Never-ending beaches, lakes that display a play of colors and light, and ancient cities mentioned in mythological stories. Aydın offers a completely different world, an allegorical one in which cultures complement each other.
I have traveled to many corners of Turkey chasing after lovely pictures. However, my journey to Aydın has always been distinct and thrilling because it means wandering around the city’s past and the cultural layers intertwined with its present, and seeing the beauties revealed by the transformations in nature when the light is purest. I arrived at the city and found everything as portrayed in Ara Güler’s book Aphrodisias Scream. “The dark yellow sun was sprinkling a gold-colored spell over the city. The sky was deep blue, but the rays of yellow sunlight were bright and shiny.” I headed for the district of Kuşadası, believing that the beach is the best way to enjoy the cheerful winter sun that warms us. The winding road passed through the hills covered with olive groves and brought me to the coast of Kuşadası, which resembled lacework reflecting the harmony between blue and green, history and nature. Güvercinada, which connected a thin, long breakwater -regarded as the district’s symbol and bearer of good fortune- to the coast, looked like a location straight out of a movie with its castle built on rocks. One of Turkey’s most prominent sea gates, the district was one of the busiest ports of the Anatolian coast during antiquity and has always been beautiful. Many resources cite it as the favorite city of the historian Herodotus. Over the last 50 years, it has welcomed many notable guests from the Queen of the United Kingdom Elizabeth II to former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, singer Peppino di Capri to Pope Jean Paul II. My first stop is Öküz Mehmet Paşa Caravanserai built in the 17th century. After exploring its vast inner courtyard surrounded by porticos, I walk through the market and visit the neighborhood of Camiatik, filled with old Kuşadası houses. Next, I travel to Dilek Peninsula, where steep canyons give birth to peerless coves by piercing the mountains, and enjoy the tranquility watching the island of Samos at Kadıkalesi, which used to be an important belief center during the Byzantine period.
For those who are used to pursuing the colors of life, Aydın is no less than a gallery of visual wonders. It’s a good idea to visit the prairies to explore the local natural beauties. You don’t want the road to end as you drive from Kuşadası to Söke. Offering abundance to innumerable civilizations from the Ionians to the Ottomans throughout history, Söke Plain meets the Aegean Sea along a kilometers-long shallow coast. Covered with centennial stone houses and olive orchards, the village of Doğanbey could rival the valleys of Tuscany. As a result of the alluvial deposits carried by the Büyük Menderes River, here, the sea, land, and lagoon are all intertwined. The causeway starts from hills with pristine remains to Lake Karine and reaches the coast passing through reeds and pomegranate trees. The surroundings are home to interesting bird species. In winter, the region is flocked by pink flamingos. The fishing colony at the mouth of the fishpond looks as if taken out of Steinbeck’s short stories. Around May every year, the fishermen close the mouth of the sea with a natural fence composed of tens of thousands of spears in order to make fishing easier in winter months. It’s hard to believe that Bafa, which stands kilometers away and is the largest lake in the Aegean region of Turkey, was once a big and sheltered bay. Situated at the foot of Latmus (Beşparmak) Mountains, which resemble a mysterious forest of rocks, the lake and its banks hide many treasures: islets adorned with monasteries, rock caves decorated with 9,000-year-old cave paintings, the remains of the ancient city of Heracleia by Latmus, and the best stories of Anatolian mythology.
It’s impossible to visit Aydın and to overlook the nearby ancient cities and sacred grounds. The region is home to Miletus, the city of philosophers and the hometown of the mathematician Thales, one of the Seven Wise Men of Antiquity; Priene, the first city in history with a grid plan and Alexander the Great’s favorite; Didyma which is home to one of the biggest temples of antiquity; Tralles, known for the remnants of its gymnasium (Üçgözler, Three Eyes) and the symbol of Aydın; the ancient city of Magnesia Meander which is named after Menderes River; Alabanda which used to be a Carian city; Alinda; Gerga; and Nysa… After this historical tour around the city’s periphery, I travel towards the center. With its Archaeology Museum that displays artifacts found in the surrounding ancient cities, Zincirli Inn which is an Ottoman structure from the 18th century, and historic mosques, Aydın is also a modern city welcoming nearly 4 million visitors every year. You can enrich your tour around Aydın with Cihanoğlu Kulliyyah; Thales Mathematics Museum in Efeler, the first mathematics museum in Turkey; Oleatrium Olive and Olive Oil History Museum in Kuşadası; İlyas Bey Mosque in the village of Balat; and the hot springs in Germencik. The village of Güllübahçe near Priene instills the Aegean spirit into western Anatolia with its hills covered in olive trees, slightly sloped valley overlooking the sea, elegant stone houses inhabited by painters, authors and scientists, and outstanding small village square. Known by the name of Güzelhisar during the Ottoman period, Aydın gained a reputation for its brave “efes” during the national fight for independence. This folklore is kept alive both with local dances and the symbolic leather bellow boots. İhsan Taş, who has been making these boots in Söke for a quarter of a century, says he uses completely natural materials to make the boots which are an essential part of the local culture. “Once you wear them, you start walking like an efe.” In addition to bellow boots, visitors in Aydın also take a look at handmade rag dolls at Priene Market, scarves with needle lace called “tel kırma” at Yenipazar, colorful Yoruk rugs, tiny saddles as souvenirs at Karacasu Market, and hand-sewn duvets and pillowcases.
I leave the city behind and drive towards Tavas through the illuminated landscape of the Aegean. It’s almost a local tradition to stop by Ortaklar Dörtyol to eat çöp şiş (meat on skewers). Other options include the famous Çine meatballs on the Izmir-Aydın highway exit, seasonal fish in Didim, delicious pide (flatbread with various toppings) and olive oil side dishes, pumpkin dessert with tahini, tandoori kebab, or citrus jam at Karacasu Market or Yenipazar. After this tasty break, I arrive at Yenipazar to visit the museum founded to honor Yörük Ali Efe, one of the heroes of the Turkish national struggle that led to the foundation of the Republic of Turkey. Yenipazar is one of the “slow cities” in Turkey. Leading a tranquil life, the people of Yenipazar welcome guests with a happy smile on their faces.
Situated in the district of Nazilli, Arpaz (also known as Esenköy) offers an interesting reroute. The picturesque view of the Cihanoğlu Tower, built by Rhodian stonemasons in the 18th century, is completed by the lovely Turkish mansion right behind and the remains of giant stone blocks in the ancient Carian city of Harpasus on the hill it leans upon. Kuyucak, Nazilli’s neighboring district, inspired the novel Kuyucaklı Yusuf (Yusuf of Kuyucak) by Sabahattin Ali, one of the most unique authors in the history of Turkish literature.
As I drive closer to the legendary city of Aphrodite, I start visualizing the photographs of Aphrodisias by Ara Güler. Coincidentally discovered by Güler when the driver lost the way as they were traveling to take pictures of a dam in the eastern end of Aydın, Aphrodisias was introduced to the world by the photographer. It seeps into my field of vision first with its ancient walls and then with the monumental gate called Tetrapylon. Included on the UNESCO World Heritage List, the ancient city’s entrance square leads to Aphrodisias Museum on one end and the Ara Güler exhibition on the other. Following his footsteps, I walk around the impressive streets of Aphrodisias, taking lots of pictures. I stand on the stone steps of the ancient theater and murmur to myself, “Aydın’s past light reaches the present and I am a part of it. Aydın, you really are a source of happiness.”