Traveling to Turkey’s cultural treasury: Ephesus, Şirince, Priene and Doğanbey
One of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, UNESCO World Heritage, delicious fruit wine from Şirince and just as tasty olive oil. Turkey has so much more to offer than just sun and beach. I am traveling to Turkey’s cultural treasury and visit Ephesus, Şirince, Priene and Doğanbey.
Historical sites near Kuşadasi
Stress! For the first time ever I miss a connecting flight. There I am at Istanbul Ataturk Airport, half an hour after the plane where I should be in, left. Rebooking the ticket and running to the other side of the airport takes much more time than I feel comfortable with. And yet, an hour later I land at İzmir Airport. Done! Here awaits a transfer to Kuşadası, the city that reminds me of sunbathers, beaches, high temperatures and delicious cocktails. Or is there much more to see and to do in this city and region? Let’s find out!
The following morning we have breakfast with a stunning view over the Aegean sea. The music of Julio Iglesias in the background is only accompanied by the sound of the sea and the tapping of spoons against coffee cups. We stay in one of the oldest hotels in the city, the KoruMar Hotel De Luxe. For the Dutch couple at the table next to us this is well over the 10th visit to this hotel, the man says to me. With this view, I totally understand them. However, I did not travel over here just for the blue sea or the beautiful view over the bay. I am looking for historical sites near Kuşadasi!
Ephesus, UNESCO World Heritage Site and the largest excavations of Greek antiquity
Our guide Erdem Eryilmaz is waiting for us and he knows for sure; whoever loves culture is in the right place in Kuşadası. The region is bursting out of archaeological excavations, historical sites and beautiful towns. Tourism to Turkey has collapsed, so there are fewer tourists than ever before. Turkey is a country with more turmoil than the average travel destination, always have been, by the way. But that this is not a reason to avoid Turkey as a destination for your holiday, Erdem shows us. First stop: Ephesus.
After Rome Ephesus was the largest city of the Roman Empire. With every step, you feel that you are walking over thousands of years of history. You can almost hear how the rich citizens whisper in the agora, how the soldiers walk over the marble of the stoa. A little further a tragedy is playing in the theater and a man looks at the beautiful library. From here there used to be a tunnel to the nearby brothel, one of the city’s largest sources of income. Not the largest though, because that was still trade. After all, Ephesus was a port city, even though the coastline has now moved further away from the city and Ephesus lies a bit more inland.
No, even now it’s not hard to imagine how this city looked like in antiquity. Ephesus is one of the best preserved ancient cities of the western world and the most important archaeological area of Turkey.
While the sun is getting higher in the skye, it becomes more difficult to find shadow. We walk the last meters to the Temple of Artemis. This was one of the largest temples that the Greeks built and it was once one of the Seven World Wonders of the Ancient World. There’s not much of it left, as we will later find out.
House of the Virgin Mary
From Ephesus, a long way leads up the mountain Bülbüldağı. Here stands a small stone house in a serene setting, hidden in beautiful nature. You hear the crickets in the woods around you. According to Christian tradition, this is the House of the Virgin Mary. The Apostle John would have brought the mother of Jesus from Jerusalem to Ephesus, and in this house she spent her final years.
It’s not the original house, though. In the 19th century, the German nun Catharina Emmerich saw in her visions the house where Mary lived and died. The simple stone house was rebuilt according to her description. Nowadays, the sanctuary in Ephesus is a pilgrimage place for both Christians and Muslims, because the Holy Virgin is also mentioned in the Qur’an, and Islam sees Mary (Mereyem-ana) as mother of a prophet, and thus as holy.
Therapeutic effect is attributed to the source that runs under the house. If you walk past the house you will see 3 tapes where you can tap water. The first one is supposed to bring you love, the second one health and the third one wealth. A few meters further the wall is covered with cotton ribbons to which you can pin your letters to Mary, so you can ask her for help. In some places a handkerchief is tied to the ribbon, or a stray sock, all fully written with requests. Some with a plea for luck in love, a football match to be won or a demand for an early retirement from work. The wishes vary widely.
The Basilica of St. John in Selçuk
On the other side of Ephesus you’ll find the Isa Bey mosque and -standing on a hill above it – a Byzantine citadel. In this citadel the Basilica of St. John is located with as is said the tomb of the apostle John. Initially a smaller church was built in this place. Although the church is long gone, walking between the ruins of the basilica you will discover the cross-shaped pattern of the church, you can walk through the remains of the baptistery and see some authentic mosaics.
In the 6th century, the basilica was commissioned by Emperor Justinianus I and was built around the church. When centuries later the Selcuk conquered Ephesus, the remains of the church were declared a mosque.
From the hill we again overlook the Temple of Artemis. At least, what’s left of it. From the top of the basilica you can estimate how immense and impressive the temple must have been in earlier times.
