After my morning jaunt around Istanbul’s Fatih district, I headed to the Yenikapı ferry station where I purchased a ticket to Bursa. Since this had been a spur of the moment decision, the experience was different from what I had expected; contrary to my visions of an open deck ferry from where I could gaze out at the sea, I sat in a closed cabin with endless rows of seats. It was fairly anti-climactic, but comfortable nonetheless. Over the next couple of hours, I polished off the börek I had purchased earlier from Marmara Pastanaleri and worked out a plan for reaching the city center once we reached Güzelyalı port. For this leg of the trip, I was determined to use public transport and get a good sense of how to move around the city.
After disembarking, I had to find a "dolmuş" minibus, vehicles that usually travel on short routes and narrow streets with limited bus access, that would take me to the Metro station; this was difficult because nothing was advertised and the drivers did not speak English. A lady I had struck up a conversation with earlier (not Turkish but a resident) offered to help. She checked several vehicles to help me find the right one and made sure I got on it before rushing away to catch hers.
About half an hour later, I got off at the tram station. In Bursa, like other cities in Turkey, there is a local transport card you can get from kiosks that can be used on all forms of public transport. A city official, seeing me struggle with the Turkish language machine as hurried commuters bustled around us, patiently guided me through the process. Then, it was a 40-minute ride into the city center, and the final stop was a few minutes' walk from the apartment I would be staying at. It was raining lightly when I arrived.
Eager to head out, I chose the back streets instead of the main road and headed toward the Grand Mosque or Ulu Camii. The path took me through a bazaar with hundreds of makeshift stalls selling everything from fruit and fish to shoes and crockery. At one point, I couldn’t continue further without an umbrella, so I asked someone at the stall closest to me where I could purchase one. With the rain pouring down in buckets now, he offered to go get me one from a nearby shop and I gratefully accepted. A few minutes later, he came back with not one but three umbrellas, simply so I could have my choice of color! With my purchase in hand, I continued on and found myself in the Bursa bazaar.
Google maps did not seem to be working quite as accurately here and I had to rely on directions from passersby. I loved the fact that they addressed me as abla (sister), creating a sense of consideration and respect. I reached the mosque in time for the afternoon prayer; it was very crowded and I just managed to squeeze into an empty space. The following day, I would have the chance to see the mosque when it was less crowded. Commissioned by the Ottoman Sultan Beyazid I toward the end of the 14th century after his victory at the Battle of Nicopolis, it can hold 5,000 worshippers. At the very center is its loveliest feature, an elaborate marble fountain for wudu (ablution) which lies directly beneath a skylight.
After exiting the mosque, I began strolling through the streets of the bazaar. I noticed for the first time that a lot of women who covered themselves wore black abayas (gowns), different from the colorful ones I had seen Turkish women wear; it reminded me that Bursa was a comparatively conservative city. The city itself had a markedly different vibe to it compared to Istanbul. Every interaction was punctuated with this warm and considerate energy, and it somehow made me feel protected.
I stopped at a sweet shop for some baklava and tea. The elderly owner saw a few lira poking out of my purse, insisted I secure it, and patiently watched while I tucked it back in; then with hand gestures he told me to guard against petty theft. Following dessert with a quick lunch, I continued my perusal of the bazaar. My favorite was the area selling fresh produce. There were endless rows of makeshift tables piled high with the freshest, most inviting looking fruit and vegetables; there were also huge blocks of cheese, jars filled with dozens of varieties of olives, and sacks full of exotic spices. It was a culinary feast for the senses. I picked up a carton each of strawberries and mulberries for breakfast the following day and then headed back for the night.
The next morning, waking up to a light drizzle outside, I set off to find the Yeşil Türbe or the Green Tomb. Hiking uphill through a warren of streets, I had a chance to see the lovely local architecture, much of which adheres to the ancient Ottoman aesthetic particular to Bursa.
The tomb and Yeşil Camii (the Green Mosque) across from it are both located in a small square surrounded by cobblestoned streets and cypress trees. The tomb is the final resting place of the fifth Ottoman Sultan, Mehmet I, and his family. The structure is hexagonal, with an exterior clad in the most exquisite blue-green tiles. Past the ornately carved wooden doors, the interior of the tomb features recesses for windows with carved wooden shutters, while the mihrab (a niche in the wall of a mosque where the prayer congregation faces) featured intricately painted white, yellow and blue tiles. I said a quick prayer for the deceased and then took my time going over the gorgeous interior.
