North Aegean: Ayvalik to Izmir

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May 1st 2008
Published: August 1st 2008
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Ayvalik Bay from Alibey IslandAyvalik Bay from Alibey IslandAyvalik Bay from Alibey Island

A view of the bay separating Alibey Island from the town of Ayvalik on the far shore.
From Akcay it was a 50km, gently rolling ride to the town of Ayvalik, relatively quick but somewhat painful due to the level of traffic back on the big D550 highway. In Ayvalik we did a quick survey of in-town accomodations but then decided to head out to Alibey Island, a 10km ride across the harbor causeway from Ayvalik proper. After a pointless ride over the island's steep spine to the Lonely Planet's favorite Ada Camp yielded only expensive 100YTL bungalows (the punatively-priced 6YTL beers were really the deal-killers), we rode back to explore picturesque little Alibey town itself. Here we discovered the comfortable Pansiyon Osgun, 50YTL including - big plus - our own kitchen, and checked in for a couple of nights, once again privileged to have an entire guesthouse all to ourselves.

The next day we unloaded the bikes and rode out along the island, past cow pastures and through olive groves to the end of one of the many long peninsulas forming Alibey's inkblot-shaped coastline. Though we were within distant sight of a farmhouse, we found an otherwise deserted little beach of smooth rocks where we got our first chance to sunbathe and swim in the Aegean
Bicycling on Alibey IslandBicycling on Alibey IslandBicycling on Alibey Island

We rode through olive groves and cow pastures and found a secluded beach where we could swim au naturel.
Sea au naturel.

During the evenings quite a scene unfolds along Alibey's picturesque waterfront, where the working fishing boats and sunset excursion launches tie up against a long promenade filled with strolling families and stylish couples. Here the cafes and fish restaurants - many housed in solid 19th century stone buildings that were once Greek olive oil factories - vie for customers wth lit-up cases displaying fantastic arrays of mezzes, artistic arrangements of whole fish, tomatoes and lemons on crushed ice. Slyly insinuating maitre'd's tout the virtues of their particular menus, doing their best to draw customers towards their own tables and away from the competition. Though we mostly passed up the cafe scene to enjoy home-cooked (read: cheap) breakfasts and dinners in the privacy of our pansiyon's roof terrace, we partook of the al fresco dining culture enough to at least enjoy the morning cups of coffee and evening beers.

After a couple of nights in Alibey Island, we crossed the causeway back over to Ayvalik, and on our way out to the highway passed a huge marina that was the biggest port of call for the Aegean yachting set we'd seen yet. On this day
Waterfront Cafe, Alibey IslandWaterfront Cafe, Alibey IslandWaterfront Cafe, Alibey Island

While we preferred to cook for ourselves on Alibey, that didn't prevent us from participating in the local cafe culture.
our course along the highway was exactly aligned with the prevailing NW wind pattern for the first time in days, and we took full advantage of it, despite the heavy traffic, for the 65km run to our day's destination of Candarli. Near Dikili we took the smaller road splitting westward from the D550, and were treated to a 25 kilometer section of gently rolling, unpopulated and lightly trafficked highway that deposited us neatly in downtown Candarli.

Candarli has an interesting layout, built up on a south-extending finger of land with beaches on both its east and west flanks. When we worked our way over to the west side and checked into a nice room with an oceanview balcony at the Hotel Samyeli (one of the LP's picks, at 60 YTL) we realized for the first time how seriously inadequate our Aytur "Yeni" Turkey 1:1,000,000 road map was. Where no road was shown on the map, our naked eyes clearly picked out a road we could have ridden along the shoreline of the peninsula west of Candarli, a much more interesting coastal route than the inland shortcut we'd taken. (We'd seen the turnoff for this route back near Dikili and
Kate on the road to CandarliKate on the road to CandarliKate on the road to Candarli

Nice to get off the main D550 highway for the last 25km of the day.
dismissed it as a dead end since the roadsign didn't mention Candarli.) We vowed to reopen our search for a more comprehensive road map of Turkey.

