Sunday, December 28, 2014

Aegean Odyssey--part 3: Pergamon, the Greatest Ruins in Turkey

It’s been a while since I’ve written—I know. I would like to start up again by concluding the travel log I’d started about our October trip to the Aegean coast and the fabulous city of Pergamon.
The city walls on the Acropolis
The ruins of Pergamon are on a large hill north of the Turkish town of Bergama. It is easily the most stunning ancient site I have seen in a country inundated with them. The history here is dense. The church of Pergamon is mentioned in the Book of Revelation as one of the churches of Asia that crazy St. John was sending his letters to. It’s called “a dwelling place of Satan” who had his throne there. Well isn’t that special. It was also the place where parchment was invented and boasted the greatest library in the antique world, with over 200,000 volumes, second only to Alexandria. The Roman physician Galen was born there—the most famous doctor in the ancient world and one of the first practitioners of psychotherapy. To the north of the main town are the ruins of an enormous medical complex called the Asclepion where people from all over the Roman empire came for treatment. The city was also a center of the arts and boasted an enormous theater along a steep ridge that still stuns to this day.

In short, it has quite a pedigree.
From the Temple of Emperor Hadrian

We took the funicular one-way up the hill and walked down through the ruins, though the woman at the ticket booth tried to talk us into a more expensive round trip. Most people seem to fall for this as we encountered absolute no one on our stroll down through perhaps the main and most interesting part of the ruins.

The theater is a must-see—the steepest theater in the world with a seating capacity for over 10,000 people. You emerge from the colonnaded tunnels beneath the Imperial temple onto a steep stairwell with a dizzying, breathtaking view of all the mountains around. It’s hard to imagine how anyone could have concentrated on a play with that view in front of them.
From these tunnels you emerge into the theater

From the theater we walked down the ancient Roman road, still paved with brick, past the Altar of Zeus (the most interesting parts of which have been moved to the Berlin Museum), one of the seven wonders of the world and the thing John of Revelations meant when he said “throne of Satan.”

It was after this road that most of the tourists vanished and we were left alone in the vast lower levels of the city. We toured the sports stadium—all vine and columns and red dust. Everything was absolutely silent except for the wind on the brick and weeds. There was a feeling that everything was too old to even be haunted. Above the stadium was the house of one of the governor’s of Pergamon—the mosaic floor and decorations still intact. This was one of the most fascinating parts of the whole city—for here you could imagine what everything would have looked like two thousand years before, what it might have felt like to come home and sit down to relax after a day’s work for a Roman government official.
The remnants of the Altar of Zeus
We emerged from the city walls and crawled under a fence at the bottom of a hill, then walked to the Red Basilica in the middle of the town of Bergama. It looks like a crumbling cathedral of broken brick but is actually much older than Christianity. It used to be a temple to the Egyptian gods, apparently, a concession to Egyptian expats living in the city. And what a contingent their must have been for such a grandiose monument! You can still find pieces of Serapis and Isis and Set and Ra in the shambling red towers. There is one intact tower and when you first enter it from the sunlight, you are immersed in utter darkness. Around the walls are statues of Egyptian gods—half animal, half human--and in the center a podium with a secret entrance from which the priests used to speak to worshippers—a disembodied voice from the Egyptian underworld. The Lonely Planet claims this was the place John meant by “throne of Satan”, not the Zeus altar, and it certainly feels more demonic, more frightening.
Egyptian warrior goddess, Sekhmet at the Red Basilica

Delal and I visited the medical complex of the Asclepion last—and I think this was her favorite part of the whole trip. It’s such an extensive facility with mud baths and massage parlors and a building for the treatment of the insane and a hot springs and a sleeping center where doctors would listen to people’s dream rantings for an explanation of their illnesses. A long road from the main city of Pergamon—about a mile in length—was completely covered to prevent people from being affected by the weather.

