Going for a quick jog in the ruins of Ephesus (Gif: Annemarie Dooling)
Driving in Turkey is like playing a constant game of chicken. The right of way is almost always granted to whoever is the bravest (or the stupidest) driver on the road, and so renting a car is not necessarily an option for everyone.
But I live in New York, and I am a bad driver even in Manhattan, so I figured it couldn’t possibly be any worse to hit the road on Turkey’s southwestern coast. Besides, driving is truly one of the best ways to explore this country, which has surprises tucked on back roads and within valleys stretching to the sea — places you would never encounter on an organized bus tour.
It was the ancient city of Ephesus that I most wanted to see during my recent trip to the Bodrum peninsula—the Riviera of Turkey. While I did a round-trip drive in the middle of my five-day visit to the country, I would highly recommend that visitors to Bodrum do Ephesus on their way out. You can easily fly into the Milas-Bodrum AIrport and out of the domestic airport at Izmir, just 45 minutes from the ruins of Ephesus.
I left from the Maçakizi Hotel in the small (but insanely chic) village of Turkbuku around 7:30 in the morning.
It’s hard to leave such a beautiful place, but I was willing to do it for the allure of ancient ruins. (Photo: Jo Piazza)
My first stop was in the neighboring town of Torba, a tranquil seaside village with a sparkling sapphire bay. Breakfast begins at the Casa dell’Arte restaurant at 8 a.m. (practically dawn for visitors to Bodrum, who often dance until sunup). Enjoy a Turkish breakfast of cheese, olives, boiled eggs, sausage, tomatoes, and fresh bread with a strong black tea (coffee is often drunk only in the afternoon) as you take in the incredible view of the Aegean Sea. The hotel hosts artists from all over the world for a month at a time and allows them to work and exhibit their work throughout the property, so it is worth a stroll around.
When you get back on the road, it isn’t long before your sweeping views of the sea are eclipsed by winding mountain roads as you make your way into the foothills of the Beşparmak Mountains.
It might not look like much, but you will want to stop. (Photo: Jo Piazza)
About 15 miles from Torba, you will approach the region of Milas, one of the epicenters of honey production in Turkey (in addition to a wonderful place to buy carpets). Do yourself a favor and keep an eye out for one of the roadside sellers of honey who bottle the sweet nectar in dingy glass jars or any secondhand receptacle. Don’t be put off by its presentation.
The friendly purveyor will offer you a taste of whatever you like, even if you don’t speak a common language. We were first given a fingerful of plain honey. It was delicious and simple. Next up came an orange-flavored honey. It was so good, we asked where it came from. The seller simply pointed up to the trees. We thought we would be going home with jars of that stuff, but then came the oregano honey, and we knew we didn’t want anything else. For 20 Turkish lire (about $10) we were given three huge jars of honey and a few handfuls of almonds and figs for good measure to snack on along the road.
This is worth checking a bag for. (Photo: Jo Piazza)
If you’re itching to see some ruins early in your trip, drive a small way off the beaten path to Labraunda, home to an ancient sanctuary that dates to approximately 4 B.C. Aim your GPS toward the village of Kargicak, and you should see signs for it.
The road here is a little rough, but the ruins are incredibly well-preserved, and you may find yourself completely alone in this off-the-beaten-path archaeological site.
You’ll want to get out to take a picture along the scenic shores of Lake Bafa. The ruins of Heraclea aren’t far down the road and make for a nice photo opportunity before you continue on to the mother of Turkish ruins — Ephesus.
A quick stop along the shores of Lake Bafa (Photo: Jo Piazza)
But before you enter the ancient city, take a short detour to the town of Selçuk and make a stop at the Basilica of St. John.
The St. John who lived in Ephesus is believed to be the Christian apostle John, author of the Gospel of John. In the sixth century, Emperor Justinian built a basilica over the site where St. John is believed to have been buried.
All that stands of the old basilica (Photo: Jo Piazza)
Down the road from the ruins of the basilica is the 13th-century Isabey Mosque, which is believed to have been built from some of the remains of the basilica. Continue down the road to reach the Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Very little remains of the original temple, but it is worth a quick stop and a photo.
Isabey Mosque from a distance. (Photo: Jo Piazza)
From Selçuk, return to the highway and take the second right-hand turn for Ephesus to visit Meryemana, the site where the Virgin Mary is believed to have spent her final years before the Assumption. The site has been visited and blessed by several popes and is a large draw for Catholic pilgrims, who go to say prayers to the Virgin. It is just six kilometers past Ephesus and worth visiting earlier in the day to avoid the tour bus crowds, which can clog the site, so stop there before you head to the ruins. Where the site is nestled high in the mountains, the air is crisp and much chillier than at sea level.
You can follow the path through the modest chapel to kneel before an icon of the Virgin and then continue outside to light a candle and say a prayer before drinking from the tap of spring water just below the structure. Beyond that is a wall of prayers from pilgrims, most written on scraps of paper found in pockets or the bottoms of purses and tied to one another with toilet tissue.
You can light a candle and leave a prayer for the Virgin Mary here. (Photos: Jo Piazza)
Now it is time to head to Ephesus. Park your car in the lot closest to Meryemana and walk to the ruins from here if you want an easier journey that is mostly downhill.
Don’t be afraid to feed these cats. (Photo: Jo Piazza)
The stray cats of Ephesus are there to show you around, and if you stop to pet them, they will lead you through the ruins. Highlights here include the Library of Celsus, built in A.D. 125 and still containing some of the original shelves; the Temple of Hadrian, from the second century; the Temple of Domitian; the Tomb of Pollio; and the Grand Theatre, first constructed in the third century B.C. and enlarged during the Roman period to 25,000 seats.
You have free rein to explore the entire Grand Theatre. (Photo: Jo Piazza)
The reconstructed facade of the Library of Celsus. (Photo: Jo Piazza)
The Nymphaeum Fountain Building was constructed in A.D. 102. (Photo: Jo Piazza)
From the exit just past the theater, you can walk back through the ruins (uphill) or hire a horse cart for 20 lire (bargain them down from 40 lire). It’s a beautiful ride through olive fields back to your car; from there it’s a quick ride to the Izmir airport and the end of your vacation.
Absolutely ride this horse cart back to your car. (Photo: Jo Piazza)
WATCH: Inside the Ruins of Ephesus