Turkey’s Southern Aegean: the gems of Bozcaada, Cunda and Alacati – The Australian

At Cunda, a promontory port on Turkey’s Aegean coast, elegant old seafront mansions are shedding bits — balcony plasterwork, rotten porches and sills — before my eyes. In the way of the local dogs, which have worked out where to snooze at minimal risk of bombardment, I seek out the safest-looking building I can find. Tas Kahve (Stone Cafe) also turns out to be the most picturesque place in town.

Swallows flit through the high, stained-glass windows to the clatter of backgammon pieces and the thump of the resident kahveci (coffee-maker) who, stripped to the waist, pounds away at the roasted beans in his stone mortar with a club-sized pestle. When I suggest a mechanical grinder might speed things along, he passes a disdainful hand across his brow to indicate the best things are made from hard work.

Cunda evidently has more going for it, then, than eye-popping dereliction, from hand-ground coffee in period-piece surroundings and buzzy waterfront meyhanes (fish and meze tavernas) to boutique outlets doing a brisk trade in the local Ayvalik region’s famed olive oils and soaps. Boutique hotel restorations, which have already pepped up the appeal of regional towns such as Bozcaada and Alacati, are underway.

It has taken me no time to discover how much more there is to Turkey’s northern Aegean, a region overseas visitors usually ignore once they’ve ticked off the battlefields at Gallipoli and the archaeology at Troy. But rather than leave it there and hot-foot it back to Istanbul, I am pushing down to explore this unfamiliar southern Aegean Coast and its distinctive Greco-Turkish heritage.
My first stop is Bozcaada at the mouth of the Dardanelles, and from the moment I reach this Turkish island, one of just two among the hundreds of Greek isles in the Aegean, the plan looks to be paying off. The half-hour ferry crossing brings me to Bozcaada’s little port where fishing boats are painted in naive primary colours, and there are more of the ornate Greek townhouses (a welcome feature of this coast) that I will see in Cunda. The difference is that Bozcaada, or Tenedos to the Greeks, has already restored many such houses as characterful and comfortable small hotels.

I leave my bag in the beautifully tiled lobby of the Latife Hanim Konak (mansion), and set out to explore this beguiling island’s beaches, culture and myth. It delights the classicist in me to discover that ancient Tenedos played a pivotal role in the Trojan Wars when Agamemnon’s fleet of Greeks, feigning departure, hid behind it while the Trojans fell for their gift of the wooden horse. The island also served as an Allied forward base during Gallipoli, the Great War campaign commemorating its centenary this year. Almost the last of the island’s resident Greeks, in the majority here until the 20th century, have since left for Melbourne and elsewhere; a collection of abandoned front door keys, each labelled with the name of its Greek owner, are among the moving exhibits in the town’s excellent museum.

I hire a bicycle to explore the island via a web of bucolic lanes that lead through vineyards to sandy beaches along almost every shore. The pick is Cayir, a deserted and pristine strand stretching out of sight. Pedalling back to town, I pass boutique winery Amadeus, one of half a dozen on the island, and pop in to learn something of the island’s ancient history of winemaking. “The terroir is superb,” says proprietor Oliver Giraes, “and the cooling winds make for perfect growing conditions.” I leave with a bottle, a blend of island-grown sauvignon blanc and local Vasilaki grapes, tucked into my bike’s pannier.

Back on the mainland my next stop is Mount Ida, fabled eyrie of the gods in Homer’s Iliad and holy even now to locals who know it as Kazdagi (Goose Mountain). The 1800m peak, home to a profusion of endemic plants and vast stands of oak and ramrod-straight black pines, is a protected national park. A local ranger, Hussein, meets me at the park entrance and together we drive up a spiralling dirt track into a rare world, through dappled forests thick with woodpeckers, bolting deer and bursts of wild peonies. On the high plateau, brightly dressed Turkmen families, true to their nomadic roots, are camped around fires beneath the sacred summit.

Strip development engulfs the coastline around Edremit, but in the foothills I find little Adatepe, where the village square stands in the shade of two huge plane trees. It is a place of birdsong and old stone houses, such as Adatepe Pansiyonlari, my plain but delightful lodgings. In the late afternoon I walk out past the cemetery and follow the track to a flat-topped rock with steps cut into its sides, an ancient place known as the Altar of Zeus. The gods are said to have watched the Trojan Wars from here; now a Turkish couple is enjoying the views over the Greek island of Lesbos before tying rags to a nearby wishing tree knotted with the sky-blue labels of mineral water bottles.

From my next stop, tottering Cunda, I take in the World Heritage site of Pergamon, with its superb asclepium (healing centre) and precipitously pitched hillside theatre, before heading along the Cesme Peninsula. Here is Alacati, a former windsurfers’ haunt now transformed into an affluent centre of bohemian style and outstanding Aegean cuisine. While many other Turkish resort towns have been concreted over in ill-advised redevelopment schemes, this kasbah-ish warren of whitewashed lanes, walled yards, fruit trees and old stone houses has languished in obscurity.

Alacati only took off in the early 2000s when its charm and architectural distinction were recognised by imaginative pioneers such as Zeynep Ozis, hands-on owner of the exquisitely restored Tas Hotel. In these magical surroundings — all shaded gardens, bleached blue shutters, thick stone walls and delightfully cultured interiors — I feel transported to a Provencal country house. The same is true of Incirliev, another superbly civilised retreat set around a secluded courtyard, where host Sabahat proves exceptional company while husband Osman’s homemade jams — quince, May rose, fig, lavender, cherry and mandarin — are a glorious reminder of Aegean abundance.

The town, increasingly overrun in high season, proves a delight this May. One evening I wander the lanes, with their chi-chi galleries, cafes, antique shops and bakeries selling cookies made with resinous mastic gum from nearby Greek Chios, and on a backstreet find Asma Yapragi (The Vine Leaf); the restaurant staff lead me to the kitchen where, with their advice, I choose from a long table laden with exquisite Aegean meze dishes.

“I wanted to bring home cooking, real local Aegean food, to Alacati,” owner Aysenur Mihci explains, “and to provide a perfect setting for it.” Aysenur has certainly succeeded; I dine in the peaceful courtyard garden on stuffed zucchini flowers, braised artichoke and wild herb salads, with a glass or two of an excellent white from one of nearby Urla’s wineries. If the likes of Cunda were to turn out anything like Alacati or Bozcaada, places with bags of contemporary style as well as plenty of retained Aegean character, then the region will be increasingly worth a visit.

Recommended accommodation includes Latife Hanim Konagi, Bozcaada; latifehanimkonagi.com. Akvaryum Hotel, Bozcaada; akvaryumbozcaada.com. Adatepe Pansiyonlari, Adatepe; adatepe.net. Zeytinbagi Hotel, Camlibel; zeytinbagi.com. Hotel Sobe, Cunda; otelsobe.com. Tas Hotel, Alacati; tasotel.com. Incirliev, Alacati; incirliev.com.

Source: The Australian