Explore The North Aegean
AYVALİK, 56km south of Edremit, has long been popular with Turkish and European visitors thanks to its charming old quarter of picturesque, Greek houses. Unlike resorts to the south that are dominated by the holiday trade, the town has retained a fishing fleet and olive-based commerce, as well as lively markets and (since 1998) a prestigious classical music academy. The closest good beaches are at the mainstream resort of Sarımsaklı, with some remoter, rockier ones on Cunda island, both easily reached from town. Ayvalık is also convenient for day-trips to ancient Pergamon, and the Greek island of Lésvos opposite, served by regular ferry.
Due to its excellent anchorages, the area has been inhabited since ancient times, but today’s Ayvalık began as the Ottoman Greek settlement of Kydoníes during the early 1700s. Both Turkish and Greek names refer to the local quince orchards, now vanished. In the 1790s, the town was effectively granted autonomy by Grand Vizier Cezayırlı Hasan Paşa, who, as an Ottoman admiral, had been rescued in 1771 by the Greeks of Ayvalık following a disastrous defeat by the Russian navy. The town soon became the most prosperous and imposing on the Aegean coast after İzmir, boasting an academy, a publishing house and around twenty Orthodox churches, many of which still remain, albeit converted into mosques after 1923. Ironically, most of the people resettled here were Greek-speaking Muslims from Crete and Mytilini (Lésvos), and many of Ayvalık’s older inhabitants still speak Greek.
Central Ayvalık – almost uniquely in the Aegean – is pretty much a perfectly preserved Ottoman market town, though with few of the traditional trades left. Riotously painted horse-carts still clatter through the cobbled bazaar, emanating from a meydan to the south where the animals and their drivers wait for commissions. Ayvalık is also famous for its dairy products, kepekli (wholegrain) bread, olive products (including oil and green soap) and seafood, peddled at the daily fish market down by the yacht marina. Thursday is the special market day for produce from the surrounding villages, with its epicentre at two meydans either side of Annette’s House pansiyon.
There are few specific sights other than converted nineteenth-century churches punctuating the warren of inland streets: use the minarets as landmarks and surrender to the pleasure of wandering under numerous wrought-iron window grilles and past ornately carved doorways. The most conspicuous church, Áyios Ioánnis, is now the Saatlı Cami, named after its clocktower. Just northeast and uphill stands unconverted Taksiyarhis Kilisesi – it’s been closed for years, allegedly awaiting conversion to a museum. Also awaiting refurbishment is Faneroméni, near the fish market, alias Ayazma after the sacred spring on the site. East of the horse cart square looms the Çınarlı Cami (formerly Áyios Yeóryios) misnamed in that not one of its courtyard trees is a plane (çınar in Turkish).Read More
Across the bay from Ayvalık, the island of CUNDA – known as Yonda in Ottoman times and now officially Alibey Adası – constitutes either a good day-trip destination or an overnight halt. It’s a marginally quieter, less grand version of Ayvalık old town, with a lively main harbour and slightly scruffy backstreets lined by restored stone houses – remnants of life before 1923, when Cunda was known as Moskhonísi to its Greek Orthodox inhabitants. After the Christians were sent to Greece, the island was resettled with Cretan Muslims from around Haniá, and you’ll find that most older people speak Cretan Greek as a matter of course. Since the 1990s Cunda has become popular with affluent İstanbulites bent on owning an Aegean retreat though the dense ranks of tatty trinket and ice-cream stalls along the quay clash somewhat with its twee image.
Halfway up the slope from the waterfront stands the derelict Orthodox Taksiyarhis Cathedral, its interior scaffolded and off-limits for safety reasons. The church was heavily damaged in the local 1944 earthquake, and the rumoured restoration has yet to materialize. At the top of the hill, a chapel and adjacent windmill have been converted by the Koç Foundation into a worthwhile café with stunning views.
Northern Cunda, known as Patriça, is supposedly a protected nature reserve – though this hasn’t completely stopped villa construction – and has some relatively deserted beaches. A dirt road goes to them, while boat tours from Ayvalık harbour visit two derelict Greek monasteries (Áyios Yórgis and Áyios Dhimítrios tou Sélina) accessible only by sea.