Turkish Letters #7 -- Iznik, Bursa and Çumilakizik (John)
As I write this, the rising sun is warming my shoulders through the windows of the roof-top dinning room while I am distracted by a kitten playing with something on the rooftop opposite. It is all quite pleasant.
Our trip to Iznik started with a ferry ride. After a hasty breakfast we dived into a taxi and plunged into a traffic jam. The last two hundred meters of our 15 minute trip took us 10 minutes. At a huge roundabout within sight of the ferry terminal (a roundabout in Istanbul, what were they thinking?!) there was a competition to see how many cars could fit into the same traffic lane at the same time. The traffic lights on two approaches seemed to be showing green and the two police officers present had gotten into the spirit of things and were waving everybody through. Our driver, using the point-honk-accelerate technique, managed to get through to a small round of applause from us. Whether the applause was for his skill or our survival I am not sure.
We scrambled aboard the ferry as they were making the final call and a crewman’s oily thumb hovered above the “close ramp” button. Mind you, we had to pass through metal detectors so inefficient I could have been smuggling ocean liners. The ferry trip itself was uneventful to the point of being bland. This was amply compensated for by the Dolmush trip to Iznik. We drove through some beautiful countryside in a motorised safety violation. Whether it was a fuel leak, exhaust leak or maybe the driver smuggled petrol at night by putting a hose in the back of the van and filling it up to the windows I have no idea but the fumes were stifling. I noticed, and thanked God, that the driver out of a sense of civic duty or lack of cigarettes made no attempt to smoke. As I said earlier, the countryside was beautiful and a welcome distraction from the game ‘I spy with my little eye something else in this van that will kill us’. I am sure the van was originally bought for spare parts but when they noticed it was still capable of forward motion decided ‘What the hell…’ At the back of my mind a little voice kept reciting ‘And in news from Turkey, three Australians are believed to be among the victims of…’
Iznik is a sleepy country town with, this being Turkey, traffic chaos and pollution levels that would get a nod of respect from the Chinese. It sits between a mountain range and a huge lake, and is surrounded by olive groves so vast that the martini drinkers of the world can rest easy.
Coming into the town we saw folk gathering the last olive crop for the season. They would lay huge sheets of material at the base of the tree, lean home-built ladders against the branches and then scamper up to shake the olives down. If you turned a blind eye to the tractors, and a deaf ear to the incongruous sound of mobile phones, it could have been a scene from any time in the last 500 years or so. Judging by the boles of some of the trees, they had been there that long. Judging by the faces of some of the locals – so had they.
Tractors puttered along the road pulling trailers with groups of workers sitting in them, or laden with produce so fresh and colourful it was mouth watering – even the broccoli.
Massive stone walls, impressive three-tiered gates and various other ruins attest to the fact that Iznik was once a centre of some importance. The place is littered with bits and pieces of history. I saw a piece of carved marble – worth a handsome amount on the antiques market – lying discarded amongst some olive trees. A ruined aqueduct, now serving as the world’s largest plant holder, is paralleled by a modern and rather shabby water conduit. A huge sarcophagus lies smashed as though by some gigantic child in a tantrum, and is now used as a test-bed by the local amateur graffitists.
Unfortunately, everything we tried to visit was closed. This gave me an idea of how the town withstood invasion in the past. Tamerlane the Great or Nigel the Ridiculous or some other denizen of the steppes would appear before the gates with their shaggy horde. A guardsman would saunter over to the parapets, shrug and say ‘Sorry, we’re closed for repairs’. Tamerlane, Nigel or whatever could only splutter, point to the badly worded sign that patently states the town is open for invasion Tuesday to Sunday 9am-12am and 1pm-5pm, then ride off to attack some other town that has better planning.
Being the folk we are, we were content to stroll about looking at the local architecture and delightfully over-grown gardens. Iznik has not yet suffered much modern development but we did find a hoarding proudly boasting that this cruel fate waits in the not to distant future. We wandered along streets lined with crates of olives awaiting transport, or stacks of kindling ready to be processed into pollution, or crates soon to be filled with enormous cabbages, aubergines or whatever they grow up in the hills. Tractors would try to pass one another in streets obviously not wide enough for the purpose, but this behaviour when linked to rural production seems less annoying than it is in the cities.
Along with ancient artefacts, Iznik is littered with tractors. It appears that every male is given a tractor for his 21st Birthday, half of whom decide they don’t want it and dump it in the street the very next day.
Later we followed a romantic country lane past a cypress-filled cemetery darkening into dusk, and up a hill to view the sunset over the lake. The sunset, fortunately, had not been closed for repairs. It had been downgraded from spectacular to merely beautiful.
Come to Iznik in Spring or early Autumn and wander through the hinterland – I know I want to.
And yes! Iznik does have an Ataturk statue. It is a full figure of a very dapper Ataturk in a dinner suit and half cape. Obviously it refers to his time on the stage as a mesmerist, or when he toured the country doing turns as a magician at childrens’ parties.
