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With its extensive beaches and its greenery hidden away in the background, Mersin is a warm Mediterranean town that has always opened its arms to new arrivals.
On the plane to Adana, I'm perusing a brochure about the Mersin Music Festival, which is being held this year for the seventh time. This festival is, I believe, just one of the things most of us don't know about Mersin. After a flight of about an hour, we arrive at the city center from the airport. No sooner do we enter the city than posters all around explain that there are actually three different festivals under way at the moment. A theater festival, a Turkish art music festival, and an international music festival. Clearly it's going to be an interesting trip! Anxious to have a look around right away, we are on the 9-kilometer Mersin coast. The result of a recent landfill, this coastal strip with its parks, palm trees, bicyclists and joggers as well as those merely out for a stroll makes it clear that this is a place to exercise your lungs. The cafes, restaurants and high-rise apartment buildings that line the avenue directly opposite the shore are yet another aspect of the city.
ENDLESS VOLUNTEER WORK FOR THE ARTS
The first place we visit the next morning is the bazaar. Old Mersin houses surround us on left and right. When we enter Sanat Sokak (Art Street), we discover that this old street festooned with bougainvillea was once the foreign quarter. The natives' love of the arts is evident immediately in conversation over tea in the garden of the İçel Art Club. An endless array of art and cultural events adorn the historic old houses on this street. Art galleries and studios, a museum of painting and sculpture... As Semihi Bey, our guide in the bazaar, says, “There are as many art galleries in Mersin as in Ankara. We all do our part here as volunteers to bring in even more art and cultural activities.”
'EVERY STREET LEADS TO THE SEA'
Bitter orange trees accompany us on our stroll through the bazaar. Had we come a month earlier, we could have inhaled the scent of orange blossoms that permeates the whole city. Semihi Bey shows us the oldest spot in the bazaar, 'the Yoghurt Makers Market', a former gathering place for the locals. Then he adds: “Every street used to lead to the quay in Mersin.” It's not difficult to imagine this city as one of the world's oldest and most bustling ports.
At lunch time we are going to a greasy spoon to try 'tantuni', a famous local specialty associated with Mersin. You should know that the tantuni in Mersin is very different from that in other cities, from its taste right down to its presentation. Mersin's distinction as a city caught by its geographical location between different cultures manifests itself even in the local cuisine, in which Mediterranean influences combine with Arab and Anatolian.
WINTER IN THE CITY, SUMMER IN THE HIGHLANDS
Mersin is truly a warm town, in terms both of its people and of its climate. In summer its residents therefore retreat into the hills above the city. At the beginning of June everyone starts moving slowly to their house in the highlands. For the difference in temperature between the coast and the high plateaus can be as much as ten degrees Centigrade.
As you ascend to the Gözne Highland, you encounter a completely different picture of Mersin. Everything begins to turn green and, yes, much cooler! You can easily choose one of the restaurants along the roadside for lunch or dinner and enjoy a view of Mersin spread out over the flat plain down below. As a city that has been overrun with apartment buildings, Mersin nestles against these green hills, which therefore have a special significance for both the city and its residents. Agriculture too has a sizable share in the economy of Mersin, a major logistics center, and the city is quite advanced especially in the cultivation of green peppers. The natives correct this to 'everything green'!
A gentle breeze blows up towards eight in the evening as Mersin's music lovers quietly fill the pews of the church. Echoing off its walls, strains of piano, clarinet, violin and cello caress our souls. So ends a night in Mersin.
ESCAPE FROM THE CITY
There is a large number of ancient cities and touristic sights in the vicinity of Mersin, and the city, smack dab in the center of the ancient region of Cilicia, is known to harbor many as yet unexcavated remains. As you travel to other districts and townships, therefore, you must keep your eyes peeled since you could come across a ruin, a statue, a column or even an ancient city at any moment. The Maiden's Castle and the beach in front of it are one of the city's best known symbols, but the Karakale citadel directly opposite is every bit as impressive. The rocks known as 'Adamkayalar' or 'Man Rocks', and the deep pits dubbed Heaven and Hell are other spots you may visit in one day.
When you leave the Maiden's Castle behind and approach Silifke, the strawberry stands begin to appear at the roadside. It seems Silifke's strawberries are at least as famous as its yoghurt! Worth a visit in it's own right, Silifke is divided right down the middle by the Göksu river, a popular waterway with rafting enthusiasts. The landscape suddenly changes again as you climb from Silifke up to Uzuncaburç. Trees offer shade to picknickers at this popular excursion spot, and Uzuncaburç's paths make perfect exploration routes for trekkers. At the end of the road the ancient city of Diocaesarea awaits curious travelers like an open-air museum with its still standing temples, columns and gates.
As you stroll around the city, don't neglect to make a wish at the Temple of Fortune and to eat 'sıkma', a kind of Turkish crepe, and drink 'kenger' coffee under the tree at the entrance. 'Kenger' is another name for the acanthus motif used on column capitals in antiquity. In other words, there is a special significance to drinking coffee beside a column decorated with acanthus leaves.
UNIQUE UNTO ITSELF: TARSUS
We know when we've reached Tarsus, about an hour from the city center, by the Cleopatra gate still standing at the entrance. Tarsus, where Cleopatra met Mark Anthony and the philosophers founded their schools, is at the same time a holy place of pilgrimage. The Church of Saint Paul, the ancient road, the Tarsus houses, the Roman Bath, the Kırkkaşık Market and the Tarsus Museum head the list of must-see's in this charming township. You will derive immense pleasure from touring these buildings, all of which have been successfully restored and carefully preserved. The courtyards of the only recently restored Tarsus houses are decked out with cafes and restaurants and are an ideal place for coming in contact with the local young people.
UNTIL THE NEXT FESTIVAL...
Historic venues host the concerts in the music festival, which casts its spell over the entire city. En route to one of them, Kanlıdivane, we leave behind us a long line of cars such as we have not yet encountered anywhere in Mersin. Kanlıdivane is bursting today with red balloons and people dancing. Narlıkuyu is the last place to taste the real Mersin, where the fresh, cold mountain waters mingle with warm sea water. After enjoying a fish feast at dusk at exactly this spot, we bid farewell to Mersin until the next festival. On the plane back to Istanbul, I am making notes: “Mersin has not only a strong potential for intensive tourism but the energy as well. And everything else aside, it is a Mediterranean city that will reveal its secret only to those who come near.”