Friday, February 17, 2012

Detour Cesme

Original text by Jennifer Chen, executive summary by Darmansjah

Under the radar for years, the windswept, idylic coastline of Turkey’s Cesme Pninsula proves an unexpected delight.

Shore enough beach-bound near the low key resort town of Alacati

Aegean gem , kemalpasa Caddesi, alacati’s main drag, is lined with Greek buildings that date back more than a century.

 The pinisula’s azure Aegean waters attract beachgoers throughout the year, particularly in summer.

We were tired of being cold. The March weather had made our two-week trio to Turkey a parody of a vacation gone awary. Heavy rain dogged us in Istanbul, Bursa was frozen with sleet, and the North Aegean Coast freeted us with doleful, gray skies. “The good thing is there are no other tourist around...for a reason,’ my husband joked a gale-force winds lashed the wind sheild of our rental car. Holiday spirits and good-jumored fortitued were fading fast with each weather map that forecasted much of the country blanketed in either snowflakes or driving rain. It was, we agreed, time to head south.

But to where? With only a few days to go on our road trio, the fabled resorts of Anatolia’s Mediterranean coast were beyond our reach. Driving in Turkey can be a monotonous affair. Distances are often longer than you think, and while there are serene stretches-rolling hills of pine forest, groves of olives trees, a hamlet of weathered stone dwellings-much of what you see along the main motorways in grim and utilarian. We passed gargantuan gas stations and housing blocks in dusty mauve or lime green that would rival China’s slapdash urban architecture in its breathtaking hideousness.

Our chosen salvation, picked almost at random, was the Cesme Peninsula, a 30-kilometer-long promontory that is, after Cape Baba to the north, the country’s-and Asia’s-weterenmost point. It didn’t require heroic, caffeine-enhanced driving. More alluringly, the forecast was fair with sunny skies.

Like most places along Turkey’s side of the Aegean, Cesme (pronounced chesh-meh) is steeped in history, without the mobs of European holidaymakers that mar the tourist traps of the Med. The ancient Cretans settled here, followed by the Ionians Known to the Romans as Kysus, the main town of Cesme was purportedly the last overland stop along the silk Road, the point where silks, spices, and other coveted rarities from the East were loaded onto ships sailing for Italy. The local wine earned a reputation, too, so much so that the enterprising Genovese built a fortress here in the 14th century to guard shipments of it. Then came the unavoidable decline: in 1566, the juggernaut that was the ottoman empire simply absorbed Cesme and the offshore Greek Island of Chios, and the peninsula’s once-bustling port was eclipsed by the nearby city of Smyrna.

Fortunes for this forgotten corner of the empire began to turn in the 1800s when Smyrna’s wealthy began building lavish asummer homes to take advantage of the fine beaches, aquamarine waters, and hot springs. Diving past Smyrna, now known less evocatively as Izmir, I can picture the rites of longgone summer; well-fed wives of prosperous merchants sorting out the linen, silver, and rugs, children and pets underfoot, while servants heastily pack the unwiedly caravans of coaches-all desperate to set out before the morning sun became unbearable.

It isn’t difficult to conjure up a modern day version of this scene-the 21st-century descendants of Smyrna’s summering crowds fleeing the city’s heat, dust, and smog in their minivans. We had to chart our won escape route to the peninsula. After playing a lonely southerly coastal road punctuated only by yet more gas stations, we steer our car through the tangle of highways surrounding Izmir, a sprawling metropolis of featureless concrete slabs. It’s dauntingly, almost aggresively ugly, though the graceful sweep of the bay helps to soften the scene.

A hair-raising few minutes brings us perilously close to the city, and then we’re safely on the toll road to Cesme. Shopping malls and car parks give way to fields of artichokes, aniseed, and sesame; apartment towers are replaced by orchards of twisted fig and mastic trees. Minus the occasional wind turbine, the landscape can’t have changed much from the way it looked a century ago. We drive in appreciative silence, absorbing the rocky, brush-covered hills that give the terrain a malancholy beauty.

Our arrival at the Tas Otel in the resort town of Alacati does little to dispel this sense of timelessness. A whitewashed stone house with indigo shutters, the hotel had once been the home of two sisters who kept their livestock downstairs while their family occupied the second floor. These are the unlikely origins of Alacati’s current reaissance as the peninsula’s toniest summer destination. In 2000,Zeynep Ozis, a marketing executive and keen windsurfer from Izmir, bought the 19th-century house. The renovation required a samll army of masons, carpenters, and electricians-and provoked a chorus of skeptticism from neigbors. “They thought I was crazy,” Ozis recalls. Ten months later, the town’s first boan fide boutique hotel made its debut.

Competition in the intervening years has reached absurd levels: there are now more than a hundred “butik” hotels in Alacanti, a community of around 9,000 people year-round. But the eight-room Tas stands out for tis homey charm. Warmly greeted by the staff, we’re ushered directly into a cozy library-shelves crammed with art and history books, a crackling fireplace-and served thick slices of homemade apple cake with strong balck tea pured into the tuip-shapped glasses ubiquitous in Turkey. Oglum, a mournful-eyed golden retriever who serves as the hotel’s mascot, pads over to inspect us before settling down on the kilim under our feet. No amount of lemongrass-scented towels and obsequious bowing-the leitmotifs of cookie-cutter hospitality in our home region of Southeast Asia-could match the unaffected welcome we receive here.

