Christmas In Between Greece And Turkey, Plus Izmir

Trip Start Oct 21, 2009
Trip End Jan 12, 2010

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Flag of Turkey  , Turkish Aegean Coast,
Saturday, December 26, 2009

12.24.09/12.25.09/12.26.09          Christmas In Between Greece And Turkey, Plus Izmir

Christmas Eve Day, 12.24.09:

Unfortunately, I didn't feel very well today (bad headache), so I stuck mostly to our hotel room and rested.  Murray did some more exploring of Athens on his own, and in the afternoon, he was nice enough to bring me another "cheap but cheerful" pita sandwich from the shop down the road.  By early evening, I was feeling much perkier, so I made a few more calls to the US (including a call to my Gramm and my aunt – but unfortunately, I couldn’t get through to my brother Patrick), which was fun!  For dinner, Murray brought back more take-out Greek food for us to eat, and we half-watched a really bad Christmas movie (“Surviving Christmas,” with Ben Affleck) on TV.  We were in bed fairly early tonight.

I must admit – it has been a hard day today, not only because I wasn’t feeling well, but also because I miss my family!  Christmas is a very special, spirit-filled time for us together – and Christmas Eve, especially, has always been important because it’s the one holiday that is spent with immediate family only.  We go to church together (my mom and dad are always involved in the church services, of course; some years, my brothers and I offer “special music” (e.g., sing!) at one of the services), and afterward, we drive home, queue up the Christmas music on the stereo, and drink hot buttered rum or Brandy Alexanders with ice cream while cooking our traditional Christmas Eve meal together (which always had a few additional dishes, but never strayed from these basics): hot fruit soup; seven-layer salad; twice-baked potatoes; creamed corn; and fried shrimp (a tradition started because the descendents born in America could not stomach the lutefisk from Norway, and my ancestors wanted to keep the meal in the “fish family”!). 

So – eating a pita sandwich out of a piece of paper, in a different country and in a strange hotel room – not feeling well enough to go to church services, and not having a lick of Christmas spirit around me at all – is a far cry from the important family time shared around a home-cooked meal.  Of course, I can’t complain – I’m on a world tour with my husband (whom I love dearly, and who is my family, too!), and I have wonderful little Baby Boo nestled up inside me – all three, tremendous gifts.  Still, I’m just a little bit lonely today.    

Christmas Day, 12.25.09:

We left Athens this morning at 10:30am, and didn’t get to our hotel in Izmir, Turkey, until well after 11pm!  It was a long, hot day of travel.  From Athens (where getting through passport control took over an hour), our flight to Istanbul was late – but fortunately, when we arrived in Turkey, everything from customs to baggage claim went smoothly.  At the Istanbul airport, we consolidated our suitcases into one bag, leaving one very full, very heavy suitcase in “left luggage” at the airport (because our domestic flight to Izmir had a baggage weight limit that we would exceed if we didn’t leave one bag behind) – and then we checked in for our next flight.

After that, we had several hours to kill in Istanbul’s airport, as we had booked an evening flight in case there were delays with Turkish customs (and, in the end, the evening flight to Izmir was delayed, so we really did have a lot of time to kill).  The big highlights of our Christmas afternoon together: I really got into the storyline of a good book that I had picked up somewhere during all our travels (and that I had “saved” to read until today as a present to myself!) – and, at the Istanbul airport, we found a decent pub and Murray got to try a new Turkish beer!  Hah.

By the time we were on our last flight of the day to Izmir, yesterday’s headache had returned with a vengeance, so I was anxious to get to our new hotel and hunker down for the night.  We decided to take a taxi from the airport to our hotel, in order to get there as quickly as possible, and shortly after we arrived at the hotel, both of us were in bed and sleeping!

Today was the least Christmas-y Day I have ever had in my life – which, again, was hard.  We had no opportunity to go to church services, and halfway through the day, we flew into a more-Muslim-than-Christian country, so it was a “regular old day” for everyone else around us.  I thought a lot about my family today – spread from the US to Australia (and currently, with siblings in Eastern Europe and South America!) – and I am so grateful to know that everyone is happy and healthy.  Again, I’m also grateful for the opportunities and gifts I have been given this year, which are too numerous to count but include this trip, the love of a wonderful husband, and the new life growing inside me.

Merry Christmas, everyone!  I am grateful for you, your support, and your reading of my journals, too!  

Boxing Day, 12.26.09:

[Today we found out that Murray’s dad, Perce, is being checked back into the hospital in Sydney for yet another operation on his knee.  We are thinking about you, Perce, and praying so hard for your speedy recovery!  You have been through quite the ordeal over the last 2+ years now, and yet throughout you have not complained and made the best of the situation.  We greatly admire you, and love you so much!]

Happy Boxing Day to those who celebrate it!  Now that Christmas is past, maybe I can shake the loneliness I have felt these last few days. 

Today was a gorgeous day in Turkey, and I awoke with anticipation at being in yet another new country (I also awoke because of the 5:30am Muslim call to prayer, another reminder that we are in a new place yet again)!  After the “non-days” I’ve just had, it was wonderful to get out into the fresh air, enjoy the beautiful (sunny, mid-60s, light breeze) day, and explore a part of Turkey I’d never been to before (and Murray’s never been to Turkey before, so it’s all new for him)!

Izmir is Turkey’s third largest city, with a population over two million people.  It has a distinctly Mediterranean ambiance, and is a major port on the Aegean Sea.  Izmir’s history is eventful and turbulent (e.g., Alexander the Great re-founded Smyrna on Mt. Pagos, around the 4th century BC, after a legendary dream told him to do so).  Suffice to say, most of modern Izmir was built in 1923, after a Greek invasion and a disastrous fire destroyed most of the city.  Before that year, Izmir was SMYRNA, a more western-like city where more citizens were Christian and Jewish than Muslim.  Smyrna’s population also included thousands of foreign diplomats, traders, merchants, and sailors, and its connections with Greece and the rest of Europe were close and continuous.  To the Turks before 1923, the city was considered “Infidel Smyrna”!

