I spent a couple days last week in the coastal Turkish city of Izmir, which turned out to be a very pleasant surprise. The city does not have an abundance of particularly interesting tourist sites, but its lovely waterfront park stretching several kilometers along the bay is enough of an attraction in itself to make it worth a visit.
Izmir is known to the Greeks as Smirni, a name that conjures up in the Greek mind images not of pleasant seaside strolls, but of the tragic events of the culmination of the Turkish-Greek war in 1922—the occupation of Smyrna by the Turks, the burning of the entire Greek and Armenian quarters of the city, the tens or hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing the fires, jumping into the sea in a desperate attempt to reach already overloaded boats, the subsequent mass exchanges of Greek and Turkish populations. The end of the several thousand year presence of Greeks in Asia Minor. Suffice it to say that most Greeks are not too enthusiastic about visiting Smirni.
I did meet a Greek schoolteacher and her class of 10th graders there and was pleased to learn that her school had a “sister school” exchange agreement with a school in Izmir. They were doing a project together related to the many Turkish words used commonly in Greek today—hasapi, the butcher, manavi, the greengrocer, to name a couple—and Greek words common in today’s Turkish. A small but important step, I thought, in building relationships of mutual understanding between these two culturally similar societies separated so severely by the events of past centuries (and by the ongoing conflict over Cyprus.)
History aside, Izmir was a delightful place to spend a couple warm spring days. My visit happened to coincide with the spring’s first really fine week of weather and with a spring festival on the waterfront. I was surprised by a number of things in Izmir. First, the very liberal, western vibe of the city. I have not seen so much public consumption of beer since I was in Berlin. Groups of friends lay sprawled out on the grass along the entire length of the waterfront park, nearly every single one of them quaffing a large bottle of beer. Izmir—beer capital of the Mediterranean—who knew? The absence of headscarves was also notable relative to Istanbul—far more women in tight jeans or shorts than wearing any sort of head covering.
I was also pleasantly surprised at the locals’ love for music and dancing. A live band played at the festival along the waterfront, but at the same time, small groups of people gathered throughout the park around someone with a drum and maybe a clarinet, spontaneously bursting into gleeful dance—everyone from small children to the old folks. It was one of the happiest, most easygoing party crowds I’ve ever encountered. A lot of beer going down but I did not see a single person who appeared drunk or who acted obnoxiously. All good fun.
The city’s two main tourist attractions, aside from the waterfront, are the clocktower and mosque in Konak Square and the Ancient Agora:
Maybe best of all in Izmir is that they serve healthy snacks with your beer–cucumbers, carrots, and pickles, so that you can feel like your cocktail hour is a healthy one!