The Sea of Marmara and the North Aegean: Places to Explore



Ayvalık is the biggest resort in the region. Like many Turkish seaside towns, it has been somewhat exploited by package tourism in recent years, but its superb geographical setting, stretching onto a peninsula and surrounded by islands, is hard to beat. The setting is lovely, with many bays swirling in and out of its coastline; if you drive up the hill to the Şeytan Sofrası ("the devil's dinner table"), you'll clearly see this. The area also boasts one of Turkey's few blue-flagged (eco-friendly) beaches.

Ayvalık first appears in Ottoman records at the late date of 1770, when an Ottoman naval hero, Gazi Hasan Paşa, was aided by the local Greek community after his ship sank nearby. Soon after, the town was granted autonomy, perhaps as a gesture of gratitude, and the Muslim population was moved to outlying villages, leaving the Greeks to prosper in the olive oil trade. At the close of World War I, the Greeks invaded Turkey and claimed the Aegean coast; in 1922 the Turks ousted the Greek army, and the entire Greek community of Ayvalık was deported. Today the town is mostly Turks, and other than tourism, the main source of income is olive farming and olive oil production.

The old Greek quarter of the town has been neglected for decades, though in the last few years policies of protection and restoration have begun to be enforced. Ayvalık has some of the finest 19th-century Greek-style architecture in Turkey. Unlike the typical Ottoman house (tall, narrow, and built of wood, with an overhanging bay window), Greek buildings are stone, with classic triangular pediments above a square box. The best way to explore is to turn your back to the Aegean and wander the tiny side streets leading up the hill into the heart of the old residential quarter (try Talat Paşa Caddesi and Gümrük Caddesi). Several historic churches in town have been converted into mosques. St. John's is now the Saatlı Cami (Clock Mosque). St. George's is now the Çınarlı Cami (Plane Tree Mosque). There are many mosques converted from churches in Turkey, but these are among the most striking—the elaborate style of Orthodox churches does not suit the plain minimalist style of mosques, and the unimpressive minaret erected later at the Çinarlı mosque looks almost absurd. The pictures of the saints inside are painted over but can still be seen if you look carefully. The Taxiarchis Church, currently closed with no set reopening date, is a museum, with a remarkable series of paintings done on fish skin depicting the life of Christ. Barbaros Caddesi on the south end of the pier will take you to Phaneromeni Church (Ayazma Klisesi), displaying beautiful stone craftwork, and to Hayrettin Paşa Cami, also converted from a church.

In summer, Sarımsaklı Plajı, the 10-km (6-mi) stretch of sandy beach, 7 km (4½ mi) from the center of town, is popular. It's a crowded resort with a mess of concrete hotels right behind the sea front, and traffic and parking can be a problem, but the beach and sea are lovely.

Day or evening cruises to the bays and islands of Ayvalık are enjoyable. The numerous boats in the harbor with desks in front of them will try and sell you a trip as you walk by, and competition makes prices very reasonable—about 13 TL for a day trip including a fish meal. The tours are offered from May until the end of October.

Şeytan Sofrası, a hilltop 9 km (5½ mi) from town, on a right turn on the road from Ayvalık to Sarımsaklı, is the place to get a panoramic view of the islands and the bays. It's lovely at sunset, though there's nothing to see on the hilltop itself since a fire in 2006 burned down all the trees and the café closed.