Meet Nancy Habbas

I met Nancy a few years ago when she first moved to Mersin. Nancy allowed me to join her on many photography expeditions around Mersin (and even further afoot), introducing me to places that I would probably have never found by myself. She is a well-renowned photographer, having taken part in photography exhibitions and festivals around Türkiye and internationally, with her most recent exhibition in Istanbul this month being a near sell-out!

One of the things I love about Nancy is her desire to get the best photo possible. She doesn’t hold back and will climb over rocks, wade through silt up to her knees or even dodge traffic to get the shot. For those of you who follow my Instagram stories you would have noticed a number of stories featuring Nancy and her crazy high-jinx’s as we travelled around Mersin taking photos and researching for the book.

These are a few of my favourite photos of her:

Sunrise at Kizkalesi. Beautiful, yeah? Gorgeous? Breathtaking?

Sunrise at Kizkalesi is all of those things and so much more. In an effort to get the photo for our cover Nancy climbed onto a long-abandoned dock resulting in her slipping in the pre-dawn light, nearly impaling herself on a metal pylon and looking like she had just done five rounds in the ring with Mike Tyson.

She also had quite a few encounters with the local dogs who were more than willing to model for her and a few even more curious four-legged friends who thought that she may or may not be available for, ahem, other things.

Nancy was never afraid to climb to the highest point of any sinkhole, ruin, mountain or cliff face dragging me kicking and screaming along for the ride!

And on-coming traffic is never really a concern… I mean they’ll stop, won’t they? Won’t they?

Mersin: All Over comes is available on Amazon on 1 June 2022. If you’re visiting Mersin, or just want to know more about the area you can pre-order your ebook here. Paperbacks will also be available on Amazon from 1 June 2022 and hopefully for those of you living in Türkiye I’ll have some available for you as well.


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Mersin: All Over

I know I’ve been threatening to do this for a while now but it looks like it’s really happening… Mersin: All Over is being formatted as we speak and will soon be live to purchase on Amazon, IBooks, Kobo, and many more!

If you’re thinking of visiting Mersin, or maybe, like me, you visited family each year and always found yourself wandering around aimlessly having no idea where to visit next, then this is for you:

MERSIN: ALL OVER

Written with 20 years of experience, expat Jane Gundogan, has assembled her knowledge, anecdotes and research into Mersin: All Over. This is the ultimate guide to uncovering the real story of this fascinating part of Türkiye. For the first time ever, this area is getting the recognition and resource it deserves, catering to a little of everything, from hidden castles to the author’s favourite restaurants. You’ll be surprised by what this often-overlooked part of the Mediterranean has to offer.

In Mersin: All Over you’ll visit the Big Five of Mersin including the incomparable Kizkalesi, historical Tarsus, the stunning dining experiences at Mersin Marina, the almost hidden Alahan Monastery, the recently-discovered Gildiere Caves and, of course, the unspoilt beaches of the Mediterranean coastline. This book will give you the inside information to discover little known places and the juicy stories behind them that bring the area to life.

Inspirational colour photography by the well-renowned photographer, Nancy Habbas, does more than just provide pictures of Mersin, her images prepare you for the beauty of what you will see. Mersin: All Over doesn’t stop at giving you helpful guides and information on places to avoid, it is also filled with hilarious anecdotes, and tips to fit everything into your day. Jane shares her expert advice for exploring the wonders of this little-known province so you can make the most of your time in Mersin.

Release date: 1 June 2022

Pre-order available soon.

And for those of you living in Türkiye I am currently in discussions with a Turkish publisher so you can buy direct at an excellent price (none of those pesky international postage charges that we all loathe).


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Selefkia Wines

Thanks to Andrea Lemieux from The Quirky Cork, it has recently come to my attention that there are a few wineries in the region.

If you are an amateur sommelier or (maybe you’re like me) just drink too much wine, you might like to look at her book on Turkish wines here.

Photography by Nancy Habbas

I recently visited Selefkia Wines, which is located outside of Mukaddem, Silifke. They hold regular wine tasting and tours at their production warehouse (their vines are high in the Toros mountains). Ebru speaks excellent English and is ready for you to tour the winery if you are passing. Selefkia Winery is unique in that it is a vegan winery.

