Monday, October 26, 2015

The taste of Tarsus

The taste of Tarsus

The taste of Tarsus
Old Tarsus (Photo: Pat Yale)

On a muggy, hot summer day I staggered up to a juice bar in the eastern Mediterranean city of tarsus. My fringe was plastered to my forehead. My glasses were smeared with sweat. Beads of perspiration were dripping off my chin onto my T-shirt.  
“Very hot,” I said apologetically to the juice seller.
“Yes, humid,” he said, gently wiping away a single drop of sweat adorning his own forehead.
For those not brought up in this part of the world, the climate all along Turkey's south coast can be pretty punishing, but the wet heat concentrates its worst on the corner where the coastline makes its abrupt downward turn into Hatay. The good thing is that this ensures lush Levantine vegetation of palms, fig trees and banana plants. The bad thing is that it can make it hard to make oneself stir far from a hotel room with its air conditioning unit turned up high.
At the juice bar I downed a mixed fruit juice followed in short order by a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice. But at that time of year I could easily have been more adventurous, because this is when the prickly pear bushes come into fruit and glasses of prickly pear juice (hint inciri suyu) are a common sight in Tarsus. Almost as common are bowls of yayla karsambaç, the Tarsus take on a slushie, with fruit juice poured over crushed ice to help you cool down.

Şalgam: an acquired taste

Finally, one can always take a deep breath and order a glass of şalgam, the so-called “turnip juice” that is claimed for itself by nearby Adana but spills over in large quantities to Tarsus too. Şalgam is actually made from carrots that have been added to fermented bulgur with a dose of salt. True aficionados drink it in between crunching on sticks of carrot called tane. It's very much an acquired taste.
Mention Tarsus to most people and the first thing that will come to their mind is St. Paul, the Tarsus-born Saul who underwent a religious experience on the road to Damascus and not only converted to Christianity and changed his name but also became one of the most ardent advocates for his new religion. A few people, after scratching their heads, will recall that Tarsus also had something to do with Queen Cleopatra of Egypt, who was summoned to the city in 41 BC to meet Marc Anthony, the Roman leader of the eastern part of what was then still a rambling republic. The queen is said to have sailed up the Cyndus river to meet him in a perfumed barge full of flowers. Needless to say, he promptly fell in love with her and forgot all about politics. Today, a poorly restored gate from the old city wall is named after the queen, although it can't have been standing when she visited.
Finally, a few sharper Turks will remember a link with the Şahmeran, a Mesopotamian fertility symbol with the body of a snake and the head of a human. These days the Şahmeran tends to be most closely associated with Mardin, where craftsmen in the bazaar turn out beautiful images of a creature that appears to be female under glass. The Tarsus Şahmeran, however, was firmly male, and a bit of an unreconstructed, voyeuristic male at that, since a local story records him climbing onto the roof of the Roman bathhouse to spy on the daughter of the king of Tarsus as she bathed. Unluckily for him, he lost his footing and fell into the arms of her waiting bodyguards who promptly put him to death. A statue of the Şahmeran looking like a many-headed cobra presides over a road junction in the center of town.
 What few people know, however, is that on the quiet, Tarsus is almost as intriguing a place for people interested in food as Antakya further along the coast. This is mainly a result of its complex crossroads position, lost in the Mersin-Adana sprawl yet near enough to Hatay to have borrowed some of its trendy culinary clothing.
Take hummus, for example. This crushed chickpea and tahini dish is a Middle Eastern favorite that frequently crops up in Antakya by reason of its geographical proximity to Syria. Its popularity in Tarsus is less easy to understand, and does not, as in Kilis, have anything to do with the recent influx of refugees. But the hummus of Tarsus is hummus with a novel twist, because here you can eat it warmed through, dribbled with olive oil and dotted with chickpeas and slithers of pastırma (pastırmalı humus). It's absolutely delicious and best sampled at the award-winning Kervan Humus Salonu, tucked away on a side street.
The other dish that Tarsus seems to have borrowed from its eastern neighbors is the Gaziantep and Kilis favorite lahmacun, but here too it puts its own spin on the familiar serving of paper-thin bread spread with a paste of ground meat and vegetables. In Tarsus they take their lahmacun in bite-sized portions on sale by the hundred in the town's many bakeries. Fresh from the oven and piping hot, they're incredibly moreish.

