The southern shoreline of the Sea of Marmara is sparsely populated west of Erdek, while polluted dormitory communities for İstanbul sprawl to the east. Many of these were devastated by the earthquake of August, 1999, which killed an estimated 30,000 people – victims of rogue builders who ignored building regulations yet miraculously managed to pass official inspections.
Fortunately, İznik, historically the most interesting town, suffered little damage. 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.
The best way to explore the region is to use the fast car and foot-passenger ferries to Yalova, Mudanya and Bandırma from İstanbul’s Yenikapı terminal; book ahead in summer. Using buses to İznik and Bursa, or your own vehicle, you could see all the sights in three to four days. Buses, which follow a congested five-hour route along the gulf shore via İzmit, are not recommended.
A couple of worthwhile targets for half-day or even overnight outings are located immediately around Bursa. The picturesque rural Ottoman village of Cumalıkızık served as the setting for a popular Turkish TV serial several years ago, which greatly enhanced its tourism potential, while the mountain resort of Uludağ is a year-round attraction.
Further afield, the 120km 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, southeast, supports a bird sanctuary.
The showcase village of CUMALIKIZIK, set on the lower slopes of Uludağ, 17km from Bursa on the Ankara road – head east, then south – is the most attractive of several such kizik (valley) villages in the region. While the earliest records of the village mosque and hamam date from 1685, it’s thought to be at least three centuries older. Cumalıkızık’s cobbled streets are full of traditional dwellings, some restored and painted, others leaning brokenly into each other.
The narrow alleys that radiate from the village square, dominated by two enormous plane trees, are often only wide enough for pedestrians and pack animals. The ground and first floors of the village houses traditionally harboured the storerooms and stables, while the living quarters with their latticed bay windows were upstairs under tiled eaves. Many of the surviving double-front doors sport large-headed nails, wrought-iron strips and massive handles.
Top image: Cumalikizik, Turkey © Hakan Eliacik/Shutterstock
From the top of Oteller, a 90min walk along a jeep track will bring you to a tungsten mine. An obvious path slips up behind the mine’s guardhouse onto the broad, barren watershed ridge, just below the secondary summit of Zirve (2496m); follow this trail for a further 90min to a fork. The right-hand path leads to the main peak (2543m), though the cairned left-hand choice is more rewarding, descending slightly to overlook the first of Uludağ’s lakes, Aynalıgöl, reachable by its own side trail 30min beyond the junction.
While Aynalıgöl holds campsites, there are none at Karagöl, the second and most famous lake, 15min southeast, sunk in a deep chasm and speckled with ice floes. Kilimligöl, the third substantial lake, is tucked away on a plateau southeast of Karagöl and offers more good high-altitude camping. The crags above Aynalıgöl conceal two smaller, nameless tarns.
As long as the weather is good, when you return to Oteller you can stay with the ridge rather than revisiting the tungsten works, passing below the ruined hut on Zirve to meet a faint trail. This soon vanishes and thereafter it’s cross-country downhill along the watershed as far as Cennetkaya, a knoll above the hotels, served by a marked trail. High above the trees, crowds and jeep tracks, you just might glimpse patches of the distant Sea of Marmara to the north.
The dramatic, often cloud-cloaked massif of 2543m-high Uludağ (or “Great Mountain”) presides over Bursa, 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”). Locals insist this 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 has always been half the fun, especially 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. At the time of writing, however, a new cable-car line was being built and the entire teleferik service was shut down, pending its completion.
Much of the dense middle-altitude forest has been designated a national park, though only a few kilometres are marked hiking trails. In fact, the best part of the mountain lies outside the park to the east, where a few hours’ walking brings you to glacial lakes in a wild, rocky setting just below the highest summit. The best months to visit are May and June, with wildflowers in bloom, or September and October, when the mist is less dense.
However, thanks to the nearby Sea of Marmara, the high ridges trap moist marine air, and whiteouts or violent storms can blow up during most 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 (day-passes TL15), and you can rent skis and ski clothes on the spot.
Draped like a ribbon along the leafy lower slopes of Uludağ, which towers more than 2000m higher, and overlooking a fertile plain, BURSA does more justice to its setting than any other Turkish city apart from İstanbul. Gathered here are some of the country’s finest early Ottoman monuments, set within neighbourhoods that, despite being increasingly hemmed in by concrete tower blocks, remain appealing.
Straggling for some 20km either side of the E90 highway, and home to a population of over two million, Bursa is no longer exactly elegant. Silk and textile manufacture, plus the local thermal spas, were for centuries its most important enterprises; they’re now outstripped by automobile manufacture (both Renault and Tofaş have plants), plus canneries and bottlers that process the rich harvest of the plain. Vast numbers of settlers from Artvin province have been attracted by factory jobs, while the students of Uludağ University provide a necessary leavening in what might otherwise be a uniformly conservative community. Some of this atmosphere derives from Bursa’s role as first capital of the Ottoman Empire and burial place of the first six sultans, their piety as well as authority emanating from the mosques, social-welfare foundations and tombs built at their command.
