Published: July 25th 2008April 30th 2008
Turkish village near Troy
A hill town in idyllic Turkish countryside, pretty much as we had imagined it.
We arrived by ferry from Istanbul in the port town of Bandirma on the southern shore of the Sea of Marmara to begin "the actual cycling portion" of our trip, intending to follow the circuitous coastline of the North Aegean for parts unknown to the south. Between extended stays as ordinary tourists in Marrakech and then Istanbul, we'd been nearly a month off our bikes, so we set a modest goal of 65km for our first day of cycling from Bandirma to Biga, not knowing what kind of conditions we'd encounter. Even so, we disembarked from the ferry a bit too late to start riding even this short distance, so we checked into Bandirma's quirky Hotel Elit, where we bargained them down from 90 to 70YTL for a glass-enclosed room high above the town square and harbor.
(The next morning I got a strange look from the ladies serving breakfast when I filled my cup with Turkish cay (tea) and declined their offer of hot water. Having drunk only coffee at our hotel in Istanbul, I didn't realize that Turks brew their tea extra strong - as in boiling the loose tea - and then dilute it back down to
Kate and Turkish poppies, near Bergama
These crimson poppies were in full bloom all along our Aegean route.
the proper strength for drinking.)
We got an early start out of Bandirma and worked our way through the crowded city traffic onto the 2-lane E-90 highway, the main route along the coast, still curious as to what kind of cycling conditions we'd find. The day's ride met our expectations in at least one way: we had a wicked headwind all day, blowing from exactly the direction - WNW - predicted by the prevailing wind patterns. On the other hand, we were pleasantly surprised that Turkish highway drivers - cars, busses and trucks - seemed to notice and acknowledge our presence by giving us a wide berth far in advance of passing us and then give a "friendly beep" (OK, air-horn blast, in the case of the semis) as they passed. That said, the day was actually fairly boring riding, dusty and hot through a rather monotonous rolling landscape of low hills, grasslands and some forest, punctuated with a couple of sections where extensive roadwork forced us to detour off the dangerously narrowed highway.
We arrived in Biga, a good sized town, unsure of how we'd find the only hotel in town we'd been able to Google (the
Lonely Planet eschews any mention of places such as Biga with no obvious tourist interest). But a friendly local - the first of many in Turkey - helped us find the place by driving his SUV slowly through the town while we cycled behind him, leading us directly to the MRJ Hotel, a collection of old wooden Ottoman houses connected together and restored with great taste by a university professor and his wife - our first experience of the Turkish "butik otel". The price was right - 60YTL - the wifi bandwidth was good and the dinner and breakfast were delicious.
Instead of cycling to Canakkale, our next natural stopping point, we opted to ride the bus and then cycle another 35km to spend the night in the village of Tevfikiye. This strategy allowed us to bypass the crowds of Aussie and Kiwi tourists amassing for ANZAC day on April 25, when there are no rooms to be had in Canakkale. The "midibus" from Biga (with a boot just big enough to stuff in our bikes) dropped us off not far from Canakkale's working waterfront, filled with ferries, fishing boats and a smattering of touring yachts. The quay was
Gallipoli Peninsula across the Dardanelles Straits
The tip of the Gallipoli Peninsula at the mouth of the Dardanelles, now a national park and home to many Allied and Turkish cemeteries. The huge memorial pavilion and flag can be seen even at this distance.
thronged with mostly Turkish tourists (ANZAC day is a big holiday for the Turks as well since they actually won
the campaign it commemorates) strolling and lunching in waterside restaurants and cafes - we've been gratified to discover that, like us, the Turkish people are die-hards when it comes to al fresco dining. They love nothing more than to while away an afternoon under the grapevine-covered pergolas of a cay bahcesi
(tea garden) or set up a dining table and chairs on the sidewalk (we've had waiters bodily transport whole place settings from the dining room to the street when we expressed our preference to sit outdoors.)
