It may only be May but already the mercury is rising and things can only get hotter. So if you’re in İstanbul for a week or so and are starting to feel desperate to escape the heat I recommend a quick flit across the Sea of Marmara to Yalova or rather to the nearby thermal resort in a nearby village called termal.
Fast ferries leave from Yenikapı and whisk you to Yalova in 75 minutes. Then all you need do is step out of the terminal, hang a sharp right and hop into a minibus at the terminal for the half-hour run to the spa.
Afterwards, Yalova itself is worth a quick stop to inspect the Yürüyen Köşkü (Moving Villa) behind which hangs a pretty story. And if you still have time up your sleeve you can cruise along the coast to Karamürsel, the place where the Ottoman navy took its first baby steps.
Even before you reach Termal you get a hint of what makes it so especially delightful as you pass between lines of mature plane trees framing the road just as they would be in parts of rural France. Then the bus pulls up in Termal and immediately you feel the fresh air, the birdsong and the tranquility livening your spirits and cooling frazzled nerves.
History suggests that bathers have been taking advantage of the thermal water hidden in the woods here since early Byzantine times, but it was Sultan Abdülhamid II who commissioned the multi-domed Kurşunlu bathhouse that now forms the centerpiece of Termal. Later the area caught the eye of Atatürk who had a summer retreat (currently under restoration) built here and then supervised the creation of a wonderful arboretum, especially colorful at this time of year as the rhododendrons come into bloom. The heart of the tiny modern resort is a wonderful outdoor swimming pool where despite the high temperature of the water you’ll soon start to feel yourself cooling down. It comes with its own suite of private bathing facilities although if you don’t fancy them you can also try the Sultan or Valide bathhouses set further back into the woods.
The main reason to come here may be to swim or try out a Turkish bath, but the wooded slopes that frame the pool are also great for leisurely strolls. Amid the trees you’ll find the elegant Sinema Café that looks as if it’s strayed from İstanbul’s Yıldız Park; you’ll probably prefer to take your tea around the fountain, but it’s still worth popping inside to gaze through the plate-glass window at Byzantine remains found during its building.
Near the café the Yaveran Köşkü was built by Sultan Abdülhamid in 1890 but was used by Atatürk, while his far grander house was taking shape nearby and then served as a guesthouse once it was completed.
The rest of the resort consists of a trio of inviting hotels -- the Çinar (Plane Tree), the Çamlık (Pine Grove) and the Otel Termal -- and a handful of restaurants, including the Ortaca (Hydrangea) and the Methal, both of them serving fresh trout.
On its way to Termal the minibus grinds slowly uphill passing through the curious little settlement of Gökçedere. Gökçedere is to Termal what Karahayıt is to Pamukkale, namely an unplanned and rather downmarket collection of family-run pensions loudly trumpeting the benefits of thermal bathwater, with the odd ritizier hotel dropped in the middle and looking as out of place as someone who missed their turning to rundown Kasımpaşa and ended up in upscale Bebek. It’s very popular with visiting Arabs and is worth knowing about if you’d like to stay locally but can’t afford Termal prices.
While Termal is the main reason to come to Yalova, if you have time on your hands before catching the ferry back to İstanbul you might want to hop on a minibus heading for the Adalet Sarayı (Palace of Justice) and then stroll down to the shore to visit a pretty little wooden house standing beside a wonderful old plane tree. This house, with its own private landing stage, had been especially built for Atatürk in 1929 but very soon the tree’s branches were touching the house. A great tree-lover, Atatürk refused to have them pruned and instead supervised the slow movement of the house almost five meters further east, a feat immortalized in the photos hanging on the fence and in the name the house has carried ever since.
You can take a guided tour of the house, but it’s of fairly limited interest. Instead you can adjourn to the adjacent café, which comes with a library of books about Atatürk, there to take a tea with the same peerless view as the first president of the Republic.
Yalova also has a standard archaeology museum, but it’s in the middle of nowhere and currently closed for restoration. Instead you can fill in any more spare time with a stroll round the large covered market opposite the bus station or shin up the hill to drink tea in one of a cluster of tea gardens that gaze down on the sleek yachts moored in the new Setur Marina.
Another possible side trip from Yalova is to Karamürsel, which is named after the sailor Kara Mürsel Alp, the man who founded a naval shipyard here in 1327. The minibus will drop you close to the memorial to Kara Mürsel that incorporates a model of a kadırga, one of the wooden galleys that became the workhorses of the early Ottoman navy.
If you stroll down to the ferry terminal on the waterfront you will find that it has been beautifully landscaped but will be confronted with an immediate dilemma -- turn left and you will come eventually to a cluster of traditional teahouses and delightfully old-fashioned fish restaurants squeezed in between a harbor full of fishing boats and the sea; turn right and you will come to the newer and fancier cafes favored by the young.
Heading east along the waterfront you’ll see the old ferry terminal building with its graceful stained-glass windows and a sign stating that this was where Atatürk disembarked in 1933. Today it’s derelict and stranded some way inland although it’s too fine a building not to be snapped up as a restaurant soon. But then just as you’re ambling along the shore thinking that life doesn’t get much better than this you will be brought up short by a pair of poignant memorials that remind us that behind a smiling face there often lurks a tale of misery. The first of the monuments is a fairly standard one to those who fell during the Turkish War of Independence (1919-22). The second, though, recalls the terrible night in 1999 when the ground shook and the erstwhile friendly sea suddenly turned on the town. One hundred and sixty-four people died during the earthquake and tsunami. Each of their names is painstakingly recorded here.
Back at the other end of the promenade Haydar Usta’nın Yeri has been turning out excellent balık çorbası (fish soup) for decades and has the yellowing newspaper testimonials to prove it. Come early in the day if you don’t want to find it all gone.
WHERE TO STAY
Çınar Otel, Termal. Tel: 0226-675 7400
Çamlık Otel, Termal. Tel: 0226-675 7400
Otel Termal, Termal. Tel: 0226-675 7400
Limak Termal, Gökçedere. Tel: 0226-675 7800
HOW TO GET THERE
İDO ferries (www.ido.com.tr) depart daily from Yenikapı; it’s easy to make a return trip to Yalova in the same day. The Yalova bus terminal is right beside the ferry terminal and offers frequent minibuses to Termal and Karamürsel as well as local buses to the Adalet Sarayı. Ferries connect Karamürsel with Kocaeli (İzmit) and Hereke on the eastern outskirts of İstanbul. Alternatively, on the road back from Karamürsel to Yalova you can
catch the ferry from Topçular to Eskihisar,
also on the eastern outskirts of the city.