The first rule of Kușadası is that no one talks about the ineptitude of Google maps when it comes to Kușadası. For if they did, no one would ever go there. Jokes put aside, if your accommodation is in the old town, loosely referred to as Kaleiçi, basically the area surrounding the bazaar and the old caravanserai, chances are that streets that Google assumes you may merrily take by car are actually as narrow as cat’s whiskers or not streets at all, but rows of stairs. The second rule of Kușadası is that a street that is slightly wider than a cat’s whiskers, say the size of a cat’s tail, will be navigated by locals with Toyota 4runners, small trucks and the occasional tractor. Parking is also a matter of finding any old spot where your car marginally fits then trusting your fate to the mercy of Allah and the skills of fellow drivers, both of which may prove tantalizingly volatile.
Of course, all of this applies solely if you insist on booking something in the historical centre instead of being shuttled/ferried/parachuted into one of the many holiday resorts dotting the landscape in and around town. In which case, we consider you beyond hope, but strongly advise against booking with an agency as shoddy as Thomas Cook was. Speaking of which, Kușadası falls right below the line we’ve empirically drawn at the height of Izmir and Ceșme, where the mix of visitors changes from a mostly Turkish dominated crowd peppered with the nigh ubiquitous Romanians and Serbs to a decidedly cosmopolitan, British heavy composition. This comes with the unavoidable joys and sadnesses of full English breakfasts (Turkish people are simply too nice and humour infidels with bacon), Irish bars with live streams of Premiership games and sad eyed troubadours of little to no talent, lobster coloured limbs and shoulders, loud traipsing and cursing at night and a high incidence of botoxed ladies of a certain age on the lookout for a kindhearted local beau. If I haven’t scared you enough, let me also add that the early morning adhan will be the least of your sleep disturbances, as the port area heaves with party spots blasting indefinite dance tunes all night long. Or if you are as lucky as we were, you land in the middle of the Altın Güvercin (Golden Pigeon) musical festival, which has been delighting locals and visitors alike with the gems of Turkish popular music for almost a quarter of a century now.
If at this point you feel like the best choice is to turn back to Izmir airport or perhaps spend the rest of your life secluded in a convent, you are however very wrong. For there is a time early in the morning when the sky is flooded with the gentle orange light of the rising sun, the town so quiet you can hear a cat’s paw on the pavement or the distant clinking of someone’s tea glass (there has definitely never been one second in the history of Turkey when someone wasn’t brewing a tea), the shape of Samos island shimmering on the horizon like a friendly ghost, so there is this moment when the sleepy streets have a primeval beauty reserved to harbour towns, eternally alluring places of arrival and departure.
This is also the perfect time to visit one of the town’s main attractions, the small island giving its name. Güvercinada is now connected to land by a man-made causeway, and apparently looks like a bird’s head from the sea (an information we were unfortunately in no position to verify). The original structures of its castle date back to the 15th Century and at their most expanded they encircled the island completely. Today it’s an eclectic but not unpleasant mix of historical site and botanical garden, and, somewhat unexpectedly, warren of rabbits. Some of these rabbits are white, though decidedly unhurried, so as I was following them around for pictures, I imagined an interesting story in which I as Alice fall down a hole and become embroiled in adventures involving hares flying on carpets, belly dancing caterpillars, poisoned baklavas and an irate sultana playing whatever the Ottoman version of croquet may have been. What I did soon enter was a maze: having decided that I should crown my morning walk by inspecting the compulsory Large Atatürk Statue on top of the hill overlooking the old town, I then decided to return through the sea of vividly coloured houses that dot the hillside underneath it and disrespected the first rule of Kușadası. Google therefore led me into a dead end which at least revealed the harsh reality that this area is in fact a shanty town, which authorities tried to ‘fix’ by painting over, an activity we will fondly add to the list of very Eastern European things. A kindly lady did finally point me into the right direction, first in mesmerizing, convoluted and to me fully unintelligible Turkish, then, seeing my dumbfounded expression, she switched to another very Eastern European behavior, the ‘talk to them in your language, but with very simple and especially very loud words and they will surely understand’: YOL YOK, no road, and then vivacious pointing in the opposite direction.