But isn’t all wine vegan? It’s just grapes, right?

Not quite. Many wineries use animal products in the processes of winemaking. This could mean egg whites, gelatine, fish bladders and milk proteins. These are all used to clarify the wine. Lots of vineyards also use animal products in their fertilizer like fish emulsion, blood and bone meal.

Ebru tells me that Selefkia Winery ensures that their wines are organic and animal-friendly from the soil up and use the proteins from peas to clarify their wine. This process has no effect on the quality, taste, and alcohol content of the wine.

Hours:        By appointment only

Address: 244, Sokak. Mukaddem, 33940, Silifke/Mersin

Telephone:  0530 346 3704

Web:          https://www.instagram.com/selefkiawine/


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Foodie’s Paradise

I’ve been thinking about food quite a bit the last few weeks. Maybe it’s the cold weather, maybe it’s the only thing I miss about living in the Village, but either way, I’m hungry.

Food in Mersin is rather unique with its mix of Turkish, Ottoman and Arabic, and a flavour all of its own. Food is always better when it is produced locally, when it is distributed locally and when it reaches the table locally. One of the biggest attributes to Mersin food is everything is fresh, straight from the pazar to the table. Here are some of my absolute favourite foods to enjoy in Mersin.

Photography by Nancy Habbas

Tantuni

Mersin has many dishes that originated from the province. My favourite and probably the best known of all Mersin dishes is – the tantuni!

Tantuni is a traditional street food dish consisting of thinly sliced beef that is seasoned with Turkish spices and herbs, usually cooked with onions and tomatoes. The combination is cooked in specially designed tantuni pans.

Traditionally, the dish is served rolled in a durum wheat wrap, with ground sumac and a lemon wedge on the side. Since every tantuni chef has his own method and secret technique of preparing the dish, it is said that the flavours of tantuni are never the same. 

Icli Kofte

Anyone who has been to a Middle Eastern or Lebanese Restaurant would have tried the similarly made Kibbe, but I know that a Turkish Icli Kofte is just that little bit better. They are incredibly difficult to make, and the few times I’ve tried have been nothing more than a disaster, but if you happen upon a local making them do not leave before you taste one (or a dozen).

Künefe 

Künefe is a crazy ass desert served here in Mersin and throughout Turkey made of cooked cheese, syrup and icecream. Künefe is well known throughout the provinces of Mersin, Gaziantep, Hatay, Kilis and Adana, although it is served in many Arabic countries.  If you do want to make an attempt of this amazing dessert I suggest you go check out Ozlem’s recipe.  She is, as usual, my go-to person when attempting Turkish food but this one looks a little out of my league.

Cezerye

Made with caramelized grated carrots, sugar, and nuts, this sweet concoction is rolled into balls and usually covered with shredded coconut before consumption. When I was in Tarsus recently, I was told that Cezerye is an aphrodisiac, so consume with caution.

Kısır

A classic Turkish salad made with thin bulgur wheat, tomatoes, mint, garlic, parsley, and either lemon juice or sour pomegranate molasses. Red pepper flakes are often added to the salad to make it spicier. A must-have for your mangal.

Sarimasakli Kofte

People may try telling you this is an Adana dish but don’t you listen to them, it’s definitely a Mersin tradition. Made from the same bulgur wheat as the kısır, they are rolled into tiny balls and boiled. After cooking its topped with a sauce made with garlic, lemon, salca, parsley and oil. Delicious.

Batkırık

Similar to kısır, batkırık is my go-to for a quick and easy meal. These are so easy to make but the secret to a successful batkırık is the sauce. Onion, cumin, salca and oodles of garlic. Mix it into the bulgur wheat before making patties. Batkırık is also sometimes made as a cold soup with tahini and water added.

Fındık Lahmacun

A specialty from Tarsus, these are easy to snack on at any time of day. Topped with mince meat, herbs, red peppers and spices, these have the added ingredient of hazelnuts before being baked to perfection.

