My friend Serhat lived for a year in Bursa, tucked next to Mount Uludağ in western Turkey near the Sea of Marmara, the first capital of the Ottoman Empire after its capture from the Byzantines in 1326, and the last stop on the Silk Road, a vast trade route starting in China through the Middle East to Europe. He would send me photos of him having tea, coffee and interesting desserts in beautiful and historical places. A lover of architecture, he schooled me in the styles of the important buildings, as well as told me about Bursa’s life as a modern city of almost 3 million people, now the major center for the automobile industry.
I had planned a trip to Turkey and made this intriguing city a priority to visit. I followed someone on Pinterest who posted wonderful pins including many on Turkish and Islamic art. I messaged them(was not clear if person was man or woman) and asked if they lived in Turkey, and she confirmed yes, Bursa! I told her about my trip and asked if she wanted to meet. She agreed.
I stepped off the IDO (a large ferry boat transporting people from Istanbul) greeted by the edges of Bursa in the Port of Gemlick. Serhat had made a reservation for me at the Esman Boutique Hotel in the Mudanya section that sits right on the sea. One can stroll by many lovely old homes and sit at seaside cafes to enjoy Turkish tea. Mudanya encourages relaxation and contemplation.
As did the Esman Hotel. It was luxurious, not in terms of size or fancy sheets or deluxe showers, (the shower was quirky and room tiny) but in that deeper, non-superficial kind of luxuriousness. In the old pictures of Mudanya mish-mashed on the wall, and the gracious staff, who although speaking limited English were friendly and impeccably hospitality. One server noticed I had spilled tea on my saucer and replaced it. It was the luxury of sitting in solitude on the sofa in the upstairs hallway and feeling the cool sea breeze enter from the open window to play with your hair. Or eating olives and cheese in the dining room listening to the sounds of the fountain.
Sukran, my Pinterest friend, and I were meeting Monday morning at the Starbucks at Zafer Plaza, a shopping mall in the center of Bursa about 30 kilometers from Mudanya. We immediately clicked and talked like old friends. We began our tour through at the entrance of the covered market behind the Ulu Cami, or Grand Mosque built in the 14th century and continued through the market and then the network of hans, or inns. Hans were places where merchants could stop over night with their goods and and even house animals. So many cultures convened here among these structures. People still frequent and buy goods and fruits and vegetables or sit and have a meal or tea.
Sukran was excited to take me to our next stop-the Irgandi Bridge. Constructed in 1442, it was the first bridge to house a market. (There are only four other similar bridges in the world: Osma Bridge in Lovcha-Bulgaria, Ponte Vecchio Bridge-Florence and Rialto Bridge-Venice. ) Restored in 2004 it now housed with artist studios.
Because it was Monday, most were closed, but we found one open, the studio of Arife Aktuğ, a calligraphy and illumination artist. (Illumination or Tezhip is the Ottoman art of embellishing books) Her artwork was beautiful, and we met one of her students. Sukran translated for us, and we discussed many things including art, religion and history. When they learned my name meant “little Mary” in Gaelic they took my picture holding an illumination of the Virgin Mary.
Next stop was Gurabahane-i Laklakana, the first animal hospital in Europe built in the 19th century, now a cultural center. Originally built to save storks, the name means helpless stork house in old Turkish.
On display was a student art show. Sukran pointed out one of the pieces was the Elif symbol, the first letter of the Arabic alphabet meaning “straight” and also “right or correct” and a popular girls name, which I had not known.I happened to be reading on this trip the novel Forty Rules of Love by the Turkish writer Elif Shafak, a tale of the Sufi poet Rumi. We never know what we will learn and how it is connected to our life or what these discoveries will come to mean. Travel, gives us the time to savor these mysteries of synchronicity no matter how small.
Sukran then took me to Küçük Saray, a place she said had the best Pideli Köfte, a traditional Bursa dish. Köfte are small meat patties similar to meatballs. In this dish the köfte are covered in a zesty tomato sauce over bread. The owner, Ismil, came out to talk to us was very nice and chatted with us about Bursa and Turkish life and gave us a complimentary dessert. I would definitely recommend this delicious and friendly restaurant.
Our final stop was the Ördekli Hamamı, a 15th century hamam or bath house now cultural center with a cafe . I loved the fountain in the center of the cafe. Sukran tells me in early Islamic medicine doctors used fountains to help heal patients suffering from mental illness.
She recommended I have Ottoman Style tea, a tea based on traditional Ottoman beverages of the time, and containing ginger, hibiscus, linden, cloves, lemon, orange, cinnamon, apple and thyme. I sip it savoring the day and my new friend, listening to the peaceful fountain. was so grateful for the time that Sukran took from her day to take me around Bursa. I enjoyed our conversations about life, love, art, literature, writing and film and wished we had more time.
Serhat met me in Bursa the next morning to embark for other cities. He said that we could not leave Bursa until I purchased something special. So we headed to Koza Han or “Cocoon Inn” so named for the silk which was traded and later produced here. Now it was a lovely courtyard with restaurants and silk shops on the second floor. And I soon found myself the owner of a Kese or silk bathing mitt. Made from pure silk it is used to exfoliate the skin. (Silk is not longer produced in Bursa but sill sold) I thought about how silk is threaded through the history of the world. Spun from silk worms, it is a fabric so strong it was used for bullet proof vests during the Civil War. Scranton, my home town, had many silk mills employing wives and daughters of miners. Parachutes were made of silk for World War II. Silk is now used in technologies preserving medicines and replacing steel screws in knee replacements. We then stopped in the courtyard for some Irmik Helvasi, made of semolina and pine nuts served with ice cream, one of the desserts I so envied from his photos. I ate slowly and paused to be thankful for all the mysterious gifts in life , like how people can arc from remote technology to walking the same streets and drinking tea in this beautiful three dimensional world.