You might be familiar with the Bad Travel Day. Any travel writer, travel blog or tipsy backpacker at the guesthouse will surely indulge you on their particular story, and to be honest we’re no different. We knew the Bad Travel Day would come; we just didn’t think it was going to happen on this particular journey. The last time we went to Izmir, the big city (4 million metro) in the area, it was actually pretty smooth. Turks like to build bus stations in the arse end of nowhere, but we worked it out all right. So naturally, we figure this journey through Izmir to the town of Bergama would be fairly straightforward.
Last time, the minibus hopped on the freeway and an hour later we arrived at the Izmir otogar (bus station). Total cost: 14 lira (about €7). No worries. This time, not so much.
I should have known. I’ve suffered through enough backpacking gong shows in my day that I genuinely should have seen this coming the minute we did not get on the freeway. The bus we got on this time was going to be a milk run. A very packed milk run at that, so not only did it take forever and a day to get to Izmir but I had somebody either on my lap, leaning on my shoulder for support, or shoving their hairy Turkish armpit in my face the entire way. When things start out that poorly, trust me, they seldom get better.
We did not go to the Izmir bus station. We were dropped off in the middle of nowhere, on some dusty, ugly suburban shopping street. We had been rather specific about our need to go to the otogar, since we had to catch an onward bus to Bergama, home of the ruins of Pergamom. So they knew that they weren’t going where we needed them to and took us anyway.
We get off on this suburban hellhole street, protesting. It’s okay, they say, this dolmus (minibus) will take you to the otogar. It will? Well, that’s stupid that we have to do this but okay. As long as we get to the otogar. Guess where that dolmus did not go.
We drove around Izmir, seeing far more of the city than is warranted by its monotonous architecture and anonymous sprawl. This continued for a while and gradually the crowd on the minibus thinned out. We identified on the map where we were and suffice to say it was about as far from the otogar as we could possibly be and still be in Turkey. WTF? Let’s put it this way. When we pressed the dolmus driver about our dilemma, he drove us to a taxi stand. That’s how screwed we were – totally beyond hope. Thankfully, he talked to the driver and we got a fair price, but the fun wasn’t done yet. At this point, we were an hour off schedule and out a further 30 lira.
We get to the bus station in time to catch a bus right away. Not the one we wanted to be on in the first place, but we were happy to take it. It’s a two hour ride, mostly because it stops every other block trying to get out of the city. I mean, the bus station is on the edge of the city and it still took half an hour to break out of city limits. Our one minute layover at the otogar had left us with perilously empty stomachs and even more perilously full bladders. Toilet on the bus? Sure, if you count an empty water bottle as a toilet.
So we were full of joy and happiness when we arrived in Bergama. The ruins close early outside of summer. Yes, 32C and blazing sun is not considered “summer” here. So while we were able to hit the WC, we were sweltering and starving, trying to get to the ruins in time to see them properly before they closed.
Turkey, as we have discovered a few times, is not the easiest place to backpack. There is a reason backpackers don’t come here anymore. The enlightened genii who run this place have embraced package tourism like it was their long-lost son. So doing things independently is a struggle to say the least. For example, overlooking the city of Bergama is the Acropolis of Pergamom. You can’t miss it, you just have to look up. But you can’t find a map to actually figure out how to get there. Indeed, the road is narrow, fenced in and totally unwalkable. So we threw up our hands, got some food and moved to the Red Basilica instead, to try and salvage something.
Before it was a basilica, it was build by the Romans as a temple to Egyptian gods. I did not know that Romans worshipped Egyptian gods, but Roman religion was (as Egyptian was) based around god cults. They’d been exposed to Egyptian gods and some Romans had taken to worshipping those gods, in this case Serapis.