Bursa is neither here nor there. Two points are in its favour – it is not as ugly as Ankara nor as polluted as Konya. It sprawls down the lower slopes of a mountain range and into the plain below, and has a modern, on-the-go air about it. Knowing the quality of Turkish building, I was alarmed to see two huge cooling towers of a nuclear plant on the outskirts. But considering the quality of Turkish air I decided that a nuclear disaster will probably harm fewer people than breathing would.
The Bursa-ites seem proud of their city centre that boasts many large modern buildings that would be badly reviewed anywhere else in the world. They even have an E. M. Pei pyramid rip-off that, at least, suggests they have aspirations to something better than post-Soviet concrete cracker boxes. Unfortunately, the city centre was build in the middle of a speedway, or should I say slowway given the traffic congestion. Luckily, someone (probably the same advisors who suggested the E. M. Pei knock-off) recommended underground walkways thus ensuring the average Bursa-ite reaches an age outside their teens.
When the traffic does move it does so at a reckless pace. We discovered a technique for crossing roads that entailed joining a group of locals who wished to do so. Mass murder being beyond the pale for even Turkish motorists, this system works quite well. When there was no group about we would huddle behind the nearest woman in purda; whether Turkish motorists respect these black fabric Daleks or Allah guards them - who cares? - it worked.
As in Iznik, most places we wished to visit were inexplicably closed so we resorted to our usual practice of wandering about gawping at architecture – admiring the old and sneering at the new. On our first night we got lost in the old quarter, which clings to a hilltop within the walls of the old castle. After a while we chose a little restaurant at random and settled in for a nosh. We decided what we wanted and with the aid of hand gestures, the phrase book, and some mangled Turklish ordered soup all round and three separate mains. We all wound up being served precisely the same thing. Never mind, it was delicious. The waiter, a delightful young man borrowed our phrase book and after some research returned to offer us drinks – water, tea or cola. Now let me explain, water is ‘su’, you can tell this it is written on the bottle; you cannot spend an hour in Turkey without learning that tea is ‘chai’, and cola is ‘kola’. At least he tried and it was gratifying to find someone who’s English was worse than our Turkish. One phrase you will definitely need in Turkey is “This phrase book is crap!”
Our walk home required us following a street half of which had been converted by a road crew into an obstacle course for urban military training. Halfway along the street someone had parked a minibus in the open lane and wandered off. As our phrase book contained nothing as useful as “There is an abandoned minibus blocking the street” – and if it had you couldn’t say it without a month’s practice – we wandered past about 1,000 Turkish motorists whose plans for Saturday night had just been radically altered. However, not ones to miss an opportunity they spent the time adding to the city’s pollution levels by running their engines and spewing fumes into the air. They balanced this by upping the noise pollution levels through helpfully beeping their horns.
The next day we visited the famed silk bazaar. It is housed in a beautiful old caravanserai. Unfortunately, what is housed there is a bunch of tiny boutiques in a life and death competition to see who can display the most woeful scarf. The wonderful sense of colour and tone so brilliantly displayed on the walls of the old houses is entirely absent in Turkish fabric design. The place could only entertain the colour-blind. I beg the world federation of sequin makers to boycott the Turkish fabric trade.
Later we checked out Bursa’s club/pub district. Given Turkey is an Islamic, though secular, state, we didn’t expect much. However, we were delightfully surprised. After one attempt at a place that we discovered had a menu solely to display what they didn’t serve we wandered into what we called the Tardis bar. A dilapidated old house front bore a sign suggesting the presence of alcohol. We took the chance. From the look of it I expected a tiny, dark hovel with horse brasses and other inappropriate fittings ‘character’ fittings. We wandered down a dim hallway, tripped down a flight of ill-made steps, ducked through an out of plumb doorway, and into a huge, clinical, ultra-modern space. Every cool dude in Bursa could have fitted in with spare room. In fact I think they were all there. The spare room was taken up by families giving their kids a healthy taste of modern decadence, and us. We sat around drinking Efes, eating oversalted peanuts, and watching ‘Pimp My Ride’ until commonsense through a lack of equilibrium suggested dinner was appropriate.
Using ‘Lonely Planet’ as a guide we wound up at one of Bursa’s most famous kebap restaurants. The food was fine, the price atrocious, and the service – well, it had all the perfunctory professionalism of McDonalds without the cloying charm. It was eating as autopsy. The toilets were the high point. They were reached via a marble staircase flanked by copies of classic Seljuk lion sculptures. By the time you got to the toilets you were laughing so much the trip was necessary.
After dinner we returned to our hotel and watched the English language TV channel. We thought that hearing the English dialogue while reading the Turkish subtitles would help our language skills. We were soon disabused of this notion. For one thing – Turkish sometimes requires a lot more words than English to express a point. For another thing – our rudimentary Turkish made us realise that the subtitles often strayed from the intent of the spoken words. What the Turks make of the ‘X-Files’ puzzles me; what they make of ‘South Park’ (I kid you not), frightens me.
