Tumbling down the side of Uludağ (ancient Mt Olympus of Bithynia), Bursa was the Ottoman Empire’s first serious capital, and retains its imperial character. It is a city of beautiful early Ottoman mosques, myriad green parks, excellent kebabs and in the last two years volcanic urban sprawl. Buried away behind a wall of concrete, hans and bazaar still bear testament to its historic role as one of the last staging-posts on the silk route, where the Mediterranean went shopping of Asian goodies.
Along the skirts of the Bithynian Mount Olympus (known for half a millennium by the Ottomans as Keşiş Dağı, or Monk’s Mountain), lies what remains of the first capital of the early Ottoman state. Once home to the most flourishing silk industry of the Middle East and fabled for its 300 minarets, it was a city dedicated in equal parts to commerce and religion. From the 14th until the early 20th century, its inhabitants never numbered more than 50,000. Today it is a sprawling metropolis of over 2,000,000 which is home to Turkey’s automotive industry and still a major centre of textile production, although the famed Bursa towels have long since outpaced its renowned silks. As for its minarets, which really only numbered 300 in the writings of travellers, they are still there, though one sometimes has trouble spotting them amid the apartments blocks and stores that mar what was once a vista of dozens of graceful spires rising above the maze of two-storey lath-and-plaster dwellings.
Equally famed was its natural hot springs, known in Turkish as kaplıca, which abound in the western suburb of Çekirge, and which by the end of the 18th century had been discovered by a handful of adventurous Europeans, who built a number of small spa hotels, immediately attracting parties of hedonistic visitors. This meant that Bursa soon became a popular weekend retreat for Europeans living in Istanbul, who sailed for eight to 12 hours to the port town of Mudanya on the Sea of Marmara and were then transported by horse-drawn wagons over the forested hills and through 15 kilometres of mulberry and fruit orchards to Bursa and its baths.
By the end of the 19th century the journey was made somewhat easier by the construction of a narrow-gauge railway connecting the two towns. Even that trip, however, was not without adventure: travellers reported how at steep grades along the way the male passengers were asked to disembark and walk on foot to the brow of the next hill, as the little engine didn’t have quite enough steam to get itself and a full load of riders over the hills that surrounded the fertile Bursa plain, as Heath Lowry reports in Cornucopia 38, an issue dedicated to Bursa.
Take the early high-speed ferry from Yenikapı to Yalova; buses take you up into the hills of Bursa from the coast. On windy days the catamarans don’t run, but buses ply the road that runs around the gulf of Izmit.
A tip for drivers. The traffic can be pretty bad in Bursa. One surprising quick, and particularly scenic, way of getting from east to west, is by keeping to the narrow lanes above the town. Dolmuşes also run regularly from Çekirge, where the best spa hotels are, to Heykel, just beyond the Ulucami and bazaars.
Bursa is home to the fabled Iskender Kebab and for 80 years the Iskender Kebabcısı by the State Theatre – all whitewash and gleaming sky-blue paint – has been home to the eponymous Iskender kebab, döner on pide, with tomato sauce, yoghurt and melted butter poured over. Those in the know have followed one of the old chefs to a delightful pavement restaurant across from the old Bus Station. The editor and publisher swear by the fabulous soups of Paçacı Hüsnü, in the district of Yıldırım – be there by midday.