Tasty tantuni

If şalgam was Adana's gift to Tarsus, then tantuni was Mersin's. Tantuni is a dish of stir-fried meat or chicken that is served in the same sort of soft-bread dürüm wrap as a döner kebab, except that this bread has been used to mop up the meat juices before being wrapped round the contents. The tantuni on offer in Tarsus may not quite match up to the version on sale in Mersin itself, but it certainly makes a good alternative to the more familiar döner.
When it comes to dessert, Tarsus lays claim to one sweet entirely of its own making, and that is cezerye, a gelatinous confection that, like şalgam, has carrot as its base ingredient but now with the addition of crushed hazelnuts or pistachios, honey, sugar and a mixture of different spices all sprinkled with grated coconut, then sliced into squares. You'll see it rising up in conical pyramids in the windows of every other sweetshop in town.
 Dinner and cezerye dessert over, Tarsuslus, like Turks all over the country, adjourn to a teahouse to let their meal digest in the relative cool of evening over glass after glass of tea. Until recently the best and most obvious place to take one's tea was the pedestrianized Atatürk Bulvarı Yarenlik Alanı, which sits near an impressive stretch of exposed Roman road. As its name made plain, this used to be a place where one was encouraged to sit down for a friendly chat with others at one of a number of small cafes. Unfortunately these have now vanished, their place taken only by a string of park benches interspersed with busts of every famous or half-famous person ever to have graced Tarsus with their presence. In their absence you'll have to settle for an ordinary teahouse in a rather male-dominated town or (whisper it) head up to the Tarsu shopping mall for a drink in a branch of a cheerier coffeehouse chain.
Tarsus is low on decent places to stay, so you might want to stay overnight in Mersin, where there are lots of hotels near the bus terminal, or in Adana and visit on a day trip.
Hotel Bosnalı, Adana. Tel: 0322-359 8000
Hotel Mercan, Adana. Tel: 0322-351 2603
Konak Efsus, Tarsus. Tel: 0324-614 0807
Şelale Hotel, Tarsus. Tel: 0324-614 0600
Taşköprü Hotel, Adana. Tel: 0322-359 1144
The nearest airport is in Adana, which is also served, like Mersin, by most big bus companies. Frequent minibuses connect Adana and Mersin with Tarsus. Driving, you'll need to keep your eyes peeled for the turn-off to Tarsus marked by a Kültür Park housing the Nusret minelayer that played a big part in the events at Gallipoli in 1915 -- it's easy to miss amid the heavy traffic.
Keywords: tarsus , travel

Monday, October 12, 2015



Urla Harbor (Photo: Pat Yale)

The sheer size of İzmir means that it serves as something of an obstacle to people traveling along the Aegean coast. Routes that bypass the conurbation usually whip travelers round it on the eastern side. That leaves the small resorts on the Çeşme and Karaburun peninsulas to the west more or less cut off from passing traffic.
Still, if you're spending a few days in İzmir, you might want to head out in this direction, especially now that the western bus terminal at Üçkuyular is finally accessible by metro.
Looking at a map, the biggest town west of İzmir is Çeşme (which is actually much smaller than you might expect). Çeşme can be reached by hourly bus from the main İzmir bus station as well as from Üçkuyular, but most of the other settlements are only served by buses from Üçkuyular.
Here, then, are the last places I recommend visiting in the İzmir area.


Çeşme and around

Çeşme is dominated by a vast Genoese castle that now serves as the local museum and offers spectacular sea views from its ramparts. In front of it stands a somewhat bizarre statue of Cezayirli Gazi Hasan Paşa (1714-90) with his pet lion. Other than that, Çeşme has little in the way of specific tourist attractions, although it's worth popping your head into what was originally the Church of Hagios Haralambos on the main road down to the harbor. Now used as a cultural center, it can usually be relied on to have something going on inside that will enable you to wander in and admire the sheer size and decoration of one of Turkey's many late 19th-century churches.
Many people come to Çeşme to catch the ferry to the Greek island of Chios, easily visitable on a day trip. If you plan on staying overnight, it's worth knowing that the vast Kanuni Kervansaray Historic Hotel (tel: 0232-712 0630), created out of a 16th-century caravanserai, is only 10 minutes' walk from the ferry. Prices drop dramatically off-season.
The Çeşme eating scene is pretty mediocre, although the coming of a marina has stirred a few Italian restaurants and café-bars into the mix. One option is to head out to Dalyan (not to be confused with the larger Dalyan near Fethiye), where fish restaurant after fish restaurant hugs the banks of a stream running down to the sea.
From Çeşme it's easy to bus-hop your way round the local beaches. The nearest is Boyalık, on the outskirts of Çeşme itself, but you can also catch a bus to the wilder sands around Altınkum. Alternatively, you can head for Ilıca, where a wide swathe of sand is overlooked by an enormous Sheraton hotel. This is an unexpectedly upscale spa resort with some fine residential housing just inland. If you can afford to stay at the Nars Ilıca Hotel (tel: 0232-729 0001), you're unlikely to regret it.



