Eskişehir

Eskişehir is Anatolia’s ‘European’ city. And the Porsuk Çayı, crisscrossed by little bridges, its banks lined with cafes, brings vitality to the city while the universities and their students add color.

Eskişehir city center is definitely not the first place that would come to a history-buff tourist’s mind. Yet, with its modern lifestyle, vibrant nightlife, the Porsuk Çayı and surrounding area, and the museums at its heart, Eskişehir is a place with riches enough to delight any visitor. The atmosphere of an old Anatolian town, replete with colorful woodframe houses boasting elaborately carved cantilevered balconies, pervades the air at Odunpazarı where the city was originally founded, while the Porsuk Çayı and its banks, reminiscent of Paris with its tour boats shuttling up and down and its near-miraculous urban transformation, represents the city’s modern face. But you only begin to capture this city’s unique air towards ‘Sıcak Sular’ or Hamamyolu ('road to the public bath'). Tiny shops, shoe repair shops, shoeshine stalls… Life here may not conjure up visions of Paris in your mind, but as you chat with its people, you immediately get the impression that Eskişehir is a city that holds out the possibility of a comfortable and good lifestyle.

BELOVED OF STUDENTS
One of two universities in Eskişehir, Anadolu University is the wellspring of the city’s open-mindedness, social and commercial vitality, and boundless joy. The student population, which exceeds thirty thousand when the students of Osmangazi University are added in, is what keeps this city going in every sense of the word.

The streets are thronged with innumerable young people, self-confident and exuding a different style, outlook and approach to life. And while it loves being different, this university generation largely shares in the common fate of being a student. Students in Eskişehir play as hard as they work. It’s enough to take a few steps on the street to have a flyer announcing one of the many parties that are constantly being organized thrust into your hand. There are parties for very occasion: mid-term parties when the mid-term examinations are  over, spring parties at the arrival of spring, finals parties when final exams end...  The students in this town never sleep. And as long as they don’t sleep, neither do the order-out restaurants. Home deliveries get going in earnest after midnight.
The universities support not only the city’s businesses but its cultural life as well. Activities such as the Traveling Film Festival, the Rock Film Festival, English Short Films Week, the Jazz and Blues Festival and the International Terracota Symposium spill over from the universities into the town at large.

Although the population of this industrial and university town appears at first glance to consist entirely of students, in fact the mosaic is far more colorful. The true natives of this city are ‘the Manavlar’, who keep alive the culture and cuisine of the Crimeans as well as of the Tatars, Circassians and nomadic peoples who came from Central Asia after the collapse of Tsarist Russia. The 19th century traveler Georges Perrot describes the mosaic in his impressions: “A phenomenon never seen in the West is encountered here in this empire where seven or eight races live side by side with their different languages and religions.”

ON THE BANKS OF THE PORSUK
Not only the students but the majority of the city’s residents congregate here for a break at the end of the day on the banks of the Porsuk Çayı, a small river that runs through the center of town. The promenade, known both as Yalaman Adası and Porsuk Bulvarı, is a virtual symbol of Eskişehir’s rebirth as a modern city.
Thanks to the municipality’s resolute urban planning, this area might even remind you of the banks of the Seine in Paris. With the little bridges that crisscross the Porsuk, the cafes that line its banks and the tour boats that shuttle up and down its waters, this part of Eskişehir is impressive indeed. 

HOT SPRINGS FLOWING UNDER FOOT
Towards Hamamyolu I encounter a completely different side of Eskişehir, the district also known as Sıcak Sular (Hot Waters) because of the thermal springs below the market area. And because of these springs there are also many public baths here.  Delving into the back streets, I come to a quarter where shoes are repaired. A virtual guild system operates here. The customer perches on a low stool and, at his request, the apron-clad repairman either changes the color of the shoes magically with a blowtorch, or replaces a worn heel or sole. Young and old alike exhibit weary yet bright countenances in these stalls that line up side by side. Kemal’s shop sports a sign: ‘from father to son'.
A little way ahead, at the end of Hazerfen Çelebi Sokak where the suitcase repairmen are located, is the half-century-old Yalı Ekber Coffeehouse. There are many aficionados here of the tea, brewed with spring water, and of the ‘hookahs’ or waterpipes. Uncle Hüseyin, an 82-year-old airport retiree, is one of the regulars. Sipping from a tea-glass he balances on his knee, he fingers his prayer-beads and tells us his story. “I’m the one who guided the planes to takeoff and brought them in for the landing,” he says.

WHITE GOLD:  MEERSCHAUM
Near the municipal building, I come to the Meerschaum Museum, which boasts an impressive collection of meerschaum items fashioned by local and foreign artists. As I gaze into the display cases, I recall the words of a meerschaum master: “The peasants of this land are natural miners. In winter they extract the meerschaum, in summer they farm. Since they know the fields better than anybody, they also know where to find the stone.”

The villagers of Eskişehir province go several meters under the ground to find the meerschaum.
Climbing up into the hills, they trace a square on the slope, dig down three meters, shore up the shaft with posts, build ten meters of steps and then rig up a rope and pulley. In the old days the quarries went as many as three hundred meters below the surface and the miners worked in long underground galleries. Now they go down only thirty-five or forty meters. Father
and son, uncle and nephew work together. It’s hard work bringing up meerschaum, and only enough stone can be extracted to carve ten pipes a day. While meerschaum doesn’t have the market it once did, it’s still important enough to give its name to a village: Beyaz Altın Köy, or ‘White Gold Village'. I wander around the shop of Behçet Han Aktaş, a third-generation meerschaum artist, in the İsmet Yasin shopping arcade. My questions about the stone spark a conversation: “My grandfather Abdürrezzak Efendi was a philosophy teacher. The last sultan, Vahdettin, was very fond of him, and in the final days of the Ottoman Empire gave him the ‘white gold’ mines at Eskişehir. He was the first to excavate the stone, and he set up the first workshop. That’s why our last name is Aktaş ('white stone').”

THE CITY’S ANCIENT FACE
I come now to Odunpazarı, which reflects another, older, side of Eskişehir. The newly restored Odunpazarı quarter is where you will feel the city’s historic textrue most palpably. Here, in this district which is now under protection as an Historic Urban Site, there are old houses, some of them restored by the Odunpazarı Municipality and soon to go into service as boutique hotels, restaurants and culture centers. Strolling amidst these gaily painted houses and breathing the air of this quarter where the original town was founded is essential to understanding the contrast with its modern side. Most of the still lived-in houses in the narrow cul-de-sacs have gardens. If you are invited to an Odunpazarı house with its ‘sedir’ seats running along below the windows, its elaborately carved built-in cupboards, and its delicately stenciled ceilings, don’t pass up the chance.

A RAILROAD TOWN
Departure from Eskişehir is generally from the railroad station. For this is a railroad town. As soon as the station building’s extraordinary facade is illuminated, the station köfte (Turkish meatballs) makers prepare to welcome their customers. Train passengers and students emerging from the city’s numerous places of entertainment mingle in these tiny restaurants bedecked with neon lights. I too am a passenger tonight. Like the Porsuk I will pass out of the city, carrying away memories of it in my mind.