Learning to make Iznik tiles in Bursa’s Yeniceabat village

One of the reasons I love Istanbul is because there is always something new to explore – a new neighborhood or a new restaurant – the possibilities are endless. Bursa, on the other hand, has always been a place of familiarity for me. I’ve memorized the bus and dolmuş routes, I know the downtown area like the back of my hand, and I don’t get the same sense of overwhelmingness that tends to befall me in Istanbul from time to time. In fact, I thought I had explored every nook and cranny of Bursa until I visited Yeniceabat village earlier this summer.

The village is discreetly tucked away behind Bursa’s otogar (bus depot) and despite all the times I took buses to Istanbul and Ordu, I never knew the village existed, and even more surprisingly, neither did Gurkan. We were in Bursa a few weekends ago for a mini-holiday, and we had plans to visit our good friend Cat who is leading this year’s NSLI-Youth program – a program which I led in 2012 and I highly recommend to any American high school students aspiring to learn Turkish or other critical need languages.

Cat was taking her students on a field trip to nearby Iznik (Nicaea), and on the way out of Bursa, they had planned to stop at an Iznik tile workshop in Yeniceabat. After perusing a map, Gurkan and I were surprised to find ourselves only a five minute drive from Yeniceabat – we had been having coffee at Anatolium waiting for Cat’s call. We headed out to the village and despite it’s deserted appearance, we found it was home to not just one, but three different tile workshops. One of the NSLI-Youth drivers met us on the main village road, jumped in the car and directed us to the correct workshop (take a right at the kiraathane located on the main village road).

When we arrived, the workshop was bustling with activity. One group of students was milling around outside chatting, another was hand painting tiles in the workshop, and still another was preparing for a tour of the kiln room. Gurkan and I chatted with one of the artisans and saw how the tiles were glazed and fired. We learned that the workshop uses quartz which is more difficult to work with (it shrinks when fired and needs to be done in small batches) but of higher quality than the material most workshops use.

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Glazing tiles in the kiln room

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Dipping tiles in the glaze

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A close-up of some traditional Iznik designs

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A variety of pieces waiting to be glazed and fired

I noticed the workshop had a small showroom off to one side, and Gurkan managed to persuade one of the workers to let us have a look inside. It was a very small space but had pottery stacked in all corners and spread across the floor. On some of the pieces, we were surprised to find Paşabahçe – one of my favorite Turkish home goods store – written underneath. According to the worker, the workshop sells their items to Paşabahçe which in turn sells them in their retail locations at three times the price. Although I would have loved to fill up a whole box to take back with me to Istanbul, I used my discretion and ended up purchasing just a couple pieces for wedding gifts.

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Painting pomegranates with Iznik designs

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The workshop’s small showroom

Afterwards, Cat and I talked with one of the workers who I assumed was the owner about the possibility of returning in the fall for informal classes for just the two of us. At first, he seemed hesitant – the art of making tiles isn’t just a hobby, something you can learn over a few days he said – but he softened up as the day went on. Maybe Cat and I will get our very own private Iznik tile class after all.

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Even the outside of the workshop is stacked high with pottery

 

 

The verdict is in on Bursa’s Mahkeme Hamamı

One of my best friends, Heidi, was in town for the week, and of course, it wouldn’t be a proper Turkey vacation without a visit to Bursa. We went for the day on the new BUDO ferry line direct from Kabataş to Mudayna which cost us 40 TL/person round-trip. For those who live in Beşiktaş, the BUDO ferry is a huge improvement. Previously, we would take the İDO ferry from Yenikapı in the wee hours of the morning. All too often, we missed the bus from our neighborhood, or more than often than not, it never came. The result? We would end up taking a taxi to Yenikapı which canceled out the cheap cost of the İDO ferry tickets.

Overall, we were pleased with the new BUDO ferry and landing in Mudayna (not Güzelyalı) was a nice surprise. We made our way downtown on one of the new, spiffy city buses, felt the earthquake in one of Bursa’s old wooden buildings, and headed to the Mahkeme Hamamı after an ample fill of gözleme. As everyone knows, Bursa is famous for Turkish baths especially those found in the Çekirge district. Last time, my roommate Nazlı and I had gone to the Kervansaray hamam, arguably Bursa’s most famous hamam. We were disappointed to find the the women’s section small and crowded, the service dismal and the massage unimpressive. Gürkan, however, who had gone to the men’s section had come out a new man. He couldn’t stop singing Kervansaray’s praises – a gorgeous hamam and a personal attendant all to himself. Without fail, the men’s sections are always the better of the two (unless it’s one hamam with different visiting hours for men and women) – something which confounds me  since hamam culture seems to be more prevalent among the country’s females.

