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.
The canal banks are lined with places to eat and sup coffee – mostly cheap, since this is a university town. The local dish is çi börek, a kind of fried, half-moon dumpling with mincemeat and onions inside, always (oddly) bought in rounds of five. It’s a Crimean Tatar delicacy – many locals, especially in the old town, are of similar stock. The city is quite conservative, so despite its huge student population, it’s surprisingly hard to find a place to drink.
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.
Kütahya holds some excellent places to eat. Its working-class nature, and lack of foreign tourists, keep prices to a minimum. Cheap snack-shacks do good trade around the main square; there are also a couple of bars on Atatürk Bul, and plenty of shops sell alcohol.
Literally “sea foam” in German, meerschaum is a porous white stone, large deposits of which are mined in the villages that surround Eskişehir. While wet, the soft stone is carved into all manner of ornaments, but the smoke-cooling properties of a meerschaum pipe make that the most highly prized item. Several shops around Eskişehir, especially on İnönü Caddesi, work the mineral, and with a little haggling it’s usually possible to pick up a bargain.
The name Midas is inextricably associated with Gordion. Several Phrygian kings bore this name, and over the centuries a kind of composite mythical figure has emerged. The best-known legend, of Midas and the golden touch, tells how Midas captured the water demon, Silenus, after making him drunk by pouring wine into his spring. As ransom, Midas demanded of Dionysos the ability to turn all he touched into gold. After Dionysos granted this wish, Midas was dismayed to find he had been taken literally, and his food and even his own daughter were transformed. He begged Dionysos for release from the curse, and was ordered to wash his hands in the River Pactolus. The cure worked, and thereafter the river ran with gold.
According to another tale, Midas was called upon to judge a musical contest between Apollo and the satyr Marsyas. Midas decided in favour of Marsyas and in revenge Apollo caused him to grow the ears of an ass. (Marsyas came off even worse – the god skinned him alive.) To hide his new appendages, Midas wore a special hat, revealing them only to his barber who was sworn to secrecy on pain of death. Desperate to tell someone the king’s secret, the barber passed it on to the reeds of the river, which ever after whispered, “Midas has ass’s ears.”
Another story may have some basis in reality. During the reign of Gordius, an oracle foretold that a poor man who would enter Gordion by ox-cart would, one day, rule over the Phrygians. As the king and nobles were discussing this prediction, a farmer named Midas arrived at the city in his cart. Gordius, who had no heirs, saw this as the fulfilment of the prophecy and named Midas his successor. Subsequently, Midas had his cart placed in the temple of Cybele on the Gordion acropolis, where it was to stand for half a millennium. Somehow the belief arose that whoever untied the intricate knot that fixed the cart to its yoke would become master of Asia. During his stay in the city Alexander the Great decided not to untie the Gordian Knot, but to slice through it with his sword. The phrase “cutting the Gordian knot” is still used today, to describe solving any intractable problem in one swift move.