Thanks to its charming old quarter of picturesque Greek houses, Ayvalık, 56km south of Edremit, has long been popular with Turkish and European visitors. 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 eighteenth century. 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. This soon became the most prosperous and imposing town 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.
Unlike resorts to the south that are dominated by the holiday trade, AYVALІK is relatively free of touts, and has retained a fishing fleet and olive-based commerce (including oil and green soap), as well as a prestigious classical music academy and some lively markets – 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.
Almost uniquely for the Aegean, central Ayvalık is pretty much a perfectly preserved Ottoman market town, though few of the traditional trades are left. Riotously painted horse-carts still clatter through the cobbled bazaar (home to a colourful, regional produce market every Sunday), emanating from a meydan to the south where the animals and their drivers wait for commissions.
While few specific sights other than converted nineteenth-century churches punctuate 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.
A few soaring brick chimneys are all that survive of the factories that once churned out olive oil by the vat-load. Nowadays the work has moved into modern factories on the outskirts.
Across the bay from Ayvalık, the island of CUNDA – known as Yonda in Ottoman times, and now officially Alibey Adası, and also accessible via causeway – 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 cobbled 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 most older people speak Cretan Greek as a matter of course. 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, the Orthodox Taksiyarhis Cathedral, heavily damaged by a 1944 earthquake, is undergoing a welcome restoration. 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 – not that villa construction has completely stopped – and holds 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.