The next thing we knew, it was six o’clock. We’d had a hell of a bad day and about 45 minutes maybe of fun. And Bergama, well it’s no party town. However, we were in luck. We wandered down the main drag and through a maze of shopping streets, coming out at a stretch of three bars in a row. The middle one was an Efes house, and we are so sick of that garbage beer we immediately ruled that one out. To the right looked really dingy, the left only a little bit better but it was good enough. Tuborg (Gold) was the order of the day, on tap for the first time on this trip. Not something to get excited about, but this is Turkey, not Franconia.
The beer went down well after such a day and the menu had a couple of items we’d read about but never seen, and wanted to try. Sun had the poached eggs with yoghurt, a self-explanatory dish. I had Albanian liver. The Turks love liver (çiger) and I’ve probably had more of the stuff in the past month than I had in the previous twenty years I swear. Albanian style is similar to the usual Turkish fried and lightly seasoned version, but it is cold. Hrm. Not my favourite, all said, but good enough.
By the time we were ordering food the sun had set and the bar was beginning to fill up. Soon we figured out why. UEFA Cup action! Galatasaray, an Istanbul club, was playing Panathanaikos, an Athenian club. I’ve written previously about how the Turks and Greeks hate each other so this was obviously a big game. Suffice to say, we became Galatasaray fans, if for no other reason than personal safety. They scored a couple of minutes into the game, when the Greek defender decided that conceding the corner was a bad call and it would be much better to tap the ball directly to the Turkish striker with the wide open net. Indeed, the Greek side was sloppy for most of the game and lost handily. The Tuborg was flowing all round and everybody was happy. Another Istanbul club, Fenerbahçe was playing another UEFA Cup game. This team is from the Asian side of Istanbul, near where the delicious Çiya is located, so we wouldn’t have minded being fans but we were knee deep into the sauce and needed to head home at that point. Good thing, since Fenerbahçe lost and it probably would have made for a downer finish to the evening.
The next day we had to hit the ruins of the Acropolis. By this point, we still had no map, because this is Turkey and Turkish travel is for tour buses not backpackers. We gave them the finger by taking the locals’ way up, through a hole in the fence and a pathway up the hill, through lesser ruins that we shared only with tortoises. The top was still cool, in fact maybe more cool even than Ephesus. The amphitheater is the steepest in the world – sitting in the rafters here requires rock-climbing gear. There are giant intact columns and all manner of cool things to look at. And, by sneaking through the hole in the fence, we didn’t have to pay. Oh, and on the way back we got to see two tortoises gettin’ it on.
The other major site is the Asklepion. This is an old spa, with pools of water and was used by Romans for healing. Some pools still exist, and to be honest I was more interested in the turtles and frogs than in yet more toppled columns. The problem was, though, we weren’t supposed to do all that stuff in one day. The Acropolis was supposed to have been done the previous day. So we were pressed for time.
The bus schedule was off. Thus, trying to get out of town we got stuck longer than we wanted. After two hours with the late afternoon sun beating down upon me mercilessly, we arrived at the Izmir otogar. Transfering to a Selçuk-bound bus was, because we were in Izmir, not a smooth procedure. The end of Ramadan is marked by a four-day long weekend and this being Friday evening, we were forced to wait as the minibuses were not only running late but were overloaded. When our turn came, it came too late for us as when we arrived back in Selçuk, we had missed the last minibus to Sirince. Oh brilliant. More expensive transport caused by the stupid delays the previous day. All told, we could have hired a private driver for less than what we paid and saved a lot of aggravation. That is, of course, the will of the Turkish government. We are getting tired of that crap, and tired of the dusty nothing towns and monotonous menus (this in a country with a great food culture!)
And so, we have a few things to do in our remaining ten days here. But we are looking forward to moving on. First comes Cappadocia for a week, then KL for another week with a stopover in Abu Dhabi thrown in for fun (it certainly won’t be for the beer). October will either be a brilliant month or a major challenge, but either way it’s getting time to move on. Our work is coming along and we’re excited about that. And we’ve got some cool day trips that we will write about when the time comes, so keep posted.