Thoughts reverent and irreverent from the road in Turkey


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Today’s the day we’re moving on to Mardin which nobody has warned us against visiting, thank goodness. The dolmuş leaves from Diyarbakır’s local bus station, and I think fondly of the days when that used to be right in front of Kıbrıs Caddesi and the cheaper hotels. Now there’s a large square there. It’s not especially beautiful and doesn’t seem to be serving much of a purpose but I suppose it’s churlish to complain about the buses being evicted.

Anyway it’s a quick and easy run to Mardin and along the way Rebecca does her best to make arrangements for us with a woman called Fatma who we believe offers home-stays there. After many years in which tourism lay in the doldrums Mardin is suddenly the happening part of the south-east with Turkish tourists pouring in to admire its glorious honey-gold architecture. The result is a serious shortage of reasonably priced places to stay in the old city bar one seriously substandard offering. We don’t want to stay in the new city so a home-stay sounds perfect: it will cost us less than a boutique hotel and we’ll get an inside look at life in the city.

That’s the theory anyway but there is a problem which is that Fatma works during the day and doesn’t want to meet us until 5.30 which would leave us having to hump our luggage around with us all afternoon. Eventually a compromise is reached whereby we will leave our bags with friends who have a café in the central car park. Hmmm. One look at this arrangement and we realize that it would be foolish to leave our computers there which means that they will have to come with us to the new Sabancı Museum.

It’s a long, hot walk from the car park to the museum but fortunately that is impressive enough to perk us up again. Better still, we find that an air-conditioned branch of Simit Saray has opened immediately opposite it and that it offers wi-fi access thrown in with the sesame-seed rings. Revived, we stride back along the main road to the car park and hang about for Fatma.

I don’t know what I had expected but it probably wasn’t a blonde-haired woman in a mid-calf skirt who sets off at a goodly lick up the steps behind the car park while we trail in her wake with our luggage. At first sight the house looks fairly promising in that it certainly looks old. Unfortunately at second sight it’s a lot less inviting. Fatma leads us up a couple of steps to a cell-like annexe which looks even more cell-like on the inside. Two grim metal beds of the type one associated with hospitals (or prisons) come paired with Bob the Builder duvets. There are no bedside tables and the curtained niche between the two beds turns out not to be a wardrobe so much as a rummage room for all Fatma’s cast-offs. The concrete floor is uncovered with rugs, the walls unadorned with pictures.

My heart is already sinking when Fatma announces that she’s off to do some shopping and will return at eight. “Where will we eat?” I ask. “In the room,” she answers and suddenly I notice the table against the wall with the two chairs that is set with paper napkins and cruets.

The home-stay is an interesting concept much in vogue with ecotourists. In my experience, though, it’s a fairly demanding form of tourism that can only ever suit a niche mark of fairly adventurous travellers who can cope with a lack of privacy and the strain of a lack of shared language. The upside is that, by staying with a family in their own home, you get a chance to see what life is really like for the locals and to ask all your burning questions (if there is a shared language). Here, though, we were being presented with the worst of all words: a room that was neither genuinely part of the family home despite doubling as a dining room nor with any of the design pluses of a hotel.

Rebecca pops across to the toilet and announces it broken. “I don’t want to look at wht you’ve done or have you looking at what I’ve done,” she says. Ditto, I think, as I stare gloomily at the wad of paper stuffed down the bowl. There’s a terrace outside so there’s no obvious reason why we should have to eat in the bedroom.

Then like naughty schoolgirls we decide to make a break for it. We call Fatma and tell her it was wasn’t what we were expecting, then check straight into the boutique and pricy Tatlı Dede hotel in the market. My conscience pricks me for all of five minutes.

The wonderful thing about travelling in the summer is the long hours of daylight. Despite having had to swap base there’s still time to take a turn round the market, eyeing up the white donkeys ridden through the narrow streets at cowboy speed by local youths. First we have to navigate our way round an especially irksome child who blocks the path from the hotel. Since he’s only about nine or ten at first I don’t take him seriously and I’m only just cottoning on to the fact that he really does mean to bar our passage when thankfully a man shows up and chase him away.

In the market we home straight in on the crafty bit at the end where several men practise the local craft of camaltı, or making pictures beneath glass. This is a tradition that goes back a long way and was also practised around Konya where a variety of themes were favoured. Here in Mardin, however, the most popular is the şahmaran, a Mesopotamian fertility god with a human head and a snake body. My first brush with the şahmaran was in Urfa market where I once bought a tray embossed with the image of a mysterious creature that I’d bought solely for its colours. These days, though, Mardin has more or less cornered the market when it comes to şahmaran images. As Rebecca makes arrangements to come and photograph work in progress I note with regret that the picture I bought a few years ago and that now sits in my kitchen was probably a cheapo model made using a print. The real camaltı versions come in lovely wooden frames, another Mardin tradition.

To celebrate our new upmarket living conditions we head out in the evening for the Cercis Murat Konağı, a famous local restaurant housed in a glorious old house that was the brainchild of Ebru Baybara Demir, one of an elite band of Turkish female entrepreneurs. On past visits I’ve had no luck with this restaurant. There was the time I came here hoping to impress the writer Barbara Nadel who planned to set one of her detective stories in Mardin only to find myself seated not in one of the two elegant dining rooms but in the grim (and, yes, cell-like) annexe. None of our party was drinking which put us at the bottom of the pecking order as far as the staff was concerned. Our particular waiter was an unsmiling individual who greeted all our questions with disdain. Oddly, he was wearing one white glove which lumped him in with Michael Jackson in the Thriller days.

My second visit was on a press trip to the south-east, the itinerary for which was unravelling rapidly. There were a lot of us in the group so the service was very slow. It was the end of October and when I looked at my watch I knew there were only 30 minutes or so before dark would descend. Sadly, I folded my napkin, tucked in my chair and headed out to visit the market without getting past the amuse-bouche.

This time, though, we’re in luck. The restaurant has a new enclosed terrace which means that almost all the other guests are sitting in the outer room leaving the lovely stone-carved rooms to us. We pig out on the mixed meze platter washed down with some pleasing Suryani wine then roll back to our luxury hotel room contented.









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