This place was not on my list. I mean the list I drew up before embarking on a trip to Turkey. There was glorious Istanbul, a boat ride on the mesmeric Bosporus, a day trip to Heybeli, one of the Princes’ Islands. There was Ephesus with its jaw-dropping ruins, Pamukkale with its white travertine terraces and hot spring pools, and Cappadocia with its eerie rock formations.
But Şirince, just a dozen kilometres from Ephesus in Izmir province? No way. The charms of this loftily-perched little hamlet were not immediately apparent to me when we stopped for lunch, either. We accessed Şirince (pronounced Shirin-je) through a long and winding road that led up the mountain and by the time we reached there, I was starving.
Lunch was yet another of Turkey’s memorable pandering-to-the-palate feasts, featuring much kofte, moussaka, lahmacun and gozleme. And we had it in a charming tavern, its loggia overhung with vines, with one of the country’s ubiquitous cats nestled rather precariously on a ledge that ran around the balcony, throwing us uninterested looks. Above us hung another ubiquity: garlic, onion, red chilli, aubergine on giant hooks. Full marks on atmosphere, I thought to myself in between mouthfuls.
Traditional Turkish pancake | evantravels
Cengiz (yes, pronounced the way we pronounce the mayhem-maker’s name), our guide, reeled me in slowly, steadily. He began by throwing the statement that Şirince was originally known as Cirkince, the ugly. “Really?” I asked interestedly, looking about me. A faint breeze blew among what looked to be vineyards. There were dwellings on hill slopes, all whitewashed and gleaming, with handsome woodwork on the frontage and red-tiled roofs. To one side of the restaurant grew pink, wild flowers on a grassy knoll, most pleasing to the eye. “This place does not look ugly to me,” I remarked, making a mild protest on behalf of Şirince. Cengiz laughed. “It was named so specifically to deter visitors,” he said. And he went on to inform us that the secluded mountaintop village was where newly-freed Greek slaves had settled, back in the 15th century, around the same time the historical site of Ephesus was abandoned. The villagers led peaceful lives and did not wish to be disturbed by visitors. Hence, the (somewhat silly) idea of a protective hex of sorts with the appellation of ugly. Did it work?
“Eventually though,” continued Cengiz, almost on cue, “there was no stopping visitors and the villagers had to change the name to Şirince. Which, by the way, means….”
“Beautiful,” I finished for him. “Well, pleasant,” Cengiz temporised.
The Greek connection gets stronger. Before Kemal Atatürk laid the foundations for a republic, Şirince was inhabited by Ottoman Greeks. The present-day denizens, most of whom moved here from Salonica during the exchange of populations in 1924, are mostly fruit farmers.
A leather wine container
But Şirince grows on you, I realised. Leisurely lunch over, we strolled through the town, up modest-sized hills and down shallow vales, stopping to admire bric-a-brac in the small souvenir shops that lined both sides of a hill, resembling a souk with its piles of homemade soaps, handmade crochet and lace, nazar amulets, and leather goods. “Not from China”, announced a placard in front of a display of costume jewellery which, let’s face it, could have been from anywhere, including the maligned Middle Kingdom! We had been told to visit Demetrius of Ephesus’s jewellery shop since he was the man who had crafted most of the jewellery and trinkets for the movie Troy. “Look for the photo of Brad Pitt above the counter and you will know it’s the right shop,” a friend had told us but alas, when we got there, the shop was shut.
Şirince sits amid orchards, olive groves and vineyards, and the Şirince peach is believed to be a superior kind of fruit. The falling-to-pieces Church of St John the Baptist has some faded Byzantine frescoes on the walls, but altogether it is a derelict place. But it had its own charm, given the hoary brick walls, with what looked like ancient ivy climbing up the belfry tower and birds’ nests tucked away in the eaves of the building.
Next, we made straight for Şirince’s wine cellars. The village is famous for its fruit-based wine—raspberry, peach, mulberry, pomegranate, blackberry, you name the flavour and you will find a bottle or five in the string of wine shops dotting the hill. Not the most sophisticated of flavours (cough syrup, scoffed a friend with oenophile pretensions) but great to wash down some kebabs with, and I am speaking from experience. The place bottles its own olive oil, too, which is as popular as its wines with tourists.
After a few hours spent swirling and sniffing wines like we were in Bordeaux or the Napa Valley, and sipping it like there was no tomorrow, Cengiz signalled that it was time for us to leave. “What a lovely place,” I sighed. “And quite unspoilt, too.”
Cengiz gave a sharp bark of laughter. “You have come in the off season,” he remarked. “In season, Şirince is a tourist trap.” He narrated how Şirince acquired worldwide fame, even notoriety, in December 2012, when tourists flocked to the village to witness the Mayan Apocalypse (the world was supposed to experience some sort of cataclysm then, according to the Mayan calendar predictions). Apparently New Age mystics believed its “positive energy” would help keep Şirince safe when the rest of the world was supposed to perish. What is more, an enterprising local even produced a special “wine of the Apocalypse” for the D-Day that never was!