Walking through the old streets of Kemeralti is literally stepping back over 300 years in time. A bustling mix of markets and cafes, the stores are crammed side by side, placed within the pre-war houses unaffected by the Great Fire of 1922. According to historical records, the trade area started back around 1650, and further exploded with the creation of Kizlaragasi Han, the shopping center surrounding a courtyard for rest and relaxation.
Taking the bus to Konak, I jumped off the terminal and headed into the jungle of the Kemeralti with my fiancé at hand. At the ancient steps of the doorway, there was one thing staring us right in the face; the new 6-level Nike outlet store! Not sure it belonged to Mustafa Pasha, but we went in anyway. Prices were pretty standard; there were shoes and sporting gear…moving on please!
We stepped back out, but now, hungry. Not wanting to pay tourist prices, we went to one of the doner/kebap houses on the outskirts of the bazaars. We wanted to eat from a place that wouldn’t be expensive, like the ones within the bazaar. Two dürüms and two sodas later, our total came to 14 liras. So much for catching a break…you should never be paying more than 2 or 3 lira for dürüm, let alone 2.75 lira for a soda! It wasn’t too long after walking into the bazaar that we saw really cool restaurants and cafes offering the same meals we just had at much lower prices. Lesson to be learned: always wait to see what the different establishments are offering, because many of them compete on their menu prices, and offer an extraordinary setting for you to relax and take in the 300 old culture. Always making sure the kitchen is clean, there are great deals like 1.5 lira for doner, 2 liras for gozleme, and 1 lira pide slices. You basically survive the entire day stuffed, spending an equivalent $4-5. Not too shabby.
Continuing on the main strip of Anafartalar Caddesi (Street), my attention was glued to the old houses above the market stands, which date back to when the city was named Smyrna. Now converted into small shops and restaurants, the old multicolored houses showcase their marvelous European architecture with second floor window ledges protruding out over the street. Again, my mind rushes to visualize the glory of this neighborhood pre-World War I, a time where the city was completely multi-ethnic, offering the beauty of Greek, Turkish, Levantine, Armenian, and Jewish cultures.
Snapping back to the present, I continued into the Kizlaragasi Han. This place reeks of Ottoman history and should never be missed when staying in Izmir. As you enter the structure, you really step into a time machine, back into the world of the Ottomans. We made our way down the inner portals to the shops and traders, where they showcase items like nargile to Ottoman rugs and carpets. Walking further, we soon found ourselves in the center courtyard, where people were relaxing, drinking their Turkish tea and smoking the old fashioned water pipes. The beauty of it all is that the small, rustic locale doesn’t come across touristy, but feels rather natural, as you remain among Turks and Izmirli folk.
Stepping back out of the shopping center, we stumbled upon a rather interesting café. A huge sign written in Greek was hanging over the establishment: “Our Café: Baklava and Loukoum”. To my surprise, the café, as well as the surrounding stores, were all owned by Muslim Greeks (or Greek-born Turks depending on your political view) from the Greek city of Xanthi, the one city unaffected by the population exchanges forced in 1923. Speaking both Greek and Turkish fluently, they now cash in on the Greek tourists who come to Izmir.
At the end of our day, we were culturally full. Speaking in 3 languages, walking amongst the remnants of an empire, I can say that Kemeralti is still very exciting, very diverse, and very much alive.