There is a special kind of stillness that you can only ever experience around the Mediterranean, the stillness of summer days around midday, when the light is white and shimmering and thick with heat, and although you know there is movement around, a slight breeze, a cat furtively sliding by on silky paws, someone carefully lowering a sugar cube into a cup of coffee then ever so slightly touching its edge with the spoon, even that movement is swallowed by the stillness, sliding softly into it as if in a primeval dream. For the stillness seems to surge forth from a time before time, petrified into an eternal now through which we made our way on the winding, cobbled streets of Ayvalık, the Aegean port once known as Kydonies, both names meaning a place with quinces, of which we saw none, only never-ending olive groves with shiny fruit ripening under the searing sun.
Surrounded by an archipelago of islets, with the shape of Greece’s Lesbos island looming over the horizon almost transparent at noon, drowned in shades of pink and purple at sunset, Ayvalık lies within driving (or perhaps riding, carting or marathon running) distance of Assos, where Aristotle established an academy, Pergamon, where you can indulge in what’s left of its famous altar and of course Troy, where you can horse around some more ruins. Generally this is a world of both ruins and ghosts with oddly spelled names: after the Turkish war of independence ended in 1923 and Ayvalık remained on Turkish territory, Turkey and Greece swapped populations and most of the port’s Greeks left, being replaced with Turks from Mytilene, Crete and Macedonia. Both the Cretan and the Balkan connections remain strong, with a large number of Bosnian shops and restaurants dotting the cityscape. As for the Greeks, some returned when in a rather Monty Pythonian turn the Turkish authorities realized that the former locals were displaced alongside their knowledge of olive farming and they would be needed to rekindle cultivation.
The city’s past is etched in its architecture as well, with whitewashed Greek houses huddled into each other alternating with Ottoman balconies jutting out over the narrow streets. While the old centre is relatively well preserved and dotted with the odd boutique hotel, it’s however not of the sanitized, tourist-minded variety but a living organism minding its own ways. The standout buildings of the centre are its mosques, of which many were converted from Orthodox churches, such as the Saatli Camii, once the Agios Iannis church and the ornate, pastel pink Çınarlı Camii, previously Agios Giorgios while The Taksiyarhis church has been recently restored and turned into a museum.
For those unattuned to the exquisite arts of dawdling around old houses and disheveled manors, Ayvalık provides two sandy beaches: the one at Sarimsakli and the one at Altinova, both to the south of the town proper. Together they stretch for almost 21 kilometres and belong to that type of slightly indiscriminate and uneventful beach with even countours and horizons, over which the fiery orange disc of the sun dips suddenly at the end of the day. These are beaches unsuited for poetry, but very much suited to sketches and short stories of a slight Chekhovian vein, with families imploding over forgotten cutlery, couples staring into the distance with offended eyes and children despairing after having swallowed sea water. Yes, that’s me being dramatic, an effect nice and sedate beaches have over me: as I’m not much of a swimmer, I spend an inordinate amount of time on my sunbed and slowly start to pick up all the minutiae of life around me and as we’ve learned from another Russian giant, it’s never the happy families that catch your eye. They’re also beaches with a thriving and benign canine population made up mostly of large shaggy mutts, lingering around in the shade and occasionally making an enthusiastic run when one of the miserable families produces a sandwich- I will very honestly admit of having been fairly scared for them, as I am generally very suspicious of dogs, irrespective of their size and demeanour, but can report that they are harmless and more than often accounted for by the authorities with identifying chips.
Returning to less barky but more practical matters you might wonder what the best way to reach Ayvalık is, and unless you want to sail like the Achaean army to Troy, your safest bet is probably a flight into Izmir, some 100 kilometres south, and then drive up along the Izmir- Çanakkale highway. Closer still is the Edremit aiport, but it has only domestic connections to Istanbul and Ankara while on the other side of the pond, Lesbos’s Mytilene airport (which in fact happens to be the closest overall) has connections to some major European cities as well, and as a bonus you finally do get to sail like the Achaean army for a mere 10 euros- ferry connections are daily in high season, but more sporadic in the rest of the year. For getting around the town proper you’re probably best off with a car, provided you can stomach the whimsies of Turkish traffic, though should you go for public transportation you’d be submitted to the whimsies of the traffic itself plus the existential rhythms of your driver.
When it comes to accommodation, we went for the show up and hope for the best options, which probably works better when you’re already slightly off season, as we were, and speak Turkish, as some of us, minus myself, did. Since the area is mostly focused on domestic tourism, English knowledge is somewhat scarce, yet people will invariably try to help you out with the bit of English they know plus a lot of gesturing, as opposed to the speak your own language louder and slower version which Hungarians tend to prefer with foreigners. Although it might sound odd from someone who has invested so much time and energy in learning languages and feels deeply invested in discovering their intricacies, being somewhat at odds with communication can have liberating consequences, almost as if the sense of holiday was being enhanced- you’re on holiday not only from the places you know, but also from yourself and the temporarily unconstrained you can consolingly slide into the eternal now of a scorching summer’s day.