This post was written by my husband, Craig Hammell, about our trip to Ayvalik, Turkey, in 2013.
“I will be getting married in three weeks” our taxi driver Ozzie joyfully announced, then softer and more ambivalently “there are so many preparations to make ready before our wedding , we have to buy a refrigerator, stove and bed for our new apartment.” A gigantic, carved stone profile of Atatürk loomed over the highway and filled the front windshield as my wife and I sped north, round a bend on the E87, escaping the Izmir airport. “About half way there we will break at this rest stop that makes the best homemade yogurt. Mama likes the yogurt with mild green peppers marinating in it, I always stop here on the way back to buy some for her. It reminds her of the way grandma used to make it.” Ozzie continued, “just last week there was a newspaper editorial lamenting the demise of fresh yogurt and how the store-bought yogurt now lasts forever and never goes bad!” And so began our journey to Ayvalik and a week on the northern Aegean coast of Turkey last May. Located two hours by taxi (four hours by bus) north of Izmir, on the southern shore of the Bay of Edremit, Ayvalik is fortunately just a little too far north and off the usual tour circuit, a full day’s drive away from the buses full of tourists that visit Ephesus then descend onto the beaches of Turkey’s Southern Aegean or Western Mediterranean coasts. “Ayvalik! How do you know of Ayvalik? This is where the Turks go to vacation” And “You must go to Cunda!” is a phrase we heard proudly repeated more than once.
As we approached Ayvalik, salt evaporating ponds lined one side of the road as gentle Mediterranean waves rolled onto the narrow beach across the way. Turning off the highway, the road rose gently through acres upon acres of olive groves, ruins of an old stone Greek Church flashed by, its roof gone, leaving only the bell tower to pierce the silver-green canopy of the olive trees. As the road crested, a quick glimpse of Ayvalik flashed by, red tiled roofs and minarets set against the sparkling, turquoise blues of the Aegean. And across the bay were the low hills of Cunda Island in the distance. The May Day celebrations were in full swing on the palm tree lined waterfront, and in front of the ubiquitous statue of Atatürk a sea of labor unionists chanted and waved crimson Turkish flags aloft as our taxi passed.
Erinç our hostess smiled to us from the door of Eolya Konukevi as Ozzie jumped the low stone wall with our bags in hand to show off his youth. The salt air and Mediterranean diet had not worked its wonders yet, so we walked the long way around to greet her. “Please wear these slippers when you enter, it is our custom.” Four years earlier Erinç escaped the urban crush of Istanbul and opened Eolya Konukevi, a small four room guest house in a three story, 120 year old Greek townhome she lovingly renovated, keeping its historical ambience and charm. The bedrooms were on the small side so we opted for room #7, the only one with a private terrace. The terrace was too hot to use during the unseasonably warm ninety degree mid-day heat, but wonderful early in the morning or later in the day when the sun was lower and a perfect spot to enjoy a bottle of Turkish wine bought from the local grocery store. In early May we were the only guests for most of the week. Nevertheless each morning Erinç presented, in the sunken, high-walled courtyard a bountiful variety of fresh baked breads or pastries with homemade jams, honey, tomatoes, cucumbers, a wonderful assortment of olives, local cheeses, Turkish egg dishes and the delicious Turkish staple, Cevizli biber – a meze prepared with red pepper paste, hot red pepper flakes, onion, walnuts and cumin mixed to a moldable consistency and used to garnish many recipes. “You will see gallons of it in the weekly market on Thursday, the town gets crazy full, vendors fill the street and villagers from all around come into town to shop,” Erinç told us.
Embracing the pace of village life we walked everywhere, and hoped to stay thin. Along the quay, boat hands dangled over the side of excursion boats, busy sanding and varnishing them into pristine shape for the coming high season, wonderfully free of OSHA restrictions. Some fishermen sat atop their moored boats mending nets, and others tinkered noisily with engines. Lined with boats, palm trees and seafood restaurants the waterfront of Ayvalik, though much quieter and laidback, resembles many others fishing villages along the coast. The charm of Ayvalik is that it has no major attractions, just the wonderful ambiance of a once prosperous commercial fishing and olive oil processing center, now mostly forgotten and lost in time. Far away from any major historical sites, the townspeople here are just going about their lives, and wonderfully so, not catering to a substantial tourist infrastructure. There was only one short block with several bars, just off the waterfront that looked like it would be a noisy spot during high season. With tables and chairs outside that further narrowed the already thin lane there were more cats and dogs asleep under the tables than patrons the night we passed.
