From malaria-ridden marshland to international center of tourism, the story of Alaçatı.

In the mid-1850’s, when he had been Ottoman Grand Vezir for only forty days, Hacı Memiş Ağa’s ship was caught in a storm returning from Algeria. The vezir and his entourage took refuge in a small harbor not normally accustomed to the arrival of so many important ships at once. The anomaly drew the attention of the local notables who wondered who had come and if the new arrivals could solve their problems. And so the hospitable people of the region we know today as Alaçatı hosted their unexpected guests. Never suspecting how it would alter their fate.

The people of Alaçatı had a chronic problem. A swamp that extended inland from the harbor along the Yumru River caused malaria, and malaria in turn caused death. The leading men of Alaçatı pleaded with the important guests the storm had forced to take refuge in their harbor to drain the swamp and thereby put a stop to the endless round of deaths. And Hacı Memiş Ağa obliged by ordering the swamp to be drained at once.

Thus began the draining of the swamp. Greek workers were brought in from the neighboring islands. The Buca, Osman Ağa and Sülemis Rivers were dredged to ensurethat rainwater flowed into the swamp. The banks of the Yumru were reinforced with walls, creating an outlet from the swamp to the sea. The swamp was drained with the help of rainwater as well as the natural circulation of the river water. Meanwhile the workers brought over from the islands settled at Alaçatı and intermingled with the local people.

Through the mediation of a prominent statesman who took refuge in their port during a storm, Alaçatı conquered its unfortunate fate and was ridded of the swamp that had been decimating its population. Thanks to the islanders, who knew the local geography well, crops were raised that were suitable to the agricultural conditions created by the area’s clean air and abundant winds, paving the way to a new economic order that would achieve international fame.

The people of Alaçatı quickly planted vineyards as well as olive, almond, fig and terebinth trees. They processed the grapes they grew in their vineyards in a factory they built at the harbor, from where they also marketed abroad the local olives (hurma zeytin), olive oil, dried figs and almonds they raised. Meanwhile they created a town of narrow streets lined with hipped-roof stone houses with cantilevered wooden balconies where living was a pleasure.

Having built their houses in line with the wind patterns and with little exposure to the sun, they also laid out the streets in line with the prevailing breezes, inviting the winds that would virtually transform their fate.  In short, they established a new way of life shaped by the soil, the climate and sheer hard work, now drying grapes on their rooftops, now airing earthenware jars in their cellars.

In 1914 Muslim refugees of Albanian and Bosnian descent arrived in Alaçatı from the Balkans. These refugees were livestock farmers by trade. But a different economic and social order reigned in Alaçatı. In the Population Exchange that followed the Lausanne Treaty, a second wave of refugees from Salonica arrived in the spring of 1924, bringing with them their livelihood of tobacco-growing. Strangers to tobacco, both the soil and the long-standing residents soon came to know it well at Alaçatı. But the introduction of tobacco changed the economic structure of the region as vineyards, olive groves, figs, almonds and terebinth gave way to tobacco fields. Because the region’s climate was not conducive to raising tobacco, Alaçatı barely scraped by for many years, stewing in its own juices. People even migrated away from the town, providing the cities with workers, ironworks and cement factories. Then, in the 1970’s there was migration into Alaçatı again, this time from Anatolia. It wasn’t long before melons were being grown and exported abroad.

At the start of the 1990’s Alaçatı’s fate was once again transformed by the wind, its virtual soul, which this time brought surfing to the town. With steady winds in the absence of breakers, Alaçatı turned out to be one of the most suitable sites in the world for the sport of surfing.

The first wind surfing club opened in Alaçatı in 1993. Enclosed on three sides and open to the sea only on the south, Yumru bay provides a sense of security reinforced by the mountains to the east. Since the bay is mostly shallow with a sandy bottom, even those who barely knew how to swim had no trouble learning to surf here.

Early in 2000, Alaçatı made a rapid return to the global agenda with its stone-built hotels and surfing beaches, waking up from its long slumber as if in defiance of its painful past. As the locals like to put it, ‘ecotourism’ created its own economy.  The area’s coastlines were protected, wind surfing and kite surfing clubs opened, world championships were held; one by one the stone houses were restored and a plethora of small hotels, each more charming than the last, opened for business. Restaurants vied with each other in offering excellent service and outstanding tastes, and vineyards, olives, terebinth and lavender reemerged on the national agenda.

Alaçatı today is an area with some of the loveliest small hotels in Turkey. Most of them restored stone houses over 150 years old, these hotels literally spellbind visitors with their harmony of old and new. Owned and operated mainly by women, they offer with an array of local sweets. Homemade jams, hurma zeytin (a breed of olive) grown only on the peninsula, and country eggs make up the memorable breakfasts served by Alacatı’s hotels. If your travels happen to bring you to Alaçatı one day, whatever your age don’t leave without visiting one of the surfing schools which serve everyone from seven to seventy. As you stroll through the market, be sure to try the lemon ice cream and milk pudding made with gum mastic. Know, too, that you will regret it if you don’t sample some village bread from one of the local bakeries with their authentic wood-burning ovens, some Izmir cheese in a goatskin from the Saturday market, and the tomatoes and white onions grown on the plain. If you happen to be there in October or November, don’t forget to ask about the local ‘hurma zeytin’. Make the acquaintance of the terebinth trees that grow only at Çeşme Alaçatı and on the island of Chios. Have a gift sachet of lavender made up for yourself with its unique windy fragrance. Savor the pleasure of relaxing and cat-napping in the stone-built hotels surrounded by gardens in the town’s back streets. For a good time, meet your friends at the restaurants, sip tea or coffee in the cafes...

The wind that crossed Hacı Memiş Ağa’s path and made him take refuge in the harbor transformed Alaçatı’s unfortunate fate some 150 years ago. That same wind, which later made the region’s grapes, olives and lavender different from all others, still continues its age-old dance today, frolicking with the surfers, wafting the scent of lavender, ripening the local olives. Enhancing the flavor of the vegetables grown on the plain, at the same time it drives wind turbines to generate electrical power.

Created to protect the architectural fabric and social structure as well as the environment, ‘ecotourism’ also breathes life into the economy. The electricity generated by wind turbines creates sustainable energy resources. Thanks to the wind, surfing stations make a major contribution to tourism. Who knows? Perhaps Alaçatı is going to emerge one day as a ‘slow city’ of peace, tranquility and joie de vivre.