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Edirne, the Ottoman Capital

Edirne is the first city you come to once you cross the Bulgarian border into Turkey en route to Istanbul. Most tourists would be hell bent on hot footing to the Turkish metropolis to shop in the bazaars and gaze at the Bosporus, but a stopover in Edirne reaps dividends. It is full of historic mosques, ancient bridges and the former palaces of the Sultans.

 

Getting There

The easiest way to visit Edirne is by car crossing the border at Kapikule, south east of Slivengrad. There are no bus services between Edirne and Bulgaria although some tourists have been known to wave over one of the tourist buses travelling directly to Istanbul.  There is however a train service from Kapitan Andreevo just over the Bulgarian border. Edirne is only 15-20 km away from here. Once you are in the city, you can explore on foot.

A Little History

Edirne used to be known as Adrianople, which meant the “City of Hadrianus”, after the Roman emperor who founded it. It was once the fourth largest city in Europe, with a population of about 350,000 people and prior to the capture of Constantinople; it was the capital of the Ottoman Empire. This rich and wonderful legacy has left its mark on the city with magnificent Ottoman palaces and mosques to the modern day neo-classical architecture of the downtown shopping area.

Must Sees

Edirne is a showcase to some of the Ottoman Turks finest structural work in the form of its many bridges, which cross the Maritsa and Tundzha rivers. Many of these bridges are extremely narrow with majestic stone arches. Central Bridge known locally as Meriç over the Maritsa River was once the place where the Sultans watched parades of the Empire’s military might from the stone alcove located in the centre of the bridge.

Another place to add to your list of cultural sites is the magnificent Edirne Palace, which was built during the reign of Sultan Murat II and was known then as the "Palace of the Empire." This palace has some spectacular caravansaries, which played host to travelers during the 16th century. It’s not often that a railway station makes it onto a list of “must sees”, however the Edirne’s old train station, built in 1890, displays some wonderful examples of European and Ottoman architecture. Today, it is the Trakya University Chancellor's office.

Shopaholics will love the Saraçlar Caddesi in the city. This pedestrianised shopping centre is lined with lots of good cafés and shops with some fantastic neo classical architectural. Leading off from this retail heaven is the Maarif Caddesi, an architecturally significant residential area with lots of well preserved and ornately decorated 19th century wooden houses. The disused Jewish Synagogue lies at the top end of this street; it was built in 1906 and was the largest synagogue in the Balkans. Jews were part of the Ottoman Empire for centuries and Turkey's neutrality during WW2 spared them from the horrors of the Holocaust.

Mosques

The first thing you will see when you enter this city is the imposing face of the 16th century Selimiye Mosque. It dominates the city’s skyline with its grandiose dome and tall minarets. The mosque was designed by the Ottoman architect Sinan, who often refered to the Selimiye Mosque as his best work. The mosque is one of the largest in the world; it has a total of 999 windows, which were said to symbolise Allah’s goodness. The Eski Cami or Old Mosque is the smallest and oldest of the three mosques in the city. It is decorated with some beautiful ancient calligraphy on its interior walls. The Üç Şerefeli or Three Minaret Mosque takes its name from its three distinctly decorated towers, which is quite unique as far as mosques go.  Behind the mosque you can see the rotund Makedonya Kulesi or Macedonian Tower, which marks the old city limits. It is impossible to climb but you can stand in the stairwell.

Museums

Museum buffs may like to visit the Medical Museum, which was awarded the “European Museum of the Year” a few years ago. It used to be an Ottoman mental institution noted for its “alternative” approach; instead of chaining them into their cell-like rooms, they were treated with soothing music and flower gardens amongst other things. Other museums include the Archaeology Museum and the Museum of Islamic Arts; both have some wonderful exhibits and are worth seeing.  

Out of Town

On the outskirts of the town on a hill overlooking the city, the Balkan Wars Martyrdom Museum pays tribute to those who lost their lives in the many historic battles and sieges, which took place in this region. The museum is housed in the former Edirne Fortress, which was captured by Bulgaria in 1913. It now exhibits a host of relics telling the story of General Mehmed Şükrü Paşa's surrender. The Justice Court also lies on the outskirts, but it is well worth making the effort to visit. It used to be one of the Ottoman Royal palaces when Edirne was the capital. It has not been used for five centuries, but one tower remains intact. If you visit Edirne during late spring or early summer it is worth checking whether there is an oil-wrestling (yağlı güreş) competition at the Kırkpınar Pasture. Oil wrestling is a revered Turkish sport,which has earned its place in the Guinness Book of World Records as the oldest continuous sporting event in the world.  The competitions held in Edirne are some of the best leading to the coveted title “chief of all wrestlers.”

Eating, Drinking and Where to Stay

Liver or ciğer is the local dish here and whilst it not be everyone’s first choice of meat, it is worth trying simply because it is prepared in a way that is unique to this area. Chunks of liver are fried inside a pot of boiling vegetable oil then served with extremely hot pepper. Grab a glass of the Bulgarian yoghurt drink Ayran and a hunk of bread as an accompaniment. Edirne has many liver restaurants known as Ciğerci. The best are behind the Old Mosque and if you really can’t stomach the local liver, these restaurants will get you an alternative from a nearby restaurant. A great Turkish dessert for this region is a type of almond paste known as badem ezmesi. It is shaped like a biscuit and tastes of bitter almonds.
Edirne is a haven for entertainment with more pubs and restaurants than most cities of this size. The best area to sample the nightlife is down by the river on the road to Karaagac or at the open-air Sera Café, in front of the Selimiye Mosque. It serves real Turkish coffee and lies amidst a beautifully landscaped garden. There are plenty of hotels and private quarters where you can stay during your visit. Many locals will tout their accommodation and some of it is extremely comfortable.

Pictures courtesy of Mihal Orela