Turkish Tour - Let It Snow
The Sea of Marmara is an unusual choice, especially in winter. But it's worth the trip to experience some of Europe and Asia's greatest historic and romantic sights. Adrian Mourby takes it all in
Sunday 19 November 2006
Minarets in the snow are an incongruous sight but I shouldn't have been surprised. Bursa sits on the foothills of Mount Uludag, Turkey's premier ski resort. Nevertheless, it was curious to see men stepping out of their slush-covered wellies as they headed in to pray at the Orhan Gazi Mosque.
How we came to be in Bursa in January is a long and curious story, as curious as the journey itself. Realising that we'd be without any of the children at New Year, Kate and I decided to go somewhere we wouldn't have to sell in advance to kids who see no point in foreign travel unless it involves sand, skiing or Mickey Mouse.
Driving round the Sea of Marmara appealed. We could visit places with romantic connotations - Istanbul, the Bosphorus, Gallipoli and the Hellespont - and then cross into Asia and see parts of Turkey most Europeans never encounter. That the people at the Turkish Tourist Board had never had enquiries about Marmara before sealed it for me. This would be a journey with a difference.
The first difference we encountered was the cliff road running west of Sarkoy, which petered out and left us 40 feet up with nowhere to turn round as night closed in. We had intended to get down from Istanbul to Gallipoli in one day but, of course, days are shorter in midwinter, and our map was misleading. After a hairy 12-point turn, I got the car facing back the way we'd come, only to find ourselves caught up in a village funeral; a huge convoy of men walking slowly behind a green-draped coffin. It was dark by the time we caught the ferry across the Dardanelles to Cannakale.
As we disembarked I wound down the window to ask where the Truva Hotel was, only to find that almost every hotel, kebab stand and driving school was called Truva because of the local association with Troy. After a cold night with only a bottle of duty-free gin to keep us company, Kate and I shivered our way down to breakfast to meet our guide to the battlefields of Gallipoli.
Graham was from Liverpool originally but after converting to Islam he took the name Ibrahim. He's escorted every Australian and New Zealand head of state around the wooded cliffs of Gallipoli and knew the battlefield better than the participants themselves, but even he was distracted by the flakes of snow in the air.
Homer calls Troy "the windy city" and with good reason. The old citadel at Truva is built overlooking the Aegean straits and affords no protection. Eventually, Kate and I asked Barrish, our guide, if we could stop the tour, partly because Truva is just a series of rubbly marble mounds but mainly because we were freezing. Barrish took us to his uncle's knick-knack shop where we drank apple tea and bought Trojan-horse key rings in gratitude.
Our winter journey was proving more challenging than I'd intended but I assured Kate that when we got to Bursa things would improve. Unfortunately, before they did, we had to spend a night in Erdek. In an ideal world one would visit this holiday peninsula in the hot sunshine and gaze out across the beach to the island of Marmara Adasi, where marble was quarried for the Greek and Roman empires. But this wasn't an ideal world; it was Erdek in January and Erdek is not built for winter. The owner of a draughty hotel, the Agrigento, was prevailed upon to open up for us but he couldn't or wouldn't switch the hot water on.
We were given a very large suite at the end of an empty corridor and ate supper in the breakfast room surrounded by pictures of Ataturk, the founder of the Turkish republic, and other aspects of the owner's eclectic decor, which encompassed a large copy of Michelangelo's Finger of God, a stuffed gibbon screaming over reception and a full-size suit of armour guarding the lift. Meanwhile, coats of arms and portraits of sultans filled every piece of wall space. The indoor swimming pool was decorated with alternating life-size statues of the Venus de Milo and David.
The next morning was Kate's birthday. I wished her a happy one and she wished for hot water. At last we were heading for Bursa, which was a terminus on the old silk route and sounded great in the guidebook. It's built on volcanic hot springs and was briefly the Ottoman capital before Suleiman the Magnificent took Constantinople.
The drive there was hairy. Visibility was poor and aggressive farm dogs ran out to bite our tyres. As we began to climb, the snow was settling. By Bursa itself, the snow was banked up high on each side of the road but the place had a busy, prosperous feel to it. Suddenly, there were Mercedes and BMWs where hitherto there'd been tractors.
What was to come was better still. Our hotel, the Karavansaray, was situated over ancient baths, built by the Romans, extended by the Ottoman Turks and still fully functioning. When we turned up for our complimentary hammam it was like walking into one of those fevered 19th-century paintings of harems - and it was warm. At last, we had come to a city that enjoys rather than endures its winters. That is the secret of a good winter journey.
THE COMPACT GUIDE
HOW TO GET THERE:
Adrian Mourby flew to Istanbul with Turkish Airlines (020-776 69300; thy.com) which offers return fares from £110. One week's car hire starts at £135 per week with Holiday Autos (0870-400 0010; holidayautos.co.uk).
Turkey Tourism (020-7629 7771; gototurkey.co.uk).
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