Around the Sea of Marmara: Exploring İstanbul’s backyard
Covering an area of 11,350 square kilometers, the Sea of Marmara has always held great strategic importance as the link between the Black Sea and the Aegean via the straits of the Bosporus to the northeast and the Dardanelles to the southwest. It's named after Marmara, the largest island in the Marmara group that lies to the south of the sea. That in turn is named after the marble (“mermer” in Turkish) that is still quarried in great quantities there.
The Sea of Marmara is effectively İstanbul's backyard, yet most of the settlements along its shore receive relatively few foreign visitors despite being easy to get to. The following is a summary of what to see if you drive around the sea in a counterclockwise direction.
Heading west out of İstanbul along the northern shore of the Sea of Marmara, it takes a long time to get clear of the urban sprawl and the build-up of holiday homes, but eventually you arrive in Tekirdağ, best known in Turkey for its rakı factory but also an active fishing port where you can stroll along the promenade and watch the men fixing their nets in the sun.
The main mosque is a minor work of the great architect Sinan, but more interesting are two small museums, the first the local archeology museum which is housed in a magnificent early 20th-century building, the second a monument to Prince Francis II Rakoczy (1676-1735), a Hungarian exiled to this then-remote Ottoman town after he took part in the Hungarian War of Independence against the Habsburgs. It contains some lovely watercolors of old Tekirdağ.
If you continue driving around the shores of the sea, you will eventually reach the mouth of the Dardanelles at Gelibolu, a very pretty little harbor town presided over by a tower that has been converted into a museum to Piri Reis (c. 1465-1555), a Gelibolu-born admiral who produced the first map to show the American continent in its entirety. Gelibolu is also home to a small Çanakkale museum as well as to the largest Mevlevihane (lodge for whirling dervishes) in the world. There's a beach at nearby Hamzaköy and fish restaurants dishing up fresh sardines all around the harbor.
Biga and Karabiga
If you take the ferry across from Gelibolu to Lapseki and then continue driving round the Sea of Marmara (the road diverts inland at this point), you will come to the small town of Biga, interesting only for a couple of surviving Ottoman mansions, one converted into a hotel, the other into a museum. Here, though, you can take the road that heads north to the shore at Karabiga, where pieces of an old castle tumble picturesquely down the cliffs of a much more rugged stretch of coastline. It was near here in 334 B.C. that Alexander the Great first defeated the Persians at the Battle of Granicus.
Once a glitzy holiday resort that attracted the moneyed elite, Erdek is now a faded shadow of its old self but filled with hotels that nonetheless boast priceless sunset views over the Sea of Marmara from their balconies. The only specific tourist attraction nearby is the minor archeological site at Cyzikus, one of those places where you come to ponder the strange turns of the wheel of fortune that rendered what was once a town as rich and powerful as Ephesus an also-ran in the touristic stakes.
Erdek offers one of the main access points to the Marmara Islands throughout the summer. If you fancy a quick sun-and-sand break away from İstanbul, then these islands might just fit the bill. Mainly catering to the Turkish-family holiday market, the main island Avşa in particular is full of small family-run pensions that don't charge an arm and a leg and are often very close to the sea. Marmara island is bigger, more mountainous, and perhaps more visually enticing. The smaller, less readily accessible islands of Ekinlik and Paşalimanı are predictably more exclusive.
Continuing eastwards along the Sea of Marmara, you will come eventually to Mudanya, a ferry port that played an important role in the final events of the Turkish War of Independence as the place where İsmet İnönü met the leaders of the British, French and Italians to thrash out the boundaries of the new Turkish Republic. The elegant Mütadele Evi (Armistice House) where they did this is now open to the public as a museum and offers a chance to see inside one of the fine seaside mansions built as summer retreats by some of İstanbul's wealthiest families in the early 20th century.
Just a little further east, you will come to the lovely little seaside town of Trilye, once a largely Greek settlement known for its fine olive oil and called Zeytinbağı. Here street after cobbled street is lined with lovely old Ottoman houses in varying states of repair, the centerpiece being the grand Taş Mektep (Stone School) that started life as a seminary for priests. Also worth seeking out are three small Byzantine churches, two of them in ruins, the third restored for use as the Fatih Cami.
One of the best-known destinations on the southern shore of the Sea of Marmara is Yalova, one of the ports for fast-ferries from İstanbul and just a short bus ride away from Termal, a lovely wooded spa resort that found particular favor with Atatürk. Here you can swim in the open air in a large heated pool or sample the more discreet charms of assorted Turkish baths before taking a stroll around a large arboretum. You can also visit the newly restored summerhouse built for Atatürk, while in Yalova itself there is a more elegant sea-facing wooden pavilion for which he was also responsible. It's called the Yürüyen Köşkü (Walking Pavilion) because when the branches of nearby trees started to encroach on the view he had it painstakingly inched a little further along the coast.
Much less visited than Yalova/Termal, the small town of Karamürsel nonetheless boasts a pleasant landscaped waterfront whence you can hop on a ferry across the Sea of Marmara to Kocaeli (İzmit). Karamürsel played a walk-on part in Ottoman history as the site of the first naval shipyard founded in 1327. Accordingly, there's a monument here to Karamürsel, the admiral responsible who also designed the kadırga, the prototype of the galleys that served the navy in its early years.
Near Karamürsel is Topçular, where it's possible to hop on a ferry and cross back to the northern side of the Sea of Marmara at Eskihisar, a small town that is more or less a suburb of İstanbul now. As you approach across the water, you will get an excellent look at the huge castle that still dominates the town. It was here that the great Ottoman artist, archeologist and museum-maker, Osman Hamdi Bey, kept a summerhouse. A lovely whitewashed yalı (waterside mansion), it's open to the public as a museum that shows off replicas of his paintings, the best known of which is “The Tortoise Trainer” that is on display in İstanbul's Pera Museum. Osman Hamdi Bey is buried in a shady cemetery nearby.
Heading back to İstanbul, you might want to make one last quick stop at Hereke, once the place where fine silk carpets were woven to adorn the İstanbul palaces. Today the old factory is intermittently open to the public, who can also pause to appreciate a small yalı built for Kaiser Wilhelm II, who introduced chemical dyes from Germany to Turkey. Despite the busy main road roaring behind it, there's still a very pretty little harbor here where you can tuck into one last fish supper before returning to İstanbul.
Crossing the Sea of Marmara
Fast ferries sail from Yenikapı in İstanbul to Yalova, Mudanya and Bandırma, near Erdek (www.ido.com.tr/en/timetables/2014-summer-timetable). At the Dardanelles end, car ferries cross from Gelibolu to Lapseki (www.gestasdenizulasim.com.tr/bilgiler.php?mid=16). At the İstanbul end, car ferries cross from Topçular to Eskihisar every 20 minutes.
In summer there are car ferries from Tekirdağ to the Marmara Islands (www.adalarvapursaatleri.com/tekirdag-feribot-gidis-saatleri.html). All year round, there are ferries to the Islands from Erdek (www.gestasdenizulasim.com.tr/bilgiler.php?mid=16).