I am always fascinated to walk these old roads, especially the ones that emerge out of the brush and vanish back into it. The greatest lengths of them lie under the ground—you can feel the presence of this buried network of phantom highways and sideroads, all connecting a vast array of cities and towns long dead and vanished, invisible under the modern map. I always think of the millions who walked and drove them, and now my own footfalls added to the history. The paving stones of the Asklepion road have been worn smooth by centuries of feet—no ruts because no wheeled vehicles ever traveled here.
The road to the Asklepion
Most of the hotels and pensions in Bergama were unnecessarily expensive—“boutique” if you will. The Hera told us over the phone that since we were Turks, she would give us a discount—which of course means she regularly overcharged tourists. Never mind that neither of us were Turks. We finally settled on the Odysseus Guest House, located in a historic Greek mansion being refurbished by group of grad students and run by an extremely nice guy who did not try to overcharge us in any way. Highly recommended—it boasts a nice view of the old city and the Acropolis from it’s terrace and a copy of the Odyssey—extremely relevant to the whole area, sits on the night stand in each room. I read all the chapters on the places we had spent the week traveling through.
Lake Manyas

On our drive back to Istanbul we stop by the Kuş Cenneti (Bird Paradise) wildlife sanctuary near Bursa—a rapidly shrinking and according to the covered lady who worked the information desk, dying refuge for migratory birds. Chemicals from the poultry plant on the shores of Lake Manyas are leaking into the birds’ habitat, and dams and agricultural run off are wreaking havoc on the environment. You cannot approach the lake too closely. There’s an observation tower and the park headquarters lends you a pair of binoculars. We looked out from the top deck at what looked like the white reflection of the sun all along the Southern shore. Then bits of the sunlight rose and began to fly and that’s when I realized that what we were seeing were hundreds upon hundreds of white pelicans. There were flamingos too, wading for fish and egrets, storks, cormorants, spoonbills, and herons.  Despite the ecological disaster we knew was waiting for these birds, despite our distance from them there in that tower, there was still something majestic about them, hundreds of them taking wing at once and crossing the sunset sky.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Ode to an Istanbul Autumn Night

The boza seller--whose somber night buskings herald the Istanbul autumn

In Istanbul’s deep November, the boza man wanders far and wee. He only appears after 9PM, like a chuck-wills-widow. And the autumn night is misty, but not rainy. Swirls of droplets gather on the car windshields like sugar. And the air is still just warm enough to jog in a T-shirt and just feel a pleasant little chill as the wind rushes through the trees and sluices between the rows of apartments. The streets are wind tunnels. The maples and the chestnuts have turned lemon-gold and their leaves scatter the pavement, but the other trees remain stubbornly green. Grapevines wither. The boza man calls boooooooooooooza, booooooooooza. A long cry into the sky. A streetlamp in a line of street lamps sits in the middle of a fig tree like a captured star. The leaves swirl with a gust of wind. I run from island of light to island of light. I want to catch the boza man. Booooooooza. He turns a street corner, from shadow to shadow. I jog past an alley way and see him walking past a dumpster. He’s a bow legged Gypsy and leans to the left where he carried his heavy samovar of boza. A bald spot shines in the middle of his scalp. He calls out that slender, mournful song, like a ghost or a banshee, boooooooooooza and disappears around a Mercedes parked half on the sidewalk. And the street still seems to call booooooooza but with no human throat to voice it. Just a melody in the emptiness. Istanbul’s working class ezan.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Epic Tour of the Aegean--Part 2 Ayvalık

We and the rental car leave Bozca Ada early in the morning. From the ferry port, we head South toward Assos, winding through more fields of giant. Assos is dramatic and beautiful—I’ve never seen anywhere like it--and as we approach a storm cloud is engulfing the ruins at the top as black thunderheads roll in from the Aegean. To the West is the sea and the island of Lesbos. We stop the car in front of an abandoned farmhouse and scramble out. Delal is taking pictures and I am just standing there at the edge of a cliff that plunges to the blue-black water below. A billowing sheet of bruise colored storm has rolled over the mountains of Lesbos except for one break in the clouds that sends down a bright white shard of light onto a lone ferry crossing the waves. The wind howls and shakes the olive trees. Goat bleats and bells. This place, this moment, somehow has become magical.
The storm over Lesbos

We drive down into Assos and stop at a cliff-side cafe for a glass of fresh black mulberry juice. The clouds moving over the islands creates this endless kaleidoscopic lightshow.