Sıkma

When you’re driving down the D400 you’ll probably pass tiny shacks on the side of the road selling sıkma and çay. Usually made with flat durum wheat break or rolled pastry they are filled with onion, white cheese and parsley. Sıkma means handshake so I imagine these little morsels were thus named because they fit in your hand so easily.

Karsambaç

A traditional dessert originating from Camliyayla, a small town high in in the Toros mountains. Similar to a snow cone, but completely unique, Karsambaç is made with a combination of clean mountain snow (straight from the mountain) and a sweet syrup such as sugar syrup, or molasses.

Taş kadayif

Crispy on the outside, walnut in the middle, and coated in a decadent sugary syrup.

Kerebiç

A local dessert unique to Mersin, is made with semolina and is often served during Ramadan.  


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The Bane Of My Existence

No, I’m not talking about my monsters-in-law (although they would run a very close second). I’m talking about my inability to get a fecking decent hot chocolate here in Mersin.

I love me a good hot chocolate. Always have, always will. As a child, my mother would make hot chocolates with cocoa and marshmallows, and as an adult non-coffee-drinker, I would usually buy myself a hot chocolate as a treat for my morning pick-me-up. Today, and particularly in winter when Mersin’s temperatures resemble the Artic circle, a hot chocolate is my go-to to warm up my weary bones.

Türkiye is famous for its excellent kahve (coffee) and its çay (tea) served in tulip-shaped glasses. Sipping on a çay as you shoot the breeze is practically a national sport. People just don’t drink hot chocolate. And I appreciate that, in fact before Starbucks arrived in Mersin getting a decent hot chocolate was as rare as hen’s teeth. If you were lucky enough to find a place that serves them, they usually varied from bad to an abomination that will live in infamy in certain circles. But hear me out, if a restaurant has sıcak çikolata (hot chocolate) on the menu, then damn it, they should know how to make one, at least.

“If you’ve ever wondered what tar and the tears of children taste like – drink their hot chocolate.”

Moe, 2022

This quote refers to the most God-awful concoction that was purportedly passed for hot chocolate that I and my friends had the misfortune to try from a very well-known restaurant here in Mersin. I will not name the restaurant, mostly because I don’t need the blow-back, but let me tell you the story.

After a lunch with a group of my yabancilar friends, a few of us decided to hang around enjoying the pleasant ambience of the restaurant. We would frequent this place regularly. The food was pretty good and the prices were always reasonable. At this point I should mention that there was in fact a Starbucks located directly across the street but we chose to stay put, mostly because we couldn’t be assed standing in the queue.

Hot chocolates were ordered.

Within minutes a glutenous concoction in a small white mug was delivered to each of us. It was thicker than mud, hotter than the sun, and as stomach-churning as kokoreç (well-known Turkish offal dish) on a good day. Honestly? It resembled the packet pudding that is so often served in Türkiye and tasted like it as well. After a polite explanation as to how a hot chocolate should be made, the apologetic waiter retreated to re-order. We stared longingly at the people sitting in the sunshine opposite us, no doubt sipping on their perfectly made Starbucks hot chocolate, until our waiter returned with attempt number 2. I crossed my fingers for him and for us, I even prayed to all the deities available to me that it would be good.

It was not good.

Am I a Karen? Have I become an entitled expat who expects the niceties from my homeland having no regard for local custom? I took a Buzzfeed quiz to check whether I am, in fact, a Karen and can thankfully report that I’m only half Karen… the other half is pure Janey with a little bit of bitch thrown in for good measure.

And while I’m just having a little whine for comedic purposes it doesn’t take away from the fact that I just want a fecking decent hot chocolate!

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The Legend of Shahmaran

It’s well known that I love me a good legend and while in Tarsus recently I came across a doozy.

This is the story of Shahmaran and Camasb.

Camasb is a young man who lived in Tarsus. While out foraging in the forest he explores a cave where he finds Shahmaran. Shahmaran is a mythical creature, half snake and half woman. He falls in love with this exquisite creature (no judgment) and they live together for many years in the cave. Eventually Camasb decides he wants to return home but promises he will never share the secret of Shahmaran.

