A lake-studded rose garden behind the desolate hills of the mediterranean taurus range, Isparta awaits visitors with its lakes, cuisine, ski and nature sports centers.

Discovered the hottest topic of conversation in the town when I took refuge in the deep shade of the Great Mosque courtyard, its stone walls awash in autumn’s mellow yellow light. In a survey of Turkey’s most livable cities based on 34 criteria ranging from traffic to interest in art, Isparta came in seventh. Nor did it take me long to give their due to the local people, who have greeted the news with justifiable pride after having striven for years to earn this result, if not a little better even. I hit the streets to discover the astonishing transformation in Isparta, which I last saw some ten years ago.

Thinking that the best way to see a city is from on high, I headed for Sidre Tepesi. Spread out before my eyes in a landscape formed over thousands of years, Isparta does not yield up it beauty at first glance. But the more you get to know it, the more you tromp its streets and fields, the more you will love it. A virtual rose garden in May and June, this town’s passion for roses is evident all year round. Made into more than thirty products from perfumes and creams to soaps and Turkish delight, the delicate pink petals of the Isparta rose remind you of their presence at every step. Appearing here on a street lamp, there in a tablecloth design, a necklace, a window moulding or in the colors of a football team, the rose greets us everywhere, an expression perhaps of the city’s gratitude to it. And whether it’s the rose’s unparalleled fragrance or what, there’s an atmosphere in Isparta that permeates the soul with peace and tranquility. You can sense this on the merchants’ faces in the Village Market behind the İplikçi (Threadmakers) Mosque, one of the city’s oldest Ottoman structures. Just a stone’s throw from the market, where you can get a feeling for village life in the heart of a city, there are restaurants that would put even those in Istanbul’s classiest neighborhoods to shame. This is precisely what distinguishes Isparta, namely, that it has managed to modernize without sacrificing its traditions.

The university has undoubtedly had a big hand in Isparta’s rapid transformation. As Süleyman Demirel University’s young president, Prof. Dr. Metin Lütfi Baydar, puts it, the university with its 50,000 students has changed the face of the town. Student hangouts are not confined to the campus and dormitories but are spread throughout the fabric of the city, as a brief stroll through its streets will confirm. Buzzing with activity late into the night with their bookshops, cafes, greasy spoons, movie theaters and game rooms, the streets of Isparta offer fun even for young people accustomed to life in a metropolis. After seeing some of the city’s outstanding venues, which include not only the university but Isparta Museum, Mimar Sinan Mosque, the Carpet Palace, Firdevs Bey Market, the Old Grape Market and the Museum of Democracy and Development, it’s time to sample the local cuisine. Fırın or ‘oven’ kebab, an old Isparta tradition, is prepared by threading lamb or kid meat on a skewer and cooking it for hours in a stone oven fired with aromatic wood. Served with tomatoes, onions and fresh ‘pide’, fırın kebab is best consumed with ‘üzüm şırası’, or slightly fermented, clove-flavored grape juice. Meanwhile the local ‘wedding pillaf’, aka ‘gıbune’, made with meat and chickpeas, together with semolina halvah with pine nuts and pumpkin dessert with tahina are just a few of Isparta’s tasty specialties.

Eğirdir, Hoyran, Kovada, Beyşehir, Gölcük, Burdur, Karacaören and more... Located in the heart of Turkey’s lake district, Isparta possesses a vast hinterland. Eğirdir, for example, has become a nature sports center in recent years, offering primarily sailing and rock climbing, a touristic destination in its own right with viewing terraces, beaches, apple orchards and fish restaurants as well as monuments from the pre-Ottoman period of Principalities. To hear the locals tell it, the loveliest shores of Lake Beyşehir, which forms the city’s southwest border, lie in their province. Were it not so, they say, the Seljuks would never have built their Kudabad Summer Palace at nearby Yenişarbademli. Another Isparta treasure is Gölcük Crater Lake 13 kilometers from the city center. Noteworthy for its monumental trees and picnic grounds, this lake is used more for recreation. But the real surprise of Anatolia’s rose-garden Isparta is Lake Kovada, a mountain lake encircled by the Taurus desolate peaks along whose 20-kilometer shoreline not a single concrete structure or pile of rubble, not even a bulldozer, is in evidence. Not even power cables mar the landscape in this matchless nature paradise. Taking a dip on one of the tiny beaches lined with century-old plane trees at the lake’s southern tip is an experience of another order. And the coves around the reed-covered green area known as the ‘Yarımada’ (Peninsula) are well worth exploring. Not only that but a hiking trail through the forest well-marked with informative signs by the National Parks Administration and a wooden viewing pier on the lake are thrown in for good measure.

