The enchanting port of Izmir is perfect for a city break, says CLAIR WOODWARD
THERE aren't many places where you can have your fortune told by a rabbit. Sitting on the seafront in Izmir I thought I'd had too much of the delicious local wine when I saw a chap pushing a white bunny around on the top of a pram.
For a small fee, the rabbit pulled out a piece of paper from a board which had a motto on it along the lines of, "everything will be all right". As I cuddled the rabbit, while enjoying a wonderful view and great food at the Balikci Hasan fish restaurant, I concluded it probably would.
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The city of Izmir on Turkey's Aegean coast is a port with a happy-go-lucky, friendly and eclectic feel with much to explore.
Its popularity as a short-break destination is growing because Pegasus Airlines now flies direct to the city four times a week.
Our base was the Swissotel Grand Efes, overlooking the Kordon, a seafront road where people go to promenade, to see and be seen, to celebrate and party, and to swim in the sea.
The more traditional side of Turkey is reflected in the Swissotel's award-winning Amrita spa, offering a "hammam" (Turkish bath) experience which is not to be missed. After your skin has been smoothed down with a loofah and showered with aromatic, rose-scented soap, you'll feel incredibly relaxed.
Izmir is very much a modern city steeped in history. We visited the ruins of Agora, the market dating from Alexander the Great, which is still being excavated. You can see the long market hall and imagine what it must have looked like in ancient times.
Today's bazaar in Izmir is still bustling but its elegant, wide streets leading into cool, shady squares mean you can always find a tranquil place to relax.
Beautiful mosques (women have to cover their shoulders), are dotted throughout the city and there are lots of shopping opportunities, including leather goods, spices and jewellery.
If you run out of energy, stop for a dose of strong Turkish coffee as a pick-me-up.
The Asans¶r area is full of beautifully-restored, idyllic houses. It was the Jewish quarter but is now named after the lift (asans¶r), built in 1907 and originally water-powered, which carried passengers and goods between the upper and lower parts of the hillside. The view from the summit across the Bay of Izmir is stunning and a caf© there means you can stay longer to enjoy it.
Izmir's restaurants are a joy, with splendid service and wonderful food.
Tavaci Recep Usta is hidden in a beautiful secret garden off the Kordon. It serves typical south-eastern Turkish cuisine. We drank ayran, made from yogurt and water and so deliciously frothy you almost had to eat it with a spoon.
This was followed by a fantastic feast of dishes from icli kofte (small meat-filled pasties) to stuffed, dried aubergines, salads dressed with pomegranate vinegar and succulent roast lamb.
Izmir provides a great base from which to take a day trip to see the area. Hop on the metro from the centre and ride to the last stop.
Here in the countryside is the Sevilen Vineyards and Winery, possibly Turkey's best, where you can enjoy a superb meal in the Isabey Bagevi restaurant while tasting top-class wines. I can recommend the Sevilen Centum, a syrah so good it's sold in Heston Blumenthal's Fat Duck in Bray, Berkshire.
Ala§ati, north of Izmir, is a gem of a village, so perfect in fact that I thought of packing it all in to live there. Over hundreds of years many Greeks have settled there and it has the feel of a Greek island, with blue and white buildings and windows full of geraniums.
The authorities ban vehicles in the centre over summer so visiting is like stepping back in time.
It oozes relaxed class and shops sell quality goods including fine olive oils. The restaurants look particularly inviting, too.
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Despite making several trips past a bakery, resisting delicious goodies, I eventually gave in and bought biscuits which I shared with a gentle stray dog. Another animal I wanted to take home.
Izmir is perfect for a city break but at a gentler tempo from a capital. It's super-friendly, good fun, and I can't wait to go back - and not just to see how my bunny and dog are getting on.
Pegasus Airlines (0845 084 8980/www.flypgs.com) offers return flights from London Stansted to Izmir from £157. Swissotel Grand Efes (00800 6379 4771/www.swissotel.com/izmir) offers doubles from £98 per night (two sharing), B&B. Turkish Culture and Tourism Office: 0207 839 7778/ www.gototurkey.co.uk