16 February 2012

We Didn't Want To Leave Edirne

Thracian Turkey is treeless, a gradual slope of farmland rising from the Bosphorus to the border with Greece and Bulgaria. A February snowfall had turned the fields silvery. On the way westward we passed textile factories and tiny mosques. The drive was sleepy, the sky was still heavy with winter grey.
Arriving in Edirne was like waking up. It had life and layered history, friendly people, no tourists. This is what every mid-sized, self-possesed city strives to be - a place where locals chat in the streets next to great museums and lively cafes.
Right up against the borders, at the point where three countries with wildly different histories come together, Edirne sits nestled into a crook in the Maritsa River. It’s been the capital of the Ottoman empire and the Bessi Thracians, but now serves simply as capital of the province. And that’s precisely what it feels like – a border town and a provincial capital, infused with market town energy.
It would be possible to be impressed by Edirne without seeing any of the sights. Saraçlar Caddesi, the main pedestrian thoroughfare, is a riot of sweets shops and fruit vendors. The call to prayer from four mosques woke us in the predawn light. Tea men ran down the street with trays of glasses, delivering to the dozens of barbershops and scores of cobblers. Near the big market, men drove horse and donkey carts loaded with goods or people, a farrier did brisk business.
But there are sights. We went to Edirne because it felt inevitable. There aren’t many roads to travel in Eastern Thrace, especially in the winter, and the capital had places to stay and things to see. There are a slew of important mosques, ancient bridges, a famous museum of health, Thracian walls, an excellent fishmarket and old wooden houses.
Close enough to Istanbul to be ignored, Edirne is mistreated by guidebooks mostly because it’s in the wrong direction. Turkey’s a big country, there’s only ever so much time to see everything and it’s easy to be lured toward Cappadocia and Ephesus. If we hadn’t been focused on the European part of the country, the mosques and health museum probably wouldn’t have brought us to this corner.
In 324 AD, a key battle in the Roman civil war occurred in Adrianople, as Edirne was then called. Later in the fourth century, the deciding battle in the Gothic War was fought here, eight hundred years later, the Crusaders suffered a critical loss in the city, being routed by the Bulgarians. In 1912, the location became the most notorious of the First Balkan War. Edirne has had sixteen major sieges and battles, its history is as bloodstained as any town's.
But, like so many places that were able to avoid the worst of the World Wars, Edirne doesn't feel like a ravaged city. It feels old in a lived in, unaffected way, with lots of prewar buildings that have had time to decay at their own rate.
The thing to eat is tava ciğeri, or fried calf liver. Most kebab shops offered it, and - unlike the "local dishes" of many other places - the locals really did seem to love it.
The meat is sliced into thin strips, lightly breaded and fried in deep pans of sunflower oil, along with Thracian peppers. The liver is crispy edged, but succulent inside. The peppers are hot enough to be dangerous - the patrons at the ciğeri shops drink ayran, a salty yoghurt drink, to temper the spice.
We planned on spending just two nights in Edirne, but ended up sleeping there for three. It seemed silly to leave a place that we were enjoying to head into the wintery uncertainty of off-season beach towns and slumbering fields.
These always seem to be our favorite spots - the places that no one expects to fall in love with. After three days, we were talking about coming back in the summer, about what the river must be like in the spring, about other parts of the city to explore.

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