, so I found the museums and did my circuit.  They were a little dry but worth it, I think.  Especially the Ethnography museum, which was free. :)

Turn-of-the-century Ottoman living room
And after all that, I was exhausted.  I took the metro back to my hotel and rested for a couple hours before heading out to find a cheap kebab for dinner.

Do you know that Georgians have this really interesting.... I don't know what you would call it, an urban legend? that if you step in shit, it means that you're going to come into money somehow.  Well, I had the misfortune to test that theory rather squishily during my evening stroll. :(  It meant my quick dinner errand morphed into a very necessary quest to find somewhere I could wash my shoe before going back to my room.  So I ended up in one of those bars near my hotel that Reception Guy had advised I not visit.  It was fine; the beer prices were posted so I didn't worry about getting overcharged, and it was well-lit and not crowded.  But the owner/bartender guy was very attentive and kept doing things like leaning really close over my shoulder to see what I was reading, and touching the ring I wear on my left middle finger before asking if I was married.  Uh... wrong finger, doofus.  I left after my beer, but not before using their bathroom.   :)

I wanted an early night, because I was getting up early the next morning to take the train to Selchuk.  I was going to take a look at Ephesus, one of the best-preserved ancient cities in the world, and in fact the entire impetus for my choosing to go to Izmir.  Guess what the next blog post will be!

P.S.  I still have not seen that money I am supposedly now entitled to, Georgia.  Your credibility is at stake here.

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