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Echoes of the Ottomans: Bursa

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Bursa was the logical first stop on our short road trip in Türkiye. It is the fourth largest city in the country with two million people and was captured from the Byzantines more than a century before the fall of Constantinople. Bursa was the main producer of silk for the Ottoman Empire for hundreds of years and ultimately became a major industrial center after the Turkish Revolution in 1923. Besides the usual array of historic mosques and atmospheric bazaars Bursa has a hilltop walled city and is adjacent to the highest mountain in the Marmara region. It is also just two hours away from Istanbul, meaning we could ease into our grueling itinerary with a short hop and a two night stay.

Bursa is a large city but almost everything of interest to us was closely grouped together within walking distance around the town center. I had done my best to pinpoint the location of our apartment but as is often the case Google Maps didn't get the spot exactly right and also was occasionally unclear about the directionality of the one way streets. Once we were in the neighborhood with impatient drivers always behind us there was never enough time to figure out the correct turn from the constantly changing directions on the phone screen. Eventually we were ejected back out onto the main road where there was finally a place to pull over and plan a turn by turn approach. We followed this plan meticulously and eventually passed our apartment and shortly after found the parking garage our host had recommended. The guy at the garage sized me up and told me he thought it was better if he parked my car himself, and I was only too happy to oblige.

Our apartment was rather generic but it was clean and spacious and best of all it was only a ten minute walk from Kapalı Çarşı, Bursa's grand bazaar. We deposited our belongings and wasted no time in getting to the bazaar. As in Istanbul the side streets were more interesting to us than the covered market itself, which focused on clothing and other utilitarian items.

Despite the late hour the produce market was still in full swing in the center of the old town. If anything the goods looked better than they had in any of the Istanbul markets, with the possible exception of the Kadıköy bazaar. Golden ears of corn were boiling in huge metal tubs and colorful arrangements of olives and pickles were everywhere. If we hadn't been hungry when we entered the old town we were starving after walking inside it for five minutes.

Most of the restaurants in the center were simple places focusing on the typical favorites like döner kebab. The local specialty that was proudly advertised everywhere was İskender kebap, which appeared to be basically the same old beef kebab covered in tomato sauce and yogurt. I tried it eventually and never did figure out why this dish was so beloved throughout Türkiye. Mei Ling and the kids were pretty hungry so to buy time while I searched for a more interesting restaurant I sat them down at a crowded little place called Edirne Ciğeri where everyone was tucking into curled up slices of deep fried meat with various condiments on the side. It looked delicious but as soon our plate came my nose told me that it wasn't the restaurant for me. Sure enough I looked it up and ciğeri meant liver. That's the one part of an animal I've never been able to tolerate, with the sole exception of foie gras. I find chicken to be the worst but mammals aren't much better. Something about the taste of liver just repels me at the very core of my mind and I'm sure that will never change. Mei Ling and the kids don't share my revulsion so they were able to take the edge off their hunger but I would have to be literally starving before I could eat liver. I even tried a sliver just in case the deep frying process had eradicated the taste I abhor and it was a no go. Apparently this type of fried liver is a specialty of the Thracian city of Edirne, so we were eating in the local equivalent of an ethnic restaurant.

Eventually we found our restaurant, a hospitable grill with an upstairs patio. I can't say it was anything memorable but we were able to resolve the issue of our empty stomachs in a very pleasant atmosphere. I was starting to get the impression that outside of major tourist centers we weren't likely to find much variety in the food beyond grilled meat. Of course there were worse things we could have been stuck with. Afterwards Mei Ling made a beeline for a dessert place she'd spotted which sold ice cream mixed with semolina halva, another Turkish specialty. The kids got their usual dondurma ice cream so everyone concluded the evening in a good mood.

After dinner we took an indirect path back to our apartment through some small streets on the eastern edge of the old town. Here there were pedestrian alleys lined with small restaurants and stores selling various sundries. Grilled meat and döner were pretty much the main items everywhere. We stumbled on a large and beautiful bookstore that was still open and were directed to the upper floor. Although the English section was rather small I was very surprised by the high quality of the books available. I was familiar with almost everything on the shelves which varied from classics to modern writers. I settled on several H.G. Wells novels and another Umberto Eco novel for Ian, who had by now finished Baudolino.

We began Thursday morning with a walk to some of Bursa's more well-known sights to the east of the old town. The Irgandı Bridge was originally built in the mid fifteenth century but has been destroyed and rebuilt several times since then. The bridge is notable for the shops which have lined both sides of the span for centuries. They were all closed when we passed through which may have been for the best as they have the reputation of being tourist traps.

A few blocks further onward we arrived at the Yeşil Cami, or Green Mosque, which was built by Sultan Mehmed I in the early fifteenth century prior to the capture of Constantinople by the Ottomans. The arched entrance to the mosque is notable for a classic Islamic muqarnas molding. Mehmed I was eventually buried in a large green tomb adjacent to the mosque. The walls and ceiling of the mosque display a variety of intricate tiling styles, many of which display the green hue that gives the mosque its name.

We were quite hungry by this point and the neighborhood around the mosque was very residential and devoid of restaurants, so we decided to head back to the main bazaar area in the center of town. The streets in this area were nearly empty but the Turkish penchant for vivid colors was always evident.

The bazaar was even busier and more colorful in the morning than it had been the previous evening. The vegetables looked like they had just been plucked from the vines. It was really interesting to watch the typical interactions of daily commerce going on around us in an area where there was hardly anything aimed at attracting tourists.

