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Echoes of the Ottomans: Pergamon and Ayvalik

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It was almost a four hour drive from Bursa to Ayvalık. I tried as hard as I could to find an interesting city along the way and came up empty-handed. The only city of any size was Balıkesir which seemed to have nothing whatsoever to distinguish it from other midsize Turkish cities. In the end we decided to stop at the ruins of Pergamon, an hour short of Ayvalik, even though we typically don't make a point of visiting archaeological sites. The only thing of note between Bursa and Pergamon was an absolutely fantastic service station which contained a gourmet supermarket and an excellent barbecue restaurant. The cuts of raw meat were displayed in a refrigerated counter at the front of the restaurant which made it easy to choose deep red slices of beef heart and kidney.

I didn't have very high hopes for Pergamon as it is not considered to be one of the most famous Greek sites in Türkiye. However it required only a slight detour from our path and we've been surprised many times by stops for which we had low expectations. The Acropolis of Pergamon is at the top of a hill that overlooks the modern city of Bergama. The ruins can be reached directly by car but we elected to take the short cable car ride that departs from a nondescript road in the upper reaches of the town. I think it was the best choice since the sweeping views over the valley were a pleasant introduction to the walk through the ruins. Once we had paid our admission at the top a wooden boardwalk led us into the remains of the city.

Although the earliest settlements of Pergamon are known only from fragmentary remains, there are written records of a Greek city that operated at the edge of the Persian Empire at about 400 BC. The city was captured soon after by Alexander the Great and then fell into the hands of the Thracians who built many of the structures that comprise the present day ruins. In 88 BC the city was captured by the Romans who built their own updated section of the city at the base of the Acropolis. Pergamon was then inherited by the Byzantines before ultimately falling into the hands of the Ottomans.

Some of the most impressive structures in the Acropolis are the breathtakingly steep hillside amphitheatre and, at the highest point of the citadel, the imposing columns of the Temple of Trajan. The latter is a Roman addition that was partially reconstructed from debris in the late twentieth century by an international team working with Turkish archaeologists. The remains of one of the Pergamon's most impressive structures, the Altar of Zeus, were taken to Berlin where they were reassembled and displayed in a museum. Although this extraction was performed under an agreement between the German archaeologist who excavated Pergamon and the Ottoman authorities, the Turkish republic has demanded that the altar be returned on the grounds that these old arrangements were illegitimate. As of yet the Germans appear to have no plans to comply.

Despite our general lack of interest in ruins I was very pleased with our decision to visit Pergamon. I hadn't envisioned a place of such isolated beauty based on my limited research about the site. Now that we were here I felt a sense of euphoria looking down over the ruins at the modern city below us. Our predecessors on this hill, generations of Persians, Greeks, and Romans, probably never imagined that their magnificent city would one day be reduced to rubble to be gawked at by such plebeians as us.

On our way back out of town we stopped at another ruin that we had spotted on the way up. The Red Basilica is an enormous Roman temple thought to have been built to service worshippers of Egyptian gods. Within the crumbled brick walls one small section of marble flooring had been restored containing a tall statue of the goddess Sekhmet. It was unclear if the restoration had been halted here due to a lack of funding or to emphasize the contrast between the appearance of the building today and what it looked like when it was newly built.

We arrived in Ayvalik from the south which gave us tantalizing views of the Aegean on the left. For everyone but me it was the first time seeing this legendary section of the Mediterranean. Our hotel was on a island called Cunda that was connected to the mainland via a causeway. When I chose the hotel the website showed it within Ayvalik old town and it wasn't until I had already reserved our rooms that I plugged the address into Google Maps and found its actual location. My first instinct was to cancel and rebook but after I looked into Cunda I decided it was a place worth seeing, so I changed our plan slightly to spend the evening in Cunda and then see Ayvalik the following day.

Cunda is a fairly large island but only the coastline of the eastern peninsula is developed. Most of the inhabitants are clustered around the old town, or Merkez, at the harbor on the southern coast of the island. To reach our hotel we drove on the causeway through Dolap, the only other island besides Cunda in the Ayvalik archipelago that is inhabited. We could see across the blue waters of a protected bay to the wilderness of the Hakkibey peninsula. The Alibey-Han hotel was as pretty as the online reviews had made it out to be, boasting a lush garden paved with flagstones. There was no one at the reception desk when I arrived and no answer to the bell so we had to hang out in the lobby for about fifteen minutes until the clerk finally rolled by. Our two rooms were cramped but bright and clean, quite a good value considering that we were not planning to use them for anything except sleep.

