You certainly wouldn't call Saray the friendliest pide salonu in Turkey. When we walked in, hungry after a morning of shopping on empty stomachs for edible souvenirs like rough bulgur pasta and split fava beans, the owner looked up from behind his desk and fixed us with an unsmiling stare, heaved a deep sigh and went back to his newspaper.
But the place smelled good, too good to walk back out of, like yeast and browning meat and cheese melting under a grill. A welcoming warmth (the weather had turned overnight; the previous day's harmless puffy clouds were now charcoal gray and what had been a cool breeze had morphed into a cutting wind hinting at snow) emanated from the wood oven on the back wall. And pide, lots and lots of pide were being made.
So we ignored the owner's diffidence and grabbed a couple of seats. A delivery order of 90-plus pide was being assembled on the table behind us. We took this as an encouraging sign.
It was our last morning in Tokat, a town in the southern reaches of Turkey's mid-Black Sea region that doesn't see a lot of tourists but should. Not necessarily because of its beauty -- Tokat is your average Anatolian town -- or because of its sights, which are relatively few, but because of its welcoming populace. When you first arrive Tokat feels closed and conservative. Give it half a day and the city opens its arms wide.
Regrets brought us back to Tokat, which we first visited eleven years ago. On that trip, in which we'd driven from the Mediterranean city of Antalya to Camlihemsin on the Black Sea, we'd squeezed too much into too little time. We hadn't yet learned to make room for serendipity by scheduling in plenty of slack days or to be willing to jetison a planned destination if a tempting alternative intervened.
That trip we met a smart, funny 16-year-old who walked us around town and invited us to his high school to sort-of teach an English class. The next morning we went and had a blast. All the kids wanted to invite us home for dinner. If we hadn't been so insistent on getting to Amasya before we hit Trabzon before we visited Camlihemsin we'd have enjoyed a dozen home-cooked meals in a dozen Tokat homes over the next few days. Instead we took to the road shortly after the class.
Stupid, stupid. STUPID.
This time around we half hoped we'd bump into our young friend, perhaps married now. Surely he'd recognize us (we yabanci don't all look alike, do we?) even if we probably wouldn't recognize him. That didn't happen of course, but we're nonetheless glad that the memory of meeting him all those years ago lured us back. On that first trip Tokat intrigued us. It still does. We know we'll return soon.
Tokat may not be beautiful in the way that Istanbul is. But it is ruggedly handsome, ringed by rocky crags and real mountains further out; from high up the views are dramatic. Kids climb around on those crags after school, and shepherds tend sheep.
There's a crumbling castle too, and stone-paved streets that wind uphill from the bustling "modern" main street. This is Old Tokat, an area of wood-frame brick houses and mansions. Some bear massive double timber doors with a pattern of two side-by-side "Z"s, one flipped in the reverse. Everyone acknowledges this pattern is a Tokat thing, but no one could tell us how or why it came to be.
Agricultural land laps at Tokat's edges and in autumn strings of drying vegetables and fruit festoon windows and walls and women in the Old City, many of whom belong to families who work their own farms, gather on a raised concrete slab at the upper reaches of the neighborhood, where they turn stalks of wheat into wheat berries and bulgur.
Tokat boasts a wonderful twice-a-week market with a koy section where village women sell pekmez and cheese and huge piles of herbs foraged in the hills. And craftsmen making saddles and harnesses by hand and blacksmiths who still pound shoes for horses and donkeys.
In Tokat everyone has time to talk; Dave and I must have drunk gallons of tea between us during dozens of conversations with Tokat-ans on everything from home cooking to the layout of traditional Tokat houses.
So by Day Three, our last day, we felt a warm friendly glow that enabled us to ignore the non-welcome from Saray's owner. We ordered our pides and a couple of chopped salads and admired Saray's lavender and yellow color scheme while we waited for our food.
Which was exceptional, really. There are pide and then there are pide and these pide bore the imprint of years of experience, good ingredients and a master's control of the wood-fired oven.
One arrived oozing scallion-flecked cheese, another spilling tender lamb minced with onion, tomato and long green chilies. Upper crusts were slicked with butter, bottoms were lightly scorched from the hot stones. Every bite held crispness and chewiness and the flavor of good fresh wheat came through. Indifferent ownership or not, we'll return to Saray.
After lunch we left town with regret, though this time it wasn't the sort of regret that comes from missed opportunities.
In case you missed it, Dave has put together a short multi-media on Istanbul's iconic ferry boats. Hop over here, click "play" and take a 4-minute vacation.