Gaziantep, near the Syrian border, is Southeastern Turkey's most sophisticated and cosmopolitan city, known for its food and its copper crafts. People from Istanbul come for the weekend, the way we might go to Portland or San Francisco. The old city is filled with beautifully-restored 16th century mosques, inns and 19th century stone mansions. Like many of the cities in this area that we've visited, Gaziantep was an important trading center with its Middle Eastern neighbors and China. It was a stop on what was known as the second Silk Road that went to China via Iran and Afghanistan.
Some serious money has gone into restoring the Ottoman-era bazaar quarter filled with spice and nut sellers and craftsmen turning out everything from rolling pins to baklava in the back of little storefront shops. I was thrilled to come upon this coffee seller with his copper urn. Men dress up like this in Istanbul to pose for pictures with tourists, but this guy was the real deal. Notice the string of paper cups around his neck. He opened the lid on the urn to show me hot coals in the bottom keeping the coffee hot. The coffee, called murra, was thick, sweet and scented with spices. I was about to buy a cup, when the coppersmith on the left, bought one for me, the posted for a photo with his cat.
Baklava and other similar sweets made with pinkish, half-ripe pistachios, is Gaziantep's speciality. Baklava is to Gaziantep what coffee is to Seattle. There are more than 150 shops, one or two every block it seems. Imam Cagdas, a big busy shop founded in 1887, ships its baklava worldwide, but we preferred the smaller, one-man shops where you either order a box to go, or eat it there at one of a few tables in the back. Most keep things simple and offer little else besides water or tea.
It's common in bazaars and markets around the world to see craftsmen working in front of shops selling products made in China or mass-produced in factories, but that's not the case in Gaziantep. Everything you see is made in the workshops, from cutting sheets of copper, to pounding, plating and etching the designs. The more intricate the design, the more expensive the piece. We paid about $6 each for two small, hand-pounded copper pans.
A few of the old mansions have been turned into boutique hotels. Below is the Asude Konak where we stayed. It took the owners 10 years to restore the 108-year-old house into a five-room inn on a pedestrian street above the town center. The boutique hotels tend to be expensive - we paid around $100 a night - but they have load of old-time Turkish atmosphere.
The owner, Jale, below right, loves to cook and guests can arrange to have dinner here. It was Mother's Day, so she invited us and another couple to join in a family kebab party - sort of like a Sunday barbeque. She and her mother, left, made a half-dozen different kinds of kebabs, including our favorite, eggplant and lamb, along with plums and lamb and another with roasted garlic.
They filled the rest of along table on their outdoor patio with plates of fresh greens and mint, yogurt dips, bread and salads. Some drank Raki, a high-powered anise liquor that produces a cloudy drink when mixed with water. Others had Ayran, the refreshing yogurt drink made with water and a dash of salt. Antep is surrounded by fertile farmland and has a climate ideal for growing olives, pomegranates, many types of fruits and vegetables and raising sheep. There's an excellent culinary museum with explanations in English of all the local dishes. We didn't find it until our last day, but if I had it to do over again, I'd go there first-thing, so that I'd know more before setting out for the restaurants and markets.
After a quick flight to Izmir on the Aegean coast, we're spending our last couple of days in the little town of Selcuk. The reason to come is to see the ancient Greek and Roman city of Ephesus, two miles away. Selcuk is a pleasant little low-key tourist town with lots of small hotels and restaurants. We're staying at the Hotel Nazar, a family-run hotel, and our best value yet at $65 with breakfast. It's a newly redone older hotel, with a beautiful swimming pool and garden, new and large bathrooms with separate shower stalls so the water doesn't run on the floor, and lots of electrical outlets in all the right places. What a find. The downside is that we're back in Tour Bus Turkey, land of genuine fake watches and the art of the upsell. Most of the hotels offer a "free'' ride to Ephesus which turns out to be provided by the owner of a carpet shop.
Bus Tour Turkey
There must have been 100 tour buses parked at the entrance to Ephesus when we arrived in the morning. I'd hate to see what's it's like in summer.
As impressive as walking through the ruins was, we couldn't help but contrast our time in Southeastern Turkey with the atmosphere here and in another nearby town, Sincere, a former Greek mountain village lined with souvenir stalls and restaurants, all selling the same things. The cruise lines take bus loads here for an "Authentic Turkish Village'' tour. Trouble is, nothing about the village feels authentic anymore. All the prices were in euros, and the shopkeepers seemed bored and uninterested in any interactions beyond a sale.
The towns of Southeastern Turkey, in contrast, are still themselves. They're interesting for their history, religious traditions and present-day culture influenced, unlike Western Turkey, by their proximity to the Middle East. They're hospitable to outsiders, with comfortable inns, excellent and inexpensive restaurants and a vibrant street life. Safe and unaffected by mass tourism, they're the most genuine places I've visited in Turkey, and I've been here three times. It's all real. If people stopped to ask us where we were from, it was because they were interested, not because they wanted to sell us something. An invitation for tea was a sincere gesture of hospitality, no strings or sales pitches attached.
This is the kind of travel we set out to experience on this trip, and we found it among the people and places of Southeastern Turkey.