Travel: Sweet and sour Turkish delights

The mix of medieval and modern makes Bursa an assault on the senses, writes Mark Dudley
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The Independent Travel
Of the five senses that are most affected when walking around Bursa, taste is right up there at the top. You can taste the smog. Coal- fired stoves - the main source of heating for Turkey's fifth largest city - have yet to be replaced by natural gas. The result is that the snow- capped Uludag mountain range to the south (and anything worth seeing on the way) is shrouded in a smoky haze.

That apart, Bursa simply oozes charm. Walk down Ataturk Caddesi, the main street running from east to west, and life grabs you by the throat. Shoe-shine lads sit by the side of the road with their brass-topped stands; boys rush past carrying ornate glasses of tea on silver trays; vendors sell freshly cooked popcorn. Then there are the crowds that gather round pedlars selling socks from the pavement; the bakeries that constantly slip fresh bread from the oven, behind shop windows lined with lavish displays of Turkish pastries.

As a tourist destination, Bursa is stillvery much in the shadow of Turkey's more documented destinations. But as a centre of historical interest, it is on a par with the best of them.

In 1326, Bursa became the capital of the Ottoman Empire. The tombs (turbes) of Osman Gazi, the empire's founder, and his son Orhan, the sultan who captured Bursa, still lie in an area called Hisar.

A cement lorry roared past as I walked away from the main Cekirge highway and followed a narrow, steep hill up towards the medieval quarter of Muradiye. Smoke belched from a pipe sticking out below the jutting upper floor of a ramshackle cottage, one of many lining the route.

Further on were the grounds of the Muradiye Kulliyesi, begun in 1424 by Murat II, the sixth ruler of the Ottoman Empire, and continued by a further nine sultans who had their burial places there - most of them meeting unnatural and untimely deaths (only Murat II of the Ottoman sultans died in his bed). Rising from the ground like beehives, there was a certain chill about the sarcophagi which ranged in decoration from grey austerity to tiled extravagance.

I continued on my way. Old ladies, some garbed in the carsaf, shuffled past. Men talked in pairs on the foot-high pavement. A boy walked along carrying a tray of lightly salted rings of bread on his head. As I branched to the left, cutting across the hill, a wall of houses rose to my right. Goats grazed among the acacia and pine trees on the lower slope, while the attendant farmer leant against a tree trunk.

At the top of the rise I looked down on a great spread of red-tiled roofs. Further down the hill I could see the cream-walled turbes of Osman and Orhan. These were destroyed by fire in 1855 and rebuilt again in 1868, gaining charm in the process, in the shape of discreet calligraphy on the inner walls, and sarcophagi raised (in Orhan's case) on a marble platform with four pillars leading up to the central dome. Compared with the tombs at Muradiye, there seemed to be some sense of style here.

But Bursa's real claim to aesthetic fame lies in its textiles - especially silk. The 500-year-old Koza Hani is in the centre of town. It was built in 1493 as a Kervansaray (the downstairs area was originally for trading and the upstairs for eating and sleeping), but today the first floor has been given over to silk shops. Ties, shirts, scarfs - you name it, it's all on display.

Indeed the silk shopkeepers of Bursa will grab you wherever possible and offer you tea. You might have escaped the carpet sellers of Istanbul, but you'll find that the purveyors of textiles are just as persistent.

For a more spiritual taste of Turkey, make for the mosques - the Ulu Cami (Great Mosque) in particular. It was finished in 1399 by Yildirim Beyazit I, three years before the Ottoman capital moved to Edirne. Its huge, outer limestone walls present something of a false image, because the interior is breathtakingly beautiful. Twelve cream pillars adorned with detailed calligraphy thrust upwards; 20 domes decorated with tiny windows cover the vast ceiling, and a huge fountain lies in the centre.

However, of the 360 mosques in Bursa, the Yesil Cami (Green Mosque) is the most spectacular, with its Byzantine columns, its fantastic tiles and its ornate imperial lodge. Beside it is the tomb of Mehmet I, who died in 1421 and who spent six years overseeing the construction of the mosque. As I walked around Mehmet's octagonal resting place, three women wearing yashmaks were taking their lunch of bread and cheese on the stone seat. It made a surreal-looking scene.

But then Bursa seems more than surreal. At Yesil Cami a young man, tall and thin, wearing a green, woolly hat and raincoat, flashed me a smile as I stood admiring the tiles inside the main entrance . He joined the lines of men kneeling in prayer and fidgeted like mad. Then, when I left, he passed me again. "Where you from? Ahhh, England!" With that, he said goodbye and got into the back of a waiting police car.