As quickly as possible we made our way towards the commercial area of Merkez around the harbor. There was just the seaside promenade and two parallel streets bustling with restaurants and boutiques. The narrow cobblestone lanes were really fun to explore and the Aegean atmosphere was unmistakable. The style of the buildings was different from Greece but in many ways it was just like being in Ios or Santorini. When the time came we had our pick of restaurants and Pera Meyhane proved to be an excellent choice. Eating outdoors in that warm, high energy atmosphere surrounded by all kinds of illumination and whimsical decor was a reminder of why travel is worth every bit of the hard work and expense that goes into it.

We made sure to explore every bit of Merkez that evening so that in the morning we could pack up and focus on Ayvalik. We loaded up on our free Turkish breakfast at the hotel and waved good-bye to Cunda. Ten minutes later we found ourselves a parking lot right off the main road in the center of Ayvalik.

We ignored an intermittent drizzle and made a beeline for Barbaros Caddesi, the main shopping street of Ayvalik old town. Among the colorful cafes and clothing stores we could still feel the influence of Greek culture on the aesthetics and cuisine.

Barbaros may have been the prize of the old town but navigating the side streets was no less of a pleasure. These varied from sober, narrow lanes with minimal decoration to gaudy affairs with street art and riotous explosions of bougainvillea. Ayvalik was an ideal town for exploration by foot with a surprise around every corner. Perhaps it was a slow day because of the rain but as with many other beautiful places in Türkiye we felt like we were the only international tourists around.

Like all good things Barbaros Caddesi eventually came to an end and we began wandering aimlessly through the old town. Before long we reached an open square which was dominated by an imposing brick building taller than any of the surrounding structures. This was the Çınarlı Mosque which had been converted from a Greek Orthodox Church after the Turkish Revolution.

The only significant item I had forgotten to pack for the trip was my hiking pants. This meant that I was wearing my jeans every day since grown men don't wear shorts in Türkiye. In Istanbul I hadn't wanted to kill our momentum with clothes shopping but now that we were moving at a slower pace it was a perfect time to fill any gaps in my wardrobe. We found a clothing store on a utilitarian shopping street that was overflowing with sports and outdoor wear. We chose a suitable pair of pants and then I cowered outside with the kids while Mei Ling haggled brutally with the shopkeeper.

While the pants were being hemmed we walked to the seaside where there was a more modern development of shops and cafes. We could see across the bay to Cunda where we had started our morning. The empty ferries anchored in the gently rippled waters completed the peaceful tableau.

Lunch was at another grill of course, a friendly place called Mira with old walls made of irregular bricks. As usual we chose our raw meat at the counter and it was grilled to order and served with piping hot tea. On the way back to the car I bought an outfit of linen pants and an orange long sleeve shirt that looked better on the manikin outside the store than it did on me.

The ferries to the Greek island of Chios departed from Çeşme, a three hour drive to the south. I hadn't reserved our place on the boat because I wasn't sure whether the 17:45 or the 19:00 would be more convenient. Since we weren't taking the car I figured we wouldn't have much problem buying tickets on short notice. We arrived at around five, just in time to catch the earlier ferry. I pulled into a temporary spot near the ticket counters and sent everyone to the departure area. At the counter for Makri, the early ferry, the agent told me he had tickets for the boat to Chios but nothing for a return on Monday. Meanwhile the counter for Sunrise, the company that ran the later ferry, was empty. I impulsively bought the one way tickets and then quickly drove the car to the long-term parking lot, figuring we could sort out the return trip once we arrived in Chios. By the time I returned to the ticket counters the Sunrise agent had arrived and I had an opportunity to settle the issue of the return trip. I was now seriously short on time but I had to wait for one customer in front of me who was asking an infuriatingly long series of questions. I finally got my turn and found out that Sunrise did in fact have the return tickets for Monday. The agent advised me that a round trip would be much cheaper than buying the two trips separately so my next job was to dash back to Makri to see if they could give me a refund. That agent claimed he would have to consult with a manager and there was clearly no time for those games so I rushed back to Sunrise to buy the return ticket. When he handed me the tickets I realized that he had issued me the round trip. I advised him of the mistake and he said he wouldn't be able to process a refund until the next day. I didn't have much hope of that happening but the important thing at that point was getting on the Makri ferry, even if it meant we had paid more than double the price for the trip overall. I bounded over to the departure area and reunited with the family with just a few minutes to spare before the ferry left. We had one last uncomfortable delay getting past the stern-faced immigration officer. I had almost forgotten we were crossing an international border, and not a particularly friendly one. Eventually we were allowed to pass through and we leapt aboard the ferry just a minute before it departed. It hadn't been pretty but we had managed to navigate one of the logistical issues of our itinerary that I had been dreading. We still had to deal with picking up another rental car in Chios but for now I was going to savor being on the way to the second country of our journey.

Posted by zzlangerhans 01:32 Archived in Turkey Tagged road_trip family family_travel travel_blog tony_friedman family_travel_blog cunda

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