Saturday, May 24, 2014

Coasting (2): The Aegean

Coasting (2): The Aegean

March 16, 2014, Sunday

For sand and sea-lovers, Turkey’s Black Sea coast has one particular drawback, which is that even in summer the weather can be as unreliable as that of the northern European countries from which many of them have escaped.

In contrast, the Mediterranean coast can be overwhelmingly hot and humid in July and August. The Aegean -- or “Ege” in Turkish -- on the other hand can usually be relied upon to offer month after month of glorious summer sun with barely a drop of rain and not much humidity either.

The Aegean coast -- an overview: The Aegean coastline divides into two separate sections with İzmir, Turkey’s third largest city, as the breakpoint. North of İzmir the scenery is a little less dramatic and the architecture closer in style to that of the Greek Dodecanese islands frequently visible offshore. South of İzmir, the scenery gets increasingly dramatic, especially as it heads south from Bodrum. Happy beach hunting grounds can be found near Çanakkale and Assos, on Bozcaada Island, between Yeni and Eski Foça and around Bodrum. The Gulf of Edremit between Assos and Ayvalık is extremely built-up with holiday homes for domestic tourists although even here there is a particularly beautiful beach at Ören, near Burhaniye.

Çanakkale: Heading out of İstanbul the first big destination for visitors is usually the town of Çanakkale, the most obvious base for visiting the battlefield sites at Gallipoli and the ruins of Troy. Inland from the actual Aegean coast, Çanakkale is beautifully situated on the banks of the Dardanelles, also known as Hellespont, a strait that feels rather like İstanbul’s famous Bosporus and ensures lovely sea views only ever a short walk away from your hotel. Çanakkale is very popular with domestic tourists, which means that its lavish hotel stock comes under strain over summer weekends. That’s apart from the additional strain created by ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) Day on April 25, when it would be extremely unwise to show up without a reservation as Australians and New Zealanders pour in to attend dawn services at the battlefield sites. In 2015, the centenary of ANZAC’s Gallipoli Campaign will bring in yet more visitors, making 2014 a particularly good time for a visit.


Bozcaada and Gökçeada: Only two of the inhabited Aegean islands belong to Turkey. Of them, Bozcaada is the more immediately bewitching with a huge castle looming over a picturesque harbor ringed with fish restaurants and backed by a small settlement full of attractive old Greek houses. To the north of the island, yet undeveloped sandy beaches are shielded by high dunes, while the vineyards in the center of the island and the stunning small boutique hotels dotted about it complete a picture that amounts to touristic paradise.


Assos: Lovely Assos is a two-part destination, with a tiny picture-postcard harbor lined with hotels in beautiful old stone warehouses at the bottom of a steep hill and the remains of ancient Assos straggling up the inland side of the road. At the top of the hill, the modern village of Behramkale is full of attractive old stone houses marching even further uphill to the remains of a fine Greek temple to Athena that presides over a stunning view across to Lesbos, or “Midilli” in Turkish. Like Çanakkale, Assos is an increasingly popular destination with domestic tourists and school parties choke its narrow streets in late May and early June. Most of the hotels require guests to take half-board which means few good stand-alone restaurants. Sandy beaches ramble out east around Kadırga.


Ayvalık and Cunda: The untouristy small mainland town of Ayvalık once made a living from the cultivation of olives, and the chimneys of old olive-oil factories still loom above narrow streets filled with townhouses dating back to the period before the 1923 Greco-Turkish population exchange when it was an almost entirely Ottoman Greek settlement. The little offshore “island” of Cunda -- which is actually attached to the mainland by a causeway -- revels in more of a holidaymaking atmosphere. Narrow stretches of undeveloped beach fringe Cunda, or you can head south to Ayvalık’s rather overdeveloped resort suburb of Sarımsaklı, where large hotels gaze down on a wide swathe of sand.


Bergama: Since the introduction of a funicular to painlessly convey guests uphill to the Acropolis, a visit to the extensive ruins of ancient Pergamum has become a great deal easier, with the remains of the Asclepion medical sanctuary, the brooding Kızıl Avlu (Red Basilica) and an excellent local museum all within reasonable walking distance of each other. There’s still a fairly limited choice of places to stay, let alone fancy places to eat, so you may prefer to visit on a day-trip from Ayvalık or from the small nearby beach resort of Dikili.

The Foças: North of İzmir, Eski (Old) and Yeni (New) Foça have become increasingly popular with Turkish tourists and the supply of accommodation is barely keeping pace with the growing numbers, especially at weekends. At Eski Foça, a fine Genoese castle on a headland between two harbors is being beautifully restored, while Yeni Foça offers street upon street of pretty little 19th-century townhouses backing onto a small stretch of shingle.

