Turkey is, in many respects, the ideal travel destination. It scores highly across the board: layer after layer of history; an amazing variety of landscapes; super-friendly people; terrific food; relatively low prices; reliable public transport… the list could go on. What a pity, then, that the vast majority of travellers to Turkey confine themselves to Istanbul, the Mediterranean coast and, perhaps, Cappadocia. To take the country’s pulse you’ll have to head outside these tourist-friendly comfort zones; I’m immensely fond of northern Anatolia, which provides an intriguing, off-the-trail mix of the elements which make Turkey so special. Here’s a few highlights on my favourite tour of the region.
My first stop is earthy Kütahya. Though it’s just a short bus-ride from Istanbul, travellers here are as good as non-existent. The city is famed for its tiles, and many downtown buildings are covered from tip to toe with these gorgeous ceramics. To this can be added swathes of unspoiled Ottoman architecture, museums housed in 14th-century seminaries, fantastic restaurants – and no tourist kitsch, or tourists full-stop, to sully the vibe. I head to my favourite cafe (sitting pretty in another centuries-old building) and simply survey the scene… it’s so easy to tune yourself into local culture in a place like this.
After a couple of pleasant days, I take a bus to the nearby city of Eskişehir. This is a different side of the same coin – while Kütahya is grimy and old-fashioned, Eskişehir’s status as a university city lends it a sort of youthful exuberance. The old town here has tried to cash in on the current Turkish “Ottomania” trend, painting its imperial buildings in saffron, aquamarine, lime and other friendly colours. It makes for a truly enchanting scene, especially when the aforementioned colours are ignited at sunset; local tourists come in dribs and drabs, but foreign travellers stay away. I love it.
My next day’s journey is a symphony in three parts – first the luxury of a high-speed train ride to Ankara, then a regular bus ride heading north-east, then a spot of hitch-hiking to get me to my final destination. This is Hattuşa, a ruined city which, back in 1300 BC, was capital of the Hittite Empire. Turkey has an almost embarrassing profusion of ancient cities, but for me this is the best of the lot – the ruins are rarely more than knee-high, but the spectacular lay of the land is enough to appreciate why the Hittites, and the Hattis before them, would have chosen to settle here. Whenever I visit Hattuşa, I pop back at night with a bottle of Turkish red – it’s hard to convey the pleasure felt sitting on the site’s boundary wall with an ancient city to my left, a sleeping farmer’s village to my right, and the Milky Way above, scored by the odd shooting star.
From Hattuşa, another hitch-hike bus ride combo gets me to Amasya, a city which does actually receive a few foreign tourists. And so it should, for this is a place of great beauty – the city centre is squeezed into a tight valley, with charming Ottoman buildings peppering the northern flank, and a series of spectacular mosques piercing the skyline on the opposite side of the river. Some of the Ottoman buildings have been converted into boutique guesthouses; these intriguing wooden structures, so clever in their design, make a great place to kick back for a few days, especially when you throw in a few trips to the nearby steam baths, which themselves are a few centuries old.
Next it’s off to Tokat, an hour or so away by bus. The city is not without its charms, but for me the main reason to visit is culinary – the chance to sample Tokat’s famously gigantic kebabs. They’re simply huge, a mixture of roast lamb, potatoes, aubergine, tomato and peppers, grilled under a bulb of garlic. It’s quite a challenge to finish the meal; after claiming victory, I waddle out of the restaurant with my stomach leading the way.
From Tokat it’s another short bus-ride to Sivas, a place that just trumps Kütahya as my favourite “real Turkey” city in the land. There’s a rarified quality to the air here, though this should come as no great surprise in a city sitting almost 1,300m above sea-level. At the very centre of Sivas lies the city’s pride and joy: a clutch of buildings – some whole, some in bits – dating back to Selçuk times. My own personal magnet is the swallow-filled courtyard of the Bürüciye Medresesi, a seminary founded in 1271; I head here in the daytime for a glass of Turkish tea, then return after sunset to puff on a shisha, my smoke spiralling skywards through over seven centuries of history.