Meandering, cobbled lanes and back alleys led us slowly up the hill away from the waterfront and it seemed into an earlier century. Slowly crumbling pastel colored homes in various stages of decline lined both sides of the streets. Missing sections of stucco revealed still solid stone construction underneath ignored exteriors. Many homes had their doors chained shut decades ago, the locks heavily rusted over from neglect or abandonment (recall pictures of Havana, Cuba). Offset occasionally by a rare renovation in progress , the early signs of gentrification were beginning to edge in. Horse drawn wagons are still used by vegetable and fruit vendors to ply their trade and to deliver refrigerators, stoves and other large household items through lanes too narrow for modern trucks to navigate. The vignettes of everyday live abounded – the world’s oldest newspaper delivery man carefully balancing an ancient moped between stops, ringing the doorbell and sharing news for a few moments before sputtering away to another door further down the bumpy lane. The lone cow tied to a bright , orange slide in a vacant children’s playground. Fresh fish and Octopus taken from the sea just hours earlier, for sale on the pier early in the morning. School children in their uniforms, playfully headed home for lunch. Lambs’ heads, beef hearts and other organs hung in the butcher’s window. Piles of freshly baked Simit (a bread ring covered with sesame seeds all over) just taken from the baker’s oven and displayed on the ledge of his open window to cool. The candied apple seller walking the streets, hawking his caramelized treats from a tree like structure. A painter carrying his buckets, brushes and large extension ladder to work, carefully, dipping it under low hanging telephone lines as he walked. Men crushing, weighing and bagging coal just off the main square, covered head to toe in black dust. Stacks of split wood – used to fire so many grills and ovens – and impart that distinctive flavoring. Scarfed women, walking together their arms linked in camaraderie. A farmer racing by on his garden tractor, pulling his wife bouncing all over in a small wagon behind him, with a death grip on its sides she held her face high into the morning sun. Her head scarf blew straight out behind her.
The Minaret and clock tower of Saatli Camii mosque were just visible through the fabric and clothing which dangled from the shade awnings strung over the streets on market day. (A thriving Greek Orthodox cathedral until the Turkish War of Independence ended in 1923. The resulting peace treaty forced a population exchange between Turkey and Greece. Where Ottoman Greeks on the Turkish mainland where forced to leave their homes and move to the Greece and Turks living in Greece where forced to relocate to Turkey. Many churches were abandoned and left to ruin. Others were deconsecrated and with the installation of a minaret and minbar pointing towards Mecca from which the Mullah preached, repurposed as mosques.) Overnight, the local merchants had emptied the contents of their shops onto the streets and itinerant traders erected temporary stands to display their wares. Transforming what seemed to be all of Ayvalik into a vast outdoor shopper’s metropolis offering everything for the home and farm. The village was full of families from the outlying smaller villages that had taken buses to Ayvalik for this weekly event. The women wore traditional baggy pants, brightly colored with floral prints. And various, clashing mix matched tops and scarfs edged with intricate embroidery, created an ever changing, beautiful kaleidoscope of color and patterns as they flowed up and down the lanes, and shopped for more exuberant fabrics to sew at home.
Just off At Arabacilan Meydani (the Horse Carts square) the lane was full of chickens, lambs and goats for sale. Sun dried farmers chatted and laughed with each other while they sat in the doorframes of buildings along the lane, or sent text messages as they waited to make a sale. A block over was the Koy Pazari (weekly farmers market), with baskets full of artichokes, eggplants, fava beans, mulberries, onions, quince, squash, strawberries and grape leaves, stalls full of cheeses and more varieties of olives than I have ever seen in one place. Bottles of pomegranate and grape dressing were stacked high. Herbs and spices! Saffron and Cardamom were amazingly affordable (we should of bought more) And displays of the Turkish Spice blend of Red Pepper, Oregano, Paprika, Garlic, Cumin, Cilantro, Salt and Black Pepper abounded. Each herb poured separately upon the other into plastic bags creating an attractive rainbow package. Numerous five gallon tins of Cevizli biber with their tops shaped to pyramids lined the aisles.
