A Tale in Red: Mountains and wine; wonders and religion.

After our day in Sardis talking about invasions, money, and the ancient religion, we needed a place to rest. Firat took the road to Çeşme, a coastal town in Izmir Province. The scenery passing the car window mixed mountains, plains, and soon, the sea. We arrived quite late and the evening was already becoming a dark night. Moreover, Firat was in a rush: that night the football team he supports was playing Fenerbahce, and this was something very important to him, almost like a lover without a body or face, he was, truly, what we might call, a fanatic.

We found a hotel near the castle, and with a sea view. Leaving our luggage there, Firat began his search for a place to watch the match. Ten minutes later we were seated in a cafe, having a beer (Efes), some nuts, and a ‘toast’ (actually two slices of bread with some kind of cheese in the middle). In silence I observed the men around me, watching the match with great attention. I was the only woman there, and from time to time, one or another of them would look round at me with curiosity.

The stay n Çeşme was short, only one night. Next morning, I had a really delicious breakfast that included black olives, tomatoes, cucumber, menemen (a kind of scrambled eggs), honey, butter, bread (tasty Turkish bread) and çay (Turkish tea). After breakfast, we made a quick stop to take photos of the castle, and some of a statue of a lion and of the sea. Çeşme is a coastal town located 85 km west of Izmir. The location, on a promontory at the tip of the peninsula of the same name, has enabled the city to transform itself into a popular holiday resort. The name Çeşme means ‘fountain’, and is probably a reference to the many Ottoman fountains scattered throughout the city.

Leaving Çeşme, our next stop would be the village of Şirince, nestled in the mountains. The day was gorgeous, the air fresh and cold. It was another ‘blue’ day.

Şirince is a village of 600 inhabitants, also in Izmir Province, located about 8 km east of the town of Selçuk. The community was settled when Ephesus was abandoned in the 15th century, but most of the construction we can see today is from the 19th century. It’s said that the settlers were freed Greek slaves who named it Cirkince, meaning ‘ugly’ in Turkish, to deter others from following them. In 1926, the village name was changed by Izmir’s governor to Şirince, meaning ‘pleasant’.

When we were approaching the city, the view made me recall another mountain town I had visited in Brazil. Monte Verde and Şirince are similar. Both nested between mountains, concealed from passing view, keeping their beautiful secrets well hidden. I was now near enough to unfold some of them.

Leaving the car parked safely, we headed to the main street where small stores selling ceramic, clothes, crafts, and wine were interspersed with restaurants. Firat explained that the wine produced in the region is famous, specifically because they add different fruit to it, creating a range of flavours beyond that of the traditional red and white grapes. His description made me curious, so he led me to a friend’s shop where I was introduced to the nine different ypes of wines they produce and sell. It was fun to try the different tastes. They provided toasted corn to “liberate” one’s mouth from the taste of the previous wine. My favourites were strawberry, blueberry and mandarin (tangerine). If anybody wants to go there, the wine shop is called Şirince Kaplankaya Wines, and I was served by Salim.

I left with two bottles of wine…and with a slight feeling of ‘dizziness’! A long climb was awaiting me, and I began to wonder if visiting the wine store before climbing the hill had been my wisest decision. After fifteen minutes of somewhat ‘irregular’ walking (including several stops to get our breath back) we reached a church. In front of the building there was a fountain with a statue in the middle. It was the Virgin Mary, with her gentle eyes, and mantle, and she was offering her hand to whoever was willing to take it. Made in bronze, the statue was the first indication I had seen of Mary’s presence in the region

The church was, in fact a ruin (though it was being restored), and was dedicated to St. John the Baptist. Firat was interested in what I knew about St John, and was a little frustrated when I told him I knew almost nothing.

Returning to the main street, we passed some ladies crocheting and gossiping in the warm sun. Others were looking at clothes, crafts and spices arranged on stalls. One caught my attention because the clothes where very westernise and I discovered that the clothes being sold there were made in China!

Firat was pleased that I found this amusing. There were small white houses ‘growing’ in the surrounding hillsides, almost like white bindweed flowers dotted across the green. “Are you hungry?” Firat’s question made me consult my stomach; yes, I was hungry.

The small restaurant was half-way up the hill we had climbed to get to the church. When we entered, a group of students were ordering their lunch. The teachers collected the money and the orders and gave them to a man who looked like the owner. “What would you like to eat?” When I began the trip, I had made a decision not eat any food that wasn’t Turkish. Because of this, most of the time, Firat chose my meals for me. That day, I decided to change this, and I ordered mantı (a kind of ravioli filled with meat), with a tomato sauce and yogurt. It tasted superb.

While I was having my meal, I was discretely observing the dynamics between the students and their teachers, and was surprised by the sense of respect, organisation, and friendship they shared.

After our delicious lunch, we seated ourselves on the balcony of the restaurant to have a çay and for Firat to smoke his traditional cigarette. Ten minutes later we were driving to Selçuk.

Fırat was eager to show me three things in Selçuk: the church of St John, the Isa Bey Mosque and one of the seven wonders of the ancient world: The Temple of Artemis. I was curious about how the temples to the three religions, the Christian. The Muslim  and the pagan were aligned.

Let’s start with the church of St. John. After the death of St. Paul, St. John continued his work of evangelisation in Ephesus. As happened to many early Christian preachers, he ended up being burned on top of a hill (the one I was on). In the 6th century, Justinian and Theodora built a basilica there.  It must have been a huge church – a basilica to announce the power of the Byzantine emperor. It was Theodora who deposited Saint John’s ashes in a tomb in the Basilica. Theodora, Justinian’s wife, was a Christian and responsible for the construction of several churches during the reign of her husband.

Leaving the church, I followed along to the mosque of Isa Bey. Isa is what Christ was called in Turkish, and, as “bay” means “Mr”, interestingly we were therefore at a mosque called ‘Mr Christ’. Facts: Isa is pronounced: “essah” and Bey, as “bay”.

It now remained to see the seventh wonder of the ancient world. Fırat began by telling me: “Don’t be disappointed, there isn’t much left.” But he simply couldn’t understand how “creative” I am in my mind’s eye. Even from a single stone, I can build’ a temple. That was exactly the case here.  The temple of Artemis, or what is left of it, lies in the middle of an area full of weeds, with a marsh nearby and a column in the middle. That’s it! Just that. My imagination was needed to take care of the rest…and it did!

At the end of the day, I was dead tired, longing for a bath, bed and a good night’s sleep. We took the road to Kuşadası, where the hotel was chosen by the Turkish government , I will explain why on another post. The hotel they booked for me was the Korumar. It had a spectacular view, and the room was comfortable. It was winter; so not many guests were around. What did I like most about this hotel? The view – watching the sunset from my bed was priceless.

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