On a longer stay, though, the difference will quickly make itself felt. It’s there in the secretive cobbled streets immediately behind the waterfront, and it’s there, too, in the narrow streets that meander back behind the main square.
The most striking thing about backstreet Ayvalık is that it’s full of small stone houses that bear the clear imprint of the Greeks. Why should there be quite so many “Rum evleri” (Greek houses) here? The answer lies in the fallout from a naval battle between the Ottomans and the Russians in 1773, which ended in Ottoman defeat. The Greeks of Ayvalık rescued Sultan Selim III’s grand vizier Cezayırlı Hasan Paşa, and in return he granted them virtual autonomy, a novelty the town shared, incidentally, with Kurtuluş in İstanbul.
But in 1923 the Greeks of Ayvalık were sent away in the population exchange, and in their place arrived a much smaller community of Turks from Crete (Girit) and Lesbos (Midilli) so that many of the houses were left empty. Now, as in so many Turkish towns, they have become the homes of incomers from other parts of the country, whose seeming poverty is at odds with the grandeur that surrounds them.
For the Greeks endowed their town with some truly magnificent churches, the most conspicuous being the Ayos Yannis Kilise that was converted into the Saatli Cami (Mosque with a Clock) in 1923, the new name taken from its most obvious feature, a large clock tower. Ayos Yannis is imposing but it’s not a patch on nearby Ayos Yorgis, which still retains the soaring stone iconostasis that used to separate the nave from the chancel, albeit with all its icons long since removed. The Taksiyarhis Kilise, built in 1844 and never turned into a church, is currently being restored to serve as a home for a new Koç museum, although the prettiest of the abandoned churches is the Faneromani Kilise, also known as the Ayazma Kilise, a mini-Parthenon built in pink-toned Sarımsaklı stone in 1890 and now fenced off for a restoration that seems to have ground to a halt. The much more austere Kato Panaya Kilise found new life as the Hayrettinpaşa Cami, while poor Aya Triada Kilise is a burnt-out shell of a building coated in graffiti.
The Greek heritage of Ayvalık also makes itself felt elsewhere in town, for example in the wonderfully atmospheric Palabahçe Kahvehanesi, also known rather alarmingly as Şeytanın Kahvesi (“the Devil’s Coffeehouse”) although it turns out this was only the name of the current owner’s grandfather. So alluring is this café that it has starred in the television series “İki Yaka Bir İsmail,” the story of a philanderer who keeps two women in two different ports, one Turkish and one Greek.
The second thing that sets Ayvalık apart is that it was once the center of a thriving olive oil industry that is starting to find its feet again, albeit not in the buildings where it was originally made. The relics of the factories stand on either side of the main road through town, marked out by their soaring brick chimneys and sturdy walls. Slowly but surely new uses are being found for these industrial dinosaurs. Perhaps surprisingly, the supermarket chain Tansaş was in the lead here, housing one of its stores in an old olive oil factory before anyone else had thought of such a thing. Now one of the town’s finest new hotels, the Sızma Han Hotel hunkers down in a converted factory right on the waterfront with great views out towards Cunda (Alibey Adası). Several of the old Greek houses have been converted into boutique pensions, but they suffer from the drawback that rooms are generally small and not easily equipped with private bathrooms. The Sızma Han, on the other hand, has lots of space to play with, which means bigger bedrooms and no problems with shared facilities.
Ayvalık is not a Bergama that you come to to indulge in major sightseeing. Rather, it’s a pleasant town in which to mooch about for a day or so with good, sandy beaches some 10 kilometers to the south at built-up Sarımsaklı and less developed Badavut. The most obvious thing to do here is to take a boat ride around the islands that dot the bay. If you explore the harbor the night before you want to take your trip, you can size up the boats that are likely to attract the largest crowds. Whichever one you opt for you should be able to bank on a good fish lunch and plenty of time to swim along the way.
The islands are fantastic enough from a boat, but if you really want to appreciate the lie of the land, you need to head south for Şeytan Sofrası (“the Devil’s Dinnertable”), a lofty hill just west of the Çamlık suburb, which is such a popular place to come for the sunset that the belediye actually provides a bus service timed to get you there in time to watch the fireworks and then run you back to town again afterwards.
This is also the time of year when ferries amble back and forth between Ayvalık and Cunda, a wonderful island attached to the mainland by a causeway. There’s no nicer way to get there than this, and it seems almost unbelievable that the boat trip costs no more than the dolmuş fare. Cunda is like Bozcaada, just without that island’s brooding castle. Here the promenade is lined with fish restaurants whose specialty is papalina (whitebait) and with stalls selling fresh almonds on ice. One street back from the water there are several fine cafes housed in old stone buildings, but none of them can hope to compete with the glorious Taş Kahve (Stone Café), its windows glittering with stained glass, its ceiling a resting place for swallows who, having installed their mud-cup nests all round it, screech in and out with a blithe disregard for the tea drinkers beneath them.
As on Bozcaada, the main settlement on Cunda consists almost entirely of old Greek houses that spread out from another grand Taksiyarhis Kilise that is currently undergoing restoration. On the waterfront the ruinous building that once housed the Greek school also has a sign up indicating that restoration should begin shortly. Meanwhile, hoteliers are snapping up the abandoned houses to turn them into yet more boutique places to stay.
The fish restaurants look mouth-watering but their prices can come as something of a shock. Fear not, though, because Ayvalık has many eating tricks up its sleeve. There is, for example, a grapevine-shaded part of the main shopping center just off Talatpaşa Caddesi where locals pour in to tuck into köfte (meatballs) at lunchtime, while Tenekeciler Sokağı, a narrow passage on the inland side of the main road through town, is packed with small meyhanes where, in season, you can try eating sea urchins (denizkestanesi). Finally, if you really need to watch your lira, you should head back to Tansaş where right next door there is a whole Tostcular Çarşı (Toast-makers Market) full of small cafes serving Ayvalık Tostu, a toasted sandwich so full of salami, pickles, tomatoes and pepper and coated with such a thick helping of ketchup and mayonnaise that you’ll have trouble getting your jaws round it.
Where to stay
Bonjour Pansiyon, Ayvalık. Tel.: 0 (266) 312 80 85
Kuleli Konak, Cunda. Tel.: 0 (266) 327 22 93
Nisi Hotel, Cunda. Tel.: 0 (266) 327 19 80
Sızma Han, Ayvalık. Tel.: 0 (266) 312 77 00
Taksiyarhis Pansiyon, Ayvalık. Tel.: 0 (266) 312 14 94
How to get there
Boats cross to Ayvalık from Lesbos (Midilli) most days in summer, or there are buses from Ayvacık and Bergama. For the time being Ayvalık has no real bus station so you will be dropped off and picked up at the service stations at Ekbir (to the north) and Akkuşlar (to the south). Old-fashioned dolmuş-taxis serve Cunda all year round; hourly ferries leave from the Ayvalık waterfront during the school summer break.