Purim is a holiday celebration like no other
Boutique renovations are yet to alter the old town, where traditional life continues unimpeded. In a scene that could have taken place 50 years ago, a gang of boys in shorts play a game with bits of string on a doorstep, while in the shade nearby, the slower fingers of men in woolly hats click backgammon pieces.
Staircases clamber between some 2,000 crumbling houses, and sunlight streams into the narrow lanes between peeling pastel-coloured buildings. It’s a peaceful scene, but the presence of Greek houses recalls upheaval – in 1923, most of the town’s Greek Orthodox inhabitants were forced to swap places with Muslims from the island of Lesvos across the bay as part of a mandatory population exchange.
In Tarlakusu Gurmeko deli, the proprietor, Ayfer Eroguz, happily works the coffee machine and enthuses about Aegean cuisine. The area is famous for its tangy olive oil, and juicy local olives figure prominently in what Ayfer describes as ‘exchange recipes, which you can still taste in homes. The style is fresh, the cooking period is short and the vegetables do not change their colour or taste.’
Ayfer buys her fruit and vegetables at the Thursday market, where the produce is strictly local, brought from the hills by farmers in old trucks. ‘Ayvalık is quieter than the south of Turkey. It’s more natural and there are fewer people,’ she says.
Turkeytravelplanner.com/go/Aegean/ayvalik has useful travel information.
Where to eat
Most traffic to Mutlu, just 15 minutes’ drive inland, stops at olive farm and gardens Nostalji. Olive oil tastings and a museum of curios are also on the menu (mains from £10).
Where to stay
Taksiyarhis Pension: sharing a cobbled lane with the Greek Orthodox church of the same name, picturesque Taksiyarhis offers the chance to wake up in the quiet old town. Bedrooms are spacious and vine-covered terraces are perfect settings for kahvaltı (breakfast), with views across Ayvalık’s terracotta roofs (from £40).
Ephesus: Best for classical ruins
Drive three hours south on the E87 motorway, past Izmir and through the rolling hills.
At the end of a hot Aegean day, the sun sets on the marble remains of a once-great city. At its peak two millennia ago, Ephesus was the capital of the Roman province of Asia and the empire’s largest metropolis after Rome. Toga-clad hordes once streamed along these thoroughfares, but today the roads are abandoned, with wildflowers popping up between the flagstones and sprawling headless statues.
Among these remnants are some of the most remarkable Roman structures in the world. There are the remains of temples, marketplaces, bath houses and even public bathrooms (with each toilet set companionably side-by-side for ease of chatting). And there’s the towering, columned façade of the Library of Celsus – once home to 12,000 papyrus scrolls – and the vast Great Theatre.
Can Arman, an expert in classics from the Ephesus Museum in nearby Selçuk, walks along the top level of the Great Theatre’s terraced seats, where 25,000 Ephesians would gather to witness gladiatorial battles and ceremonial sacrifices. He points out that this amphitheatre reveals more than just the city’s enthusiasm for spectacle. ‘A classical city’s population was typically about 10 times the capacity of its theatre,’ he says, ‘so from this we can work out that the population was at least 250,000. Counting slaves and people living outside the city walls, that’s up to a million.’
In the sixth century, the city suffered a terminal blow when its harbour became too silted up by the Cayster River and Ephesus lost access to its economic lifeblood, the Aegean. Today, the ancient port town is several miles inland.
Despite its radical changes over time, to walk these ancient streets is to get a genuine glimpse of what it was to live here in Roman times. One of the streets is even home to what is believed to be the world’s oldest advertisement – an etched paving stone providing coded directions to the nearest brothel.