I’m sitting on my hotel terrace gazing out at the azure sea. Over to the right, I can see smart new port facilities, while off to the left, an islet attached to the mainland by a narrow causeway stretches like a lazy arm out into the sea. Perched on top of it is a castle. It’s a dinky little thing, not at all like the huge fortresses of Bozcaada, Çeşme or Bodrum that really look as if they mean business. Instead, this castle looks as if it had always been built more for decorative purposes than with any real intention of driving the enemy away.
Where am I? Well, believe it or not, in Kuşadası, the town that takes its modern name — Bird Island — from that very same castle-topped island.
Kuşadası is one of those towns that people tend to love or hate. Traditionally, the lovers have been the party crowd, the people who flock to Bar Street for an evening to take their pick from a long line of themed British, Irish, German and Dutch drinking holes. The haters are usually those who come on holiday in search of “the real Turkey,” for whom those same bars, the endless sprawl of cookie-cutter hotels and the incessant adverts for “Proper English Breakfasts” are anathema.
A history-lover, I should belong firmly in the latter camp, although a couple of recent visits have made me think again because the truth is that more of the older town that preceded the tourist resort still survives here than one might sometimes assume. The key to really enjoying Kuşadası is to approach it from the water, which is what the many cruise passengers who pour through town in high summer on their way to the ruins at Ephesus do. But so do the independent travelers who pop across from the Greek island of Samos and find themselves arriving at a modern port named Scala Nova after the older trading colony founded on the site of the ancient Neapolis by Genoese merchants in the Middle Ages.
The lower town
Assuming that you do arrive in town by boat, you will emerge straight into its oldest part and, bearing left, will come almost immediately to the clearest evidence of it in the form of a massive caravanserai commissioned to stand on what was then the waterfront by Kara Mehmet Paşa in 1618, shortly before he was murdered by one of the Janissaries. Mehmet Paşa briefly served as grand vizier under both Sultan Ahmed I and Genç (Young) Sultan Osman, but in between those terms he was governor of the province of Aydın, where Kuşadası is located. It was in the hope of making the town more attractive as a port that he had the caravanserai built. Ironically, although his efforts seemed to have been in vain as İzmir overtook the town in importance, today they’re bearing luscious fruit, with Kuşadası now the fourth biggest cruise-ship port in the Mediterranean.
There’s a statue of Mehmet Paşa near the caravanserai, although it’s surprisingly small for a man nicknamed “Öküz” (the Ox) on account of his burly build. That might appear to be all the town has to show for his time in office, but if you walk up Kahramanlar Caddesi, the pedestrianized main shopping street, and then turn left into the narrow side streets, you will find yourself walking through an area known as the Kaleiçi that used to be tucked away inside the lost city walls. Here you will find the simple but attractive Kaleiçi Cami, built at the same time as the caravanserai with, nearby, the Kaleiçi Hamamı (Turkish bath) that once formed part of a complex with it.
Ottoman travel writer Evliya Çelebi visited Kuşadası in the 17th century and reported that it took its name from the migratory birds that congregated on Güvercin Adası, the islet topped with the castle. A drawing that appears in an account of his travels by French botanist Joseph Pitton de Tournefort shows the city walls still standing right the way along the waterfront in 1702. Sadly, today only one pathetic fragment survives on the inland side of the coast road together with part of a gateway attached to the caravanserai. The arched tower at the inland end of Kahramanlar Caddesi is the only other substantial reminder that the main shopping area was once enclosed by hefty walls.
Today, the back streets of the Kaleiçi are completely given over to restaurants and shops aimed at tourists. However, if you look more closely at the buildings that house them, you will begin to see that this was the Turkish quarter of town right through into the 20th century. Still today some fine gateways and window frames survive to testify to a time when Kuşadası architects could rise to buildings of far greater beauty than they seem to be able to manage now.
Although archaeologists believe that there was a settlement here from as long ago as 3000 B.C., Kuşadası has little to show for its distant past. Down by the waterfront, a few old Roman capitals and other fragments of masonry from ancient Neapolis are on display in the Kasım Yaman park, while a couple of equally old sarcophagi are stored in the courtyard of the Kaleiçi Cami. One other rather sweet memento of antiquity also survives in the fountain attached to the tower at the top of Kahramanlar Caddesi. Look at it closely and you’ll see that another old sarcophagus was used to create it.
As for the tiny castle on its islet, it dates back originally to the Genoese era, although it has been much restored over the years and last saw action as recently as 1834. Sadly, the keep is closed to the public and most of the old refreshment stands have been turfed out. A pleasant stroll around the outer walls won’t take you much more than half an hour.
The upper town
Nineteenth-century Kuşadası was a divided community, with most of the Rum (Greek) residents living on the hillside opposite Kaleiçi; to find it, look for the statue of the Kuşadası-born jazz trumpeter, Maffy Falay, and walk up the slope behind it. Today, this is where most of the cheaper accommodations aimed at budget travelers can be found. Ironically, it’s also where the finest architecture survives with most of the streets still lined with once-elegant townhouses. Many have fallen on hard times, although there are signs that the gentrification process is belatedly starting to kick in.
With their finely carved wooden corbels, pretty plastered facades and elegant doors with wrought-iron fanlights, many of these houses are as imposing as those in towns where the Ottoman revival is much further advanced. There is even the occasional surviving cihannüma (attic floor surrounded by windows), where household residents would have been able to relax in the evening with a magnificent view out to sea stretching in front of them.
For many visitors, of course, all this history is a distraction from the main purpose of a visit to Kuşadası, which is the acquisition of a suntan. Fortunately, the town is surrounded by a series of beaches with something to suit almost everyone. Some, such as the popular Kadınlar Denizi (Ladies’ Beach), are little more than small bays completely overshadowed by hotel complexes, shops and restaurants, but very easy to get to from the town center. Quieter beaches with more appealing views fringe tiny Yılancı Burnu, the islet beyond Güvercin Adası.
But for a more extensive stretch of sand, your best bet is probably to hop on a bus heading for Selçuk via Pamucak, where a fine beach is overlooked at one end by a water park and a couple of huge hotels but, at the other end, remains unexpectedly undeveloped. (Next week: What to see around Kuşadası)