The southern shoreline of the Sea of Marmara is sparsely populated west of Erdek, while to the east sprawl polluted dormitory-communities for İstanbul. Many of these were devastated by the earthquake of August 17, 1999, which killed an estimated 30,000 people – victims of rogue builders who ignored building regulations yet miraculously managed to pass official inspections. Since then, hastily constructed apartment-blocks have rehoused the tens of thousands who sheltered in makeshift tent-camps after the quake.
Fortunately, İznik, historically the most interesting town in the region, suffered little damage. Important as a centre of Christianity and, briefly, capital of the Nicaean Empire, it has several interesting monuments and a revitalized tile-making industry. To the south, Bursa, once one of Turkey’s most attractive cities, has succumbed to rapid growth since the 1980s, bringing greater wealth but destroying much of its colourful provincial atmosphere.
Immediately around Bursa are a couple of worthwhile targets for half-day or even overnight outings. The rural Ottoman village of Cumalıkızık was picturesque enough to serve as the location for a popular 2000–05 Turkish TV serial, which greatly enhanced its tourism potential, while the mountain resort of Uludağ constitutes a year-round attraction, offering skiing or hiking according to season or just a general high-altitude escape.
Further afield, the 120-kilometre route west from Bursa towards Bandırma port is enlivened by two large but shallow lakes, the largest inland bodies of water in the historical region of Mysia. The first, 36km from central Bursa, is Uluabat Gölü, home to the appealing village of Gölyazı built atop the ancient settlement of Apollonia, while the second lake, Manyas Gölü, 19km southeast of Bandırma, supports an acclaimed bird sanctuary.Read More
The showcase village of CUMALIKIZIK lies 17km east, then south of Bursa on the Ankara road. The first records of the village mosque and hamam date from 1685, but the place is thought to be at least three centuries older. Set on the lower slopes of Uludağ, Cumalıkızık’s cobbled streets are full of traditional dwellings, some restored and painted, others leaning brokenly into each other. Villagers once made a living from harvesting chestnuts, but a blight annihilated the local trees; now, raspberries and blackberries are grown instead, but there’s still not enough work to halt the usual flight of the young to the city.
Buses drop you at the village square, dominated by two enormous plane trees, from which radiates a network of narrow alleys often only wide enough for pedestrians and pack animals. The ground and first floors of the village houses harbour the storerooms and stables, while the living quarters with their latticed bay windows are upstairs under tiled eaves. Many of the surviving double-front doors sport large-headed nails, wrought-iron strips and massive handles.
The hot springs at TERMAL lie 12km southwest of Yalova, or just a dolmuş ride inland from Çınarcık, itself served by a summer sea-bus service from Istanbul. Although patronized by Byzantine and Roman emperors, Termal’s springs only became fashionable again in the 1890s, and most of the spa’s Ottoman belle époque buildings date from that era.
There are several separate bathing centres, of which the Kurşunlu Banyo in the central park is the most popular. The water is supposedly beneficial for rheumatism and skin diseases, but temperatures reach 65°C, so the best time to take the plunge is in winter. Otherwise, there’s an open-air pool nearby at a more manageable 38°C.
It’s hard to believe that İZNIK (ancient Nicaea) today a backwater among fruit orchards and olive groves at the east end of the eponymous lake, was once a seat of empire and scene of desperate battles. But looking around the fertile valley, you can understand the attraction for imperial powers needing a fortified base near the sea-lanes of the Marmara. Most people visit İznik as a long day out of İstanbul or Bursa, staying a night at most. This is enough time to sample the town’s monuments, and pick up a souvenir or two from the local ceramics workshops. In its heyday in the sixteenth century, İznik produced Turkey’s best tiles, and the tradition has been recently revived here.
Founded by Alexander’s general Antigonos in 316 BC, İznik was seized and enlarged fifteen years later by his rival Lysimakhos, who named it Nicaea after his late wife. He also gave Nicaea its first set of walls and the grid plan typical of Hellenistic towns; both are still evident. When the Bithynian kingdom succeeded Lysimakhos, Nicaea alternated with nearby Nicomedia as its capital until bequeathed to Rome in 74 BC. Under the Roman emperors the city prospered as capital of the province and it continued to flourish during the Byzantine era.
Nicaea played a pivotal role in early Christianity, hosting two important ecumenical councils. The first, convened by Constantine the Great in 325 AD, resulted in the condemnation of the Arian heresy – which maintained that Christ’s nature was inferior to God the Father’s – and the promulgation of the Nicene Creed, affirming Christ’s divine nature, which is still central to Christian belief. The seventh council (the second to be held here) was presided over by Empress Irene in 787 AD; this time the Iconoclast controversy was settled by the pronouncement, widely misunderstood in the West, that icons had their proper place in the church so long as they were revered and not worshipped.