With its lakes, roses and rich history, Isparta is one of Anatolia’s most uniquely colorful towns. Another advantage it holds for visitors is the Davraz Winter Sports Tourism Center, which offers world standard ski facilities and a thick snow cover from late December to mid-April. At an altitude of 650 - 2,150 meters and with ski runs totaling 20 kilometers in length, the center is open all winter long with a ski school, health services and equipment rentals. Carpeted with natural grass, the center is starting to attract visitors not only in winter but all year round. Your direction from Davraz Dağı meanwhile is St. Paul’s Way, Turkey’s second longest international hiking trail after the Lycian Way. Boasting one of the first seven churches founded in Anatolia, Yalvaç is the most important segment of the Way through Isparta. It’s a good idea to set aside time for the ruins of Antiocheia in this town which was the capital of ancient Pisidia, as well as for Yalvaç Museum and the Tıraşzade Konak, an historic mansion that reflects the local ethnography. Known for its coffeehouses spread out below the century-old plane trees at the town center, Democracy Park is a virtual portrait gallery. And the fragrant aroma of fresh oven-baked bread wafting up from the local bakeries tells an appetizing tale. Anyone is free to bake bread or cook trayloads of food in these bakeries, which are allocated to women based on need with the sole proviso that one-fortieth of any food prepared is given to the woman who runs the bakery. Even if you don’t have much to cook, you can still buy things like bread, savory pastries and vegetables. If you are not contented with the surprises of Yalvaç, you can always continue to follow the ancient trails through Yazılı Canyon near Sütçüler. It’s worth giving the city of lakes and roses a chance, don’t you think?

“I’ve been in the carpet business in Isparta for 35 years. Although the local press refers to me as “Turkey’s only rug merchant”, I make no such claim myself. The production of traditional Isparta carpets has come to a standstill in recent years. The biggest factor here is the drop in carpet exports due to the rising cost of weaving. The carpet business has little chance of survival today without exports, but Isparta in this sense has succeeded in modernizing.  We are combining modern figures with traditional motifs in our hand-woven rugs today. This was an experiment that worked, and our exports have gone up. I have incorporated the portraits of numerous famous people from George Bush and Margaret Thatcher to Michael Jackson and El Maktum in my carpets. Rugs are sometimes woven with upwards of a hundred different colors of thread and take years to finish.”

Fırın’ kebab made with kid or lamb, wedding pilaff with meat and chickpeas, pumpkin dessert with tahina, poppyseed and molasses halvah, and slightly fermented, clove-flavored grape juice are some of the local specialties. You can also try carp and freshwater bass at the restaurants on the lakeshore.

From sun screen and beauty products to candy and jams, a dizzying variety of gift items made of roses are sold in the city’s many shops. Also available are modern hand-woven carpets that feature portraits of celebrities and other famous people.

Isparta’s top hotel has four stars. All the hotels in the city center offer rich opportunities for shopping and dining. The rustic hotels on Mt. Davraz are in high demand in the winter season. For those who prefer the lakeshore, Eğirdir is your best bet.

Turkish Airlines flies both ways between Isparta and Istanbul three days a week. Flights depart from Istanbul on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Sundays at 10:45 PM. Flights from Isparta leave on Thursdays and Saturdays at 6:10 AM.