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When I arrived in Hersek, a Turkish village located 160km south of Istanbul across the Sea of Marmara, Refik Ertürk was standing in the doorway of his kahve (teahouse). Men sat at card tables outside, filling the dusk air with the clicking of backgammon tiles and the clinking of spoons against their tulip-shaped tea glasses. Next door, pomegranate and fig trees grew along the stone walls of a blue-domed mosque; in the distance, I could just make out the bleating of sheep and the melodic din of their bells – sounds that would soon become familiar in this bucolic corner of northwest Anatolia.

I was at the starting point of a walking and riding route known as the Evliya Çelebi Way, which runs from Hersek south to the city of Simav. The route is 330km (some 22 days) on foot, and extends to 650km (about 25 days) on horseback, as the riding route includes the Yenişehir Plain, the 130km between Kütahya and Uşak and the Gediz Plain. Founded in 2011 by a team of historians and long-distance trekking guides, the history of the path actually extends back much further. 

Evliya Çelebi Way, Turkey
Common sights, and sounds, along the Evliya Çelebi Way. (Candace Rardon)

Evliya Çelebi was a 17th-century Ottoman traveller and writer who journeyed extensively through the empire for more than 40 years, documenting his travels in his 10-volume Seyahatname (Book of Travels). As Ertürk’s teenaged daughter Tuğçe told me after her father invited me to stay in their home that evening, “he was acting like Christopher Columbus”. In 1671, Çelebi left Istanbul for the final time to make hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca. The route named in his honour follows the first three weeks of his journey.

When Çelebi set out for Mecca, he did so with three companions, eight servants and 15 purebred Arabian horses. When I set out, I was alone. I had an 80-litre backpack full of camping gear, a 15-lira compass from a shop in Istanbul, no knowledge of Turkish except for the glossary in my guidebook and only my own two feet to convey me – plus a litany of concerns from Ertürk, his wife and Tuğçe. Where would I sleep? Who would guide me? I tried to downplay my lack of a map or GPS, but truthfully I shared in their doubts.

Evliya Celebi Way, Turkey
The man who inspired the trail, shown here in Kütahya. (Candace Rardon)

Setting out the next morning, I surprised myself by making slow but steady progress toward Simav. The route comprised asphalt road, old paved roads known as kaldırum, narrow goat paths and well-worn tractor tracks hewn from the earth over centuries of use. I often shared the road with flocks of sheep or goats, their whistling, wizened shepherds never far behind, and with farmers who waved as they ferried neatly-stacked crates of grapes, tomatoes, green apples and pumpkins.

The morning of my fourth day led me through endless groves of olive trees on the way to the town of İznik, about 35 kilometres into my walk. It was the end of October; my journey coincided with the harvest. Whole families were out working, their car doors left open to let pop songs resonate from the speakers. Women in headscarves and floral şalvar trousers balanced on ladders, stripping each branch of its olives using short, handheld rakes. Husbands and children busied themselves below on the patchwork of plastic tarps, filling brightly coloured crates and buckets. A family beckoned and taught me how to use the rake myself. After, they sent me on my way with bunches of grapes clipped straight from a nearby vine. 

Evliya Celebi Way, Turkey
Harvesting the olive groves. (Candace Rardon)

I finished eating the gift just as I arrived in the village of Orhaniye a couple of kilometres later. Seated in the shade of a kahve, I ordered a tost sandwich (Turkish-style grilled cheese, often prepared with sausage) and ayran (Turkish buttermilk), and began chatting with 22-year-old Recep Toktaş, who had recently spent six months studying in Valencia, Spain. He was the first person to ask why I was on the trail. I explained that I felt that the best way to experience a new culture is to walk through it. Despite the blisters and the burden of a backpack, it is an extraordinary sensation to feel a place’s history unfolding beneath your feet – century by century, step by step. 

Evliya Celebi Way, Turkey
Step by step through northwest Anatolia. (Candace Rardon)

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