Boiled corn wasn't going to take the place of breakfast so we began casting around for a place to eat. Fortunately it was late enough for some of the grills to have opened and we found a nice little place that had a helpful array of photographs that displayed all the varieties of grilled meat that were available. Most of it was familiar to us but we hadn't previously tried the köfte, oblong meatballs made from seasoned ground beef. They were savory and addictive and meshed spectacularly with the spicy grilled peppers.

One of Bursa's most interesting attractions is the hilltop citadel. To get there we had to walk to the western edge of the old town where we came across an interesting glass pyramid we had seen from the main road the first time we drove into Bursa. It seemed the designer might have been inspired by I.M. Pei's addition to the Louvre. We walked in and found ourselves inside a very modern mall with gleaming escalators and high end boutiques. It felt very anachronistic to walk directly from an outdoor bazaar which probably hadn't changed much in centuries into such a sophisticated and futuristic mall. I wondered if the same people shopped in both places without even thinking much of the contrast, or whether the bazaar and the mall served two completely different populations.

It was a stiff uphill walk to the citadel. Along the way we passed the remnants of the old Byzantine walls that predated the Ottoman capture of Bursa in 1326. The antiquated hilltop neighborhood that still exists within the walls is called Tophane. Inside the park that takes up a good part of Tophane's area are the tombs of the original sultans that founded the Ottoman Empire.

At the far end of Tophane Park is a six story clock tower that was built in the early twentieth century and has become a landmark of the city. Behind the clocktower there was a wide balcony from which we could look out over the enormous expanse of the modern part of the city. Hundreds of thousands of people lived in those endless blocks of apartments and highrises but I hadn't come across a single thing I wanted to see outside the old town.

Although we weren't particularly hungry I wanted to see a street that was famous for fish markets and seafood restaurants called Sakarya Caddesi at the base of the hill. It looked very close on the map but it would be a half hour walk if we had to walk along the roads. I was hoping there would be a footpath directly down the hill we could use as a shortcut. As it turned out the hillside was mostly fenced off. There were some breaks and some sketchy looking paths that seemed to lead down the hill but there was no cleat indication they would take us all the way to the bottom. If I had been alone I probably would have chanced it but with the kids in tow it seemed more prudent to just bite the bullet and follow the road. The walk was long but somewhat interesting as there were houses and gardens here rather than rows of apartment buildings like we had seen inm the center.

Sakarya Caddesi was an odd street that was more similar to the hip neighborhoods of Istanbul than to anything else we had seen in Bursa. There were a couple of blocks of colorful little cafes and boutique hotels but it was eerily quiet. It seemed like an area that was designed for tourism but to this point we really hadn't seen much sign of tourists in Bursa at all. Perhaps the patterns of travel had changed after COVID, but it had seemed like Istanbul was likely as busy as ever.

Once we had passed the cafe area there was a string of large fish restaurants in enclosed patios.There was virtually no one sitting in any of them and there were employees beckoning us eagerly into every restaurant we passed. Eventually I chose one that somehow seemed the best even though they were probably exactly the same. We had only planned to get some small dishes for the experience but the manager took us over to a seafood market nearby to select our own fish. The sea bass looked so fresh that we selected a fairly large one and then complemented it with some grilled octopus and other small dishes. The end result was quite a bit more food than we had anticipated but I wasn't allowed to let the expensive and delicious grilled fish go to waste so Mei Ling and I stuffed ourselves vigorously. The manager was absolutely thrilled with us as our check probably made up for most of his deficit on a slow business day.

We had now crossed off everything on our list of things to do within Bursa and it was still early afternoon, meaning we had to take an excursion out of town. I had a couple in mind but the more exciting one was Mount Uludağ, the tallest mountain in the Marmara region of Türkiye and a popular ski resort in the winter. The walk back to the parking garage near the apartment would have been brutal after such a big meal so we decided to see if we could find another taxi that would take all five of us the way we had in Balat. Sure enough once we reached the main road one swooped in fairly quickly and scooped us up without hesitation. Our plan was to retrieve our car and drive to the base of Uludağ and take the cable car up the mountain. Our driver was a whiz with the translation program on his phone and had no trouble interrogating me about our plans while weaving his way through traffic. Once he understood that we wanted to go to Uludağ he immediately offered to take us there and back for a thousand lira, about forty US dollars at the time. I instantly recognized that this was a great deal because the city had recently jacked up the price for the cable car to 490 lira for tourists. Even if the kids were free, which I had no information on, we would be paying the same price for the cable car as the cab ride. The only negative would be that we wouldn't get to take the world's longest cable car up the mountain. Then again we've been on plenty of cable cars from Albuquerque to Switzerland and I didn't remember anyone in the family swooning with delight over them. Also I had to consider the possibility that we were being ripped off somehow. We had just met this guy and taxi drivers don't have the best reputation in the world, in Türkiye or anywhere else. I tried to tell Mei Ling I thought it was a good deal without the driver getting what I was saying but I knew she wanted me to bargain with him. I think I offered eight hundred and he laughed, probably understanding exactly what was going on and came back with nine hundred. I quickly accepted it before Mei Ling could get a word in and we were off to Uludağ.

Posted by zzlangerhans 10:25 Archived in Turkey Tagged road_trip family family_travel travel_blog tony_friedman family_travel_blog cumalıkızık uludag

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