From Assos, we drive along the coast past all the beach camps and fish restaurants. We are heading toward Ayvalık which lies on the other side of the cape. The roadside is littered with bright yellow stands all selling the black mulberry juice we’ve just drunk along with syrups and pekmezes and jellies. At one point, off to the left is a spread of swampy flats filled with flamingos. Mt. Ida (Kaz Dağ) is visible always in the East, a grey shape in the white fuzz of humid air. This was the mountain where the Trojan war was set in motion, where Paris made his fated judgement. Everywhere else is endless olive grove.

Ayvalık lies in Edremit bay, a pretty blue swath filled with tiny mountainous islands. One of the islands, a long extinct volcano, is called Şeytan Sofrası, the supper table of Satan. The “table” is a dried pool of lava. According to the sign at the top, the Devil, during classical times, descended upon this mountain and left one footprint here before he skipped on over to Lesbos and left the other. Of course, Greek myth doesn’t have a devil so maybe they mean Apollo? The scenery from here is dramatic and people flock here from around Turkey to watch the sunset. People have tied wishes to all the bushes and trees and the white papers flutter in the fierce October wind that rushes in from the water.
The sunset over Şeytan Sofrası

What sets Ayvalık apart is the old Greek city—crumbling apart but still intact, a labyrinth of grand multicolored stone mansions, churches, stores and city halls, some still in use, some abandoned and closed in with barbed wire and some converted to beds and breakfasts. The city lost most of it’s Greek population during the Mübadele—the Exchange—in which the Greek families who had lived here for hundreds of years were moved to Greece while Turkish families in Greek territory, mostly Crete and Macedonia, were moved here. We spent half the day walking through the streets and taking pictures of the noble old houses. One woman popped out of her window as I snapped a photograph and sparked a conversation.

“Admiring our houses?” she asks.

“They are amazing,” I say.

“I wish people took care of them. But the Turks that came here were just handed them for free. If you don’t earn something how can you respect it? We came here seven years ago and restored this one.”

“It’s beautiful.”

“You have to be careful when buying property here,” she goes on. “People steal the historical markers over the doors and then put them on new houses and jack up the price, pretending the home is antique when it’s not.”
A former Greek Orthodox church now barbered up

Sidestreet of Ayvalık

Historical home in Ayvalık

One of the more startlingly coloured houses

Across the causeway is Cunda Island, which has the most amazing seafood mezes in the country. Inspired by Cretan and local recipes, there are dishes here you can find nowhere else in the world. We picked a restaurant a little off the water painted in Greek blue and white called Son Vapur. The service was impeccable. When we asked for a plate of local mezes the owner made no fuss like the restaurant of Bozca Ada (who almost bullied us into buying fish) but seemed to immediately understand both what we wanted and why. My favorite dish was called Balık Lokum—a rolled filet of fish wrapped around shrimp and broiled in a buttery-cream sauce flavored with herbs. I thought the fish was lobster until the chef explained it was sea bass. The ‘Island Greens’ (Ada otları) were also extremely flavorful. For desert we had something called “Lor Tatlısı” which was a light, sweetened local ricotta drizzled with mulberry preserves. The music in the background was a huge draw—when we first arrived the were playing Greek taverna music. At one point, there was a very melancholy song by Lean Chamamyan that went right to the gut. Delal recognized it as an Armenian piece. Given the rather extreme nationalism of this region of Turkey, it was a daring selection. We asked the owner about it and she said she tried to play music from all sections of Turkey--Kurdish, Turkish, Greek, Armenian, Zaza.

For four seafood mezes, a desert, and a beer we paid 60 TL.

It was a little dark so the pictures blurry, but these are the mezes

Son Vapur

For our hotel we stayed at Ayazma Hotel on the waterfront—a nice view from our balcony but we had a room facing the road and the noises of the cars woke me up from time to time. The building itself is a restored Ayvalık house and was well heated with wireless, but they had jacked up the price to 130TL for the Bayram holiday. Still, service was friendly and breakfast excellent.

Tomorrow—we head for the ruins of Pergamon!

