A birthday fit for a sultan

By Liam Phillips, TravelMail

Last updated at 11:56 11 May 2007


'A-ha . . . birthday!' beamed the Turkish hotelier, his eyes opening wide. 'We make big party for you!'

We had just arrived, sweaty and dishevelled, in the Turkish town of Selçuk on the Aegean coast, and birthday celebrations were the last thing on my mind. But trying to ignore your birthday doesn't exactly gel with the Turkish tradition of hospitality.

So when it slipped out that I would be ageing while staying at the family-run Hotel Bella, the manager Erdal was determined that we celebrate in style.

I was quite happy to let my birthday take a back seat while we visited Selçuk. There were far more interesting things on my mind, notably one of the best-preserved Roman cities in the world.

Although Selçuk has existed for centuries, the town's economy is now almost entirely based on tourism, thanks to its proximity to Ephesus. This Roman city was known as 'the first and greatest metropolis of Asia', and it is now one of Turkey's top visitor attractions.

Ephesus has always appealed to the masses. During its heyday, it was a thriving centre of business and at its peak it was home to between 400,000 and 600,000 people.

The ancient Romans were drawn by the same incredible constructions that keep tourists flooding through the gates of Ephesus today. The main attraction was the Temple of Artemis, a massive structure built to honour the Greek goddess of fertility, which was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

Unfortunately, virtually nothing remains of this magnificent building after it was destroyed by fire in 356BC. All that was left standing is one pillar, and this is now home to a family of the area's most famous residents - storks.

These baby-carrying birds have called Selçuk home for generations. Storks mate for life and always return to the same nest each year to lay eggs and raise their offspring. In Selçuk they are known as 'tourist birds' because they arrive at the end of April and stay until late September - just like the tourists.

The locals extend the birds the same hospitality they show the tourists, and each year they are welcomed back with open arms. It's hard not to be heartened by this sentimental connection between the birds and the townsfolk.

The storks also add a touch of whimsy to the imposing Roman ruins scattered throughout the town. Ancient aqueducts, castle battlements, pillars - all are topped by the familiar scraggly collection of twigs and fluffy feathered heads of baby storks.


The remains of the
Temple of Artemis,
and its resident storks

You could easily spend all day wandering around Ephesus observing every facet of Roman life, from private homes to the biggest public buildings. There are even the remains of an ancient brothel, if you prefer the seedier side of Roman life.

Aside from the Temple of Artemis, two other major drawcards attracted Roman people to Ephesus - the ornate Library of Celsus and the 25,000-seat Great Theatre. Fortunately, unlike the Temple, both are amazingly well preserved and their combinations of engineering skill and architectural flourish reflect the grandeur of the Roman civilisation at its peak.

After a long day battling the tour groups and slowly baking under a burning Turkish sun, I was starting to feel every year of my newly advanced age. I was happy to return to the hotel, have a shower and a drink, and fall into a chair in a dozing heap.

But this was not to be. As we headed upstairs to the hotel's roof top terrace, we were greeted with open arms and a hearty welcome - the party had already started.

Erdal and his business partner, Nazmi, had spread the word that festivities were brewing, and by evening all their mates had arrived, with instruments in tow. By the time we sat down to our meal, they had gathered on a corner table surrounded by plates of delicious meze and nargileh water pipes and the music was flowing almost as fast as the Efes beer - the local tipple.

Soon, we found ourselves dancing around the room to the sounds of Saz (a Turkish lute) and tabla drum. Erdal appeared brandishing an ornate gown and hat and thrust them towards me. 'Tonight, you are the sultan and your wife is the queen,' he said with a cheeky smile as I donned the ridiculous garments.

We were making such a racket that every guest from the fully booked hotel (all 10 rooms of them) wandered up to the roof terrace to investigate the commotion, and one by one they were drawn into the party.

But Erdal had more surprises up his sleeve. An unmistakable singing started from the kitchen, and out strode the cook with a cake that had been iced in my honour.

'Raki is on the house!' our host bellowed, and sat down to explain this unusual national drink. In Turkish it is referred to as 'Lion's milk', because when it is diluted with water the liquid changes from clear to a milky white colour. The result has a subtle ouzo flavour and is enjoyed ice cold - the perfect tonic to round off a hot summer evening.

Hotel Bella has the instant air of welcome that you only get with a small, family-run place. The owners and their families began running a carpet shop together and moved into the hotel business a few years ago.

However, like many Turkish establishments, the adjoining carpet shop still flourishes. And, while not pressing the point, Erdal was quick to slip in the fact that, were we in the market for one of Turkey's famous carpets, he would be happy to help us out.

When time came to check out and we received the bill, there was no mention of the largesse that had been lavished on us the previous evening. It was their pleasure to make my birthday a special occasion and I'm going to have trouble living up to it next year.

Travel facts

Liam Phillips flew from London to Istanbul with British Airways (www.ba.com) and from Istanbul to Izmir with Turkish Airlines (www.turkishairlines.com). Istanbul-Izmir flights start at £23 one way.

Rooms at Hotel Bella start at £14 per double (low season) and the hotel can arrange transfers from Izmir airport. For information and bookings visit www.hotelbella.com.

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