Bursa, of course, has an Ataturk sculpture. It is a noble equestrian piece. Ataturk sits ramrod straight upon a horse that is apparently about to evacuate its bowels. It would not be a stand out piece but for the most delightfully delicate hand gesture on behalf of the subject. He is either dismissing Bursa, quite aptly, as one would brush cigarette ash of their sleeve, or he is suggesting that you avoid the nearby, overpriced kebab joint and go to the Tardis bar instead. God bless him.
As a special treat for Shiralee’s birthday we visited this gorgeous little hamlet. Its name is virtually unpronounceable which I believe is part of a plot by the locals to stop tourists like us from blighting its bucolic charms. I mastered the pronunciation well enough for one attempt at purchasing bus tickets, for the rest of the time we referred to it as Jimbolu, Jumbuz or ‘the place with no name’.
The town nestles at the end of a 40 minute trip into the hills above Bursa. We caught one of the remarkably punctual dolmuses from the city centre, travelled along the main road, turned left, passed through a hole in the space/time continuum, and before we knew it were deposited in the deserted town square. This being Turkey the town square is neither square nor in the town.
Çumilakizik still functions as a farming settlement but also doubles as a weekend get-away for Bursarites with good taste. It boasts one hotel which is a tiny, oldy worldy, slightly damp establishment that reminded me of the place Basil Rathbone stayed in in one of those anachronistic 1930s films where he was Sherlock Holmes battling Nazi ne’re do wells in some ill-defined European backwater.
The proprietors of the hotel also run the town’s only restaurant (at least, the only one open when we were there). Both establishments are staffed entirely by non-English speakers so all communication required some bad mime. I thought Marcel Marceau could have been of assistance but, since we didn’t want to be locked in a large glass box or blown backwards down the street, decided learning more Turkish would have been better.
Çumilakizik is made up of old semi-dilapidated dwellings some of with upper storeys that jut out over the streets and only remain in place because they are leaning on the building opposite. The streets wind about like a Celtic knot, one was so narrow we had to turn sideways to pass along it.
The place is so small it only has one mosque, and very little to do when it becomes too dark or too cold to wander about. During this period, essentially 5pm – 7am, we retired to the restaurant’s dining room/parlour to read, do crosswords, or plan how we were going to mime, dance or semaphore our requirements for dinner.
The dinning room was over-heated and furnished in a way that would make Franco Cottzo stare. During the day it serves as a drop-in centre for the passing lunch trade or for those trying to stave off frostbite while adding to the coffers of the tobacco cartels. We had a very nice, but not quite what we ordered, lunch while watching a Picasso wanabee water-colourist get very familiar with someone young enough to be his daughter, and whom I certainly hope wasn’t.
After lunch we decided to go for a walk in the country. Using the tourists’ prerogative to pretend we couldn’t understand the sign saying ‘Keep out’ we set off up a country path, all the while hoping the sign we really couldn’t understand didn’t say ‘Minefield’.
It was beautiful. On either side of the path bare fruit trees marched into the distance, their branches fading into the haze. Rich soil and fallen leaves filled the air with the glorious aroma of fecundity. We tripped across a crystal clear stream edged with grassy swards that would make ideal summer picnic sites. The orchards eventually petered out into pine forest as the path wound onwards and upwards. I wished I could join the famous Five, Secret Seven or, more likely, the Dissolute half-dozen, pack a hamper with fruit, sandwiches and lashings of ginger ale, and set out for an adventure. Maybe next time. Sadly, cold, dark and the infirmities of age required our return. Mind you, the thought of dinner played no small part.
As we entered the town school children, chipper and noisy as sparrows, scampered up the streets from the school below while sheep, their bells clinking merrily, were herded down through the town from the fields above to be domiciled overnight in the ground floor of the houses. A couple of tractors growled through those street wide enough. Piles of pony poop attested to the prevalence of pony carts as a mode of transport. Several overly-friendly dogs trotted about as dogs do giving me the idea that their wanderings had suggested the original street layout. After a delicious dinner (unfortunately, the salad got lost in translation) we retired for the night.
We were up the next morning in time to see the sun rise over the mountain. A thin vein of bright gold appeared along the shoulder of the mountain as the still hidden sun’s rays struck the tops of the trees that marched up towards the snow capped peak. The haze brightened until the sun crested the edge of the mountain and sent shafts of light spilling into the valley below turning the orchards into filigrees of gold and silver. The few remaining fruits lit up like red and orange jewels seeming to float before our eyes. It was God’s own lightshow. Breathtaking.
We returned to the restaurant for breakfast that, much to the bemusement of the locals, we insisted eating on the balcony. While the sun gently warming our frozen fingers and toes we attacked the huge spread with all the grace of Vikings in a jewellery store. There were lashings upon lashings of local produce. It was perfect. If the owners had offered me a good latté and a small joint I would be there still.
We were very sad to leave the place. So sad, in fact, it took us several hours to realise we had missed their Ataturk sculpture.
< < Letters Index •
|• Turkish Letter #6 > >|