It was 90 F during the month of Ramadan as we drove our rented Fiat into Bergama, Turkey. Many women walked around the lively town in beige raincoats with headscarves, somehow managing not to faint in the July heat.
That contrasted with the scene on the Bodrum Peninsula, which we had just visited. There, Europeans and Turks sunbathed without their tops, and few Turks wore conservative clothing.
It was hard to leave the Bodrum Peninsula. After celebrating my birthday at the family-oriented Ersan Resort and our anniversary at the adjacent Sign by Ersan over-the-top boutique hotel ($500 a night), we drove to Yalikavak for a two-night stay at Sandima 37, a cute bed and breakfast that served delicious food on our private patio whenever we happened to stir. We spent one night at the newly opened Pannonica Jazz Bistro listening to old standards. The next evening, we went downtown shopping for mobile phones and hand-embroidered pillow cushions. The staff still brought us Turkish breakfasts of cheeses and excellent bread and olives.
At Xuma Beach, people moored their yachts in the blue Aegean, making me think, “Must be nice.”
This was how it was in the Ottoman Empire. No wonder it lasted so long.
We then headed to Bergama, population 60,000, once the ancient city of Pergamon, home to several civilizations: Byzantine, Islamic, Roman and Greek, as well as serving as the Hellenistic capital of the Attalid dynasty.
Poised on a 330-meter-high ridge overlooking the Bakirçay River valley, Pergamon in its heyday held palaces, a theater, a library and temples devoted to Trajan, Dionysus and Athena.
Bergama landed on UNESCO’s World Heritage list June 25. The ancient city and its multilayered cultural landscape entered the list alongside Bursa and Cumalikizik, noted for their importance in the birth of the Ottoman Empire in the 14th century.
Bergama is home to the Askleipion, or healing center; one of the highest amphitheaters in the world; the Red Basilica; and other ruins. We wouldn’t be able to see the Zeus Altar, pieces of which had been transported to Berlin by the German engineer, Carl Humann, who discovered the Turkish site in 1855. The altar, built in the second century A.D. under King Eumenes II, has been restored and sits in the Pergamon Museum on Berlin’s Museum Island. Scenes on the frieze illustrate the life of Telephus, supposed founder of Pergamon and son of Hercules and Auge.
The Turkish government has been trying to reclaim the altar for quite some time, arguing that the structure should be back where it was built.
A visit to Old Town
Right above the Red Basilica, built under the reign of Hadrian, are the windy, narrow streets of Eski, or Old Bergama. Our reservations were for the old-stone Hera Hotel. It didn’t look like we were going to make it up there, though, because a couple of the streets were narrower than our Fiat. The city map we had proved useless, as some roads were one-way. Bergama is known for its wool carpets, and we passed a few displayed outside the shops. Women wearing printed cotton shalwars and headscarves sat on stoops, waiting for sundown, when, according to Islam, they could break their fasts. Men sat in cafes nursing their coffees.
Finally, we found the cute Hera Hotel, with its sign in Greek lettering. Two friendly women helped us with our luggage. Each room had a god or goddess assigned to it, and ours was Artemis, goddess of the hunt, forest and hills.
Because we weren’t fasting, we were starving, and asked where we could eat. The younger woman told us to follow her up the steep, meandering streets to Les Pergamum, Hera’s sister hotel, where Kybele Restaurant was open. We ordered kebabs and a regional eggplant specialty, which were nothing special. The owner introduced himself, and I felt slightly guilty eating in front of the staff. The waitress assured us that she wasn’t fasting.
The next day we visited the 10,000-seat amphitheater. For only 15 Turkish Lira, we rode a gondola to the top of the Acropolis, enjoying a sweeping view.
As soon as we disembarked, souvenir hawkers hit us up with their pitches, saying, “Hello, we have things for you.” The fastest way to make them stop was to answer back in Turkish. Also, the prices for my favorite ceramic bowls seemed to drop slightly.
Not mentioned much in the guidebooks to Bergama are the lovely painted doors. All the front doors in the old section feature different designs and colors that add a joyful feeling to the ambience.