We decided to stay 2 nights in Candarli, not just for its waterside charm but also to take a day trip over to see the ancient ruins of Pergamum (now the town of Bergama), a Hellenistic-era city that had its heyday around 200 BC, following the breakup of the empire of Alexander the Great. We packed a picnic lunch, and worked our way hitchiking over to Bergama, 40 km away and back up the main highway from Candarli. We had a stellar first experience of hitchiking in Turkey (where the "thumbs out" signal contrasts with the Moroccan custom of waving an open hand towards the ground) with short waits and interesting drivers - we even got a ride with a young woman who bravely stopped to pick us up during her first driving lesson - and we arrived in Bergama well ahead of the scheduled bus.

After lunch in the park and a stroll through Bergama's archaeological museum, we headed on foot towards the extensively reconstructed ruin of Pergamum's acropolis, located on
Acropolis at PergamumAcropolis at PergamumAcropolis at Pergamum

The ruins of the acropolis at Pergamum revealed themselves as we climbed the hill from the town through fields of poppies.
a vertiginous peak at the edge of the modern town. We heeded the LP's advice that taxis to the top were a ripoff (we declined one driver's offer of 25 YTL for the 5 minute ride up the spiraling drive) and decided to hike up a steep trail past grazing cows, through thorn bushes and drifts of deep crimson poppies, stumbling here and there over discarded sections of fluted marble columns buried amongst the weeds. Our slow ascent took us through the enormous remains of a 10,000 seat theatre set into the near-vertical flank of the hill. Cresting the hill, the bleached marble ruins of the various agoras and temples were slowly revealed, with their towering sections of columns and pediments painstakingly reassembled by German archaeologists. After a walk around the site, we made our way back down the acropolis jammed into the already-packed sedan of a Turkish family who responded to our raised thumbs. The bus from Bergama got us back to Candarli in time for the evening promenade along the corniche below the 14th century Genoese castle.

The majority of the next day's 80km ride to Foca was a return from the coastal backroads to the D550
Temple of Hadrian, PergamumTemple of Hadrian, PergamumTemple of Hadrian, Pergamum

These spectacular ruins were simply piles of marble rubble before careful reconstruction by German archaeologists.
highway again, with a good surface, wide shoulders and modern grading. But D550 is mostly four lanes along this stretch of industrialized coastline, and by midday we were both deafened and fatigued by the constant stream of huge trucks barreling past us at freeway speeds and carrying steel and cement as well as gasoline from the huge ugly refinery visible along the shoreline. We thought we'd get a break when we turned west onto the two lane road to Yeni Foca, but the mayhem intensified as it turned out to be the supply route for a vast expanse of scrap metal yards and piers. For 5km more the road was clogged with smoking, overloaded trucks raising huge clouds of dust and shedding metal debris as they bumped across the deteriorated road surface from the junkyards to the shredders to the dockside depot, where cargo ships bound for Chinese steel foundries were being loaded.

Ironically, one short hill put this hell-on-earth behind us and, passing through the touristy village of Yeni (New) Foca, we had one of our most spectacular rides of the trip along an unspoiled, Big Sur-like coastline to Eski, (Old) Foca. From turns in the roadway cut
Coastal route to FocaCoastal route to FocaCoastal route to Foca

After the industrial hell-hole we passed through on the D550, this quiet section of coastline from Yeni Foca to Eski Foca was one of the most spectacular of our trip.
high into the cliffs, we looked ahead to tiny jewel-like beaches and aquamarine bays before swooping down through perfectly banked turns to run past them at sea level and up the other side. True, it was 22km of relentless up-and-down, but the vistas revealed at each turn of this winding, lightly trafficked route more than made up for soreness in our legs as we coasted down the last long hill into Foca.

Foca is another of the Turkish Aegean's old Greek seaside towns, in the mold of Bozcaada, Assos, and Alibey, whose modern updates have been carefully managed to preserve the towns' original character and romantic charm. While the results can sometimes verge on the Disneyesque, it's a fault easily forgiven when you're strolling through the weekly market along cobblestone streets laden with fresh produce, haggling with the skipper to get the best price on a Saturday morning breakfast cruise around the harbor, or sitting at a waterfront table among the old domino players, having a sundowner and watching the world go by. Foca in particular has a mellow and authentic ambience that is enhanced by a collection of beautifully restored Greek houses and stone buildings, boutique hotels and
Sunset over the waterfront, FocaSunset over the waterfront, FocaSunset over the waterfront, Foca

A great place to spend a few days eating, drinking, shopping, strolling, and swimming at the beautiful beaches just north of town.
classy restaurants, bringing in lots of Turkish weekenders as well as second-home buyers that add a layer of affluent gloss to the historic atmosphere.

