Driving round the Gulf of Edremit from Assos to Ayvalık is, generally speaking, a depressing business unless you’re the unusual sort of traveler who enjoys unbroken vistas of shopping malls, second home complexes and high-rise thermal hotels seemingly created by people who’ve never seen the inside of a design school.
The answer is to escape from the main road whenever possible in search of the treasures hidden just a little way inland.
At Küçükkuyu, the Adatepe Zeytinyağı Müzesi is a state-of-the-art history museum on the olive oil industry housed inside an old olive oil processing factory just inland from a pretty harbor. Two of Turkey’s prettiest villages, Yeşilyurt and Adatepe, lurk nearby in the foothills of the Kazdağı Mountains. Along the road, a detour uphill from Altınoluk brings you to Köyiçi, the old village, with its fine Ottoman houses and delightful tea garden. Nearby, the ruins of ancient Antandros hide, barely visited, in an olive grove.
From Antandros to Ayvalık, the hidden gems are not quite so picturesque, but that is not to say there are no reasons for pausing. Here are a few suggestions.
Keep your eyes peeled amid road-widening work near Güre for a small sign pointing two kilometers inland to Tahtakuşlar, one of a cluster of villages in the foothills of the Kazdağı that can trace their origin back to the arrival here of Tahtacı Turkmen tribes with shamanistic religious beliefs. According to Selim Kudar, the curator of a small ethnography museum set amid the olive orchards, of the 24 local villages, 10 are inhabited by Alevi descendants of the Turkmen while the other 14 are lived in by Sunnis who were once Yörüks (nomads) and who made their living as wood-cutters. In a footnote to İstanbul history, the wood for the ships used by Sultan Mehmet II in the conquest of the city in 1453 came from around here.
The Hürriyet newspaper once rated the museum as one of the 10 best private collections in the country, although these days it’s in sore need of a little renovation. That said, if you have the slightest interest in the old nomadic lifestyle, you’ll enjoy the chance to inspect one of the fine old tents that used to provide their homes and the photograph of a past Turkmen wedding, the bride mounted on a horse and completely concealed beneath layers of colorful veils. Selim Kudar is always ready to talk to visitors about the complexities of the Alevi faith and the local ethnic melting pot -- just as he’s always ready to sell you one of the locally made kilims woven entirely from undyed wool.
Returning to the main road and heading towards Edremit, you can hardly fail to notice the huge new Körfez Bayram Kaya Cemevi, completed in 2011 on the sea side of the road and surely one of the most prominent Alevi cemevis in Turkey. Built to accommodate a congregation of 400 people, the cemevi has a large, light-filled room for worship perched above an equally large communal dining area. Set in the glass lantern that rises above it are stained-glass images of the 12 imams revered by the Alevis, including Ali, son-in-law of the Prophet Mohammed; Hüseyin, his martyred son; and Imam Mehdi, the 12th imam, whose face is always veiled.
Visitors who would like to find out more about Alevi beliefs are welcome to attend the weekly cem gatherings on Thursday evenings from 8 p.m. onwards. Expect to be able to listen to the music of the bağlama, a long-necked string instrument closely related to the saz.
No, not the Kadıköy in İstanbul, but the one you’ll whisk through just before entering Edremit. Here, on the inland side of the road, stands a lovely little mosque entirely made of wood that was moved here from the village of Kızılcabayır, near İskilip in Çorum province; when and by whom is not recorded. Still in tentative use (you’ll fear for your safety as you mount the wooden steps), it could hardly be prettier, with rugs strewn on the floor and pictures of Mecca on the wall. Try the door leading into the minaret, however, and you’ll find it serving as a broom cupboard.
Right next door is a sprawling emporium selling all sorts of ethnographic bric-a-brac, including old sandıks (dowry boxes) from Balya, near Balıkesir, whose inside lids were painstakingly painted with ships in full sail.
Edremit may call itself the “The Olive Capital,” a fact emphasized by the giant olives immortalized in statue form as you come in from Akçay, but really it’s little more than a transport hub for the area where most people pause only to hop from one dolmuş to another. If you do need to linger, beside the central park, just a short walk from the bus station, a restored Ottoman mansion houses the A. Sıdıka Erke Ethnographic Museum with many old photographs of the days when the town served as the busy port for nearby Burhaniye. The upper floor contains a collection of costumes and locally used items of passing interest.
Of an older Edremit, only the Kurşunlu Camii, dating back to 1231, survives. Otherwise, on Ülkü Tepesi (hill) the town now lays claim to the tallest statue of Atatürk.There’s also a small zoo here.
Just inland from Edremit, Havran boasts a lively Friday market that was one of the inspirations for İstanbul chef of Lokanta Maya fame Didem Şenol’s cookery book, “Aegean Flavours.” On any other day of the week, the main reason to come here would be to take a quick turn around the back streets, which contain some fine examples of old Ottoman architecture alongside the odd, elderly olive oil factory.
Burhaniye and Ören
At Edremit, the coast road turns a sharp right and starts to head south for Ayvalık. On the way, it skirts Burhaniye, a small town that contains a museum commemorating the Kuva-yi Milliye (National Forces), the irregular militias that started the armed resistance during the splintering of what is now Turkey after World War I. It stands just behind the fine Koca Camii that dates back to 1841.
But the main reason to come to Burhaniye is not the inland town but the beachside suburb of Ören (Ruins) that takes its name from the scant remains of ancient Adramytteion, the settlement that gave its name to modern Edremit. Today, sadly, the scant ruins stand locked behind a fence and tidied up beside a café on the waterfront. Disappointing as they are, they do nonetheless provide an excuse to wander around what is probably the prettiest and most upscale beach resort along this part of the coast, a place where low-rise holiday homes are almost hidden amid the lush growth of mature gardens just seconds away from a fine stretch of sand.
Finally, if you’re traveling the coast by dolmuş, you will find yourself transiting the small town of Gömeç. Gömeç has no specific sites to offer but does, nonetheless, boast a magnificent old stone belediye (municipal) building with a sultan’s tuğra (monogram) still proudly displayed on its façade. As the bus glides out of town to the south, you’ll also past a handful of magnificent old mansions that presumably belonged to Greeks in the happy days before this entire stretch of coast was convulsed by events following World War I and during the population exchange of 1924.
Where to stay
The stretch of coast from Altınoluk to Gömeç is low on distinctive places to stay. You’d be better off heading on to the boutique offerings of Ayvalık, although Zeytinbağı near Tahtakuşlar has a particularly good reputation for its food.Zeytinbağı, Çamlıbel Köyü. Tel: 0266-387 3761Odaköy Çiftlik Evi, near Tahtakuşlar. Tel: 0266-387 3402
HOW TO GET THERE
Regular dolmuşes ply the coast road from Küçükkuyu to Edremit, passing the Akçay cemevi. There’s no public transport to Tahtakuşlar. You can pick up a dolmuş to Havran from the Edremit bus station, whence frequent dolmuşes also head for Ayvalık, transiting Burhaniye and Gömeç. You’ll need private transport or a taxi to get to the beach at Ören.