Oglum is soon followed by Ozis, a petite blonde women who seems to bustle even while she’s standing still. Showing us a photo book seh helped to compile about Alacati’s distinctive stone houses and history, she sketches the town’s past for us. As with so manya settlements along the Aegea Coast, it’s a tale of banishment exile amid the slow collapse of an empire.

In the 1830s, Turkish landlords bequeathed land to Greek workers brought over to drain the nearby malarial swamps. For a few decades, the town, then known as Alatsata, floursihed as a local hub of winemaking and olive-oil production. But the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913 flooded the region with Muslim refugees from Kosovo, Bosnia, and the Greek city of Thessaloniki. More disruption was to follow. In 1923, as an upshot of the Second Greco-Turkish War, a bilateral population exchange saw nearly half a million Greek Muslims dpoerted to Turkey and more than a million anatolian Greeks sent in the other direction. Left behind in Alacati were the vineyard and olive groves, which soon withered under the inexpert care of the new residents who had cultivated tobacco and bred livestock in theri former lives. But the soil proved unsuitbale for the emigres tradtional pursuits, and the townsfolk led a hardscrabble existence.

Alacati’s long climb out of obscurity began in the 1990s, when windsurfers such as Ozis discovered the favorable winds in the nearby harbor. Years of neglect meant the town was in a state of near-perfect preservation, filled with eentury-old stone houses with arched windows and thick walls that warded off the winter chill and the summer heat. Since the Tas’s debut, the pace of gentrifications has hit warp speed, fueled by a peak-season population that surges to 60,000. now, by official decree, all nes houses must mimic the old.

Thes days, Alacati’s season in undeniabley summer-a fact wer ar remidned of as we wander past the shuttered shops and restaurants along the town’s winding  coblblestone streets. Here and there are signs of the town’s newly minted trendiness: a Yastik by Rifat Ozbek boutique selling costly, exquisite ikat cushion covers; a flyer advertising the local out post for Babylon, Istanbul’s eternally cool music club.

But for now, the town dozes in the thin spring light. Two slim girls minding a bakalav shop that looks impervious to fashion watch us umpassively. A tiny storefront selling small souvenir bottles of olive oil dan pots of pine honey is miraculuously open, though the grandmotherly figure keeping watch over the wares seems too astonished to see us to make a bid for sales. At one cafe on the main drag kf Kemalpasa Caddesi, a well-groomed couple in black-she with honey-colored hair and fur-collared coat, he with wrapround shades-sit outside, hands clutched around takeaway cappucinos. We trade knowing looks with a neighboring shopkeeper and shrug in agreement: Istanbulis, harbingers of the summertimer crowds to come.

Though we are several months early for the season, we can at least indulge in the peninsula’s fine, summery fare. That has been the best surprise of our journey so far. Having girded ourselves and our digetions for hearty helpings of lamb, we’ve dicovered that the dishes served along the coast are lighat and nourishing, laced with golden, elegant local live oil: wild, bitter greens foraged from the countryside and sauteed; roaste eggplant mixed with tangy yogurt and ahint of garlic; vine leaves stuffed with rice and mussels.

At Agrilia, a tobacco warehouse converted into a restaurant, we start with a cracked wheat salad with tomatoes, peppery arugula, and a dressing made with uzum pekmezi, grape molasses that adds a rich, but not cloying, sweetness. Artichokes, we’ve learned, ar a regional speciality, so we order the house made pappardelle with artichokes, white wine, and pistachios-a dish that tastes of spring. That night, we sleep well underneath the high ceiling and toile bedspread of our room at the Tas.

In Turkey, the best meal of the day is breakfast. Tables groan with olives, cheeses, pastries, scrambled eggs with peppers and onions, bread, cucumbers, and at least two varietis of honey. At the Nars Ihca, a jewel like hotel located in the former masnion of a 19th-century pasha, a heroic breakfast is served in the intimate drawing room. A sweet farmer’s cheese arrives cloaked in a blackberry coulis. Spinach-and-feta guzleme is feathery, but I’m more absorbed by the momemade preserves of peaches from the owner’s orchards, which I eat straight from the dish and then brazenly demand more.

For our last meal, we splurge at Ferdi Baba, a new restaurant in a half-finished residential development called Port Alacati. Late-model Mercedes-Benz and Lexuses jam the parking lot; inside, the tables are packed with weekending Istanbulis exuding signs of European wealth; diamond studs, a cashmere seater knotted around the neck, the falsh of an expensive watch. Alacati’s wine makers, olive oil makers, and tobacco farmers retreat further into the distance. Then dinner arrives: a tender octopus salad and a perfectly grilled sea bass with a smarttering of herbs and slices of lemon. We tuck in, thankful that at least some things remain eternal

Getting There, from Istanbul , fly Turkish Airlines ( to Izmir Adhan Menderes Airport( 50 minutes), from where it’s a 45-minutes drive to Alicati.

Where To Stay, Tas Otel 132 Kemalpasa Caddesi, Alacati, 90-232/716-7772; ; doubles from US$129

Nars llica, Tosun Pasa Yalsi 5066 Alacati:90-232/729-0001; doubles from US$432

Where To Eat, Agrilia 3041 Sokak No.3 alacati 90-232/716-8594, Ferdi Baba Liman Caddesi, Alacati 90-232/716-9001

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