Wine tasting in Şirince
During lunch at Şirince Artemis Restaurant, with delicious spicy Turkish pasta, a sweet potato dessert with tahini and Turkish Tea, we hear about the story of Şirince. The town of Cirkince was once called ‘ugly city’ to prevent the city from being flooded by visitors. Later it changed it’s name into Şirince, ‘lovely city’. As a result of this, the many visitors came anyway.
The mountain town of Şirince is located in the hinterland of Izmir, at the end of a long road that winds up the mountain and it is surrounded by hills full of vines and apple farms. A large part of this fruit is processed into fruit wines and not long after we enter Şirince we are offered some sweet mulberrie wine. The wines from Şirince are often produced with local fruits such as apricots, cherries, mandarins, oranges or berries. You can taste the result throughout the town, ever since the Ottoman era, and in winter times you can taste hot spiced wine. Year round you find in this town the traditional sweetness called Pekmez, made of different kinds of fruit. Or Nar ekşisi, a kind of vinegar made of pomegranate.
A little further an elderly woman sells herbs, a cat runs away under a stall where the invigorating smell of olive oil soap hangs. Sure, you can not visit Şirince without tasting wine, buying handmade olive oil and olive oil soap and enjoying Turkish cuisine in a traditional restaurant.
Archaeological gem: Priene
The next day we visit Priene, an ancient Greek city in the region of Ionia, about 45 kilometers south of Kuşadası. Priene was one of the cities of the Ionian Federation. Twelve cities on the Ionian coast that worked together to protect themselves from the invading Persian Empire.
Priene is located on Mount Samsun Dagi. The old town used to be at the seaside, but nowadays it is about ten miles inland. From the temple of Athena you have a wide view of the plateau. Erdem tells us that “Where Ephesus on a busy day can welcome about 2000 visitors, Priene has about 2000 visitors a year.” Perhaps it’s a bit exaggerated, but it is remarkably quiet at the archaeological site. Even though it is a beautiful place! It is a bit more ragged than the polished Ephesus. Parts of columns lie over the walking path, overgrown with plants and trees, and you climb from stone to stone. A true hidden gem.
A little further you can visit the Ephesus Museum with the famous statue of Artemis.
Dilek Peninsula National Park
The Priene site is as beautiful for its ruins as its surroundings, close to the Dilek Peninsula National Park. A beautiful wooded area that runs from the slopes of the mountains to the sea. You walk through the woods or lie down on the beach. Just don’t be scared when you see a family of wild boar crossing the path, or when the silence is disrupted by the thousands of birds living here.
On the south side of the Dilek Peninsula National Park, near Kuşadası, lies the town of Doğanbey. An idyllic hamlet and a former Greek village, where in recent years the stone Greek houses have been beautifully restored. Here you’ll find one restaurant, but that’s about it. There is little to do in Doğanbey, but it’s a beautiful place to stroll through. The old buildings are incredibly picturesque and you can lie down under an old olive tree and enjoy the view over the delta.
After the visit to Doğanbey we have lunch in one of the handful seafood restaurants that look out over the sea in the coastal village of Karina Bay. Afterwards we visit the Cave of Zeus. This is supposed to be the birth cave of the god Zeus, with clear blue water where you can take a dive in the divine water.
Turkish wines and olive oil
Some 20 minutes outside of Kuşadası is the Oleatrium, an olive oil museum with ancient olive oil presses from the mediterranean area. It’s really an interesting visit for those who want to know more about olive oil. Our guide tells us that it took over 30 years to collect all the olive oil presses for the museum, some dating from the Ionian, Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman times, and the thousands of years old amphores that were used to preserve the oil.
It is interesting to find out how early one began to press olive oil from olives. Nowadays, Spain is the largest olive oil product, followed by Italy where olive oil producers are having a hard time, with Turkey in a neat 5th place. In the Degirmen restaurant next to the museum the same olive oil is used that we just got in the museum shop. In the restaurant we enjoy the delicious Turkish cuisine. Where in the Mediterranean area dishes are often accompanied by matching wines, we are served a delicious intense pomegranate juice, and later on Turkish tea and Turkish coffee.
It’s not like you can’t find wine over here. One day later we will end this trip with a tasting of Turkish wines at Restaurant Yedi Bilgeler. The seven wines that they produce over here are named after Anaxagoras, Lassos, Pythagoras, Thales, Khilon, Solon and Bias, who lived in this region, drank wine and philosophized.
Yedi Bilgeler, vineyard of the seven sages, also has a hotel and a restaurant. Could there be a better place to end a beautiful trip than a vineyard with incredible views across the region, where you can take a look at the storage cellars with oak barrels and bottled wines, and where you can toast to a wonderful journey, a quest to find the historical sites near Kuşadasi?