Son Vapur
Belediye Cad.
Çarşı Sok. No 3
Cunda, Ayvalık 10140
0535 312 7260

Ayazma Oteli
Fevzipaşa-Vehbibey Mh., Talatpaşa Cd, 10400 Ayvalık/balıkesir

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

On the Road With Achilles--An Epic Tour of the Aegean 1

From Friday to Tuesday, we were off school for the Feast of the Sacrifice and so Delal and I rented a car and headed West, without plan or reservation, toward the Aegean Sea. Our suitcase was packed full of hopeful bikinis and swimming shorts—we needed the jackets and sweaters more as it turned out—but the trip was still fantastic. There’s a magic about the Aegean and as I reflect back on our trip now, it’s remarkable how it followed a path through one of the oldest stories in the world, Homer’s Iliad. And if this is dedicated to anyone, it’s dedicated to Mrs. Connie Shelnut and Mr. Allen Cleveland—two former English teachers in Lakeland, Florida who introduced me to ancient Greek literature back when I was one of the teens I am teaching now.

Our first stop was Çanakkale, the sight of one of the bloodiest battles of World War 1 between the Allies and the Ottomans—which the Turks won in no small thanks to Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. Our interest was not in battlefields, however, at least not modern ones, but the ferry, which, for 30 TL, takes you across the Dardanelles to Western Anatolia. About a half hour further south are the ruins of Troy (Truva in Turkish).
The Walls of Ancient Troy

The site has not the grandeur of Turkey’s other ruins—Bergama or Ephesus—but there was something about running my hand along the fabled walls of Priam’s Troy, touching the stones—themselves half legend, half real, half god, half human—that sent shivers through me. These are rocks plundered by idiot 19th century tomb raiders posing as archaeologists, but they are also the walls before which Hector and Achilles fought to the death before an audience of gods.

“The gods envy us. They envy us because we’re mortal, because any moment may be our last. Everything is more beautiful because we’re doomed. You will never be lovelier than you are now. We will never be here again.” 
Another Trojan wall made of red stone found in the region

The planes of Troy

A Trojan road

From Troy we headed along a small one and a half lane road that wound around the Biga Peninsula—a lonely little outcropping of land filled with tiny villages and barren rocky hills rolling down toward the sea. In ancient times, it was called Troas. You drive along winding about boulders and olive grows and suddenly sight a row of Greek columns towering above the brush. There are dozens of little archaeological sites—my favorite of which is the great temple of Apollo Smitheon, the Temple of the Mice in the village of Gülpinar, once the city of Chryse. 
The Temple of the Lord of the Mice

A sacred road leading out from the Temple of the Mice

This temple plays a pivotal role in the story of the Iliad. In the very first chapter, the Greek king Agamemnon kidnaps the daughter of the priest of this temple to be his “war prize.” The girl’s father comes to the Greek army bearing ransom, but the king still will not give her back, and so the priest prays to Apollo to send a plague upon the Greeks which ravages them so badly they think of giving up the whole war and returning home. When Achilles finds out, he is enraged. He demands that Agamemnon return the girl as should have been done in the beginning. 

“Hear me,..., O god of the silver bow, that protects Chryse (Gülpinar) rules Tenedos with your power, hear me oh Lord of the Mice. If I have ever decked your temple with garlands, or burned your thigh-bones in fat of bulls or goats, grant my prayer, and let your arrows of plague avenge these my tears upon the Greeks!”

Walking along the temple ruins I try to picture the priest’s curse—offered up at night, perhaps, on the waning moon of Apollo’s twin sister. The spell, the rodents swarming out of the altar in answer, the dying Greek mercenaries on the shore of the Aegean just visible over the pomegranate grove. But the legend that really intrigues is this bit about the mice. Why a god of mice? The ancient Greeks called mice the ‘sons of the earth’ and believed they formed out of vapours deep underground. They were magic, connected to both healing and pestilence and seemed linked to the many springs that still bubble out of the ground in Gülpinar.

An acacia against the backdrop of the temple's facade

In his prayer, the priest mentioned Tenedos—the island ruled by Apollo now called Bozcaada. We took a ferry across (60TL round trip) and found a picturesque little town of 19th century Greek houses and churches. Most of the Greeks of the Aegean “migrated” during the forced population exchange—but not the people of Bozcaada who stayed until the 60s and 70s when the Cypress conflict and political persecution prompted them to finally move. Perhaps the historical proximity of their exodus explains why the old stone houses are so beautifully preserved. 
The Castle on Bozcaada from the terrace of our pension

