There is a cultural tourist office, Les Arts Turcs, in Istanbul that does private tours of the synagogues in the city. Until the 1920’s, there was a huge Jewish community living in Turkey, the majority in Istanbul and Izmir where there are still many synagogues. Unfortunately it is a process to get permission to visit them so we were only able to visit the Zulfaris synagogue in the Karakoy neighborhood that is now the Jewish Museum of Turkey. There were as many as 200,000 Jews before the 20th century, mainly Sephardic. Now the Jewish population in Turkey is 18,000. As we were leaving, we met the present supervisor of the museum, a young woman, a Turkish Jew, that was completely satisfied with her life here. She was married in the religion and had two children. We did a 4 hour walking tour with Alp from Les Arts Turcs, visiting the museum, mosques and churches in hidden away neighborhoods.
On our trip down to Izmir, we discovered that the covered market bazaar, divided into areas selling fresh fish, exotic spices, carpets, gold jewelry and a million other things, was the old Jewish quarter of the city for hundreds of years. There is a street of nine synagogues that we searched for with our Turkish friend Ercan, but never found. But the search gave us an excuse to wander through the exotic covered markets, eat doner kebab, buy jewelry, and get caught in the crush in the spice bazaar. This was the real thing, life as it happens.. After we gave up on finding the synagogues, we decided to look for old churches. This too was futile as they were behind high walls and locked gates.
Our last attempt at sightseeing succeeded when a friend and student of Ercan, who is a science professor, drove us along the sea promenade, with wall to wall outdoor cafes and restaurants, facing the water and filled with people. The wide street and tall palm trees reminded me of Nice and Cannes on the French Rivera. Another fortunate moment was meeting at our hotel, Erkan Ogur, a famous folk musician, who invited us to a show he and his partner Ismail Hakki Demircioglu were preforming that night at Hayal Kehvesi, a small club in a young trendy part of Izmir. The audience was twenty to thirty in age, but they knew the old folk songs and cheered each time another familiar sound started. Izmir is the most modern and least religious place in Turkey.
This was our 24 hour experience in Izmir… there are tourists here but they don’t dominate the life of this city.
Another lovely place we explored was the Greek island of Chios which is reached by hydrofoil from Cesme, a resort town, a one hour plus bus ride from Izmir. Not like the Greek islands, with their beautiful old villages, the Turkish tourist resorts are modern condominiums, four floors or higher, built close to each other without any character. Even some of the wealthy private houses that I saw, were poorly designed.
The hydrofoil to Chios was a forty five minute ride, all the doors were locked so there is no seabreeze . Within minutes of reaching the port, we were rushed by ambulance to the hospital and spent the next eight hours waiting on doctors. My friend had slipped that morning on the tile floor in our hotel, was not staying awake and had a large bump on his head. Not looking state of the art, they did do a cat scan and a bunch of X rays that came back negative. He wanted to leave but the doctor wanted to observe him until the morning so they brought him up to a room with three beds, two occupied by eighty year plus men on their last breath. That was enough for a quick recovery. When I asked the resident doctor how much was the bill, he said it was free. Both himself and one of the nurses were American Greeks that had come back to live here. Shocked at the free treatment, she laughed and said that is why Greece is broke, adding that all of the asylum seekers were treated free at the hospital as well.
Immediately after leaving the hospital, we grabbed a taxi and picked up our rental car. It was six o’clock and the sun set around 7:30 pm. Driving through towns with ancient fortress walls, narrow streets and curvy roads, we arrived towards sundown at Emporious Bay, a charming little fishing village on the south coast of the island. The hotel of the same name, was owned by a Greek that had lived half of his life in Queens, New York City. It was modern, cozy and near the sea. I was happy, my friend less so. He likes old villages and rougher accommodations.
Less than a twenty five minute drive from out hotel, there are several medieval villages we were looking forward to visiting. Unfortunately for us, they are well known and in all the guide books so we were not alone. But regardless of the tourists, the villages had not changed their way of life. There is still the wonderful Greek salad with homegrown tomatoes, cucumbers and fresh feta cheese, and muddy Greek coffee.
The wonderful thing about Chios and Lesvos is that they still have maintained their authenticity and beauty, possibly because there is no package tourism there and they are far from Athens. Again sad to leave Greece, especially when I was speaking like a native again, we were back in Cesme by Sunday night and flew to Istanbul the next day.