These days it's not so much Çeşme as Alaçatı that draws people west from İzmir. Let's be frank -- Alaçatı may be lovely, but it's also unabashedly expensive, so even if you would like to stay, a day trip may be all that you can afford. Once a small virtually abandoned Ottoman Greek settlement, Alaçatı has a picture-postcard beauty, with lovely stone houses, each with a jutting wooden cumba (bay window), fanning out from a central square dominated by a vast church, now turned into a mosque. Since 2001, most of these houses have been snapped up and turned into boutique hotels, gourmet restaurants and stylish shops that appeal particularly to İstanbullus in search of a sea break but reluctant to travel as far as Bodrum. In July and August, the narrow streets are so crammed with bodies that it's hard to appreciate the architecture. Travel out of season, however, and you will readily understand what it was that attracted the first-comers to this then-isolated corner of the country.
Not all of Alaçatı has been developed even now. The best thing to do is wander into the back street behind the church-mosque where you'll find an inviting mix of dereliction and gentrification with lots of antique shops and cafes thrown in.
Even without its man-made beauty, Alaçatı has another claim to fame, which is the nearby beach, a favorite with the windsurfing community. As you ride out there on the bus you'll pass the rather odd Port Alaçatı Marina development, an attempt to create something “Venetian” on erstwhile undeveloped land.



The main highway from İzmir to Çeşme slices across the Çeşme Peninsula, making movement between the other settlements in the area difficult. If you'd like to visit Urla, site of the ancient Greek settlement of Clazomenae, you're best off taking a bus directly from Üçkuyular. Once there you'll find an extremely pretty harbor dominated by the restored Customs Office that houses a nice café. Scant remains of Clazomenae can be seen on and around the hill above the harbor; closer to it you'll see the erstwhile home of the Greek poet Yorgo Seferis (1900-71), now a small hotel.
Urla keeps one more trick up its sleeve, which is the old town about one kilometer inland. Full of Alaçatı-style houses on a grander scale, some of them now restored, it is also home to a couple of pleasant mosques, including one with a lovely painted şadırvan (ablutions fountain) of a type more common around Amasya.

Karaburun Peninsula

On a map, the Karaburun Peninsula, jutting into the sea northwest of İzmir, looks as if it should be remote and wildly beautiful. Unfortunately, the usual concrete blight has been allowed to take hold, rendering the port towns of Mordoğan and Karaburun (both with summer ferries to Eski Foça) less inviting than you might have hoped. The prettiest village on the peninsula is Ildır, where attractive stone houses stand directly over some of the remains of ancient Greek Erythrae. Up above the village there are more ruins, not dramatic in themselves but leading inexorably upwards to a headland offering spectacular sea views. For the time being, tourism here is very low-key, although a couple of hotels and smart cafes have already opened, no doubt hoping to emulate the success of Alaçatı.


Sığacık, Teos and Akkum

Southwest of İzmir, buses from Üçkuyular run to Seferihisar, a town that has signed up to the Slow City movement and boasts a large statue of three intertwined snails accordingly. A city museum is in the planning. Until it opens, you are more likely to want to head straight to the harbor at Sığacık, something made considerably less simple by the opening of a new out-of-town bus station where you must exit the İzmir bus, wait for another to run you into town, then board a third to get to Sığacık.
Once you get there, however, you will find a quaint little settlement hunkered down behind stone walls, probably dating back to the Genoese days of the late Middle Ages. Inside the walls there's a small mosque complete with even smaller medrese and ruinous hamam. Otherwise, most of the housing here used to be pretty indifferent in design. A recent initiative has seen all the accumulated concrete and old paint stripped back so that the houses can be repainted in pastel colors. Once finished they should look a great deal more alluring.
From Sığacık, frequent buses ferry people out to the windsurfing beach at Akkum. If you'd like to visit the ruins of ancient Teos you will need to take a taxi either from Akkum or from Sığacık itself. Although Teos is thought to have been home to the largest temple to Dionysius in the ancient world, the surviving remains are fairly insubstantial; a new museum being built on the site should soon make a visit more worthwhile. Regardless, it sits in a bucolic setting amid ancient olive trees, a world away from the bustle of big-city İzmir.
Keywords: İzmir

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