A few Greeks remain and their culture still has a powerful influence. The wine here is legendary, and the island has some of the oldest wine making traditions in the world. We went to a tasting at a cafe run by Yunatçı Vineyards--one of the only Muslim families to make wine who own one of the oldest vineyards in Turkey. Many of their wines are made from a local grape called the Kuntra which resembles Pinot Noir. Thanks to the Puritanical AK Party I cannot offer you a link to their site because that is now considered advertising alcohol, which is illegal as is offering wine tastings at the winery itself and so the Yunatçıs have smartly opened a small cafe to provide that service. For a measly 10 lira (5 dollars) you can sample 10 of their finest wines. It’s ridiculously cheap. Besides the wine, the island is full of seafood restaurants serving up the renowned Aegean mezes. The hostess of our pension told us that jams and preserves were a specialty of the island as well and we sampled her sun-dried tomato preserves with almonds for breakfast. Yum!
The meze avukma--with cheese and egglplant and pomegranate sauce

There’s something poetic about Bozcaada—I could have stayed here for weeks and wandered the streets. Stone houses and bougainvillea, churches and old Genoese castles, vineyard and old fisherman. Our pension had a terrace that overlooked the old castle on the sea and we had a wonderful breakfast there watching the starlings and gulls circle over the battlements as the sea crashed on the rocks below. The people we meet are warm and friendly--everyone one we pass says hello and asks after us. Where are you walking? You're not leaving so soon, are you?
Mt. Ida from the ferry

This is the island that spelled the doom of Troy. It was here that the Greek ships hid to trick the Trojans into thinking they had all gone home, even as the fabled wooden horse was wheeled into the city gates and ravaged the city. From the shores you can see the fabled Mount Ida--where Zeus stood and watched the war.

(I hesitated to publish a travel blog this week in light of what is happening in Kobani where a siege by the blood thirsty ISIS will most likely result in the massacre of thousands of Kurds mostly to the indifference of Turkey--and, apparently, the US military as well. But I have anyway--however ill timed that decision is, I want to say that our hearts and thoughts are with the modern war just over the border.)

Thursday, September 25, 2014

On the Hunt for an Endangered Cuisine--Sightings in Alabama and Florida



Whales and languages are not the only things in danger of dying out. Whole cuisines are as well, and as food is an integral part of any culture, the loss will not be a trivial one but take with it memory and emotion and a host of subtle nuanced things I find difficult to describe. 
My sister's coconut cake--no equal in any restaurant, from Granny's recipe

The first time I took my wife to America, I desperately wanted to share with her some authentic Southern food in authentic Southern restaurant. But outside of my sister’s house, it proved impossible to find (and unless I threaten her, even she’s liable to take shortcuts on the creamed corn, for example, and buy a package.) Now you could find all the Applebee’s, Chick Filets, Golden Corals and Taco Bells that you wanted—and the depressing fact is those are becoming the new Southern food if you measure a cuisine by what its people consume. And so when we discovered three places this summer that served as refuges for endangered cuisine, we were happier than a fox in a coop full of chickens. So to speak. I’ll tell you how to find them and what you’re in for.
A familiar sight to anyone coming from Turkey (or Ferguson I suppose)
A hot Birmingham afternoon—we are downtown and have just wandered out of the Civil Rights Institute and taken a stroll through the park where we chatted with some of the homeless people relaxing there. There was one old man, a very dark, older black man with a do-rag who asked Delal if there were black people in Turkey. He also gave her some very useful advice about what angle to take a picture of one of the sculptures—a water cannon fired upon two children. This, of course, a scene we are rather accustomed to here in Turkey. The brutal echo of it in our own civil rights movement was rather sobering.

Two blocks down from the Civil Rights Institute on 4th and 16th Streets is a modest little corner restaurant called Mrs. B’s On Fourth—which served up maybe the best southern food I have ever had out on the town, period. D and I had both eaten just an hour before, so we weren’t hungry but we you couldn’t even read the menu on the window without working up an appetite. And I mean serious Southern appetites.  Sweet potato pie?
Mrs. B's impeccable barbecue chicken
The restaurant is laid out cafeteria style with trays of whatever the cook has whipped up that day. We ordered a plate of barbecued chicken to split—with two sides, oven baked mac’n cheese and broccoli and carrots. The broccoli and carrots combo was just a last minute whim, and I was doubtful, but it turned out to be out of this world delicious. When Delal took her first bite, her eyes went wide and she gave me the traditional Southern reaction to food that I’d trained her to do. “Mmm-mmm-mmmm! So good you want to slap your mama!” When she hit the chicken, she went on some kind of ecstatic high. And let’s not forget the cornbread—not too sweet like people make it nowadays but just the right dryness for dipping into the chicken drippings.

