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Cradled between mountains to the east and south, and the Aegean Sea to the west, Turkey's third-largest city bears witness to thousands of years of turbulent history -- in the form of war, fire and earthquake. Izmir's been ruled by an Amazon queen, relocated and re-established following a dream by Alexander the Great, and thereafter razed, controlled, razed, controlled by Romans, Arabs, Selcuk Turks, Byzantines, Ottomans and modern Greeks before finally being reclaimed by the Turks, who drove out the Greek army in a bloody battle that left the city once more in ashes.
Little of the storied path of ancient Smyrna (Izmir's original name) is visible. Today, Izmir is one of Turkey's largest (2.5 million) and most thoroughly modern cities. The container ships, cranes and concrete high-rises that populate the harbor are a drab sight, and, predictably, most cruise travelers bypass the city altogether. Like Kusadasi to the south, Izmir's main virtue is its proximity to Ephesus, an incredibly well-preserved Roman city, and one that lives up to its lofty reputation. Likewise, the ruins of Pergamum and Asclepion, an ancient Greek center of culture and health, are easily accessible and are included excursion options on all ships docking in Izmir.
The city itself is not without merit, and passengers looking to explore the sprawling cityscape in the relatively short time allotted ashore will have options. The sociable Konak Square, with its emblematic Ottoman Clock Tower, is Izmir's main gathering point for young Turks. The square leads into a long, winding Bazaar, a common site throughout Turkey (if you want to buy something, be prepared to haggle). The bayside cafes that line Birinci Kordon, a long main boulevard running parallel to the waterfront, offer the opportunity to relax, sip wine, enjoy appetizers (mezes) of local seafood and watch people wander by. The Agora, an enormous 2,000-year-old marketplace where Roman farmers and merchants once hawked cotton, olive oil and fruit, is one of the few places that has been spared from urbanization, and is a fascinating site.
Though its modern vibe may initially be off-putting, it's notable that building projects -- the subway, high-rises -- have often yielded fantastic archeological finds such as roman statues and pottery, a reminder of how much history remains just below the surface.
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Other Eastern Mediterranean Cruise Ports:
Athens • Bari • Bodrum • Corfu • Crete • Dubrovnik • Gythion • Haifa • Istanbul • Izmir • Jerusalem (Ashdod) • Katakolon • Kotor • Kusadasi • Limassol • Mykonos • Rhodes • Santorini • Split • Varna • Venice • Volos • Zadar
Turkish, but you'll have little trouble with basic English communication.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The currency is the Turkish Lira and ATM's abound. Conversion rate was roughly $1 to 1.55 Turkish Lira as of July 2010. Shops and restaurants will also accept Euros and dollars (as well as credit cards). Visit www.xe.com for up-to-the-minute exchange rates.
Where You're Docked
You'll end up at Alcansak, a rather industrial-looking pier area. There are a several stores and a post office in the cruise terminal. Typically, you'll have to hoof it to where the busses are stationed to pick up your shore excursion transport, but if you're lucky, the port authority may let buses in to pick you up right at the ship (when there's only one ship in port).
Most cruise travelers will be taking full-day tours to either Ephesus or Pergamum. Those wishing to get around on their own, either to the bazaar or other city monuments like the Agora, will find metered taxis outside the cruise terminal. Rides to Konak Square (the main entry spot into the bazaar), should cost you about 12 Turkish Lira each way. Word of advice: The taxi drivers may repeatedly offer tours during the short drive en route to whatever location you're heading. A few firm "no's" should do the trick.
Watch Out For
In the bazaar, prepare for a large number of "salesmen." This is certainly not as bad as some places -- read Cairo! -- but you'll face an incessant wave of requests to buy jeans and designer knockoffs. It also gets quite crowded, so be aware of your wallet.