We found an interesting little hotel in to stay at in Izmir, the Konak Saray Hotel – built in 1855 in the Ottoman architectural style.  Late last night, arriving here in a taxi in the drizzling rain, I didn’t think much of the neighborhood as we drove up to the hotel – but this morning, it’s a different story.  We are right in the middle of things (and yet our hotel room last night was nice and quiet!), on a bustling, café-lined street that seems to have more than its fair share of barber shops.  We are just a short walk to both the Agora of Smyrna and the extensive Izmir bazaar, which leads to the main Konak Square (and, as we discovered tonight in preparation for tomorrow’s day trip – we’re only a 5-minute walk from the train station, too!).

Even better, our hotel breakfast this morning was fantastic – a huge buffet containing all the standards PLUS things like herbed/paprika’ed eggs; bowls of marinated olives; several more kinds of meats, cheeses, and breads than we’ve seen before; hot tomato soup!; freshly baked sesame rolls, with herbs and cheese inside; and freshly fried sigaros (or cigarillos – phyllo dough wrapped around fried feta cheese).  Yumm-o!  So, after enjoying our wonderful breakfast, we headed out to explore our first stop of the day, the Agora of Smyrna.

The Agora of Smyrna, similar to other agoras we’ve visited, served as the administrative, political, judicial, and commercial center of the city.  It was built on the orders of Alexander the Great, but a large earthquake destroyed many of the original structures in 178 AD.  However, just after this earthquake, the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius rebuilt the Agora, the remains of which we visited today. 

For a number of reasons, this Agora stood out to us as different and more unique than agoras we’ve toured in other countries.  First, it has a large, reconstructed arch, called the Faustina Gate, which served as the entrance to the agora from a street coming from the western neighborhoods.  On the keystone of this large arch, a perfectly intact bust of Faustina remains.  (Faustina was the wife of Marcus Aurelius, and she is honored on this gate because she helped the city and people of Smyrna after the devastating earthquake.)

Second, the large Western Portico of the Agora is built upon a basement, which we had never seen before (and which definitely made it more interesting)!  A row of columns from the Portico’s ground floor were re-erected several years ago. 

Third – regarding never before seeing basements in agoras – this Agora has a large, intact basement area, which we were able to tour.  (PS – I just have to add something totally inane here.  Remember “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure”, when he goes looking for the basement in The Alamo but there is no basement there?!  OK, never mind.  That might be a Schmidt Family thing.  Anyway…)  The basement of the Agora is divided into three galleries, which are vaulted superstructures supported by stone arcs.  The architectural engineering here was spectacular!  Moreover, in the late ancient period, cisterns were added to these galleries and terracotta water pipes were built into these basements.  Even today, water still reaches the Portico – another engineering feat.

Finally, the Agora of Smyrna also has an intact basilica, the basement of which (appropriately, named the “Basement of the Basilica”!) we were able to tour.  Basilicas, typically built along one side of the agora, were multi-purpose structures that served as a business center for speculators, wholesalers, and bankers.  This basilica was another vaulted superstructure supported by criss-crossing stone arcs, and it was really neat.

After exploring the Agora (and meeting and chatting with an interesting couple from Hawaii), we walked for about ten minutes to our next destination, the bazaar.  Izmir’s bazaar, entered by walking along the right wall of the Konak (the central district of Izmir), is large and fascinating.  It’s full of shops selling every single thing you could ever need or want, and it is full of quaint little tea shops and doner kebab cafes.  (Our hotel is located on Konak’s main street, Anafartalar Caddesi, which continues through the heart of the bazaar.) 

We spent some time exploring the bazaar, stopping for delicious apple tea (me) and Turkish coffee (Murray).  Eventually, we ended up in Konak Square.  The heart of Izmir is Konak, the central district named for the Ottoman government mansion (Hukumet Konagi).  This mansion still stands in Konak Square, a vast, park-like plaza near the waterfront.  In the square is the late-Ottoman clock tower (saat kulesi) given to the city in 1901 by Sultan Abdulhamit II.  It is believed that the clock tower’s overly ornate, Orientalist style was meant to compensate for Izmir’s (aka, “Infidel Smyrna’s”) overly European ambiance!  From the square, we made our way to the Konak waterfront, walking along the Aegean Sea and enjoying the cool, refreshing breeze and the beautiful views of the surrounding mountains.

[Side note: Based on Izmir alone, Turkey seems to be another homeless cat country!  As we were walking along the Konak waterfront, there were many kitties walking around and playing near us.]

When we got to the end of the Konak waterfront harbor, we walked back through the bazaar and grabbed lunch.  We stopped at one place for my lunch – I had Turkish pizza and a freshly baked sesame bun (very popular here) with cheese and tomato, plus the most moist, gooey, delicious brownie I’ve ever eaten (it was amazing – trust me)!  We stopped at a second place for Murray’s lunch, a large doner kebab stand.  He had a doner kebab in pita with all the trimmings, plus a sesame bun baked with cheese and herbs in the middle.

When lunch was over, we finished walking through the bazaar and returned to our hotel.  I had a long nap (still getting over my recurring headaches of the last few days) and made a few phone calls to the US, and Murray worked on the computer.  For tonight’s dinner, we had a quiet one, going upstairs to the hotel restaurant and sharing a tasty meal of meatballs (kofte) with salad and bread, plus a chicken kabob with rice and chips. 

Today was a lovely day, and I’m happy to report that my mood (finally) has lifted!
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