As the day got warmer and the crowds thickened we decided to escape the frenzy and headed to Seytanın Kahvesi (the Devils Café), a teahouse we had found the day before. Very hot apple cay (.50TL) served in tulip shaped glasses soothed use as we rested under the shade of a large tree in front of the cafe and people watched. Even in the mid-day heat the old men wore the traditional sweater vest under a heavy suit jacket. Some rubbed prayer beads as they chatted with friends, while others read papers and sipped tea. One pulled his feet from his slippers and cooled them against the paving stones. At another table, a man with crutches pulled x-rays from a large envelope and held them up to sky to show the pins in his leg to his friends. In the small cross-roads, opposing drivers negotiated which tractor would give way. From the front door tea runners ran down the lane balancing trays of cay to merchants in the market. Above our table hung a sign with carved out and painted, dancing stick figures spelling Cop(M)adam,(the trash ladies) the woman’s cooperative next door. Established to give women who have never worked for pay outside the home or farm, a chance for some economic independence. They create wonderful, contemporary handbags, pocketbooks and other fashion accessories out of thrown away materials. The small shop was full of chatter and laughter as the women worked together. An exotic aroma from the communal lunch being prepared drifted through the shop from the stove in the back room. We chose several items and negotiated lively with an occasional raised eyebrow or thumbs down along with their handy calculator.
With a picnic dinner in our bags from shopping at the bazaar we headed back along a different route further up the hill to find the once grand (and never converted) orthodox cathedral, Taksiyarhis. Situated alone in the center of an overgrown square, the ruins sadly dominated the neighborhood. Large, untamed fig trees sprouted from the foundation. With part of its portico collapsed and the rear of the apse caved in we peered inside to see fallen rafters and small sections of walls with fading designs barely visible, were all that remained of its former glory.
“Have you gone to Cunda yet? Erinç inquired. “Not yet, each time we walk past the ferry there is no activity. We might have to take a Dolmus (shared) Taxi over for the day.” I replied. “With it being so hot this Spring they might start ferry service earlier this year,” Erinç offered. Instead, we hired a taxi and headed to Seytan Sofrasi (the Devils table) a rock formation located in a state park a few miles south of town. Narrow, winding roads followed the shoreline around the smaller coves of the bay, revealing thin strips of sandy beaches round each curve. Only a few families were out, some fathers fished as their kids plunged knee deep into the shallow water, and shivered with glee as they raced back to shore. We passed several roadside stands with various flavors and shades of local honey for sale under beach umbrellas. Eventually the road started to rise gently through a forest. The trees thinned to expose the summit and its panoramic overview to the north of two small bays below, then Ayvalik and the large island of Cunda beyond, surrounded by twenty smaller islands. Lesbos, Greece hazily dominated the western horizon in the afternoon light. Prayer notes tied to safety railings fluttered in a refreshing breeze against a flawless sky. Ignoring the railing some people still climbed over to snap a picture from the edge, no guards were there to discourage them or save them from their selves if needed. Though a sturdy iron cage protected an oval, foot like depression in the rock that local folklore says Satan left behind as he leapt to party in Lesbos for some crazy reason. It’s difficult to believe but it seems the Devil spent a bit of time in Ayvalik, if you go by the number of things that include his name, and the volume of ruined churches, monasteries and mosques built nearby to dilute his influence.
We were in luck when we realized a short line was forming for the ferry to Cunda as we exited the taxi. Storm clouds built over Ayvalik as the boat pulled away with only a handful of passengers aboard for the short journey. The weather threatened only for a brief time but did not deliver. (During high season ferries from Ayvalik run to Lesbos, Greece and Assos, Turkey. Diving trips to nearby deep, red coral reefs can also be taken, along with swimming boat charters to the islands around Cunda). A long line of seafood restaurants fronted Cunda’s quay. Several blocks inland and on a slight rise, the cupola of the old Greek Orthodox Taksiyarhis Kilisesi church (same name but a different church) rose above the surrounding homes, was finally being restored as a museum and center for cultural events after years of neglect. A candied apple seller braved the sun and walked the streets, hawking his caramelized treats from a tree like structure. The shade of the buildings offered some relief from the sun for three older villagers and their donkey called “Donkey” who had a weathered, wooden saddle tied to its back and us as we continued our walk uphill to find a windmill that we had spotted from the ferry. The windmill with a pretty veranda and small adjacent chapel now restored as The Sevim and Necdet H. Kent Library (Kent was a Turkish diplomat stationed in France during World War II who saved the lives of many Jews by providing them Turkish identity papers) are all that are left of an ancient monastery complex that sat upon the crest of the hill and overlooked Cunda and the waters surrounding it. The library’s shaded cafe (free WiFi) provided the perfect spot to rest our blisters and appreciate the views, before heading back into the village for dinner.
