We awoke early on Friday morning to say goodbye to Özgur, who had to leave for work at 6am as usual. Even though we’d only known him for a handful of days, it was a sad farewell, especially after all he’d done for us. After he left, we finished packing our bags, made the bed up with fresh, clean sheets, and headed to the metro. We were on our way to Bursa, an industrial city that also houses some incredible Ottoman-era monuments. The main catalyst for going to Bursa was my penpal Kübra, who lived and studied 50 minutes away from Bursa city. I first met Kübra online when she contacted me through another blog of mine three years ago, and we’ve been in touch ever since. We’d talked about meeting in real life for the first time in Bursa, but because our Couchsurfing host Emre also wanted to take us around, I wasn’t able to give her a specific time; I was determined to meet her though, even if just briefly.
The fastest and easiest way to get to Bursa from Istanbul is by ferry. We booked tickets with IdoBus online from Kabataş to Güzelyalı. Protip: if you book in advance you can get tickets for up to 80% off the regular price, depending on how close you are to the date of travel. Another protip – take the credit card you paid with along with you, because the ferry terminal has a ticket machine (“Idomatic”) which will spit out your tickets if you swipe your card, saving you having to print them out yourself. From Güzelyalı you need to get a bus into Bursa; in our case, Emre had offered to pick us up in his car.
We got to the ferry terminal with time to spare, despite the furnicular between Taksim and Kabataş being out of service, resulting in a frenzied exit from the metro. Being unaccustomed to using taxis, the first words out of my mouth were “OK WE’LL HAVE TO RUN THERE IT’S ONLY 1KM AWAY” before Will calmly reminded me that we were each carrying around 14kg on our backs and there were other vehicles which could transport us.
The ferry trip was smooth, quiet and uneventful. Or at least I think it was uneventful – admittedly, I napped through most of it. We stumbled out at Güzelyalı and followed the masses of people to the main street. I had a vague idea of what Emre looked like thanks to a blurry Facebook photo. His CouchSurfing profile had said he was 34, and if his Facebook picture was at all current he looked like an extremely young 34. Soon enough, we saw a guy in a bright red t-shirt waving to us, and I realised immediately that his profile must have been wrong, because he was clearly barely older than 18. His face was so open and innocent that I trusted him immediately, and even Will was far less suspicious than he usually is.
The ride to Bursa took around 40 minutes. We talked the whole way; Emre was studying English while on break from university, where he studied economics, and he was eager to practise with us. He’d planned an extensive itinerary and suggested that we drive around in his car so as to see as much as possible in the short time we had.
Our first stop was the Muradiye Complex, which houses a mosque, madrasah, baths, hospice, and the tomb of Sultan Murat II, amongst others. One of the side tombs was open, but the main tomb was undergoing repairs.
The madrasah is currently being used as a centre for cancer research. The courtyard is spectacularly green, which we soon found is pretty common for madrasahs there.
Across the road is a 17th century Ottoman house that’s now been converted into a museum, popularly believed to be the house in which Sultan Mehmet was born. Some of the rooms in the all-wood house were lavishly decorated, with slightly creepy mannequins placed within them to depict scenes of everyday Ottoman life.
Next we walked to the mausoleums of Osman Gazi and Orhan Gazi. Their tombs are two of the more ornate ones I’ve seen in Turkey, perhaps unsurprising for the founder of the Ottoman Empire and his son. My subpar low light photography skills didn’t capture the grandeur very well, unfortunately.
And then a break atop one of the higher points in Bursa, where the clock tower sits.
By now the sun was high in the sky and we were thirsty, so Will and I downed a couple of limonatas at the cafe next to the clock tower. Emre would only accept a bottle of water, which I thought was just him being polite, but he assured us that it was because he was on a diet. His willpower was to be tested further when he took us to his favourite iskender restaurant in town. He’d asked me in advance what we wanted to eat while in Bursa, and of course I automatically answered iskender kebab. I could (and sometimes do) eat it by the bucketload in Sydney, and given Bursa is its birthplace, it was a question that required no contemplation. We wove our way through the Kapalı Çarşı – covered bazaar – on the way to the restaurant, a modest, cafeteria-esque affair with a pale blue interior and a very limited menu. It was clear from the menu and the name of the restaurant (something like “Bursa Iskender Restaurant”) that you went there to eat iskender. Will and I ordered a single portion each. Emre refused to eat. I was horrified at this, and said that we were not going to eat unless he did. He then confessed that he was on the “Dukan diet,” and so he really, truly could not eat iskender. I have to give it to the guy – he sat there and watched us eat the iskender without a single word of complaint or longing. (Apparently he has to be on the diet for at least another 2 months, which sucks because the presents I brought him were all food items.) The iskender was every bit as good as he said it would be, and 10 times better than any I’ve had in Sydney. I think the sizzling butter they poured over it helped quite a bit, and I’m going to have to start demanding it in Sydney restaurants now. By the time I got to the last bite I was kicking myself for not ordering the 1.5 portion size.
