West of Ankara lie two cities which, though off the tourist radar, are immensely appealing, and serve as perfect opportunities to take the true pulse of Turkey. First up is salt-of-the-earth KÜTAHYA, an initially scruffy-looking place where, if you look a little harder, you’ll find some of Turkey’s most delightfully located museums, as well as whole streets of buildings that are swathed with the city’s famous glazed tiles. Then comes ESKİŞEHİR, a lively, student-filled city whose own crop of Ottoman buildings has been painted in surprisingly attractive pastel tones.
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Tiles, tiles and more tiles. That’s what you’ll see when strolling around KÜTAHYA, a likeable, working-class city, halfway between İzmir and Ankara, in which a substantial number of buildings, including the old otogar, are swathed in decorative glazed products. Even the main square is distinguished by a fountain that centres on a huge ceramic vase. Kütahya tiles are used throughout Turkey, especially in restoration work on Ottoman mosques – İznik may be more famous (see İznık tiles), but in reality much of the industry has moved here.
Most travellers whoosh straight past Kütahya, but those who choose to stay a night are usually glad: the town boasts an array of pleasing little museums, each housed in a superb piece of architecture, as well as Ottoman remains including a fortress and a crumbling swathe of old town. Throw in some value-for-money restaurants, a chance to visit the splendidly isolated Roman ruins of Aezani and a near-total absence of tourists, and you’re onto an off-the-beaten-track winner. You’ll also be able to take some of the famed tile-work home with you – ceramic shops on virtually every street sell tiles, dinner services and vases… not to mention toilets, of which Kütahya is the nation’s largest producer.
All the city sights are within easy walking distance. Several well-preserved Ottoman-era houses lie near the main square, Belediye Meydanı, with the bulk of the museums and mosques at the end of Cumhuriyet Bulvarı, a pedestrianized road to the west. The action starts just past the little roundabout with a rotating dervish at its centre. (One can only hope that this feature takes hold across Turkey.) The fortress is a little further along, and visible from a distance.
Kütahya enjoyed its golden age as a tile-making centre under the Ottomans, after Sultan Selim I forcibly resettled tile-workers from Tabriz here after defeating the Persians at Çaldıran in 1514. Contemporary Kütahya tiles look a little garish and crude in comparison with Ottoman-era examples – the secrets of the pigment blends that gave the original Kütahya tiles their subtle and delicate lustre have been lost with the centuries.
During the War of Independence, the Greek army were defeated twice in battles at the defile of İnönü, northeast of Kütahya, in January and April 1921. They managed to break out that same summer, capturing Eskişehir and Afyon and launching an offensive that took them to within striking distance of Ankara. The following year the Turkish offensive that was to throw the Greeks out of Anatolia once and for all began at Dumlupınar, midway between Kütahya and Afyon.