Destination of the day: Izmir


Even a couple of millennia after it treated its last patient, the approach original hospital is daunting. There is a long imposing marble approach road, tots of pillars to park your horse, beautifully carved symbols of saints coming to drink from a saucer, an equivalent of the A&E unit where the patients are sorted into benches (I noticed I was perilously close to the one for the insane), and then a set of steps.

The trick long ago was being able to walk up those steps. Unless you could walk up the steps you would be turned away.

It is bit like Blanch or James’s on a Saturday night after the pubs close, (where the wait might be a couple of millennia as well) but this is the original centre for excellence in medicine, a Hermann Memorial Hospital of the Greeks.

Except it is in Turkey.

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Turkey Ephesus parliament 001 Turkey Pergamum 1417 Turkey Pergamum 1421 Turkey Pergamum 1423 Turkey Pergamum 1438Pergamum, an hour and a half out of Izmir, and the place medicine was invented. Galen came from here but they were already curing people before he left to make his name in Rome.

The wealth of the city was built on olive oil, and, by Dionysius, were they wealthy in Pergamum. Most of the ruins stand on the acropolis, which has a spectacular situation on a spit of land rising 1,000ft above the plain and the modern city of Bergama (also worth visiting for its late-medieval Ottoman buildings).

Capital of the Attalid kings, it once rivalled Athens and Alexandria as a cultural centre. Its famous library (not rebuilt) was second only to Alexandria, can be seen along with the ruins of palaces, temples an amazing neckstrain-steep amphitheatre cut out of the mountain, and the foundations of the temple of Zeus.

The goodies were taken to Berlin, the Germans gave the locals some nice pine trees in return.

Our retired schoolteacher guide (his name translates as “Immortal”) told us that when Hadrian came to Pergamum he fell asleep two nights in a row at the theatrical performance, and as no one was allowed to leave before the emperor left at the end of the evening, the locals got a little cranky.

On the third evening they started clapping their hands together to wake up the emperor.

Hence the tradition of the round of applause designed, not (as we delude ourselves) to pay tribute to the actors, but to wake us up at the end of a boring show. According to the guide in Pergamum anyway and he should know.

Many is the audience member, the modern day Hadrian, who has been woken up since.

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When it comes to culture, Ephesus is the headline act here. The archaeologists cheated. The oft photographed library front is a rebuild. The much heralded discovery of early high rise comes with no strong visuals. On a big crusie ship day in kusadasi, 30,000 will trundle over Ephesus ancient ruins. Come early when it is hot. There are the usual pillared temples, triumphal arches and theatre, but at Ephesus you also get a real feel for what life was like in Roman times: the rutted marble-paved streets lined with shops; clusters of ancient houses and mansions decorated with frescoes and mosaics; gyms, baths, exercise rooms, even a brothel. There are also period costume shows. If you want some real drama, listen to America cruise tour groups asking questions of exasperated guides. My favourite? “Where did all the cats come from?”

Ephesus has a story for every pile of stones. Here they used to get slaves to sit on the marble toilet seats to warm them in winter.

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A handy catchhrase of the Turkish Tourist Board in the 1980s was that the country had more Grecian ruins than Greece and more Roman ruins than Rome. I am not sure if it s true but Turkey is home to some of the great best treasures of the Hellenic empire (more a cultural empire than a martial one, a bit like ourselves), or at least the south west corner of the land.

Thankfully it is the corner to which we have best access, with scheduled flights to Izmir from Aer Lingus and charter flights to Antalya, Bodrum and Izmir. Turkish Airlines who fly daily year-round to Istanbul, are also thinking of adding Izmir to their portfolio for the summer.

Turkey was big last year and is one of just a handful of countries that had their highest visitor numbers ever form Ireland in 2011. Expect it to be big again in 2012.

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