Thoughts reverent and irreverent from the road in Turkey


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Working for the Lonely Planet Turkey guidebook for ten years gave me a fantastic opportunity to travel all over the country. The trouble was that much of that time was taken up either in transit between towns or in running from one hotel to another checking up on cleanliness and prices. It's bliss now to have the freedom to travel around at my own speed and I'm often mortified to discover how much was overlooked amid all that rushing about. Take Manisa, for example. I'd been there before. Twice, in fact. But the hotel scene used to be pretty dire and most visitors either skip the town or visit on a day trip from İzmir, which meant that I couldn't afford to waste much time on it either. So when I dropped by again this week it was almost as if I'd never been there. The Sultan Cami, yes, that ticked the familiarity box. Otherwise? A blank.

So what bliss to discover the ancient Ulu Cami, its courtyard a forest of columns each of them topped off with old Byzantine capitals (damn it, some of the columns themselves are Byzantine). How lovely to lounge about drinking tea outside it beneath an arbour of crimson Virginia creeper. What heaven to stand in front of the tiled mihrab of the Muradiye Cami and realise that Mimar Sinan had kept up his high standards right until the end. And that's before I discovered the Manisa kebab, a greasy, succulent variant on long, thin meatballs bedded down on squishy pide bread and sprinkled with fresh parsley. Or the blue tea served up in the Taş Mektep Cafe - a bit medicinal, perhaps, but certainly worth a try.

Leaving the Ulu Cami, I nearly jumped out of my skin when a cannon shot echoed the ezan. "We do it for the bayrams," the museum custodian who insisted on following me around the exhibits told me. "Every prayer time." What a great tradition. Long may it last.

In my hasty visits of the past I'd pretty much written Manisa off as a modern town with the occasional old mosque thrown in. Now, though, I had time to find the old bazaar district and to regret that it was closed for the bayram. Neyse - an excuse for another visit then. Here, too, I found the vast empty space in front of the Valilık where once a palace housed Ottoman crown princes sent here to learn the governing business. Beside the Tuğba Kuruyemiş shop in the high street a model helpfully showed me what it would have looked like. There has been talk of rebuilding it but the bill would run into the millions of lira. A lovely idea but perhaps not one best acted on. 

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