Strategic and Stunning Çanakkale
Few spots on the planet have as monumental cultural importance as Turkey’s Çanakkale, and not many can rival this area for sheer beauty either. For this seaport is the entrance to the Dardanelles, known in classical antiquity as the Hellespont and—then as now—an immensely strategic 38-mile long strait that connects the Aegean Sea with the Sea of Marmara and thus also Europe with Asia. Together with the Bosphorus, these are the legendary Turkish Straights. And there is no better or indeed more dramatic way to make your discovery of them than by sea: entering the cruising into the Dardanelles toward its narrowest point at the seaport of Çanakkale, you pass the fabled Troad (Biga Peninsula), site of ancient Troy, to the ship’s east (starboard side) and to the west (port side), the Gallipoli Peninsula where the epic World War I battle was fought. Now sieges and sundry acts of heroism were replaced by idyllic Mediterranean breezes a long time ago, but these mythic shores are bound to stir your imagination all the same.
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The Kordon promenade
The sweep of history and its contrasts greets you when cruising into modern Çanakkale, wherefrom the ship you will spot a faithful replica of the famous Trojan horse right along the yacht-lined kordon, or waterfront promenade. It’s from Wolfgang Petersen’s 2004 movie Troy, which starred Brad Pitt as the warrior Achilles. The city of Çanakkale itself has its own landmark, the five-story saat kulesi, an Ottoman clock tower built (by an Italian consul!) near the harbor in 1897. The tangle of cobblestone streets around the center crackles with modern eateries and cafés. One of the best is Yali Hani, a tea garden and bar tucked away in the charming courtyard of a 19th-century caravanserai (old roadside inn). To sample some of the local seafood, try inexpensive Sardalya, known for its sardines and balik ekmek (fish sandwiches). Also, visit the Çanakkale Bazaar to browse the renowned local ceramics or check out Kepenek Keramik for more unusual designs (the little wheeled Trojan horses make for perfect gifts!). Back on the kordon, you could also enjoy a great lunch at the sophisticated, glass-fronted Café du Port.
Çimenlik Kalesi castle
While it’s a vibrant university town in its own right, Çanakkale is also never very far from history. At the southern end of the kordon you’ll find a park which has as its centerpiece the imposing Çimenlik Kalesi castle, built under Mehmet the Conqueror in 1452 and also home to the Dardanelles Straits Naval Command Museum, with exhibits on the Gallipoli battles of World War I (there’s combined admission to both the museum and castle). To put the castle into the proper geographical and historical context, note that the sturdy Kilitbahir Castle stands on the opposite side of the Dardanelles. Sultan Mehmet had that one built-in 1463—Kilitbahir means “lock of the sea”— and when both fortresses were complete, so was Turkish control of the straits, and at their narrowest point.
Centuries later the western side of the Dardanelles would prove to be decisive for modern military history: Gallipoli. The First World War Battle of Gallipoli began with a failed Allied naval attempt to attack the Ottoman Turkish forts in the Dardanelles in February 1915 and after several months of grueling trench warfare ended in January 1916, at which point there were approximately 250,000 casualties on both sides. While the Entente Powers’ defeat at Gallipoli and failure to break the deadlock on the Western Front spelled Ottoman victory, the scope and scale of the warfare waged here was roundly transformative, not least for which the Ottoman army whose commander at Gallipoli would go on to become the first President of Turkey: Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.
Jan Morris, the great Welsh historian, wrote that “Everything about Gallipoli conspired to haunt men with this sense of tragic nobility. The peninsula itself was haunted, not by ghosts but by their absence. It was an arid, empty place…its hills, from whose summits one could see the straits on one side, the Aegean on the other, were covered with scented scrub, and it lay there sparse and aromatic, a long pile of land above the sea with gulleys and ravines. In summer it could be beautiful, the silent strait below; the deep blue of the Aegean humped with its islands…within sight across the water was the mount of Troy, with all its bright and high-flown memories. Below were the Dardanelles, through whose channel down the centuries had passed so many warriors, kings and pilgrims.”
A visit to the Gallipoli (Gelibolu) Peninsula Historical National Park is not something you’re likely to forget. At its heart is the Çanakkale Martyrs’ Memorial at the southern end of the peninsula. Rising 137 feet, the memorial is dedicated to the Turkish soldiers who died or were injured in battle. The tombs of 59,408 identified Turkish soldiers stand nearby. Anzac Cove is where on April 25, 1915, some 4,000 Australian and New Zealand soldiers landed (Anzac is an acronym for Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) in just two hours. Anzac soldiers who fell in the Battle of Lone Pine are memorialized at Lone Pine Cemetery. More famous sites: you can visit Plugge’s Plateau, where you can still see the trench lines by the path, then Beach Cemetery, Hell Spit, Shrapnel Valley, Brighton Beach and Quinn’s Post. The 57th Infantry Regiment Memorial is a prominent Turkish war memorial, while Chunuk Bair Memorial, built-in 1925, commemorates New Zealand’s soldiers who brought the Allied powers a fleeting success here in August 1915.
Troy and Assos
Çanakkale is also the natural springboard to the discovery of another famously contested piece of real estate: Troy. As recounted in Homer’s Iliad, the Bronze Age city of Troy is where prince Paris, son of the Trojan King Priam was holed up with the beautiful Helen who was actually married to King Menelaus of Sparta, triggering the Trojan War. Troy was actually destroyed and rebuilt nine times in antiquity before it was rediscovered by the German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann in 1870. The new Troy Museum, described by cultural anthropologist Deniz Ünsal as a “three-dimensional guidebook,” houses 2,000 artifacts inside its dramatic exhibition space while the ancient city of Troy itself is located on Hisarlik hill, south of the entrance to the Dardanelles. The acropolis of Assos, once known as Apollonia, is located south of Troy and set some 787 feet above the town of Behramkale, overlooking the shimmering bay of Edremit. Its roots stretch back to 1000 BC when it was founded by Aeolian colonists from the Greek island of Lesbos. You can see the ruins of an ancient theater here as well as the evocative Temple of Athena, each with spectacular views over the blue Aegean Sea.