We rewarded our efforts later that evening with wonderfully prepared Cretan (Turks from Crete came to Cunda during the population exchange) dishes at Lal Girit Mutfagi, a small restaurant set in a rustic stone building with an outside patio across the cobbled lane. Difficult choices tempted us: which mezes to try from the mouthwatering assortment on display? Since the night was warm, we were seated under the grape vines of the patio. Occasionally the waiter hoisted a watering can and sprinkled water onto the cobblestone lane to keep down the dust from passing tractors as farmers slowly drove home through the village from their fields or orchards. The restaurant did not have a paper menu; rather, Emine the owner/chef enthusiastically talked us through what she was cooking that night. The pace of the meal was delightfully relaxed, no rushing, everything from the kitchen freshly prepared and delicious. Soft cheese with wild spring herbs; mussels stuffed with spicy rice served on the half shell; grilled octopus; fresh anchovies in a light tomato sauce plated artfully in a spiral; artichokes with dill and stuffed grape leaves; and shredded vegetables with cheese and herbs wrapped in papery thin phyllo dough and baked to a golden brown; our meal appeared before us one exquisite dish after the next, as we enjoyed each of the chef’s creations. Folks filled the lanes as dusk fell and brought in a refreshing breeze. The restaurant livened as the evening lengthened, a boisterous atmosphere reflected much laughter and heartiness. Good Turkish wine, Raki!, a fine night, and a great meal still remembered. Serife! (Days later, Emine greeted us warmly as she shopped amongst the tables of fresh produce at Rormutauk Bazaar (the Sunday farmers market) in Sirinkent , just north of Ayvalik).
A lone crenulated tower spotted from the Dolmus taxi on the way back from Cunda looked worth another uphill hike. Giant century plants and their towering seed stalks leaned over the path toward Cennet Tepesi (Heaven Tower Park) above the bay. We followed the path through a slowly thickening pine forest to the tower I had glimpsed the night before. An unattended flock of sheep quietly grazed in grassy undergrowth. From behind the tower the sound of more sheep bah-ing slowly moved closer. We waited expectantly to see another flock arrive but were amused when only a lone shepherd, baa-ing, emerged carrying two young lambs in his arms. He baa-ed tenderly as if to convey his love for his flock and reassure the lamb’s mother that they would be reunited soon.
At breakfast the next morning Erinç excitedly asked if we had heard of Hidirellez. ”It’s still celebrated here in Ayvalik. Today, every May 5th some of the families build bonfires in the streets in front of their homes. They play music, dance and cheer for each other and their neighbors to jump over the flames in a celebration of spring.” It’s not organized and fewer families do it than years ago. You’ll have to wander the lanes farther up the hill, but I’m sure there will be some bonfires.” Later that evening after a long siesta we headed back into the ancient backstreets. Two drummers, carrying big bass drums along with a cymbalist, noisily led a bride in a white gown and pink sneakers and groom in a tux, followed by a small group of raucous revelers in Halloween makeup. Momentarily surrounded, we posed for photos with the party, and then they left in the direction from which they came. Not the fire jumpers we were looking for, but encouraged nevertheless we continued our search. A few blocks over, the homes and people gathered on the street in front of them were cast in the amber warmth of several small fires centered in the middle of the lane. Some revelers danced to traditional music blasted from a CD player. Couches and chairs were brought outdoors for older partiers to settle into. Behind them a few parents supervised young arsonists in training making small smoky fires. We watched as the fires popped and blew sparks skyward when any burnable material was thrown in to encourage higher flames. And with a running start, young and old jumped, when their nerves permitted, as best they could through the flames as everyone clapped and cheered them on. Thankfully we did not witness any self-immolations that night.
As we walked back to our guesthouse, the square on the waterfront was surprisingly full of triumphant soccer fans, victoriously waving the team colors. The Ayvalik team had won the state playoffs! It seemed as if everyone who owned a scooter or car (not too many people do), overloaded it with flag-waving friends and raced down Ataturk Caddesi (the only two way street in town) several blocks, did a K turn and then speed back through town multiple times that evening. The horns were still blaring when our heads hit the pillow.
The smell of smoke lingered in the air very early the next morning when Ozzie picked us for the trip back to the airport. We offered him our best wishes for his quickly approaching wedding and changing life. And wished for ourselves, that Ayvalik would not change at all, or at least very slowly.