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Echoes of the Ottomans: Uludağ and Cumalıkızık

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We had made an impromptu decision to allow a taxi driver in Bursa to take us on a tour of Uludağ instead of driving there ourselves and taking the cable car. Once we arrived at the base of the mountain the road began to ascend and we embarked upon a series of hairpin turns that our driver casually took at about double the speed that I would have used. I kept a watchful eye on Spenser and Mei Ling, the ones who are susceptible to motion sickness, but they seemed to be taking the ride in good spirits. Spenser usually only has problems when he's watching his iPad. I was a little hazy about the layout of Uludağ as well. I knew there were two stops on the cable car but that the car might not be running to the higher stop with the ski resorts during the summer, and that the intermediary stop had some barbecue restaurants and a small amusement park. I didn't have the slightest idea where the taxi was taking us.

After a series of particularly gutwrenching turns we pulled into a parking area and our driver beckoned for us to get out. I recognized the amusement park, which appeared to be closed, and knew we were at the intermediate stop Sarıalan. The driver brought us over to a concession area which had a row of rickety electric four wheel vehicles and the operator came out to meet us eagerly. It seemed that I would have to drive the four wheeler myself on a dirt trail on the mountain. My first impulse was to decline since I didn't feel terribly confident in the safety of the vehicles and I had a gut feeling that the taxi driver had brought us here to collect a commission. After I gave it a little more thought I realized there was nothing else up here except the closed amusement park and the restaurants, and there was no way we were going to pack any more food into our fish-filled stomachs. I consented to the terms and I was soon being instructed on how to work the throttle. The four wheeler was even more difficult to handle than I had imagined. It was very challenging to keep it moving in a straight line on the winding and uneven dirt trail. The kids were screaming with delight at every bump and lurch but all I could think about was whether the seatbelts and metal frame would be enough to keep us intact if the vehicle ever tipped past the point of no return. Someone from the concession drove behind us to take photos and handle any emergencies but fortunately we never needed him.

At the far end of the trial we got a break to enjoy a clearing surrounded by evergreens. It was quite a beautiful spot to commune with nature, something we hadn't experienced yet on this journey. I was relieved to return to the concession area with everyone in one piece and I thankfully didn't brush off the operator when he wanted to sell us pictures of the experience. They turned out to be much better than our own photos and some of the best from the entire trip.

The amusement park seemed to be open now but we felt that the kids had already had their adrenalin shot for the day. Our driver hadn't abandoned us and in fact seemed eager to continue the tour. I was a little surprised he hadn't explored any angles to get some more money yet but he really didn't seem that interested in fleecing us. He drove us quite a long way to a viewpoint called Bakacak where there was a balcony overlooking the city. I hadn't realized how much altitude we had gained but the city was so far below us that I could barely make out individual buildings. It reminded me a lot of how we had looked down at Albuquerque from Sandia Peak two years earlier.

The driver suggested we move on to tour the village of Cumalıkızık which was already on my list but we were ready to get back to town and explore the old town a bit more. I had the feeling he would have gladly hung out with us another couple of hours without charging us another lira but we had our own car and enough time to visit the village in the morning. He drove us back to Bursa and dropped us off right in front of Ulu Cami, the Grand Mosque of Bursa. The defining feature of this fourteenth century mosque is the roof of twenty small domes. The story behind this unique design choice is that the Ottoman sultan who built it pledged to build twenty mosques if he defeated the crusaders in the Battle of Nicopolis. Subsequent to the victory he realized he didn't have sufficient funds to fulfill his promise and built one mosque with twenty domes instead. The interior is notable for a large marble fountain in the center and extensive decorative calligraphy.

We couldn't resist passing through the food market for a third time. I enjoy living in the United States but if I had to name one thing our country lacks it would be this type of food experience. There's simply no comparison between the energetic streets of a food bazaar and the aisles of a supermarket.

The Grand Bazaar isn't the only ancient market building in the old town of Bursa. Koza Han was once a multifunctional structure that provided retail and office space as well as accommodation and stabling for traveling merchants. The Turkish word for this type of building is han but they are more widely known by the Persian term caravanserai. Five hundred years after it was first built, Koza Han retains all of its historic beauty although it is now occupied by a collection of cafes and boutiques and no longer offers accommodation. The focal point of the building is the small mosque in the center of the courtyard which about a dozen kids were using as a play structure. We sat at one of the cafes and refreshed ourselves with tea and lemonade. Mei Ling and I took turns exploring the upper level of the cloister and taking photographs of the vibrant courtyard.

Adjacent to Koza Han there was a another courtyard which was surrounded with small restaurants, somewhat like a food hall except that all the restaurants had very similar menus. Mei Ling and I still couldn't even think about eating after our huge late lunch but the kids needed to be fed. We ordered them some of the fried stuff they are inexplicably fond of and watched them eat without feeling any temptation to join them.