After a çay at an outdoor cafe, we headed to Orhan Cami. The mosque was almost empty, as most people were praying jummah at the much larger Ulu Cami. We went there next, and waited outside for the congregation to leave. The courtyard outside was full of older women, families and children; it was buzzing and festive, like jummah should be.
As the courtyard filled up, the mosque emptied, and we went in. The interior of Ulu Cami is, in a word, majestic. It is artistic, full of calligraphy, unusual (compared to the Byzantine-style mosques we were used to), and vast. It immediately became my favourite mosque in Turkey.
It boasts 20 domes; the story goes that they are a substitute for the 20 mosques that Sultan Bayezit I promised to build if he won the battle of Nicopolis.
Me under the calligraphy, for scale.
I’d asked Kübra to meet us at Ulu Cami at 3pm. She got there early and found me straight away, and walked up to me all breathless and excited. Kübra is downright adorable. As soon as she introduced herself, she told me how nervous she was to finally meet me, but also how happy she was. Her enthusiasm was contagious. I introduced her to Will and Emre, who had gotten into a discussion with one of the locals, and explained the situation – I didn’t want to ditch Emre, but I also didn’t want her to feel uncomfortable getting in a stranger’s car. She and Emre talked for a few minutes in Turkish and agreed that Kübra should join us in the car for the rest of the tour.
In the middle of Ulu Cami is a large fountain for ablution, unusual for a mosque. There are a few legends about why the mosque was built like that. According to Kübra, the Sultan had to buy up a number of houses in order to build the mosque. In the middle was a house belonging to a Christian woman who refused to sell the house because she didn’t want it to be turned into a place of prayer for Muslims. When she passed away, her successor sold the house to the Sultan who decided that out of respect to the woman, he would make it an area that prayer could not take place; hence, the fountain. I’m not sure about the story’s authenticity, but it does make for an attractive feature.
Now with Kübra in tow, we headed for the last of the sites within Bursa city. First stop was the mausoleum of Sultan Celebi Mehmet I, covered in brilliant aqua tiles.
The mausoleum is part of a larger complex which includes a mosque, Yeşil Cami (Green Mosque). Like the mausoleum, the interior features blue, green and aqua tiling, as well as the usual painted domes.
As always the complex included a madrasah, now used as a museum.
The last mosque we visited was in the complex of Beyazit.
Emre suggested that we drive out of town to Çınar to visit a 600 year old tree called İnkaya, but after seeing the traffic on the road we decided to go to Cumalıkızık instead, a quaint village 10km east of Bursa. Emre was hesitant as he had wanted to take us there for breakfast the next day, but after assuring him that we were perfectly happy to skip the weekend crowds and have breakfast at his home instead, we took off. Cumalıkızık is a sweet little town, and one that draws a lot of local tourists. On a late Friday afternoon it was virtually empty, and we wandered around at our leisure and ate gozleme in an Ottoman-style house when we got tired of walking.
It’s probably not surprising that by this stage we were dead, dead tired. We dropped Kübra off in the city centre, where we swapped presents and said our goodbyes. We then headed back to Emre’s home for dinner. His mum, dad and brother greeted us warmly at the door, ushered us in quickly and sat us at the table once we’d washed our hands and faces. Emre’s mum started bringing in bowl after bowl of food, while we talked to Emre’s dad and brother, with Emre translating. His family had so many questions to ask that poor Emre seemed quite overwhelmed, even with his dictionary on hand. Once the food had been brought in, they urged us to start eating. I gestured to them to join us, but Emre informed me that they’d already eaten. I still hadn’t quite gotten used to how long the days were, and I was mortified when I realised that it was 8.30pm, so of course they’d had dinner. They didn’t seem at all phased though, and gleefully watched us eat by ourselves.
I can’t begin to tell you just how good the food was. I thought they’d brought it all out, but a few minutes in Emre’s mum started bringing in even more bowls, and laid them on a side table – I’m guessing they were for seconds. This isn’t even half the food she cooked.
Emre ate low fat yoghurt and drank low fat milk, while this spread sat in front of him. Commitment, much?!
We ate til we couldn’t eat any more. Next came the obligatory çay, followed by mulberries, Greek coffee and conversation. By this time, Emre’s grandfather had appeared as well. Emre’s mother was born and raised in Greece, and both his parents could speak German, but sadly neither Will nor I can speak or understand German. They didn’t let the language barrier impede their desire to learn more about us and Australia, though. After an hour of using Emre as a translator, his family left us to sleep. They owned the apartment block, and rented out 6 of the 8 units, slept in one, and kept the other as a guest room for family. This guest room was where we slept, with Emre’s grandfather lightly snoring in the room next door. His family had made us feel so at home, and I fell asleep as quickly as if I had been in my own bed.