The staff is also incredibly friendly—laughing and joking with us and providing endless bucket-sized glasses of sweet tea. We topped off our meal with a bowl of fresh banana pudding. Banana pudding is extinct in my house, but it has a special nostalgiac meaning for me—it was one of the things my mother cooked and cooked well.  She used to use boxed pudding and it shook the world, but this pudding was homemade and was sure to give a shake to God’s kingdom itself. (Mom, I want banana pudding the next time I come home!)

Soul food—a perfect word for this. It not only nourishes the spirit, it builds the spirit as surely as it builds the muscle and bones—with every bite memories of my mother and father and Granny and grandma and a day out at the picnic pavilion on the rodeo grounds and church suppers out on the lawn in the summer and taking out food on a paper plate to eat with my cousins down on the lake.  
No Southern BBQ is worth its weight in sauce if it ain't got no pork kitsch
Our second stop is Ken’s Barbecue outside of the Birmingham city limit near Pinson. It has the best breakfast in the world with a crucial endangered species--full on Southern biscuits and sausage gravy. Not frozen or from a box or made with anything but the old recipe ingredients. These are real live buttery biscuits--with your traditional fair of eggs, bacon and grits on the side.
Biscuits in the back with sausage gravy on the side
Water Hyacinth on the river

My final eatery is the Outback Crab Shack—miles and miles out in the swamps to the West of St. Augustine, Florida. As a real life Floridian, I often listen to people malign my homestate. It’s not the South. It has no culture of its own. This sort of thing. Well the Outback Crab Shack is a real Florida seafood shack, the kind that have almost vanished from the swamps. They’ve got boiled shrimp, fried gator tail, crawdads and fresh hushpuppies (a Florida invention by the way). And best of all they have blue crabs. 

Gator in the duckweed

Florida Blue Crab is another nostalgiac piece of my past. I have fond memories of going up to the Chassahowitzka River near Brooksville, Florida with my boyhood friend whose dad and stepmom had a little plot of land and trailer on the river shore. We’d go fishing for crabs in that crystal blue spring water as mullet swam in schools under the boat. We’d bait the hook with chicken guts and then throw the crabs that latched onto them in a bucket, later to be boiled back at camp in a kettle full of beer. We ate them with butter and lemon, and there’d be campfires and ghost stories and         sneaking off into the woods to play Hide and Seek.
Conch Fritters

The blue crab boil--they are only blue when they're in the water

We started off with conch fritters—which were not the best I’ve had but are hard enough to find that I was appreciative anyway. Then I talked Delal into getting the crabs here. Florida blues are not the most aesthetically pleasing meal in the world. The waitress demonstrated how to get at the meat. “First you break the face off.” And out spurts a spray of crab juice. But this is part of me—this is the swamp and skinny dipping out under the moonlight and the sounds of the mullet jumping at night and sunburns and the feel of the woods, the excitement of the treehouses and tarzan swings on the muscadine vines, and even the vegetal smell of the hot swamp mud.
6 Mile Creek

Outback Crabhouse

The atmosphere was impeccable. What locals are always calling and longing for as ‘the real Florida’. The restaurant has a white shell parking lot filled with pick up trucks and church vans. It sits on a tributary running off the Great St. Johns called Six Mile Creek and after dinner you can walk past the long boardwalk that lines the water. (There’s even a parking lot for boats—two spaces set aside for local churches) 

When we were there, a thunderstorm had just passed—the thunderheads towered behind the cypresses in the sky to the East, catching the pink and orange of the setting sun. The water reflected the sky perfectly, with shimmering waves of dark water and pink light reflections. The sounds—home. Alligator croaks and night crickets and frogs and bass jumping. The smells also home---the tannic river, the humidity, fried fish. (Though next time I want boiled shrimp—don’t get me wrong, the blue crab was great, but I think once for old time’s sake, is enough—unless I’m getting them from the river myself. And I miss those shrimp, too.)