The reason we couldn't wait until later to eat was that we wanted to catch the nightly whirling dervish ceremony at the Karabaş-i Veli Culture Center south of the old town. The whirling dervishes belong to a sect of Sufi Islam that dates back to the thirteenth century. The dervishes believe that their rapid spinning in ritual hats and robes brings them closer to enlightenment. I learned about the ceremony from my research but there was no official website I could find and there was conflicting information regarding the start time. I relied upon online reviews indicating that the dance began at eight thirty and although it seemed that we left the restaurant with plenty of time we soon found ourselves rushing to arrive on schedule. Once we arrived at the area I got disoriented in the narrow winding streets and we struggled to find the entrance to the cultural center. We did finally burst in about five minutes late and were welcomed very cordially, but there was no sign of any dervishes on the octagonal parquet in the center of the hall. We were advised that the ceremony actually did not begin until nine and we were brought hot tea. Our hosts responded in the negative when I asked if there was an admission fee but informed me that I was welcome to provide a donation if I pleased. Mei Ling was shown to the upstairs balcony where the women were all seated as the sexes were not permitted to mix during the ceremony. I took my place on the ground floor and our kids joined in an energetic game of soccer with some Turkish children who had a small foam ball.

Nine o'clock came and went with no sign of any dancers and I began to feel quite restless. I don't like the kids to be up late when we're traveling and I was especially eager to get an early start on the road the next morning. I had even begun to consider politely departing when the musicians finally began to file out of the back area at nine thirty. The dervishes soon came out as well and I was surprised by how young they were. The oldest was about twenty and the youngest might have been twelve or thirteen. They all seemed quite adept at the dance and never lost their balance as they planted their left feet and spun counterclockwise with the right. Their round skirts undulated hypnotically as they twirled but the closest thing I felt to enlightenment was a sympathetic nausea. I wondered how long it took to be able to continuously dance that way for fifteen minutes without stumbling drunkenly off the parquet. I was quite glad I hadn't signed up for any lessons, assuming they were even available.

When researching restaurants the previous night it seemed that the most highly regarded restaurant in Bursa was at the Hotel Kitap Evi. The hotel was at the citadel so it hadn't been practical to walk all the way up there for dinner. I did not that their breakfast was also effusively praised and now that we were retrieving the car in order to leave Bursa it seemed like a perfect opportunity to visit. Once again we slowly navigated our way from the apartment to the main roads, enduring several rounds of honking from cars behind us as we attempted to judge the direction of traffic on the unmarked roads. I told Mei Ling I should learn to write "Please forgive us, we are stupid American tourists" in Turkish and inscribe it on a placard to place in our rear window. Eventually we made it to Tophane where the streets were even narrower. I was terrified that we would come face to face with a car coming the opposite direction and neither of us would have any room to maneuver. Miraculously there was a narrow parking area next to the hotel adjacent to one of the parapets of the citadel.

We almost never stay in boutique hotels and we almost felt like intruders in the extremely elegant lobby of Kitap Evi. We were shown outside to an absolutely beautiful patio where only one table was occupied. Here was more evidence that something was very amiss with tourism in Bursa because by all rights this gorgeous, perfectly-located hotel should have been at full occupancy in mid June but it seemed to be almost deserted. The breakfast menu offered an irresistible item called the "Special Breakfast" which sounded like an entire breakfast buffet brought to the table and we ordered two of them as well as menemen. Sure enough the dishes arrived by the cartload and once they were all served they covered every square inch of the table. It was quite a task to do the breakfast justice but thanks to having skipped dinner the previous night Mei Ling and I were up to the challenge. This was a breakfast tour de force that we had not yet experienced in Türkiye.

As we left the manager asked if we'd like them to drive our car back to the main road in Tophane and I foolishly declined, thinking that we would depart without more difficulty than we had entered. Once we began attempting to extract ourselves from the parking lot I realized that I could not turn around and we would have to reverse all the way back around three sharp turns. The car also had no rear camera, a luxury I've become accustomed to at home. Mei Ling decided to exit the car to help guide me back through the streets and I slowly began reversing along the narrow street. I made it about twenty meters before someone drove up behind me and it was clear I would have to drive forward into the parking area again. The driver behind us also parked there and seemed to realize our problem. This time I didn't refuse the offer of a surrogate driver and he leapt behind the wheel and reversed round the corner to a point where he could turn the car around in about thirty seconds. The Turkish drivers may have been a little brusque but clearly their skills were on another level from mine. By now we had already benefited from the generosity and helpfulness of strangers so many times that I had lost count.

Cumalıkızık is a preserved Ottoman village at he base of Mount Uludağ on the outskirts of Bursa. It's authentically seven hundred years old and well-preserved, with the stones that make up the roads and the ground floors of the houses appearing as if they could date back to the beginning of the Ottoman empire. The distinctive theme was for the walls of the ground floor to be visible stone masonry with the upper floors having colorfully painted plaster facades. Naturally the denizens of the village use its charm to full advantage, with virtually every house near the entrance of the village being a souvenir store or cafe. One specialty item of the village is fruit juice, which is not overly sweet and was very welcome on a particularly warm day. Our favorite was the blackberry.

In order to have any sense of a medieval Ottoman village one would probably have to visit Cumalıkızık very early in the morning. By the time we arrived there were busloads of package tourists eating at the cafes and sifting through piles of brightly colored clothing. We pressed forward up the hill, carefully dodging the streams that ran down the center of the stone streets. Eventually we were rewarded at the very end of the village with some streets that weren't thoroughly commercialized and houses that didn't look as though they had been repainted and re-mortared every year. Cumalıkızık had been a worthwhile place to spend a couple of hours of our morning but it was hard to feel the atmosphere of the fourteenth century amidst all the touristic trappings. Perhaps we would find a more authentically ancient town at some later point in the trip.

Posted by zzlangerhans 11:30 Archived in Turkey Tagged road_trip family dervish family_travel bursa travel_blog koza_han tony_friedman family_travel_blog ulu_cami kitap_evi

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