Anzac Day Special: Canakkale – Guardian of the straits
The Turkish victory at Gallipoli (Gelibolu) just across the narrows — brought to prominence a hitherto little known lieutenant-colonel, Mustafa Kemal, later to be known as Atatürk — proved that the Turks could hold their own against the great imperialist powers of the day and marked, symbolically at least, the start of the War of Independence and subsequent emergence of the Turkish Republic.
But although Çanakkale’s raison d’être may be a military one, i.e., control of the straits, it is a surprisingly attractive town for a short break, with its sweeping views over the glimmering Dardanelles (Boğaz) to European Turkey, seafront restaurants and cobbled, pedestrianized streets lined with bars and cafes and its handful of sights and clutch of decent hotels and hostels. The presence of some 30,000 students from the local university serves only to enliven the atmosphere of a town that is also the gateway to two of Turkey’s most evocative sites: the World War I battlefields of the Gallipoli peninsula and Homer’s legendary Troy.
Exploring the seafront
The town centers on bustling Cumhuriyet Meydanı right on the waterfront and abutting the ferry terminal, which is busy with ferries shuttling round the clock to and from Eceabat across the strait. Heading north along the seafront esplanade, just before a large marina fans of the 2004 Hollywood epic “Troy” will be delighted to recognize one of the stars of the movie (no, it’s not Brad Pitt) — the actual wooden-horse used on set. It may sound cheesy, but it’s actually pretty impressive, and few visitors can resist posing for a photograph in front of this Hollywood representation of the horse that brought Priam’s proud city to its knees in the legendary siege of Troy.
The area south of the ferry terminal, however, is the most interesting from a visitor’s point of view. A number of lively bars, cafes and fish restaurants line the front, where you can sit and idle the time away watching the great tankers and container ships glide silently through the narrows, or watch the quayside anglers trying their luck in the perpetually wind-ruffled waters. Beyond them is Çimenlik Park, a pleasant green space bounded by the sea to the west and the battlements of Çimenlik Fortress to the south. Rather than the usual sculptures, statues or kids play equipment, the park is adorned with weaponry of all kinds, including sleekly menacing World War II torpedoes; rotund, spiky World War I mines; and vintage field artillery. The fortress dates back to 1461-2, when Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror had it built to help defend İstanbul against ships trying to force their way through the Dardanelles into the Sea of Marmara. An impressive construction, it today houses the Naval Museum (TL 4, open 9 a.m.-noon, 1 p.m.-5 p.m.; closed Mondays and Thursdays), which focuses on the Gallipoli campaigns of 1915 when the fortress was still in use and played its part in preventing the Allied forces’ advance. Part of the admission price includes a tour of the Nusret, moored alongside the park. Built in 1912, this German mine-laying vessel was used to prevent Allied ships operating freely in the straits or the seas off the Gallipoli peninsula.
Just north of the vessel is a small terminal from which it’s possible to take a 15-minute, TL 1.50 ferry ride across to Kilitbahar, the sister fortress to Çimenlik on the far side of the straits — a far cheaper option than excursions to either Troy or Gallipoli (see below). A pretty village with cafes has grown up around the superbly preserved fortress, and you can scramble atop and walk around the outer walls.
Behind the waterfront
In the 19th and early 20th centuries Çanakkale was a cosmopolitan trading town, its population made up of Greeks, Armenians and Jews as well as Turks, leavened by a fair sprinkling of foreigners. There were foreign consulates here, too, and it was an Italian consul who gifted the town its distinctive clock tower in 1897. Running east of the triangular square around the clock tower is Fetvane Sokak, known more commonly by locals as Barlar Sokak, or Street of the Bars. The rows of largely stone-built 19th-century houses, shops, hans and the like here are now home to dozens of bars and cafes. Most atmospheric is the 1899 Yalı Han, where you can sip tea, puff on a nargile or enjoy a beer in the pleasant courtyard.
Further along Barlar Sokak the new City Museum, housed in a renovated period building, gives a great introduction to the history of the town. Nearby is a beautiful, wrought-iron balconied boutique hotel redolent with period-charm. This building opened in the early 1870s as the French-owned Hotel des Etrangers. Following decades of neglect and changes of use, the current owner has restored the building as closely as he could to the original and kept the hotel’s original name. Heinrich Schliemann, the famous archaeologist and “discoverer” of Troy, lodged in the original des Etrangers en route to his excavations. Further inland lies the Mekor Hayim synagogue (www.canakkalemusevicemaati.com), a pleasant stone-building erected in 1890. Re-opened in 2005 following a lengthy restoration process, it is used infrequently as the town’s Jewish population has shrunk from some 600 in the 19th century to 10 today.