After that last experience, I knew I would never return to Kervansaray (not to mention it’s also one of the most expensive baths in Bursa). I did however have a pleasant memory of Mahkeme Hamamı (İbrahim Paşa Hamamı) which had been recently restored and reopened by Bursa’s Büyükşehir Belediyesi, the local municipality. While not in Çekirge, Mahkeme Hamamı is centrally located in Heykel on the way to Karabash-i Veli, Bursa’s whirling dervish lodge. The first time I visited was with my NSLI-Youth students in 2012 – the municipality had opened the hamam especially for us during Ramadan and waived the entrance fee for the entire group. Although not a huge fan of the local government, it was certainly a nice gesture and not easily forgotten.

Mahkeme Hamamı

That’s why Heidi and I also opted for a visit to Mahkeme Hamamı instead of one of the more well-known baths in Çekirge. We called ahead for the prices (very reasonable!) and were surprised to find that Mahkeme Hamamı only had a women’s section which meant Gürkan was on his own for the afternoon. We rang the doorbell and we were warmly greeted by a lady who later introduced herself as Ayşe. She showed us to a private dressing room with two lounge chairs and locked cabinets for our valuables. I explained we had come from Istanbul and didn’t have towels, peştemal, or shampoo, and Ayşe appeared with all the items very clearly explaining the prices of each to me. She also explained the bath process which you can read about here. Although I’ve been to several baths over the years, I appreciate it when they take the time to explain the process to you. Every hamam has its own culture and etiquette, and it can be awkward if you make a faux pas.

Entrance to the women’s section

We were given our own pair of wooden hamam slippers to wear and soon ushered into the bath. Imagine my surprise when we opened the door to find only two other women inside the hamam on a Saturday afternoon. Compared to 50+ women in Kervansaray’s one room, we had a huge hamam with multiple smaller rooms all to ourselves.  We were in hamam heaven. Heidi and I spread out in one of the smaller, more private rooms, soaking up the heat and relaxing. After 20 minutes or so, Ayşe recommended that we go to another room – the extra hot room – so that our skin would be ready for the impending kese scrub. Until I entered the hot room that day, I had never understood why people wore slippers in the bath, but the marble floors were so hot that I had no option but to manuever in the clog-like slippers. The benches were similarly hot and sitting down was quite a task. We lasted all about 10 minutes before heading back to the main hamam room.

Turkish bath accessories

It was soon our turn for kese and massage. Mahkeme Hamamı does both on a padded massage table rather than the marble slab. In my opinion, the massage table is definitely the way to go because otherwise – if the massage is good – you feel like you’re being slammed into the hardest piece of rock you’ve ever felt. Here the skin scrub was  done very thoroughly (face scrub optional) and the massage was out-of-this-world amazing. From out of nowhere, Ayşe appeared with a gigantic loofah full of bubbles, and I soon found myself swimming in bubbles on the massage table (she had told me ahead of time that she was going to do a very köpüklü massage for us). The massage was just what I needed. Ayşe took it extremely seriously and the amount of pressure she used was spot on. Covered in bubbles, I admired the sun shining through the hamam’s dome, and took note that this hamam had natural light unlike others I had visited.

After the massages, we were completely wiped out and had only enough energy to shampoo and head back out to the resting area. We bundled up in towels, found our lounge chairs, and Ayse appeared with our gazoz. She slid the curtains closed, we switched the lights out, and finally, we rested. I could have stayed the whole day but there was silk to buy and friends to meet, so our rest was cut prematurely short.

Next time you find yourself in Bursa, skip the Çekirge hamams and try this one! You won’t be disappointed.

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Bursa’s Uludağ gazoz

Mahkeme Hamamı prices:

Entrance: 15 TL
Skin scrub (kese): 10 TL
Massage: 10 TL
Peştemal: Free
Towels: 3 TL
Shampoo: 2 TL
Beverages available
Tip – up to you!

 

The Turkish breakfast of champions

You know you’ve grown accustomed to life in Turkey when you can’t imagine starting your weekend without a large Turkish breakfast. You stock up on all the goods at your local bazaar and invite friends over so it can be enjoyed by all. Custom has it that your guests will reciprocate and host you for breakfast in the future.