Although Bursa is sometimes touted as a long day out from İstanbul, it really merits a one- and preferably two-night stay. The compact city centre, defined by the River Gök Dere and the Hisar plateau, is particularly good for exploring on foot, whether through the hive of the bazaars, the linear parks of the Hisar district or the anachronistic peace of the Muradiye quarter.
Although the area had been settled at least a millennium previously, the first city on the site of modern Bursa was founded early in the second century BC by King Prusias I of Bithynia, who in typical Hellenistic fashion named the town Proussa after himself. Legend claims that Hannibal helped him pick the location of the acropolis, today’s Hisar.
Overshadowed by nearby Nicomedia (modern İzmit) and Nicaea (İznik), the city stagnated until the Romans, attracted by its natural hot springs, spent lavish amounts on public baths and made it capital of their province of Mysia. Justinian introduced silkworm culture, and Byzantine Proussa flourished until Arab raids of the seventh and eighth centuries, and the subsequent tug-of-war for sovereignty between the Selçuks and Greeks, precipitated its decline.
The dawn of the fourteenth century saw a small band of nomadic Turks, led by Osman Gazi, camped outside the walls of Proussa. After more than a decade of siege, the city capitulated in 1326 to Osman’s son, Orhan, and the Ottomans ceased to be a wandering tribe of marauders. Orhan marked the acquisition of a capital and the organization of an infant state by styling himself sultan and giving the city its present name. Bursa then embarked on a second golden age: the silk industry was expanded and the city, outgrowing the confines of the citadel, was graced with monuments.
Following Orhan’s death in 1362, the imperial capital was gradually relocated to Edirne, but Bursa’s place in history, and in the hearts of the Ottomans, was ensured; succeeding sultans continued to add buildings, and to be laid to rest here, for another hundred years. Disastrous fires and earthquakes in the nineteenth century, and the 1919–22 War of Independence, only slightly diminished the city’s splendour.
The annual highlight in Bursa’s bazaar is the cocoon auction of late June and early July, when silk-breeders gather to hawk their valuable produce. The courtyard floor of the Koza Hanı becomes a lake of white torpedoes the size of a songbird’s egg; the moth, when it hatches, is a beautiful creature with giant onyx eyes and feathery antennae, though this rarely happens, as the cocoons are boiled to kill the grub inside, and the fibre is then spun. You can watch the melee from the upper arcades, but, if you’re careful, the merchants don’t mind you walking the floor.
Bursa’s silk trade declined due to French and Italian competition during the eighteenth century, but has since experienced a tentative revival. However, the quality of contemporary fabric cannot compare to museum pieces from the early Ottoman heyday, and most of the better designs use imported material, better quality than the Turkish. If you’re buying silk, make sure the label says ipek (silk) and not ithal ipek (artificial silk).
Bursa’s covered bazaars, assorted galleries and lesser hans sell clothes, silk goods, towels, bolts of cloth as well as clothing, and furniture, all provincial specialities. The nearby bedesten is given over to the sale and warehousing of jewellery and precious metals.
The centrepiece of the bazaar, the Koza Hanı, or “Silk-Cocoon Hall”, flanks Koza Parkı. Built in 1490, when Bursa was the final stop on the Silk Route from China, it’s still filled with silk and brocade merchants, as well as a few jewellery stores. On the lower level, in the middle of a cobbled courtyard, a minuscule mescit (small mosque) perches directly over its şadırvan, while a subsidiary court bulges asymmetrically to the east; both hold teahouses.
Abutting the Koza Hanı to the west, though lacking access from it, the Eski Aynalı Çarşı, formerly the Bey Hamamı of the Orhan Gazi complex (note the domes and skylights), sells more tourist-orientated goods than the surrounding bazaars.
The Demirciler Çarşısı, or ironmongers’ market – just the other side of İnönü Caddesi, best crossed by the pedestrian underpass at Okçular Caddesi – has also kept its traditions intact despite quakes and blazes. Stall upon stall of blacksmiths and braziers attract photographers; some expect a few lira for posing.
The easy-to-find Muradiye Külliyesi is definitely the place to capture Bursa’s early Ottoman spirit – it holds a few low-key trinket-sellers, but there’s little pressure to buy and no coachloads shatter the calm. Begun in 1424 by Murat II, the complex was the last imperial foundation in Bursa. The mosque itself is similar in plan to Orhan Gazi, but more impressive with its profuse tiling low on the walls, calligraphy higher up and two domes.
The ten royal tombs for which Muradiye is famous are mostly the final resting places of Ottoman crown princes who fell victim to stronger, or smarter, relatives hell bent on power by any means. Added piecemeal during the century or so after the mosque was founded in 1424, the tombs are set in lovingly tended and fragrant gardens whose serenity belies the tragic stories of those entombed.
