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Aegean Odyssey

Alistair Taylor-Young Downtown Izmir, Turkey at night.

Photo: Alistair Taylor-Young

Apénandi can be reached in 45 minutes by ferry, from the port of Chios to Çesme. This is a common day trip, not requiring a visa, which thus encourages shopping: it's a more benign population exchange than the one the countries participated in back in 1924, which made refugees of 1.5 million Greeks and 400,000 Turks. We wander Çesme's clean, bustling streets and market stalls. Spices and sweets, motorcycle jackets and toys are set out on racks and in bins. I'm tempted by a windup doll billed as "The Dance Person," though mainly for the box it comes in: "To Bob Up and Down," promises the ad copy.

Our goal, of course, is The House in Alatsata, but there's much more to see in the area. We visit Sirince, two hours and a half of highway driving to the southeast of Çesme. We are charmed by the small, traditionally decorated, 128-year-old hotel Sirince Evleri—tucked away in the green, hillside village and reachable by footpath—and also by its sociable owner, Ahmet Koçak. Faded Greek carvings are detectable on one of our room doors. Over an early evening meze on the hotel roof, Ahmet tells us that the village's current population is 765, but that it once was home to thousands of Greeks—all gone in the exchange of 1924.

In the town's souk we browse an antiques shop filled with Ottoman-era jewelry and 78's of Frank Sinatra and Yves Montand. There's a photo—framed like a soap-star glossy in a Manhattan shoe repair shop—of the current Greek Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomeos, said to be a regular customer when he comes down from Istanbul, the seat of the Patriarchate. Bartholomeos won't find much to do at Sirince's old Greek Church of St. John the Baptist; it's an eerie, empty shell in the twilight. Nearby stand two grand old houses: one was the Greek hospital, the other belonged to the Greek doctor. These are now being renovated (by people from Istanbul).

Ephesus, a short drive away, has its own multicultural population exchange going on, involving the transfer of thousands of tourists between cruise ships and buses. We're at the site early the next morning, but it's already crowded, the visitors trickling down in rivulets from the top and pooling, inevitably, in front of Hadrian's Gate. Ephesus is extraordinary; someday, I must go back and really see it.

Smyrna's most famous exports were Homer, rembetika music, the modern poet George Seferis, Aristotle Onassis, and figs. But Smyrna is gone; it's Izmir we are visiting.

The indoor/outdoor market in the old Konak neighborhood is a slapdash jumble of sounds, colors, and images. Everything is for sale here: we come across "the last barrel maker in Turkey" (all sizes), and a copper and iron shop where my son, Theo, buys a dagger and I can't resist a walnut–and–mother-of-pearl távli set. In cafés, young people sit on rugs talking and drinking tea. We squeeze into a closet-sized musical-instrument shop for an impromptu baglamás performance by the young clerk, peer into a 15th-century caravanserai, and explore an enormous mosque.

Ahmet and his ever present attaché case are in from Sirince for business, and we meet for a lemonade outdoors in the Kadifekale neighborhood, at the very top of the city. The sun is sinking toward the Aegean. "Izmir is my love—after Sirince," Ahmet says. "I am at home here." Then he grimaces at the café's Turkish music. "I prefer Theodorakis," he confides, alluding to one of Greece's most famous popular composers.

That evening, as we walk along Izmir's sweeping harbor, it's impossible not to think of the horrors that befell the Greek population in precisely this spot 80-odd years earlier. Yet here we are, watching young men practice break-dancing moves on patches of grass as we discuss where to have dinner and the dondurma—Turkish ice cream—to follow. Theo has his fortune told by a rabbit (don't ask): it's on a folded piece of paper and says something about "kurtulacaksin bu gunlerde." The future, in short, as unfathomable as the past.

This unfathomable: In November 1933, with my great-uncle Vasili continuing to send back alarming reports about my father's condition, my grandfather contacted a Greek travel agent in New York and arranged to abduct his own son. An Italian ocean liner, the Vulcania, was anchored and ready to sail in the port of Patras in the Peloponnese. At nightfall, with all other passengers on board, a lone rowboat carrying my father and Angeliki, who had finally been persuaded to return to the United States, set out for the ship.

My father, who was not quite seven at the time, says he can remember the scene as if it were yesterday: "We pulled up to the ship and the oarsmen helped me up and onto the ladder. Then the rowboat pushed off with my stepmother still in it. She was screaming, 'To pedi mou, to pedi mou!' ['My child, my child!'] That was the last I ever saw of her."

My grandfather raised my dad in the United States, essentially alone but with the sporadic help of relatives, remarrying late in life when he was living in Astoria, the Greek section of New York City. He died in the mid-1970's. I remember him well, tending his garden, a warm, gregarious man who took great pleasure in being alive.

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