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OPINION | RICHARD MASON: When a change of scenery is needed

by Richard Mason | June 26, 2022 at 1:45 a.m.

Several years ago, Vertis and I took a vacation to Turkey. We started in Istanbul, then flew to Izmir, where we picked up a car, and then drove down the Turquoise Coast to Antalya.

We arrived in Istanbul, took a taxi to our hotel, a former prison that's now a Four Seasons. The rooms were what you would expect a Four Seasons to offer, with the highlight being the center, which was probably the assembly area for prisoners, and now a dazzling glass-walled restaurant.

The hotel is on the European side of the city, which is divided by the Bosporus Strait. The Asian side of Istanbul has most of the historic sights.

Our three-day stay was too brief. We visited Hagia Sophia, the magnificent cathedral of ancient Constantinople. It is now a museum and one of the country's most popular tourist attractions. The Blue Mosque was the next destination, which has a modest dress code that includes headscarves for women and pants (not shorts) for men.

We spent time in the Grand Bazaar of Istanbul and ended up with several hand-woven rugs. The visit included a cruise along the gorgeous coastline, and dinner at a top restaurant highlighted by the appearance of the Turkish president. Security included Coast Guard boats patrolling the waterfront.

The next morning we flew to Izmir, and after picking up a rental car, we asked the hotel manager for a restaurant recommendation. He named a big hotel in the center of the city, which I had already passed on after seeing three tour buses lined up out front.

"Where would you eat?" I questioned.

I could tell the question surprised him, and I said, "We lived in Benghazi for a couple of years, and we don't go to the touristy spots."

"Oh ... well, here's my favorite place to have fresh seafood."

He circled the restaurant on a map, and off we went, walking into a haze of cigarette smoke, and approached a man who was seating customers. He looked us over and hesitated. I could tell we weren't his average customers.

"A table for two, please," I said.

He paused, and looked at Vertis. That night she was wearing a white dress she saved for special occasions, and with her long blonde hair, she looked great.

"Yes sir; just follow me," he said. We walked into the main seating area of the restaurant, but as soon as I looked around, I took a deep breath. It was a sea of men all wearing black and no women in a very large dining room.

I was hoping for a table against the back wall, but we were seated near the cabaret stage. Turkish cabaret music can get loud, but one of the dancers leaned over and gave Vertis a rose. The food and service was outstanding, and as a special treat a flambé desert, courtesy of the restaurant, topped off our meal.

We left the hotel early the next morning, and soon we were winding down the coast. About 30 miles out of Izmir, we noticed a small brown sign with a picture of a column and an arrow pointing to a side road.

I turned off, and we drove about a mile to some wonderful Greek or Roman ruins which weren't on any maps. We were the only ones prowling around there, which made the numerous little brown signs a bonus; we saw at least a dozen small to medium ruins.

After an hour's drive, we made a day-long stop at the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Ephesus, one of the oldest and most complete ancient cities ever excavated. Standing in the middle of broad Arcadian Street, sometimes called the Marble Road, it's built of slabs of marble perfectly fitted and smooth from 2,000 years of use. It's not hard to imagine chariots or gladiators heading to the enormous amphitheater that stairsteps up the hill.

As I walked into the amphitheater, the visits to the city by the apostle Paul crossed my mind. In the nearby beach resort town of Kusadasi, the Basilica of Saint John was built over what's believed to be the apostle's burial site.

According to some accounts of Christian church history, John brought Mary, the mother of Jesus, to Ephesus where John was leader of the church. Later, when Christian persecution began, Mary moved to a small house about 20 miles north of the city in the foothills of the mountains.

The House of Virgin Mary has seen thousands of pilgrims, including popes, visit over the centuries. The simple stone structure is small and unassuming. The adjacent baptistery is huge; it can easily hold 30 adults. Many pilgrims who visit the site want to be baptized there.

We continued down the coast with a stop at Myra, which claims to be the birthplace of Santa Claus. During the fourth century, Saint Nicholas was a Christian bishop who lived in Myra. One story tells how he helped three poor sisters. Their father didn't have enough money to pay their dowries and was faced with selling them into servitude.

Saint Nicholas secretly went to their house at night three times and dropped a bag of money through an open window. Those visits morphed into the giving of secret gifts at Christmas, and later Europeans added Christmas trees and lighted candles. Americans placed the home of Santa at the North Pole and the custom of delivering gifts in a sleigh pulled by flying reindeer. It all started in Myra.

Then it was on to Antalya, 50 miles from Iran. The city boasts some amazing archaeological sites and a first-rate collection of antiquities at the Antalya Archaeology Museum, which fills gallery after gallery with historic treasures, including the Gallery for Gods, from Aphrodite to Zeus. There are many Roman theaters still standing in the area, but none are as perfect as the one at nearby Aspendos. It will seat 12,000, and is still in use.

When we flew back from Antalya to connect with our overseas flight, we came away wanting to return.

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