When in comes to talking about Turkey, I’m sure the well known towns of Istanbul, Ankara, Cappadocia, Izmir and Bodrum all quickly spring to mind with their noisy, bustling streets filled with crazy traffic, general mayhem and hot Turkish temperaments! But what if I was to take you far away from all this excitement and help you explore a sleepy little Turkish town with only goats and the hourly Call to Prayer to interrupt your innermost thoughts!

Iliç (pronounced Ill-ich), is a town and district of the Erzincan Province in the Eastern Anatolia Region of Turkey and its elevation is 1000 m above sea level. Your fitness and lungs are tested here when tackling her vertical hills! Not at all what you would call a ‘tourist trap’ or even a highlight stopover on a trip to Turkey, this teeny tiny village is as traditional as you can get and I was fortunate enough to explore it over a few weeks whist house sitting for MB’s boss.

You see, as previously mentioned in other blogs, my gorgeous other half – MB – had been contracted a years work in this unassuming area, so of course I just had to come and visit and was lucky enough to be able to set my weary feet down here for a short time and get a genuine local vibe from this very remote but pretty area.

Getting here however is certainly not a speedy express route, with a 2hr flight from Istanbul to Erzincan and then another 2hr train trip/bus or taxi ride to Iliç! Does the word isolated spring to mind? After combatting jet lag with a few glasses (ok, bottles) of fantastic Turkish Pinot Noir and a good sleep, I was all up and go ready to step forth and conquer, plunging headfirst into my new neighbourhood with sheer determination, curiosity and a good dose of Australian gusto!

Perched high upon a hill with breathtaking views of the water and her surrounding mountain areas, this curious little place is indeed small, but oddly enough has everything one needs really to survive well and live a great life! With only one main street in the centre of town, it is simple to locate if you basically just head uphill (puff puff but great for the legs) towards the towering minarets of the enormous Mosque which dominates the Iliç skyline. With paved streets featuring a smattering of ancient stone and intricately designed drinking fountains called Çeseme’s, modern apartment buildings, blooming apricot and cherry trees (in the summer) and of course countless cats lounging lazily on front porches, the scene is all round calm and quaint.

The haunting Call to Prayer occurs five times a day as is the norm in Moslem towns and is, for me anyway, not annoying at all but lovely and also more of a reminder of 1: the time of day and 2: of exactly where I am in this far flung corner of the world. ‘Covering up’ so to speak is not necessary here either as long as you dress modestly and respectfully and no headwear is required. The local ladies dress in a uniform of loose cotton, printed pants and blouses and some wear headscarfs, some don’t. But then again, it is not unusual to come across a group of teenage girls dressed in skinny jeans and t-shirts (obviously city folk or rebels), with their gorgeous long, black hair flowing freely in the breeze, so really, anything goes! Of course I was stared at, but that was more to do with behaving slightly differently, being an obvious foreigner  in this village and unfortunately not being fluent in Turkish! However, sporting dark hair and features, I could pass for a Turkish woman at a quick glance, which is both convenient and a compliment!

I did find, however, that this is a mostly male dominated area as the daily habit of ‘taking çay’chai/tea, seems to happen ALL THE TIME and only the men seemed to be doing that and not much else! Little cafes are dotted along the street with tables and chairs all overrun with swarthy Turkish males sipping glasses of the hot, steaming, strong amber brew, chatting about local events and fondling their tesbih beads. Entry into these ‘special areas’ is not welcomed per se but sitting in a coffee shop next door is not frowned upon either. Confusing…yes, but I like to push the boundaries! If nothing else, it gives them all a thrill and something else to talk about at the next çay convention!

With two major supermarkets, the Gold and 101, shopping for staples is easy and the choices are excellent for such a small place. Butchers (lamb, lamb, chicken, steak and a bit more lamb) fruit and vegetable shops, bakeries and far too many hardware stores are all crushed together down this main street and even I found my favourites in only a short time. I adore food shopping in other countries and since I was lucky enough to be living in a real house with an actual kitchen, it was one of my happiest daily outings. The major highlight of the week is the Friday Farmers Market which kicks off at around 8am and continues till approximately 3pm. This terrific open air market offers many varying stalls selling fresh eggs, cheese, dried fruit and nuts, fruit and vegetables, jewellery, clothing, kitchenware and general bric a brac! For a market junky like me, I was immediately in love!

Even buying warm, fresh Turkish bread or ekmek straight from the oven from one of the bakeries is a foodie travellers delight and then discovering the fantastic local goats cheese set and wrapped in the actual skin was just heaven! Pomegranate syrup, Turkish delight, fresh figs and cherries, dried apricots, olives and almond shortbread are just some of the goodies for sale everywhere and I certainly bought and created some wonderful dishes whilst I was there! With a local police station, postoffice, hospital, schools, two hotels – the Gold Otel and the VIP Otel, mosques, parks, a tailor, baklava shops and much more, Iliç town centre literally throbs on a daily basis!