Saved by my baggy pant clad fairy godmother I thus returned to the old town, where, if you are the kind of traveler who needs to potter around historic architecture, you may consider visiting the Kaleiçi mosque and the caravanserai, which was commissioned in 1615 by Grand Vizier Öküz Mehmed Pasha. It’s currently used for events and exhibitions, and also hosts a hotel which, in a jackpot of very Eastern European phenomena, has a totally random famous guest, namely ex-US president Jimmy Carter. (Before someone points out that geographically this is Asia, let me add that I operate with an absolutely unscientifically constructed Eastern European continuum which stretches from Hegyeshalom to Turkey’s border with Iraq, based on my personal observations of shared traits in these areas.)
But enough beating about the bush, we’d come to Kușadası for the beaches, so let’s succinctly sum up our takeaways. Closest to the centre you will find the Ladies Beach (Kadınlar Denizi), which can be reached quite easily by minibus. It is comfortably sandy and slopes gently into the sea, it has all the usual amenities a beach needs and also a row of shops and restaurants nearby, but can get fairly crowded during peak hours. Further away from the centre, but still reachable by minibus (though for a group of four or more people it may make more sense to hail a cab, as they are more comfortable and the price difference becomes negligible) is the so called Long Beach, because, well, it’s long. This is probably your best bet for pleasant, unfussy beach days: the shore is lined with restaurants/hotels offering sunbed and umbrella combos, plus meals, drinks and water sports facilities. If, however, your fire is kept alive by fussy beach days, look no further than the succinctly named Dilek Peninsula Büyük Menderes Delta National Park, about an hour and a half drive away from Kușadası. As it is a protected area, the park has opening and closing hours (you can enter from 8 AM and must leave by 7:30 PM) and will need to pay a small fee: for pedestrians, it is 6 liras (amounting to a shocking 1 euro), while for a car you need to pay 18. In return, you get beautiful forested areas, pebbly beaches with the kind of irrationally blue waters which should only exist on postcards, internet from the neighbouring Greek network and pigs. Yes, you read that right, wild boars often roam the beaches, are generally friendly if a bit unruly and have a penchant for food they can pilfer from visitors, with some of them having developed an apparent taste for chocolate.
Speaking of food, two restaurants are very worth a mention, especially as one of them can be found on the road from Kușadası to the national park. There are several routes leading to the beaches, so make sure you take the one through Davutlar and you will at one point see a sizable plane tree, which happens to be more than eight hundred years old, and gives the restaurant its name, Tarihi Çınaraltı Restaurant. Their specialty, tested and given the green light by the blog’s industrious co-photographer and gastro expert is the lamb tandır, but we can warmly suggest stopping in the morning for breakfast as well (we obviously stopped both ways). When it comes to Kușadası, many restaurants, while serving good food (frankly you need a special talent to ruin Turkish food, though, of course, some do succeed), go a bit over the top in the tourist pleasing trade of semi-nude folk dances, fire eaters and novelty acts. The one soothing exception is the Erzincan restaurant, hidden in a leafy garden right in the heart of the bazaar, which has a relaxed and genuine atmosphere, friendly and competent staff and delicious dishes inspired by the Erzincan region, which gives the restaurant its name. They have a specialty as well, the testi kebab, a meat and vegetable stew slow cooked in sealed clay pots, also given the green light by our gastro expert. Should you wish to try it, you do need to order ahead (early on the same day will do), specifying the number of people it will be for. Though, as plentifully mentioned before on this blog, neither the gastro expert nor myself are wine experts as well, we do suggest you try Kalecik Karası dry red with your meal, as it is made from a grape type indigenous to Anatolia. Another gastro expert suggestion, to be found anywhere on the streets of Kușadası (and basically anywhere else in Turkey too) is maraș ice cream, which has a sticky consistency due to its mastic and salep content, which give it a texture that is thicker and denser than usual ice creams, and inspires vendors into playing tricks with it, so you might have your patience tested until you finally receive your order.