Mushrooms with everything: Bolu and around
I've arrived in bolu in mushroom season and in front of the late 15th-century Kadı Cami, conspicuous only for its austerity, I bump into a man in a captain's cap wearing a T-shirt emblazoned “Yavuz Sultan Selim The Caliph.” He looks an unlikely mushroom advocate, but he rattles off the names of his products with all the enthusiasm of a car showroom salesman.
“We call it pretty girl, too,” cuts in a woman sitting beside him in the blue-and-red-striped şalvar that are the favored choice of local matrons. I look at the bowls and plates lined up in front of her. Some are filled with what look like sponges, others with what looks like seaweed. All of it, however, turns out to be fungus of one sort or another, and soon I'm being given a quick lesson in mushroom cookery.
The mushrooms are not the only things being sold in front of the mosque, though. Minutes later and I'm being handed raspberries and apples to taste. Bolu may have one of western Turkey's coolest climates, but clearly it makes for perfect market-gardening conditions.
Bolu is one of those towns that goes virtually ignored by foreign tourists, although it's popular with Turks who use it as a base for visiting the many lakes in the surrounding countryside and as an alternative base for visiting the ski resort at nearby Kartalkaya. In the last couple of years the entire town center has been redesigned to turn it into a pedestrian zone with a cycle path running down the middle. At one end brand-new restaurants and cafes dot landscaped parkland so designed that even the walls of the local branch of Burger King have plants running up and down their sides.
Unfortunately, the town remains low on serious tourist attractions. There's one old han and the slight remains of a Roman stadium, now hidden behind billboards. Otherwise the only thing that might draw a visitor in is the local archaeological museum. This showcases the finds from ancient Bithynia, which still crop up from time to time when new roads are being built.
Still, Bolu remains the best base for exploring the surrounding area with two significant caveats which are that the town-center hotels are disappointingly overpriced and old-fashioned, and that it's not at all easy for a visitor without a car to get to grips with the public transport system, with buses to local destinations leaving from different offices scattered all around town.
Probably the single most interesting place to go from Bolu is Mudurnu, a delightful small town to the southwest that glories in all the historic attractions its larger neighbor lacks.
Mudurnu is one of those towns that has found itself washed-up by the tide of history. Once upon a time it stood on one of the old Silk Roads that crisscrossed Anatolia, hence the fine 14th-century Yıldırım Beyazıt Cami that still survives along with its hamam in the town center. Nearby the bazaar is one of those that still echoes to the sound of copper-beaters, although gradually some of its old shops are being refurbished to sell the sort of handicrafts more attractive to visitors such as jewelry made from oya, the beads that used to be used to decorate women's headscarves.
If Bolu is low on good hotels, Mudurnu is awash with them especially if you are the type of visitor who rates character more highly than the latest in high-tech gadgetry. These hotels are mostly housed in beautifully restored Ottoman mansions dotted about the town center, some of them boasting inviting courtyards or gardens. Finest of them all is probably the Hacı Şakirler Konağı, which still retains all its Ottoman decoration on the inside as well as the outside.
If you're planning a visit to Mudurnu, you might like to know that it is also home to a rather lovely tradition known as the Esnaf Duası (the Tradesmen's Prayer). Every Friday immediately before lunchtime prayers in the Yıldırım Beyazıt Cami, the men from the bazaar line up in two rows in front of their shops to share hunks of bread and squares of lokum (Turkish delight) before praying together in the street. It's a quietly moving sight.
Directly south of Bolu a spectacular wooded road winds through the mountains and down past Seben Gölü (Lake Seben) to the small town of Seben. In itself the town is of no great interest. However, in the vicinity it's possible to visit two abandoned cave settlements, one at Solaklar, the other at Muslar. Unlike the more elaborate cave settlements of Cappadocia in Central Anatolia that have continued in use until today, the cave homes of Seben are no longer lived in and are much more like simple prehistoric rock shelters without the modern add-ons that made it possible for people to continue to live in the Cappadocian versions. As so often, no written records survive to fill us in on the history of the sites, although it is believed that they were inhabited in Phrygian times.
Rather unexpectedly, there are also the remains of what must have been a fine Byzantine church near Seben at Çeltikdere. The road to reach it wanders through a sequence of attractive villages with half-timbered farmhouses before disintegrating into a track that winds down to a beautiful, peaceful gorge. Here the church stands in complete collapse with just its apse with its arrow-slit windows still standing. It makes the perfect backdrop for a picnic.
Northeast of Bolu, the small town of Mengen was once the source of many of the chefs who cooked for the sultans in Constantinople. Today it still offers cookery courses in a department of the local university, although it can't be said that the restaurants around town offer anything to get too excited about. However, once a year cooks from all over Turkey descend on Mengen to take part in a lively festival, focal point of which is a pilav günü (rice day) at which visitors are served risotto from a giant cauldron. If you'd like to take a look make a note in your diary for the end of September next year.
Turkey's little Lake District
When it comes to lakes, foreign visitors tend to think first of the group of lakes in Western Anatolia around Eğirdir and Beyşehir, and then of Lake Van in the far east of the country. Turks, however, also think of the area around Bolu and in particular of Yedigöller, the cluster of small lakes in the forests north of the town. Rather surprisingly, given the amount of new road-building in the country, the roads to Yedigöller remain poor and no public transport serves the lakes.
This means that you may find it easier to visit either Gölcük, the pretty small lake just to the south of Bolu, or Abant Gölü (Lake Abant), the picture-perfect expanse of water set in woodland near Mudurnu. In high summer there are infrequent buses direct to Abant or you can take a taxi form Mudurnu. Several large hotels sit right beside the lake, but despite their five-star ratings they are not perhaps as modern as you might anticipate. Still, come here in the season when the water-lilies are in flower on the water (about now) and you probably won't be complaining. Alternatively, you can hold onto until a snowy winter day, then come here to be driven around the lake in a horse-drawn phaeton equipped with the equivalent of skis, a magical experience.
WHERE TO STAY
Hacı Şakirler Konağı, Mudurnu. Tel: 0374-421 3856
Hotel Kaşmir, Bolu. Tel: 0374-215 8614
Keyvanlar Konağı, Mudurnu. Tel: 0374-421 3750
Fuatbeyler Konağı, Mudurnu. Tel: 0374-421 2444
HOW TO GET THERE
Bolu is conveniently located midway between İstanbul and Ankara, with frequent buses from both towns. The new bus station is remote from the town center and poorly served by public transport.