We checked into the comfortable if not particularly historic Pansiyon Siren for a couple of days, where - once again, as the only guests - we were able to cook our own meals in the little kitchen and dine on the virtually private rooftop terrace looking out over the harbor. Foca put us within striking distance of the huge metropolis of Izmir (pop. 2.6 million), but it wasn't a ride we were particularly looking forward to. That's when our friend Ron, who was coincidentally visiting friends in Izmir, came to our rescue by offering to motor up the hour from the city in his rental car and shuttle us and the bikes back into the city. When we saw the industrial estates, construction zones and freeway detours we would have had to ride through - even I was intimidated at the wheel of the rental car and let Ron drive again - we were doubly grateful that he'd gone out of his way to leapfrog us over the urban chaos. We drove on through Izmir
Minaret of the Konak Mosque, IzmirMinaret of the Konak Mosque, IzmirMinaret of the Konak Mosque, Izmir

Though this is one of the city's landmarks, cosmopolitan Izmiris don't seem to be particularly devout Muslims - we barely saw a headscarf in this town.
and spent a fun day exploring the town of Tire, where Ron took us to lunch at a locals-only hillside restaurant and pitched us on some intriguing Turkish real estate investment schemes.

In Izmir, Ron dropped us off near the train station where we had a possible chance to find a decent one-star hotel, (we ended up at the ratty Imperial, a business man's hotel near the train station and the first we'd seen with a full-time porn channel) and we made plans to meet up again at his three-star place right along the waterfront. Ignoring the industrial estates and sprawling suburbs, "old" Izmir, along the waterfront, can actually be a very charming place, and is certainly a good city in which to "get stuff done." In one of several good bookstores we visited, I finally broke down and bought the Mapmedya "Koy Koy" road atlas with 1:400,000 maps of all of Turkey (for 40 YTL!), and also sprang for the Biblically-scaled Ataturk biography by Andrew Mango, which I spent the next 3 weeks devouring.

We also had productive exchanges at the PTT (Post Office) where we once and for all established that parcels can be sent cheap
Waterfront promenade, IzmirWaterfront promenade, IzmirWaterfront promenade, Izmir

The corniche, stretching for several kilometers along the old section of Izmir's waterfront is a focus of the city's social scene.
and fast if they look kinda flat and you smile alot. And of course there were the cultural experiences you'd expect in a city this size: we saw an exhibit of industrial design at the French Institute, attended some matches of the International Tae Kwon Do Juniors Competition in the Kultur Parki, and saw football partisans of Istanbul's Galatasaray team lighting bonfires and rampaging through the streets (and that was after their team won. ) We also spent time, like the locals, strolling the waterfront, watching the marine activity in the bay, and quaffing afternoon beers at one of the many cafes lining the broad seafront. (This was the first place that we saw the now-familiar four-liter Efes tankards with football themes that sit on the table and dispense beer from their own miniature taps.)

After a few days, we loaded up the bikes and rode down along the waterfront, whose bike-friendly corniche stretches at least 5 km to the southwest from the center of town. We were headed to the out-of-town otogar where we could leapfrog out of Izmir again by bus, bypassing the burbs and the superhighways to get to the town of Cesme. The intention was
Football fans celebrating, IzmirFootball fans celebrating, IzmirFootball fans celebrating, Izmir

Izmiris' joy after the victory of their favorite Galatasaray team was so ebullient as to make walking the streets hazardous for the next few hours.
to resume "the actual biking portion" of our bike tour again on the mountainous and little-visited Karaburun Peninsula, an area entirely ignored by our Lonely Planet guidebook...


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Göztepe Bridge, IzmirGöztepe Bridge, Izmir
Göztepe Bridge, Izmir

Another landmark along Izmir's long waterfont corniche.

22nd November 2010

Tyre marks
Just wanted to say thanks for this wonderfully written blog. A friend and I are cycling along this coastline in January (well, we might be pushing our bikes through snow for some of it!) and your post has me itching to go.

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