Ephesus is the best-preserved ancient city in the Eastern Mediterranean and is a magical place that enthralls even those who normally find rubbernecking around ruins a bore. The Virgin Mary is believed to have visited here between 37 and 45 A.D., and the fabulous Temple of Cybele at Artemis, which Alexander the Great visited during its construction in 334 B.C., was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Located about an hour's drive from Izmir, Ephesus at one time was the most important commercial center in the region. The city was built on the river Cayster -- a strategic trade route to Anatolia. The ruins range from a theater and library to private terrace houses with magnificent mosaics and frescoes.
Note: Please prepare carefully for a trip to Ephesus; the site gets very crowded and extremely hot in the summer months, so take plenty of water, sunscreen and head covers. There are restaurants near the site and full-day cruise tours will include lunch. If not visiting Ephesus via a shore excursion, your taxi can drop you at one end and (by prior arrangement) pick you up at the other.
Often included in tours to Ephesus and definitely not worth missing is a visit to the House of the Virgin Mary, located atop Nightingale Mountain (Bulbul). It's a humble, one-story brick house that, according to myth, is where the Virgin spent her last years. Discovered in 1880 by a German nun with a vision, the house has been visited by countless folks on pilgrimages -- including two popes.
For the diehard shopper, head straight to the bazaar for some hardcore haggling. You'll find a predominance of designer attire -- be prepared to endure a cacophony of "Guess, Boss, Levi's, very cheap" -- but also leather goods, antiques, produce, household goods, spices and more.
Been There, Done That
Try an excursion to ancient Pergamum and Asclepion. Pergamum was a Greek city well known as a major intellectual center, which boasted one of the most impressive libraries in antiquity. There are also the remains of a 10,000-seat theater, a marketplace, palaces, temples and a Roman bath complex. Nearby Asclepion, always included in any excursion to Pergamum, was once a huge sanctuary devoted to the god of healing -- a massive spa of sorts from olden times.
Pergamum and Asclepion are reachable from Izmir, but not Kusadasi.
Though Izmir likely boasts bountiful ruins, most are yet to be found -- the major exception being the Agora. When in use, the marketplace was the largest in Asia Minor, and one of the most impressive found in the Greek/Roman empires. Now little remains but the foundation (1st century B.C.) and the western colonnade, a row of massive columns that gives a dramatic impression of size. There are numerous pieces of statues and columns strewn about the open-air museum, and a reconstruction project is in progress. If you're not on a tour, the entry fee is a few dollars.
If you're heading off on an excursion, as most cruise travelers will be, lunch/snack will be part of the experience. If not, there are lots of appealing options lining Birinci Kordon, the main waterfront boulevard. Look for one that's busy, and be seated. If you'd prefer to stand for a full meal, you're covered. During summer months there are numerous street vendors selling mussels, an Izmiri specialty.
Sisim, down by Pasaport (the ferry pier), just north of Cumhuriyet Meydani, is great for people watching and gazing out at a teeming harbor. It's also very affordable. You can grab a meal of fish and meat pie plus a drink for less than $15.
One of the most popular establishments with both locals and tourists alike, Deniz serves up locally caught seafood specialties like bream and red mullet, baked to perfection.
A short cab ride will take you to Alsancak, a wealthy residential neighborhood with some more upscale options. Restaurant 1824, set in a 19th-century mansion, is one of many elegant choices in the area.
Staying in Touch
There are a number of Web cafes on the Birinci Kordon.
For your snail-mail correspondences, the cruise terminal sells stamps and mails letters/postcards.
All ships will offer tours to Ephesus, which lies about an hour away (depending on traffic). Durations range from four hours to an entire day with lunch at the site, a guided walk, and built-in free time in Ephesus.
Likewise, ships will offer full-day tours to Pergamum and Asclepion. Most of these excursions will also include a stop at one of many carpet weaving "centers" for demonstrations and an irritating sales-pitch.
For a more local taste of the city, try an Izmir orientation tour, which will include stops at the bazaar, the Archeological museum (which houses relics found in the city) and a visit to the Agora.
For More Information
On the Web: www.tourismturkey.org or www.gototurkey.co.uk
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--by Dan Askin, Assistant Editor