Many years pass and the king of Tarsus becomes ill. The only treatment for his condition requires the flesh of a Shahmaran. Camasb double-crosses Shahmaran (well, duh!) and discloses her whereabouts. Shahmaran is killed but before she dies she gives a dire warning to the vizier “blanch me in an earthen dish, give my extract to the vizier and feed my flesh to the sultan”. The king eats her flesh and survives while the vizier drinks the extract and dies.

Personally, I think that Camasb deserved that extract more than the vizier who was only doing his job.

If you visit Tarsus there is a hamam called “Shahmaran Hamam” where, it is said, she was killed. I’m not sure that’s a great endorsement for any hamam but that’s not for me to question.

A statute of Shahmaran remains in Tarsus today to commemorate her sacrifice to save the King.

If you visit Kırk kaşık Bedesten (Forty Spoons undercover market) you can find a range of souvenirs of Shahmaran and many vendors ready to tell you her story.

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Mersin In The Time Of Covid-19

I had a dream last night.

There I was, waiting to pass through immigration at Istanbul New Airport. I watch, at a socially-acceptable distance, of course, as the person in front of me has his passport stamped and I step up to the counter, smiling widely as I hand over my passport and kimlik.

“Where are you going?”

“Sydney, Australia.”

Ah, yes, Australia with its 352 covid-19 cases. Australia who, along with its forward-thinking neighbor to the east, New Zealand, seem to have its shit together, despite their half-assed lockdown (Australia, not New Zealand because Jacinta Ahern is a Goddess who locked that country down faster than you could say ‘feesh and cheeps’!).

“Is it essential travel?”

“Definitely essential.”

Long pause while he stares at his computer doing secret stuff.

“What will you be doing in Sydney?”

What will I be doing in Sydney?

“First stop? I am buying clothes. T-shirts without awful prints. Blouses without ugly flowers or wildly inappropriate slogans. Bras with underwires! UNDERWIRES!!! Undies that aren’t white cotton or completely trampy (for there is no in between). Once I have filled my empty suitcase with clothes I will hit the supermarket and I will stockup on essentials like Dairy Milk chocolate and Tim Tams.

I will then eat my weight in bacon, ham and salami while washing it down with a good Australian wine (which means I’ll single-handedly be keeping the Australian wine industry afloat).”

Sensing I’m losing the agent I continue. “VEGEMITE!”

“Vegemite is a prohibited item.”

“NO IT’S NOT!!! YOU’RE NOT TAKING MY VEGEMITE AWAY FROM ME!”

I try to make a run for it but don’t get far and am tackled by two guards carrying semi-automatic weapons. They drag me away kicking and screaming while taunting me with a very Seinfeldian, “NO VEGEMITE FOR YOU!”

I wake in a pool of sweat and realizing that I am NOT actually travelling anywhere anytime soon, burst into very real tears and go make myself a cup of çay … with milk (because I’m a rebel).

All bok aside though it’s Daughter’s 18th birthday and we’re supposed to be in Sydney now celebrating with family and friends. Instead we are here in our little home on the outskirts of Mersin and wondering when the second wave will hit (and don’t kid yourself people… it WILL hit!).

Turkey had it all under control. I was incredibly impressed with how the Government handled itself when the first case was reported on 10 March 2020. And then it hit the fan. Intermittent lockdowns were put in place which still enabled much of the economy to splutter along somewhat but slowed the numbers considerably. School was cancelled for the remainder of the school year and, after a rather rocky start, online classes began. Under 19’s and over 65’s were not allowed to leave their homes but here in the Village that didn’t mean an awful lot. With no school, kids were running around like headless chooks and don’t think you can tell any of the over 65’s here what to do. Hell to the no! They’ll give you a tongue lashing that will send you scurrying under the covers (not me though because most of the time they yell in Arabic and I have enough trouble understanding them in Turkish). Edit: Before the keyboard warriors come at me AGAIN… Mersin has a large population of Arabic decent… no they are not migrants or refugees and just because “your wide circle of friends and their grandparents” can’t speak Arabic it doesn’t mean a good god-damn to me or to anyone else frankly. The Turk’s family do speak Arabic. Why? Because they can. Why do I speak Italian? Because I can. Why do you speak whatever language you speak? Because you can… so shut your pie-hole, Karen?