Inconveniently located three kilometers southeast of the ferry terminal/clock tower is the Archaeology Museum (TL 5, 8 a.m.-5 p.m.). The bad news is that it is a drab concrete building, gloomy and uninspiringly laid-out. The good news is that it contains some wonderful exhibits. The pick of these is one of the most beautiful relief-carved stone sarcophagi you’ll see anywhere — on par with the famous Sidon sarcophagi that form the centerpiece of İstanbul’s rather better known Archaeology Museum. Stunningly executed back in the sixth-century B.C., the most impressive scene on the sarcophagus depicts Polyxena, daughter of Priam of Troy, being sacrificed by Neoptolemus, son of that great scourge of the Trojans, Achilles. There are also assorted finds from Troy and much more recent examples of the distinctive mid 18th to early 20th century local pottery-ware that became so famous the town changed its name from Kale-i Sultaniye, or Castle of the Sultan, to the name we know it by today — Çanakkale or Castle of the Potteries.
South to Troy
Although there is basic pension-style accommodation in Tevfikiye, the village adjacent to the ancient site of Troy (TL 15, 8 a.m.-7 p.m. summer, to 5 p.m. October-April), 30-odd kilometers to the south, Çanakkale makes the perfect base for a half-day outing to what is surely one of the world’s most famous spots — I mean, who has never heard of Troy? What the remains of this legendary city lack in substance (reduce your expectations drastically if you are imagining Troy as it appears in the movie), they more than make up for in grand location and clever interpretation. Set at one end of a low ridge overlooking a fertile plain, with the vast expanse of the Aegean shimmering away to the west and the blue sliver of the Dardanelles to the north, it’s a gorgeous, if oft wind-battered, spot.
What archaeologists have uncovered here, beginning back in 1874 when German millionaire Heinrich Schliemann attacked the mound of Hisarlık and continuing right through to the present day, are the remains of 10 distinct settlements built one on top of the other and dating from circa 3,000 B.C. through to the 13th century. Wandering around the site today, examining stretches of carefully uncovered city wall dating back to the probable date of Homer’s Troy (circa 1200 B.C.), mud bricks burnt in a blaze around 2,200 B.C., or cracked clay pipes from the Roman era, and it’s easy to see why the site has both confused and delighted successive archaeologists. It’s the ultimate puzzle trying to work out what belongs where — especially when the great trench dug by Schliemann through the mound in his haste to find the layer of occupation corresponding to Homer’s Troy jumbled up many of the pieces. Fortunately a series of explanatory panels have been erected to guide visitors around the site in a logical fashion and help bring the complex excavations to life.
North to the Gallipoli peninsula
Without your own transport it’s difficult to explore the landing beaches, battlegrounds and cemeteries of the peninsula, so its best either to rent a car in Çanakkale and take the ferry (TL 2 for foot passengers, TL 25 per vehicle) across to Eceabat, or join one of the tours (prices around TL 60) organized by several town-based travel agencies. The peninsula, most of it national park, is some 60 kilometers long, so to visit all the key spots you really need a whole day. If you confine yourself to either the sites north of the Kabatepe Information Center and Museum, as many Australians and New Zealanders do, or those to the southern end of the peninsula, which are of more interest to the British (for Turks, of course, the entire peninsula is something of a shrine), a long half-day should suffice.
The Gallipoli campaign was an unmitigated disaster for the Allies; their bold plan to force the Dardanelles, capture İstanbul and effectively knock Germany’s ally, Ottoman Turkey, out of World War I ended with the loss of 52,000 men (many of them Aussies and New Zealanders) and a hasty retreat. The Ottoman Turks lost up to 200,000 men, a heavy price to pay for what was in some ways a hollow victory, for they lost World War I, and the British occupied İstanbul anyway. But Gallipoli gave the Turks a hero, Atatürk, who was to found a new nation on the ashes of a burnt-out empire, and Australia and New Zealand found at Gallipoli a national pride that enabled them to break the shackles of imperial British influence. The cemeteries of the fallen of all nationalities and creeds are what make a visit to Gallipoli special though, especially when they are dotted so poignantly across a spare, unspoilt landscape of rolling hills, crumbling earth-cliffs and sea-licked coves.
How to get there
From İstanbul buses take five-and-a-half hours and cost around TL 40, or take the sea bus to Bandırma from Yenikapı (two hours, TL 30) and bus onto Çanakkale (two-and-a-half hours, TL 20), or Anadolujet and Bora Jet both fly from İstanbul’s Sabiha Gökçen Airport.
Originally published on 24 March 2011.