İzmir: On a tight schedule you might want to give İzmir a miss if only to avoid the big-city agro of having to get to grips with an unfamiliar public transport system. That said, the coming of the İzban light railway has made the town center much easier to navigate than it used to be and drops passengers within walking distance of the impressive remains of the Roman agora at Basmane. Restaurants strung out along the waterfront between Konak and Alsancak make pleasant places to watch the sun go down over the Gulf of İzmir.

Çeşme and Alaçatı: West of İzmir, Alaçatı is second only to Bodrum when it comes to the favored summer watering holes of İstanbul’s more moneyed set. The small-scale charms of what was until recently an abandoned settlement of small Greek houses with jutting wooden cumbas (bay windows) are best appreciated in the shoulder seasons, when the crowds thin out before the hotels shut up shop for winter. On a tight budget, you can forget staying in Alaçatı, in which case it’s good news that the town of Çeşme is only a short bus ride away. Çeşme’s hotels also charge over the odds to stay within easy reach of a huge Ottoman castle overlooking a harbor but there are also plenty of cheaper backstreet pensions to pick from as well as cafes and restaurants aimed at a non-plutocratic, non-gourmet clientele.

Selçuk, Kuşadası, Şirince and Ephesus: If Pergamum is the most impressive ancient site north of İzmir, Ephesus is by far the most impressive ruin to its south. Inevitably, the remains of what was once the biggest town in Asia Minor are swamped with visitors, especially when cruise ships are moored in İzmir, which they usually are throughout the summer. Make life easy for yourself and stay within walking distance of them in Selçuk, the small town that was its successor and comes with a fine selection of medieval monuments of its own. Selçuk is also within easy reach of decent beaches at Pamucak and Yoncaköy. In the hills above Selçuk, Şirince offers a fine choice of hotels in restored Ottoman houses with great views. Kuşadası is party central with small built-up beaches easily accessible to north and south, and quieter, more appealing coves hidden inside the Dilek Peninsula National Park to the southwest.

Bodrum and the Bodrum Peninsula: At the southern end of the Aegean coast, Bodrum is very popular with Turks, for whom an ever-growing selection of pricy hotels, restaurants and second homes are being built, rather overshadowing the erstwhile small-scale appeal of the old town center, where whitewashed houses trip down narrow streets to a glorious water-side promenade dominated by a giant 15th-century castle. It’s the same story out on the peninsula, where the separate resorts come closer to merging into each other with every passing year. Gümüşlük to the northwest has the prettiest setting, with the slight remains of ancient Mindos dotting the sandy beach and running out onto Tavşan Adası (Rabbit Island).


Saturday, May 10, 2014

Coasting 1: The Black Sea

Coasting 1: The Black Sea

March 09, 2014, Sunday

Well-known for its magnificent ancient monuments and increasingly so for glitzy entertainment options like Alaçatı, Bodrum, İstanbul and a few other select hotspots, Turkey also boasts an enviable 7,000 kilometers of coastline, making it the perfect place for those in search of a holiday in sight of the sea.

 The beaches are not always the most exciting -- there are few swathes of unspoiled sand to match those of Australia, California or Polynesia, for example -- but there are plenty of erstwhile fishing villages-turned-holiday resorts and many hideaways where history wraps itself neatly around tourism development.

Turkey has three separate stretches of coastline -- the Aegean, the Mediterranean and the Black Sea -- each with their own particular attractions. This week we're kicking off our explorations with the Black Sea.

The Black Sea coast -- an overview

Turkey's Black Sea coastline stretches all the way from İğneada in western Thrace to Hopa/Sarp on the eastern border with Georgia. Few travelers bother with the Thracian stretch even though there are fine sands at Kıyıköy, near Vize, and at Kilyos, near İstanbul, where in summer a string of beach clubs a la Çeşme open their doors.

For most people the Black Sea coast really means the stretch that heads east from İstanbul, kicking off from what is effectively the beach suburb of Şile, then striking east through Ağva, Amasra, İnebolu, Sinop, Samsun, Ünye, Ordu, Giresun, Trabzon and Rize. From Şile to İnebolu the winding road makes for extremely slow traveling. From Samsun to Hopa, though, the Black Sea Highway carves a quick and busy path towards Georgia and the Caucasus.

Although there are plenty of small beaches along the coast, few are truly unspoiled and many feature black volcanic sand. Frequently wet weather even in summer also tends to militate against this being the best choice of destination for a pure beach holiday.

In terms of other attractions the most inviting places to stay are Ağva, Amasra, İnebolu, Sinop, Ünye, Ordu, Giresun, Trabzon and Rize. Beyond Rize the action moves inland from the coast to the Kaçkar Mountains and their foothills. The towns east of Rize are completely bereft of historic monuments.


Once known only to a select few, Ağva is now an increasingly popular weekend retreat for "İstanbullus,” with a string of pleasant small hotels lined up along the banks of the slow-moving Göksu River. There's a beach here too, and attractive coastal scenery at nearby Kilimli Koyu. Do yourself a favor and visit midweek for cheaper prices and less of a party scene.