All right, all right, I will admit that many people did do the right thing but if you were ever out wandering around the Village at 5AM (which I often was with My Hurley Dog and a mask… me not the dog) it was like Times Square on NYE out there. Sticking it to the man! Our neighbour’s even had an elaborate birthday party for their one-year-old twins. Half the village was there, for feck’s sake. There was music and dancing and a jolly good time was had by all. I thankfully wasn’t invited and wouldn’t have gone because, you know, there’s a pretty dangerous virus out there, but that’s another very dramatic story for another time — and trust me it’ll be totally worth it.

Us yabancılar (aka Daughter and I) have been taking this shit seriously though. Daughter hasn’t been allowed out AT ALL! I am, of course, the worst mother in the whole, wide world but I’m good with that if it means she’s safe. All her friends have been out. All her friends have been doing exactly what they always do, ignore the rules and do whatever the feck they want, because they’re all spoilt, self-indulgent, brats (because that’s what they are, Karen). Daughter and I have gone weeks at a time without leaving the house relying on The Turk to do our shopping or to ensure we weren’t dead and being eaten by our numerous kediler. For those concerned we did have enough toilet paper, in fact we still have enough toilet paper. Phew!

But then the restrictions were lifted and the new cases have doubled in a week. Here in Mersin there have been clusters which is rather worrying as Mersin had relatively low numbers.

Masks are mandatory in shops and you need to get your temperature checked before entering many places now. There is hand sanitizer or kolonya available for everyone and God help you if you cough. Allergy season has taken on a whole new meaning for The Turk and Daughter, that’s for sure.

Today Turkey stands at a total of just under 180,000 cases with 22,000 currently active and nearly 5,000 deaths. And just to reiterate, mostly because too many people here don’t seem to grasp the severity of covid-19, in the past week new cases have doubled in Turkey. DOUBLED! Clearly something’s not working.

Wear a mask, wash your hands and stay safe my fram.

And one final little tidbit, Karen, Vegemite is NOT “black salt spread”. Wars have broken out over less!! (FYI this is also humor not a declaration of war).

Final edit: Yes I had a Karen come at me. It was fun. I enjoyed it immensely.

NEXT!

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Gülek Kalesi, Take Two

You guys might remember this post from March when my friends and I took a road trip up to Gülek Kalesi. That road trip turned out to be a complete disaster, and we ended up drenched, discouraged and downright depressed, but at least we made it out alive. Just to recap it was a little touch and go at times on the single-laned, pot-hole ridden track disguised as a road with its thick fog, sharp turns and blind bends that in my mind would have been more befitting Bolivia’s “road of death” than this little mountain outside of Pozantı.

We recently made a second attempt at visiting the Kalesi, travelling the same road up into the Tarsus Mountains. Thankfully we didn’t get lost, but we also didn’t recognise much of anything either.

Case in point:

After some accommodating locals pointed us in the right direction (and practised their English on us), we finally found ourselves at the top of the mountain and at the historical site of Gulek Kalesi.

Yeah, I know, it doesn’t look like it was worth the effort … but it was!

As my friend Moe put it so succinctly, “this Byzantine, then Armenian, then Arab, then Ottoman and now tourist destination has sat on this mountaintop, casting a shadow on the village below for almost 2000 years. Yadda, yadda, we trip over that shit down here.”

I laughed so hard at this – but it’s all true.

We came for the photo, the famous ledge that hangs out over the mountain and looks straight down the otoban connecting Adana and Ankara. Sadly none our photos are as fabulous as those that are floating around on the internet, but the pride that we felt as we stood on that ledge was just as rewarding as if we had climbed Everest (and if felt like that at times as we traversed the craggy rocks to reach our destination). 

We did it!

For those of you based in or around Mersin it’s totally worth the trip (about 20 minutes outside of Tarsus) but do yourselves a favour and do it is summer or check your weather apps because shit gets real up in them there hills when the weather turns bad.

Oh and take water – lots of water!

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Gülek Kalesi

Gülek Kalesi is a small castle between Tarsus and Pozantı , an easy drive of approximately 90km from Mersin. Visiting the castle is not the main reason people visit this little known ruin. The main reason anyone visits Gülek Kalesi is for the photograph. I mean just look!