Eating out is not all that fabulous, as there are mostly kebab shops and one Pide bakery which produces a fantastic version of this traditional Turkish style pizza. However, there are two restaurants that are on the upmarket (using the term very loosely) side worth trying. The small expat community here affectionately refer to one as ‘The Liver Restaurant’ as it serves a mean plate of peri peri style liver, spicy and delicious with pita bread to mop up the sauce. A favourite with MB along with a local dessert delicacy of bruleé Creamed Rice cooked in an earthenware bowl. The other more upscale resto is conveniently located directly opposite The Liver Restaurant and upstairs, above the deli which sells the goats cheese in the skin. In a nod to the Iliç fine dining scene, they even have bow tied waiters, cloth napkins and tablecloths! Ooh ahh! Here they serve a delicious meze platter and authentic Lavas Puff bread! Yum! Neither of these restaurants serve or allow alcohol, so water, çay or the sour, red wine coloured turnip juice are the most popular accompaniment. [FYI: If one wants to be totally naughty and rebellious, do like my good friend Jenny, who lives there, taught me: BYO your red wine in a secret bag and when the waiters head is turned, just pop it into the glass provided as it looks identical to the turnip juice and no one is the wiser, but you are much happier!] Tesekkür ederim Jenny K ?

Interestingly enough, even though there is a no alcohol policy in the restaurants, wine, beer and spirits are available to purchase at the corner store ironically situated next to the Mosque entrance! Become a regular and you even get offered a complimentary çay or cold sparking mineral water every time you go in, even if you don’t purchase anything! That’s just how kind and friendly these locals are! On one of my morning walks, I was even stopped by the police, not to check my visa but just to be offered a bottle of water, rose water to cleanse my hands (a trademark gesture in Turkey) and to partake in some Turkish delight tasting! Of course they always want to know if you’re married and just why the hell you are actually visiting this small town in the middle of nowhere! On another occasion I was gently accosted by a lovely local lady called Gülya (Julia) as I was walking past her house and admiring her trees. She ordered me to come, sit and partake in çay and try her homemade dried apricots, of which she was extremely proud, all whilst trying to communicate using wild gesticulations and a bad mix of English and Turkish! It was quite hysterical and tiring but when I left, she gave my a whole bunch of fresh herbs from her wonderful garden! How lovely is that! These are just some of the examples of kind, local hospitality! Another random time, whilst on one of my mountain hikes, I was stopped in the street by an ancient and wizened lady and offered boiled sweets from her pocket and I think she might have blessed me too …or maybe lay a curse (who knows)… as she kept touching me and waving her arms around and praying!

Speaking of walks, there are many lovely trails here to explore, around the lake or uphill and steep, steep and steeper, through the  surrounding villages which are dedicated to goat farming. Used sustainably, the goats are raised for their meat, hide, hair (for carpets) and of course milk for cheese. [FYI: Iliç’s major claim to fame is the fact that the founder of the famous CHOBANIYoghurt CompanyHAMDI ULUKAYA was born here! The Turkish word çoban derived from Persian meaning “shepherd”.] How exciting and many thanks to Anna F for the info! Still a wonderfully old tradition in this area, you often come across shepherds tending their flocks which are perched on the side of the mountains and they all give you a wave and a nod, undoubtedly thinking why on earth this insane western girl is panting like a maniac and racing up down the mountains in active wear, wielding an iPod! The year 2018 hit Iliç with a bang the day I arrived!

The closest throbbing metropolis is the main city of Erzincan (pronounced eerzin-jahn).  A large, spread out area with wide, Parisian style avenues and surrounded by ancient, ragged snow capped mountains, this fantastic place is like New York next to humble little Iliç! Two hours away, it offers huge supermarkets and shopping malls, many cafe’s, restaurants and clothing boutiques, fast food chains ( Burger King, KFC, Macca’s), hotels and even a communal swimming pool! I was agog at just how modern it was. The best and cheapest way to get there is by train (9TL or $2.50AUD each way…bargain) which departs Iliç station at approximately 0930am every morning, give or take an hour or two! On time performance is not really their forte! However, the carriages are comfortable, clean, quiet and air conditioned and you are assigned a seat upon booking. You even get your very own phone charger socket! Another plus is the presence of a steward who comes through offering refreshments! I loved the whole experience and went twice. It is even worth the trip just to visit the huge underground Copper Market or pick up a selection of the BEST Turkish Delight you will find this side of Istanbul, available from the concept store in Erzincanpark Mall.

Whilst in this region, take a day trip to the picturesque alpine town of Kemaliye (pronounced kem-a- lee-ya). Only 30 minutes away along one of the (apparently) ‘most spectacular roads in the world’ you get to experience a scenic drive past the famous Karanlik Kanyon and Euphrates River, through a series of majestic man made tunnels stretching for more than 30 km. A popular tourist attraction for rock climbing, base jumping and white water rafting through the gorge, this area is still oozing with old ottoman charm with her traditional wooden houses and cobblestone streets. A bit like the towns from the childhood stories of Hansel and Gretel or Heidi, you expect to see the three bears sitting somewhere nibbling bits from these gingerbread house style structures! Art and craft shops, little eateries, a few cafe’s and a recently opened, fantastic boutique hotel called the Egin Konagi (rustic stone building, flagstone floors and wooden beamed ceilings – gorgeous), Kemaliye is, for me, a very special place.

So that concludes my exploration of Iliç and her surrounds! I hope you enjoyed tackling this tiny town with me and maybe now you can realise that somewhere deep in the vastness of Turkey lie some friendly little villages which are just as interesting as their famous counterparts, but thankfully still retain their innocence.

…”If you reject the food, ignore the customs, fear the religion and avoid the people, you might better stay home”…James A. Michener

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