Perched on a headland between two sizeable harbors, old Amasra hunkers down behind city walls dating back to Byzantine times, which were extensively rebuilt by Genoese traders whose coats of arms can still be seen above the entrances. From a distance, it's a picture-postcard setting. Close up, the architecture is something of a hodge-podge and there are surprisingly few really interesting hotels, this being predominantly still a Turkish family-holiday destination where cheap prices tend to be the most important consideration. From Amasra you can easily pop inland to visit the market at Bartın or to see the fine old Ottoman houses of Safranbolu, a World Heritage site.



Until recently the small town of İnebolu was not really somewhere you would have wanted to linger. Now, however, not only have many of its lovely maroon-and-white-painted wooden houses been restored, but the authorities have decided to make a great deal more of the role their citizens played in the Turkish War of Independence (1919-22) when they formed a crucial link in the supply chain that conveyed munitions inland to Ankara via Kastamonu. A way marked İstiklal Yolu (Independence Way) now commemorates the route taken by the heavy-laden ox carts.


Like Amasra, Sinop sits on a headland, and it too retains extensive stretches of the old city walls that once ran right along the seashore. Sinop has a couple of fine museums, a Selçuk mosque and madrasah (school) and a string of pleasant fish restaurants, but its most intriguing “attraction” is probably the old prison that squats beside the walls as you come into town. This has been left largely as it was when it was decommissioned in 1979. Some will lament the lack of "interpretative" signboards. Others will find its unvarnished state peculiarly evocative.


Like İnebolu, the port town of Samsun used to be somewhere to whip through as quickly as possible, preferably without stopping. Now, it too has been given a makeover to emphasize its role in the events leading up to the Turkish War of Independence, with a replica of the steamship Bandırma in which Atatürk arrived in town as just one of its new attractions. For those interested in more ancient history, the original settlement of Samsun was at Amisos, just west of the center, where a funicular from the shorefront Amazon Park now offers access to a pair of stone-cut tombs hidden inside matching burial mounds.



The speed of the Black Sea Highway makes it tempting just to whiz through Ünye, but actually this is one of the better places to break your journey with some lovely stretches of beach within easy reach of a town center where old Ottoman mansions are being given a much-needed makeover. Uzunkum to the west of town is said to be the longest stretch of sand along the coast, and a short drive out of town leads inland to the remains of the lofty Ünye Kalesi, a castle atop a plug of rock with tombs dating back to the first century B.C. carved into it.



A built-up modern town, Ordu has a waterfront that is dominated by a huge redundant 19th-century church now used by the local university for administrative purposes. There's a dusty small museum in the Paşaoğlu Konağı and fine views from Boztepe, accessible once again by a funicular. Café society is also alive and kicking in Ordu, although sometimes the musicians find themselves struggling to make themselves heard above the roar from the Black Sea Highway.


In the heart of hazelnut-growing country, Giresun is home to another vast redundant church that, this time, has been turned into a fine local museum. High on a hilltop, the ruins of a castle make a fine lookout point. Otherwise, Giresun also makes a great base for a trip inland to see the spectacular remains of Şebinkarahisar Castle.


Of all the Black Sea towns, Trabzon probably has the most going for it. Most people come here to make a side trip inland to Sumela, where a much-photographed ruined monastery clings to the pine-tree-covered mountainside like a limpet. Those who linger will discover that the town is also home to a second Hagia Sophia, this time a 13th-century church built on an isolated headland and thickly covered with spectacular frescoes. After the Ottomans occupied what had been known as Trebizond, the last stronghold of the Byzantine emperors, the church was turned into a mosque. For most of the 20th century it served as a museum, but recently the controversial decision was made to turn it back into a mosque.

Trabzon is home to Trabzonspor, one of Turkey's most successful and popular football teams. It also has a great bazaar where you can buy some fine local styles of jewelry. The Atatürk Köşkü is worth visiting more for the beauty of the building and the surrounding garden than for its exhibits. Some might say the same for Trabzon Museum. Of the once-magnificent Byzantine palace, only the shattered walls survive.


Once you reach Rize you have arrived not only in the part of Turkey populated by a Laz-speaking minority group, but also in the area where much of the country's tea is grown. A visit to the Çay Araştırma Enstitüsü (Tea Research Institute) is therefore de rigueur, as is a visit to the Çaykur Tea Museum, sponsored by the company that owns almost all the local tea plantations.
East of Rize, a road heads inland from the town of Pazar to Çamlıhemşin following the wild course of the Fırtına River, a favorite of white-water rafters. Take this road and you find yourself heading for the Kaçkar Mountains, a beautiful world away from the concrete overdevelopment that mars the rest of the coast all the way to Hopa.


Lokum - Turkish delight - How is it invented?

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