One of my Turkish breakfast rules is that it should be enjoyed at home not at a restaurant. I refrain from eating breakfast out because 1) it’s almost never worth the price and 2) the taste and quality just isn’t as good as a breakfast prepared at home especially if you live with friends like I do whose parents are always sending goodies from their hometowns.

There is, however, one exception to the no-breakfast out rule, and that is breakfast under the historical Cinar Tree in Bursa’s Inkaya village. The Cinar Tree (English: Plane Tree) itself is a destination – the tree’s plaque says it’s 600 years old and it’s so large that it requires metal supports to hold up its branches in some places. Busloads of Turkish tourists and schoolchildren are always milling around, taking group pictures, and snacking on gozleme under the tree.

The breakfasts are large and one breakfast is plenty for two people (order one and ask for service for two). Each breakfast comes with a caydanlik of tea, a hardboiled egg, a variety of cheeses, butter, cucumbers, tomatoes, olives, kaymak with honey and walnuts, kahvalti saltca (a spread of tomato paste, walnuts, garlic and olive oil), jam, seasonal fruit, and of course, a basket of bread. With a group of people, I like to order the village-style eggs with sucuk (spicy pork-less sausage) as well. The eggs come runny and the sucuk is high quality.

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The breakfast spread at Cinar

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Village eggs with sucuk

After breakfast, I always end up in the restaurant’s kitchen where I like to fill up my jars from home with the restaurant’s kahvalti salca. Although it’s easy to find in Istanbul, I haven’t found anything comparable to the kahvalti saltca served at the Cinar Tree. You can also fill up on jam, and the restaurant’s quince jam is especially good.

Don’t forget to snap some pictures in front of the tree and check out the nearby stands selling fresh fruit and souvenirs including reasonably-priced Iznik dishes. If the day is young (and it should be if you are having breakfast!), you can continue up the mountain road for a day at Uludag Mountain. Skiing and sledding in the winter, picnics and hiking in the summer. Otherwise, head back downtown via Tophane and continue your village adventures at the historic Cumalikizik vilage.

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The 600 year old Cinar Tree

How to get to Cinar: It is possible to get there by bus from Altiparmak in the city center, but the bus runs infrequently (only once an hour) so you must rush through breakfast or plan on sticking around for a couple of hours. My recommendation is to take a car (we tend to rent a car for our weekends in Bursa). The morning will be much more relaxing and enjoyable and you can stick around for a cup of Turkish coffee.

An afternoon at Uludag Mountain

While my friend Olivia was visiting from Boston, we spent a few days in Bursa, which is approximately three hours from Istanbul by car and even less by ferry if you go directly from Yenikapi to Guzelyali (Mudayna). On our second day in Bursa, we woke up early to have breakfast under Bursa’s famous 600 year old Cinar tree which is – hands down – my favorite breakfast place in Turkey. I like it so much that I even bring jars from home so that I can fill up on goodies in the restaurant’s kitchen before heading back to Istanbul.

On this particular day, we decided to drive up the mountain after our breakfast at Cinar. I hadn’t been to Uludag in a couple of years so it was also a nice treat for me. Plus, March is the perfect time to visit because it’s not so cold and when you get tired of the snow, you can just drive back down and voila! the snow is gone. With Gurkan behind the wheel, Olivia in front to see the view, and Meral (my former flatmate, friend and abla) and I in the backseat, we were soon off on our mountain adventure.

Here a few highlights from our afternoon at Uludag:

The weather was overcast but the views were still breathtaking and the scene on the mountain was lively.

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Sledders on the mountain

Children throwing snowballs at themselves – this little girl even aimed one at me when her mom wasn’t looking!

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Forest hikes out to the rocks (not only am I afraid of heights but Gurkan even mentioned there might be wild hogs. I am still not sure if that was a joke or not…).

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Forest hikes with Gurkan, Meral and Olivia

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Out to the rocks

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More mountain views from the rocks

And last but not least, impromptu dance circles!

We would have stayed a bit longer had the snow not started to come in. We made a mad dash to the bottom of the mountain.

On my next trip to Uludag, I’d like to eat at Palabiyik. I took a peak inside and the food smelled and looked excellent, a sort of grill your own meat restaurant. A few years ago, friends and I had stopped at Palabiyik for a very tasty semovar of tea (must be the mountain water!).

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Grill your own meat at Palabiyik restaurant! On the checklist for next time.

Palabiyik tea at Uludag

The taste of mountain water tea

Oh, and don’t forget to wear your sunscreen. You don’t want to come down looking like a tomato.