Google Images

Definitely memorable.

Google Images

A little deli perhaps?

Google Images

I know!

It was decided we should visit Gülek Kalesi as one of our friends was relocating to Istanbul and we wanted one final group photograph together. We were a merry bunch as we left Mersin behind on our drive to the castle. It might have been slightly overcast but it was surprisingly warm with patches of blue sky. Winter seemed to be behind us and we were ready for the long, never-ending, fire ant on crack, summer to begin. I will admit to you, dear friends, that the weather app that I check so vigilantly every morning “might” have suggested storms were imminent and, yes, there “might have been” in the distance, the very far distance mind you, some menacing looking clouds that could “possibly” be moving in our direction, but all in all a pleasant day was expected for our drive into the mountains.

Well, possibly turned into probably which turned into holy hell we were all going to die and by the time we reached the lower hills of the Tarsus Mountains it was bucketing down but we’re a resilient bunch and wouldn’t be put off by a little itsy rain. We were making memories and the photograph would probably be amazing with the natural light and slightly grey backdrop.

We thought of ourselves as valiant explorers and pushed on through the rain, then the sleet … then the snow (a real WTF moment considering it was March), yavaş yavaş ever higher up the mountain on a road that slowly disintegrated into nothing more than a muddy death trap with potholes the size of small cities, sharp turns and deadly cliffs on either side. The only other car on the road flashed his high beams as he sped down the mountain, away from the once in a lifetime storm (a slight exaggeration on my part). I bet he checked the news that night to see if there was any information about the car filled with yabancıların that had disappeared Amelia Earhart style never to be seen again.

We finally made it to the top of the mountain and we all tumbled out of the car to take in the fabulous view.

Are you ready?

I mean it’s totally amazeballs.

Ugh!

I guess another trip up the mountain is in order and perhaps we might wait until summer really kicks in but most importantly perhaps we bloody well SHOULD pay attention to my weather app that never, ever seems to be wrong.

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Breakfast at Melemez

Anyone who has visited Turkey has no doubt indulged in an authentic Turkish kahvaltı (breakfast). Tables of food filled with kőy (village) grown or locally sourced products lovingly prepared by your Turkish host.

Here in Mersin, there are many, MANY places to get a Turkish breakfast but, like most things, the challenge is finding the best spot to indulge. One such spot I got to experience recently is Giritli Cemilenin Yeri Kahvalti. This lokanta is in Melemez, a village not too far from my home, and is unlike anything I had ever visited before in Mersin because Melemez is, in fact, a Greek village.

Settled in the late 1800s by Muslim Cretans, they brought with them their Greek colours, Greek lifestyle and even, bless them, their Greek wine-making skills.

Following the distinctive Greek signage into the small village the lokanta succeeded in whisking me away to my distant memories of Crete with its eclectic style but, as usual, I thought only with my stomach and what excited me the most was our breakfast table literally groaning under the weight of all our breakfast choices.

Along with a variety of cheeses, crisp cucumbers and baskets of freshly baked bread there was green and black olives, village eggs cooked to perfection, sun-ripened tomatoes, home-made fig and apricot preserves, pekmez (grape molasses), creamy yogurt and more borek (cheese pastries) that you could possibly consume. We were welcomed like family and the owner even suggested we finish off our breakfast with a sampling of his home-made wine (a breakfast tradition that this token Aussie could totally get behind!).

Weekends get busy in Melemez with visitors coming from all around to enjoy the unique village and their weekend market, where the locals sell their products including şarap (wine), zeytin yağlı (olive oil), salca (tomato paste) yumurtular (eggs) and turşusu (pickled vegetables), is usually teeming with people. The roads can also be busy, but this is probably due to the four feet kind of traffic rather than a four-wheel kind.

Credit: Moe

A Turkish breakfast is meant to be savoured and time will slip away from you but before you leave Melemez behind take the opportunity to wander around this picturesque village. Being with two photographers (who are prepared to get down and dirty when they need to) we got to meet quite a few of the locals who were glad to show us their homes, their gardens and even their ovens (as you do).

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