Nicaea’s much-repaired walls seldom repelled invaders and in 1081 the Selçuks took the city, only to be evicted by a combined force of Byzantines and Crusaders sixteen years later. The fall of Constantinople to the Fourth Crusade in 1204 propelled Nicaea into the spotlight once more, for the Byzantine heir to the throne Theodore Laskaris retreated here and made this the base of the improbably successful Nicaean Empire. The Laskarid dynasty added a second circuit of walls before returning to Constantinople in 1261, but these again failed to deter the besieging Ottomans, who, led by Orhan Gazi, the victor of Bursa, broke through in March 1331.
Renamed İznik, the city embarked on a golden age of sorts, interrupted briefly by the pillaging of Tamerlane in 1402. Virtually all the surviving monuments predate the Mongol sacking, but the most enduring contribution to art and architecture – the celebrated İznik tiles and pottery – first appeared during the reign of Çelebi Mehmet I, who brought skilled potters from Persia to begin the local industry. This received another boost in 1514 when Selim the Grim took Tabriz and sent more craftsmen west as war booty; by the end of the sixteenth century ceramic production was at its height, with more than three hundred functioning kilns. It was to be a brief flowering, since within another hundred years war and politics had scattered most of the artisans. By the mid-eighteenth century the local industry had packed up completely, with products from nearby Kütahya serving as inferior substitutes. İznik began a long, steady decline, hastened by near-total devastation during the 1920–22 war.
Presiding over Bursa, 2543-metre-high Uludağ (or “Great Mountain”) is a dramatic, often cloud-cloaked massif, its northern reaches dropping precipitously into the city. In ancient times it was known as the Mount Olympos of Mysia, one of nearly twenty peaks around the Aegean so named (Olympos was possibly a generic Phoenician or Doric word for “mountain”), and in mythology it was the seat from which the gods watched the battle of Troy. Early in the Christian era the range became a refuge for monks and hermits, replaced after the Ottoman conquest by Muslim dervishes.
These days the scent of grilling meat has displaced the odour of sanctity, since Bursans cram the alpine campsites and picnic grounds to the gills on any holiday or weekend. Getting there is definitely half the fun if you opt for the cable car (teleferik), which links the Teleferüç borough of Bursa with the Sarıalan picnic grounds at 1635m, where a cluster of et mangals and kendin pişin kendin ye (cook-it-yourself establishments) await your custom.
Much of the dense middle-altitude forest has been designated a national park, though there are only a few kilometres of marked hiking trails. In fact, the best part of the mountain lies outside the park to the east, where a few hours’ walking will bring you to some glacial lakes in a wild, rocky setting just below the highest summit. The best months for a visit are May and June, when the wildflowers are blooming, or September and October, when the mist is less dense. However, due to the nearby Sea of Marmara, the high ridges trap moist marine air, and whiteouts or violent storms can blow up during most months of the year. Skiing is possible from December to March, though it’s better earlier in the season than later. At around 1800m, there’s a dense cluster of hotels known as Oteller, most with their own ski lift, and you can rent skis and ski clothes on the spot.
Uluabat Gölü and Gölyazi
Uluabat Gölü and Gölyazi
Built mostly on an island now lashed by a causeway to the shore of Uluabat Gölü, GÖLYAZİ is an atmospheric community of storks’ nests and a few surviving half-timbered houses daubed with rust-tint or ochre paint. Bits of Roman and Byzantine Apollonia have unconcernedly been pressed into domestic service, with extensive courses of wall ringing the island’s shoreline. In the smaller mainland neighbourhood, the huge Ayos Yorgos Greek church, large enough for a few hundred parishioners, is currently being restored. The lake itself, speckled with nine islets, is only two metres deep, murky and not suitable for swimming, though it does attract numerous water birds. Appearances could lead you to pronounce Gölyazı the quintessential fishing village: there’s a daily fish auction at the island end of the causeway, while women mending nets and rowboats are much in evidence. This conceals the fact, however, that pesticide and fertilizer runoff from the surrounding farmland, as well as the proliferation of introduced carp, is constantly diminishing the native catch.
Manyas Gölü is remarkable for its 64-hectare bird sanctuary astride a stream delta and swamps at the northeast corner of the lake. The Bird Paradise National Park (Kuş Cenneti Milli Parkı) contains a small visitor centre full of dioramas, labelled in Turkish, and stocked with stuffed geese, orioles, spoonbills, herons, pelicans, ducks, egrets and owls. More interesting, though, is the wooden observation tower (bring your own binoculars), from where you can view pelicans (white and Dalmatian, nesting in May), smew-duck, spoonbills, spotted eagles and night herons, with cormorants and grey herons also common. The best months to visit are October – during the first rains, and various species’ southward migrations – and April–May, when the swamps are at their fullest and the birds are flying north. During these migrations, up to three million birds of some 266 species stop by.