Canakkale lies at the narrowest point of the Dardannelles Straits, looking directly across the water to the famous battlefields of the Gallipoli penninsula that claimed hundreds of thousands of Turkish and Allied troops in WWI. Before cycling out of Canakkale we made a pass through the impressive military museum, housed in the incredibly solid stone fortress built by Sultan Mehmet the Conquerer as his armies prepared for the conquest of Constantinople in 1452, and successfully used to maintain Ottoman control over the Straits for another 450 years (a huge gash in the
Coastal view northwest of Assos
All those peninsulas translate into hilly riding.
outer walls marks the spot where an unexploded British shell fired during the Gallipoli campaign is still embedded.)
On the ride to Tevfikiye we first became acquainted with the short and very steep hills that were to characterize much of our cycling along the coast. Turkish road engineering standards don't consider the hills worthy of the grade-and-fill treatment until the route reaches "superhighway" status, so the road tends to faithfully follow the land's steep natural contours. And the paving technique we'd already seen - laying down the absolute minimum amount of tar required to adhere a layer of 3/4" crushed rock onto the roadbed - was going to be the norm rather than the exception. So the difference between the smooth asphalt of Morocco and this pavement, with its under-compacted base and haphazard patches, amounted to at least a one gear downshift, with a predictable effect on our average speed.
Our destination of Tevfikiye, shown more often on the maps and roadsigns as "Truva", is the site of the ancient city of Troy made famous in the Homeric sagas of the Trojan war and by its eponymous equestrian ruse. Actually, archaeologsts have uncovered seven incarnations of Troy, whose
Kate on the ferry to Bozcaada
So easy to get there, so hard to leave...
excavations are the focal point of tourism here. We are chagrined to admit that, for one reason or another - our late arrival and early departure, but also our near-complete ignorance of Hellenistic-era history and the obscure nature of the dig - we never got around to actually visiting the ruins, which were only 500m from our 70YTL room at the Hotel Hisalik.
After reaching Troy our focus on was really on the next day's ride, 40km down the coast to catch the ferry to Bozcaada, a small, idyllic Turkish island raved about in the Lonely Planet. With only about 4 km of riding on the main highway and the rest through tiny whitewashed villages on country roads lined with olive orchards, this was the first cycling leg that really matched our idealized image of Turkey. On this day we first came upon amazing drifts of unnaturally brilliant crimson poppies blooming in the fields and olive orchards along our route. The timing of our trip was just right to catch these wildflowers in their full glory, and they continued to brighten the landscape for the next few weeks, all the way down the Aegean coast.
On the half-hour
Breakfast at Guler Pansiyon, Bozcaada
Breakfast in the garden at the edge of the vineyard - an idyllic place to spend a few days - just make sure to check the weather report!
ferry ride out to Bozcaada we were accompanied by a few Turkish weekenders from Istanbul in Mercedes (as well as a group of bikers on Harleys) but mostly by locals returning from the mainland markets. After a quick survey of the port, a picturesque town of narrow streets and stone houses sporting a wide selection of hotels, restaurants and wine bars serving the famous local vintages, we settled on the tranquil Gunel Pansiyon, located on a small working vineyard along the beach 4km south of town. Once again we were the only guests and were able to negotiate a discount down to 60YTL for a simple apartment with a kitchen where we cooked our own dinners. Included was a substantial Turkish breakfast served each morning on the flower-filled terrace outside our room at the edge of the vineyard.
Here we began to appreciate what avid and skillful gardeners the Turks are. The farming family running our pension, who surely had more than their hands full running the vineyard, still had time to lovingly cultivate an ornamental garden with roses, iris, cannas, and flowering vines climbing the arbor above our breakfast table - not to mention a patch of fat
Temple of Athena, Assos
Aristotle himself may well have made offerings at this temple, in sight of the Greek island of Lesbos.
artichokes and the ubiquitous swath of red poppies blanketing the fallow field next door. The roses turned out to be more than just ornamental: each day the petals of new blooms were collected to become the main ingredient for rose jam, a regional specialty.