Outside, the wind had begun to blow harder, so I hurried down the steps and crossed the street to the mosque. A short passage lined on either side with emerald green tiles, leads the way from the threshold to the main prayer hall, in the middle of which is a small marble fountain underneath a chandelier. The mihrab, directly opposite the entrance, is covered in the most exquisite blue tile work, as are the lower walls of the four namazgahs (prayer areas), one each to the left and right of the main hall and two at the back. It is easy to understand why this exceptional structure constitutes a UNESCO Heritage site.
Right off the entrance toward the left is a passageway leading to the women’s prayer area. Having arrived before the noon prayer, I was glad to find the room to myself and I climbed into one of the recessed windows to read a few pages from the Quran. When the Dhuhr (midday) prayer was called, I joined a handful of other women in worship, and afterward slipped quietly away.
By now, the rain had stopped and sunlight was beginning to poke through the clouds. Making my way downhill I chanced upon the Yeşil Medrese, which is also home to the Museum of Turkish Islamic Arts. The detour was a pleasant surprise, featuring displays of artifacts from the 13th to the 20th centuries, and is worth visiting if you are in the area.
After a quick detour to the Irgandı Bridge, I went off in search of Bursa’s most famous food.
One of Bursa’s claims to culinary fame is the delectable Iskender kebap. Bite-sized pieces of warm bread are layered on top with thin slivers of tender lamb, drenched in tomato sauce, and served with yogurt, charred peppers and tomato.
If you have this meal only once in Bursa, you need to have it at the Iskender Tarihi Ahşap Dükkan, a restaurant that lays claim to having invented the dish generations ago. Do not ask for a menu, because there is none; they only serve Iskender kebap. To go with my meal, I asked for a bottle of Şıra, a sweet drink made of slightly fermented grape juice, particular to Bursa and delicious when served cold. A piping hot plate of kebap soon made its way to my table. The best part was when a waiter, detailed especially for that purpose, poured melted butter straight from a sizzling skillet all over the kebap; it made for a delightful dramatic effect! With the first mouthful of food, I knew this was a home run. The tomato sauce was velvety, the lamb was perfectly seasoned, the bread remained wonderfully crisp, the yogurt was perfectly chilled and the beefsteak tomato was utterly fresh. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a better meal in Bursa.
After a quick coffee and some mosaic cake at the aptly named Dere Kenari (riverside) cafe a few streets over from the restaurant, I set off at a brisk pace toward Tophane Park.
Tophane Park is home to two important tombs. One is that of Osman Ghazi, founder and first sultan of the Ottoman Empire and a son of Ertuğrul Ghazi. By all accounts a brilliant strategist, a heroic warrior, a kind-hearted ruler and a generous man, Osman Ghazi ascended to the throne at 23 years of age when his father passed away. Just under two decades later he laid the foundation of what would become one of the world’s greatest empires. The second tomb, lying at a few meters distance within the same complex is that of his son, Orhan Ghazi. Both of these are worth the visit for anyone with an interest in this era of Islamic history. The park itself offers a gorgeous panoramic view of Bursa city below.
With half the day still ahead of me, I decided to see where the road would take me. This was the beginning of a rather long walk up and down the hilly roads of the city, some of it taking me through isolated but beautifully appointed residential areas. At one point along the way, I also had my very first taste of çiğ köfte, served in a wrap and with a spicy tomato sauce. For the uninitiated, çiğ köfte in its original form consisted of cracked wheat and raw minced meat. What is prevalently served today is the vegetarian version made with bulgur, onion and tomato or red pepper. It is, in a word, delicious.
My route took me as far as the Muradiye complex, which had closed for the day. Mercifully, I was able to hop onto a bus for the remainder of my trek back. At the apartment, I reviewed the weather update for the following day and saw more rain; this prompted a change in itinerary. Originally, I had planned to spend the day exploring Cumalıkızık, an ancient Ottoman village in the hills above Bursa. However, the prospect of rain made it unlikely I would be able to take advantage of the visit as I would have liked, so I decided I would check out early and head to my next destination.
This is how I wound up in Konya a day early.
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