The Night Bus South

Trip Start Oct 24, 2005
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Turkey  , Balikesir,
Thursday, August 5, 2010

Nick left Istanbul on Tuesday, which gave us just two nights to get our act together and prepared for our upcoming trip to Greece.  We'd been able to secure a week off work in early August, and, after much deliberation, we opted to head to Greece.  We knew most of the islands would be packed full of holidaymakers from throughout Europe, so we thought it wise to head to the less touristy island of Lesvos.  Lesvos, while part of Greece, is actually closer to Turkey than it is to the rest of Greece, so we crossed our fingers and hoped that the distance might mean the beaches would be less crowded.  

The easiest way to get to Lesvos from Turkey is to take an hour and a half ferry ride a mere 25 kilometers across the Mytilini Strait.  There are two ferry ports in Turkey that will get you to Lesvos; we chose to depart from the town of Ayvalik, an overnight bus ride southwest from Istanbul.  People had told us over and over how amazing buses in Turkey are, so we were looking forward to our first Turkish bus experience.  

After a day of classes, we threw the necessities into a pack and walked up to Taksim, just in time to grab the service bus to the company's main bus station on the Asian side.  It took us about an hour to get there, a fact of which I took advantage by squeezing in a nap.  After a short rest at the bus station, we climbed aboard our carriage and settled into our seats.  To be honest, neither of us saw what the fuss was all about: Turkish buses seemed much the same as buses everywhere else.  Either way, the main thing was that the seats were relatively comfortable, which meant that we should be able to get a few hours sleep as the bus headed south.

I awoke as we pulled into the Ayvalik bus station, just before 8am.  Fortunately, the bus station was about 100 yards from the ferry terminal, so we ambled to a ticket office and picked up a pair of roundtrip tickets to Lesvos (50 euro for the pair).  The daily ferry leaves at 6pm, so we had a good 10 hours to explore Ayvalik and the surrounding area.  We left our pack at the ticket office and set out on foot, heading south, towards the town center.  The town was still pretty quiet in those early morning hours as we walked to the marina.  From there we grabbed a dolmus to take us to Cunda Island.

Cunda (June-da) and Ayvalik both have histories colored by the events of the Turkish War of Independence (1920-1923).  The first shot in the war was said to have been fired in Ayvalik, a fact of which its current inhabitants are very proud.  The area was heavily, if not entirely, populated by Greek Ottomans at this time.  At the end of the War of Independence, the Greek and Turkish governments signed the Convention Concerning the Exchange of Greek and Turkish Populations, which finalized the details of an obligatory population exchange between the two countries.  At the time the agreement was signed, there was a substantial Greek population living in Turkey and a similarly sizable number of Turks living in Greece.  The agreement required the two groups to, in essence, switch places: the Greek Orthodox population was forced back to Greece and the Muslims were sent packing to Turkey.  

There are still remnants of the Greek settlement throughout the area, primarily in Cunda, which is why we were in a dolmus headed in that direction.  It was still early when we arrived at the "boardwalk" 15-20 minutes later, and the area was still relatively deserted.  We veered away from the boardwalk bit and turned onto the back alleys, winding our way between old Greek-style houses where I could have taken a million pictures: crumbling, old buildings full of character and lots of colorful doors and shutters.  We paused to check out Taksiarhis Greek Orthodox Church, the most apparent remnant of the Greek settlement there, and then climbed uphill until we reached the top of the island, a location which afforded us fantastic 360 views of the entire area.

After soaking up the sights and enjoying the sunshine, we walked back to the boardwalk and found a lovely little spot right on the water to have a very light breakfast.  August is kitten season, and we'd seen loads and loads of cats and kittens, including one at the restaurant we were eating at.  When Konrad went to the bathroom, I decided to befriend said cat.  It went well for a few seconds and quickly turned sour as the big, bulky cat attacked me, sinking its claws into my dress.  It was so big and bulky and had such sharp claws, I couldn't wrestle free until Konrad returned to save me from the big, bad bully.  

After wandering around and looking at the souvenirs for a bit, we grabbed a dolmus back into town, and then quickly transferred to a bus bound for Sarimsakli, the main beach in the area.  Despite the fact that the beach was very long and that it was a Friday, the beach was crazy crowded, full of about a million Turkish families on summer holiday -- which made us a bit nervous about how bad the beaches would be in Greece.  After coping with the crowds for a few hours and grabbing some lunch, we hopped back on the bus to Ayvalik.  The traffic looked bad as we neared town, so we decided to get off the bus and walk.  During our walk through town, we were treated to something we'd never before experienced in Turkey: at 4:50pm, the national anthem was broadcast throughout the town and everyone stopped dead in their tracks to pay tribute (no singing along, which I thought was weird).  As soon as it was over, the cars started moving again and people continued walking -- very interesting.

After wading our way through town, we were finally back at the ticket office, collecting our bags, and then walking across the street to the jetty.  We had a long wait in the Immigration line, and then we were in no man's land for the next hour and a half as we enjoyed a fabulously gorgeous ferry ride across the Aegean between Turkey and Greece.  By the time the boat closed in on the Greek coast, the sun had begun its descent, and we were treated to some lovely views over the Mytilini Castle -- hello, Ellas!

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