Eskişehir: a Two-Day Travel Account

Eskisehir (pronounced Eski-Shey-Here) is Turkey’s liberal university town, an Anatolian Boulder, CO sprawling across the banks of a meandering river. The tourism bureau hails it as a ‘Turkish Cultural Capital’ with its standing ottoman-style houses and surviving ancient crafts; CHP supporters stand proud of the urban reforms enacted by its progressive mayor and former university dean; and college students flock to the riverbanks for cheap beer, live music, and all-night tea houses with heated winter terraces.

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We drove down from Ankara, 2 1/2 hours over the austere Anatolian landscape (you can also take the bullet train which traverses between the cities in 1 1/2 hours, 50 lira per person round-trip).
Even in summer the hills surrounding Ankara seem severe and stony; in the winter it’s an endless visage of clouded skies and snow-peaked fields peppered by the occasional run-down hamlet or industrial small town. Indeed, rural Anatolia around Ankara is not the stuff of exotic Istanbul dreams.
Eskisehir itself is a city of layers. The first waves of city lapping the urban shore are poorer, older neighborhoods of broken buildings and single-family homes garnered by black laundry hanging to dry in the frozen winter wind. In parts of Eskishehir the existence of a low-end economic class is far more evident than in predominately middle-class Ankara.

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We wove through the outer lying suburbs to a rather average, middle-class small-city downtown.
Standard grey and pink apartment buildings, clothing shops, fresh restaurants and markets offering prices a quarter lower than Ankara or any stop along the Aegean and special dishes from the city’s resident Balkan and Tatar refugees. And then a few turns brought us to the district most famous with foreigners – the neighborhoods of old Ottoman houses set along steep, winding cobblestone streets.

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It was well past noon, so we stopped at a restaurant by the old mosque and handcraft studio offering standard Köfte and traditionally Tatar Çiğ Börek, which looks exactly like the stuffed and fried meat dumplings called чебурек (“cheburek”) I’ve seen in Bishkek stalls (Bishkek also once had a sizable Tatar population).

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We stayed nearby in one of Eskisehir’s many Konak hotels – old wooden Osmanli villas converted into B&Bs. After showering and unpacking we emerged again to discover that Eskisehir is a completely different city at night, when the many shops and cafes light up the streets and students pour out of classes to clog the cafes.

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We were with two friends who had visited Eskisehir before and went off in search of the famed cafe and bar street along the river banks. Educated, liberal youth in Turkey are definitely alternative in fashion. It seems like every other university student or recent graduate could easily blend in to Portland (Oregon), Berkeley or Brooklyn, as could the used bookstores, owl-themed cafes, hipster-ironic bars, and cheap eateries spreading from the river banks.

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We stopped first at Palmiye, a cafe with a heated outdoor terrace where students sat chatting or playing tabla (backgammon), and the only offerings on the menu were black tea, herbal tea, and Nescafé (ubiquitous around Turkey, and almost always as expensive as brewed coffee in the states).
Again, one thing I love about Turkey: the outdoor terraces attached to almost all cafes and restaurants aren’t just for warmer weather. Even in winter patrons sit outside under the many space heaters mounted high on the walls.
After the cafe we got better directions and wandered over to Social, one of many crowded old-school pubs with Afro-haired garçons who look like they summer in the Rastafarian-equestrian pansions lining Olympos.

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Despite the frosty air, Eskisehir’s partially-open air cafes and pubs fill every night, opening late in the afternoon and getting progressively crowded as time crawls into the early morning hours. These are Portland Pubs, where people order hipster burgers and Belgium beers and talk over tables for hours.
We meant to go to a live music show at the Shakespeare Pub, located in an old wooden trade and crafts hall with decadent chandeliers and polished worn wooden floors. But we had started our evening too early, and when we got there at 11 we were informed the show wouldn’t start until 1:30. So we took a taxi back to the hotel for $5 and fell asleep feeling slightly aged in this young-blood college town.

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The next morning started with a scrumptious full Turkish breakfast provided free at the hotel – plates of fresh cheese, pear and cherry preserves, fresh honey, clotted cream, oven-fresh bread and dainty pastries, dried figs and appricots, tahini spread and a big bowl of raw salad – cucumbers, tomatoes, cilantro and arugula. Beats a Best Wester Coffee Bar any day.

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Since our friend had lost his car keys the previous evening, we left his pregnant wife at the hotel and went out retracing our steps. Unlike Ankara, which his (Ankara born-and-bred) wife Ö- deems “cold”, Eskisehir residents are full of famed Turkish small-town hospitality. Stop anyone on the street and they’ll fill you with far more information than you need.
We never did find the keys (a grandfatherly taxi driver found a friend of a friend who later showed up to unlock the car and make a new set), but walking along the river banks I discovered that Eskisehir on a Sunday morning is a lovely little city too, a little dreary under the snow, but also both sleepy and alive with warm winter chatter. In Spring, Summer, and Fall it’s probably downright lovely.

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While waiting for the key smith we wandered through the local handicraft bazaar (one of many) where local craftsmen had beautiful marbling, carved wooden boxes, miniature painting, glass sculpture, and pipes carved of white stone on display. The glass blowing workshop was open, and we watched a free demonstration as a master-glassblower made an elegantly curved center piece dish. This is what I miss in Bishkek – culture, color, discovery, craft and the pride in creating, in doing something well.

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Our last stop in Eskisehir was the wax museum. Snow had started falling, and Ö and I were cold standing outside while the car keys were created so we trapped over to the glass museum. But having already seen glass blowing, we headed into the wax museum next door instead. Which was…interesting. Full of Atatürks and figures from Turkey’s Revolutionary Past, Selcuk conquerors and Ottoman emperors were follower by contemporary artists, writers, doctors, musicians, and wax figures of boring-looking local businessmen, then a no-camera room of world politicians (including a very bad rendering of a comically grinning Obama), select international film stars and science figures (Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt, Einstein), a no-camera “Democracy Hall” with Erdogan at center and Menderes, the only Prime Minister to ever be executed, in an isolated case in the corner. I’ll let someone else tease out the political and ideological significance of the museum another day.

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