Bozcaada was blissful...until the weather moved in. What would have been a 2 night stay turned into 4 as we were trapped by a storm that dumped rain and blew howling winds up to 50mph, enough to shut the ferry down for a day and make cycling impossible. Between the weather and cold April waters of the North Aegean it definitely wasn't the beach hangout we'd expected, and even exploring the back roads of the island wasn't much fun. We eventually took shelter at the Cafe Lisa, run by an Aussie expat who's lived over 10 years on the island, whose fresh-baked sweets and good wifi bandwidth had us returning a couple of afternoons in a row. Lisa also introduced us to a crew of Kiwis combining an ANZAC Day visit with a 10-day bareboat cruise of the Greek and Turkish islands - a near-perfect combination of patriotism and hedonism.
For our final night
Fishing boats in the harbor, Assos
A working harbor, plucked from a picture postcard.
on Bozcaada we moved into the Apart Karsu Otel in town to make it easier to catch the 7:30am ferry back to the mainland - our earliest departure of the trip so far. We were headed 70km down the coastal back roads around the Biga peninsula, past the ruins of ancient Alexandria Troas, through the small towns of Kestanbol and Gulpinar to the ancient Greek city of Assos. This leg was alot more of the same "grind up, coast down, repeat" cycling that we'd gotten a sample of on the ride to Bozcaada - with a few rainshowers thrown in as a bonus. But the hardship was made up for by the fantastic backroads scenery and the dramatic hilltop vision of the acropolis when we finally reached Assos.
Assos - now bearing the Turkish name of Behramkale - was founded by Greek colonists in the 8th century BC and was home to Aristotle himself from 348 to 345 BC. The town is famous mostly for the restored temple of Athena at the summit of the acropolis, which it shares with a 15th century Ottoman mosque (the temple was in ruins at the time, leaving the Muslims to assume they
Greek theatre at Assos
A dramatic setting for this remarkably restored 2nd-century BC theater, with the Greek island of Lesbos in the background just a few kilometers offshore.
were the only game in town.) Adding to the appeal for modern visitors is the impossibly picturesque stone village surrounding the acropolis, where we found a very inexpensive room near the bottom of the circuitous cobblestone streets that wind up to the summit. (We couldn't push our bikes another inch.) From the village another equally circuitous road winds 150m downward to a postcard-perfect harbor filled with small boats, surrounded by elegant stone-built hotels and ringed with a collection of waterside fish restaurants where we had our dinner the first night. Set high into the steep cliffs above the harbor is a partially restored Greek theatre with a dramatic view directly across the straits to the Greek island of Lesbos. We spent a day exploring Assos in the company of a young local woman who guided us around and was able to fill in many of the historical and architectural details we'd otherwised have missed.
After a couple of nights in Assos we continued heading east along the picturesque south-facing coastline of the Biga peninsula, rejoining the main highway from Ayvacik for a fast day's flat run into Akcay. Though this small resort town at the end of the Bay
Kate riding from Assos
A mostly flat run along quiet coastal roads from Assos to Akcay.
of Edremit barely rated a half-sentence in the LP, it was one of our favorite finds. Here on Akcay's charming waterfront, between the Ataturk statue and the fountain of the Greek goddess, we had our first wood-fired pide,
the so-called "Turkish pizza" that in its various incarnations (lahmacun, kasarli, kusbasli, etc ) would become one of our standard hi-carb end-of-the-ride meals. In Akcay we were again the only guests at the luxurious "butik" Hotel Cimen and stayed for what must have been their ridiculous "early-season" (or perhaps "we love bicyclists") rate of 60YTL. This featured an ocean-front room, 3YTL beers, a high-tech shower with multiple sprays and an iPod interface (cool, Steely Dan in the shower!), and our best breakfast of the trip with real coffee, real OJ (we'd been missing this since Morocco) and omlettes-on-demand. We still shake our heads over this one.
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