The first tomb you come to holds Şehzade Ahmet and his brother Şehinşah, both murdered in 1513 by their cousin Selim I. The luxury of the two-tone blue İznik tiles within contrasts sharply with the adjacent austerity of Murat II’s tomb, where Roman columns inside and a wooden canopy out front are the only superfluities. As much contemplative mystic as warrior-sultan, Murat was the only Ottoman ruler ever to abdicate voluntarily, though pressures of state forced him to leave his dervish order and return to the throne after just two years. The last sultan to be interred at Bursa, he’s one of the few here who died in his bed; both the coffin and dome were originally open to the sky “so that the rain of heaven might wash my face like any pauper’s”.
Next along is the tomb of Şehzade Mustafa, Süleyman the Magnificent’s unjustly murdered heir; perhaps indicative of his father’s remorse, the tomb is done up in extravagantly floral İznik tiles, with a top border of calligraphy. Nearby, the tomb of Cem Sultan, his brother Mustafa and two of Beyazit II’s sons is decorated with a riot of abstract, botanical and calligraphic paint strokes up to the dome, with turquoise tiles below. Cem, the cultured favourite son of Mehmet the Conqueror, was an interesting might-have-been. Following Mehmet’s death in 1481, he lost a brief dynastic struggle with the successful claimant, brother Beyazit II, and fled abroad. For fourteen years he wandered, seeking sponsorship from Christian benefactors who in all cases became his jailers: first the Knights of St John at Bodrum and Rhodes, later the papacy. At one point it seemed he would command a Crusader army to retake İstanbul, but all such plans came to nothing for the simple reason that Beyazit anticipated his opponents’ moves and each time bribed them handsomely to desist, making Cem a lucrative prisoner indeed. His usefulness as a pawn exhausted, Cem was probably poisoned in Italy by Pope Alexander VI in 1495, leaving reams of poems aching with nostalgia and homesickness.
It’s hard to believe that İZNİK (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. As you look around this fertile valley, however, you can understand its attraction for imperial powers needing a fortified base near the sea lanes of the Marmara. With its regular street plan, İznik’s walled centre is easy to navigate on foot, and most people visit as a long day out of İstanbul or Bursa, staying a night at most. That’s enough time to sample the monuments, and pick up souvenirs from the local ceramics workshops. During its sixteenth-century heyday, İznik produced Turkey’s finest tiles, and the tradition has recently been revived.
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. After prospering as capital of the Roman province, the city 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 remains central to Christian belief. Empress Irene presided over the second council to be held here (the seventh in all) in 787 AD, in which 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-mended walls seldom repelled invaders. The Selçuks took the city in 1081, 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 it 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.
While virtually all the surviving monuments predate the Mongol sacking, the most enduring contribution to art and architecture – the celebrated İznik tiles and pottery – first appeared after Çelebi Mehmet I 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. The flowering was brief; within a hundred years war and politics had scattered most of the artisans. By the mid-eighteenth century the local industry had packed up completely. İznik began a long, steady decline, hastened by near-total devastation during the 1920–22 war.
To watch İznik tiles being made, visit the İznik Vafkı, or İznik Foundation, at Vakıf Sok 13, near Saray Kapisi (wiznik.com), which was established in 1993 to restart production using traditional methods. It sells tiles of extremely high quality, and correspondingly high price – around TL100 for a 20cm x 10cm border piece. However, numerous other local workshops (atölyes) offer bulk discounts, which bring the price down to a more affordable TL20 for a 10cm x 10cm tile. Be aware, however, that most workshops primarily take orders for domestic customers, and are likely to have only one or two items of each particular design – anyone showing up on spec hoping to decorate an entire kitchen or bathroom is apt to be disappointed.
The best, reasonably priced, one-stop shop is Adil Can Nursan Sanat Atölyesi, just inside the İstanbul Kapısı. Other quality (as opposed to kitsch) shops cluster along Demircan Sokağı and inside the Süleyman Paşa Medresesi, the oldest (1332) Ottoman medrese in Turkey and the first one with an open courtyard, surrounded by eleven chambers and nineteen domes.
The toughest, best, most waterproof – and most expensive – tiles are not ceramic-based but made primarily from locally quarried, finely ground quartz. Quartz-rich tiles are air-porous, have good acoustic qualities (hence their use in mosques), and make good insulators, as they contract slightly in winter and expand in summer.
While the coastal ports of Yalova and Zeytindağı like to call themselves resorts, they hold few compelling attractions. The coastline here is mostly rocky, with inland contours softened by the ubiquitous olive groves and conifer forest.
Although patronized by Byzantine and Roman emperors, the hot springs at TERMAL only became fashionable again in the 1890s, and most of the spa’s Ottoman belle époque buildings date from that era. The village itself, 12km southwest of Yalova, has unfortunately sprawled in recent years, and now holds several so-called luxury hotels, all offering spa treatments and wellness sessions. You can also get here on a short dolmuş ride inland from Çınarcık, served by a summer sea-bus service from İstanbul.
The most popular of Termal’s many bathing centres is the Kurşunlu Banyo. 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.