Aydin Massif

A Great Little Train Trip – discovering Aydin

The foothills of the Menderes Massif
I like trains. Trains are cool!

They are particularly cool when they are staffed by people who smile at you, when they offer you warm, fresh, sesame simits at 50 kurus each, when the trains themselves are clean and new and the price of a trip to Aydin is 7 lira return. Trains in Turkey, at least on our local main line, are brilliant.

Last Friday we caught the train to Aydin for a wander around, a little browse in the shops, some snooping around the back streets and a light (ha!) lunch. It was a lovely day out, hassle free, stress free, relaxing and full of those little discoveries that make you glad you bothered.

Our local station is Camlik, a tiny blip on the Izmir to Denizli mainline where you can wait for the train on rustic wooden benches under the pine trees. The staff open the ticket office ten minutes before the train arrives and even out here in the sticks past Selcuk they’re helpful and friendly.

The trains are really low cost, even better than the buses and they are cheap enough. A local taxi driver waiting on the platform gave us a detailed breakdown of the comparison costs between dolmus and train to his home in Nazilli, the train won by 13tl, a serious saving.

The morning train from Izmir to Aydin was relatively busy with business and government types moving between the two cities. Each seat has power for your laptop if you need it, an overhead monitor displayed a satellite image of the route and local points of interest and the carriage was full of the smell of fresh simits that a smiling young man sold on board.

As we whisked past olive groves and fig orchards shedding their yellow leaves and through the small towns scattered across the Menderes plain we were treated to those wonderful glimpses of hidden life that train travel gives you; a woman enthusiastically herding her cows along the side of the track, vineyards being pruned and pretty faced donkeys carrying teetering heaps of firewood to feed the sobas.

We passed through Ortaklar, Germencik, Incirlova and into Aydin, right into the heart of the city. The station is in the centre of Aydin, near the Bey Cami, in the shopping district. We wandered around the maze of shops here, taking in the spice shops, the salt shops (really, honestly, just salt, all different types), the shops that sell goat bells and the crazy brightness of the street that sells traditional wedding dresses before making our way towards Pinarbasi Park, pausing to examine some of the beautiful, crumbling old houses on our way.

At Pinarbasi Park we caught the cable car up to the higher part of the park which overlooks the whole of Aydin. This is a lovely space, all pine trees and cooling breezes, full of waterfalls to provide soothing splashy noises in the heat of summer and with picnic areas, exercise parks, restaurants and play areas to cater to the needs of the citizens. (I found a couple of old ladies in traditional dress having a race on one of the cross training machines the municipality provides, I would have photographed them but they and I were laughing too much!)

Lunch in Pinarbasi Park was wonderful, we ate icli kofte, sigara borek, tavuk sis, akdeniz salat and a couple of pide under the pine trees, overlooking the city. It was November, the temperature was an idyllic 25 degrees, a couple of podgy kittens played around our feet, the view was spectacular and the price including tea and lattes was 50tl for the whole spread – seven years here and I am still amazed at the quality of the food we get, the beauty of the views we find and the general low key happiness you can get from a simple day out like this.

When we had recovered from lunch we walked back down into the city, we could have caught the cable car back down but Nick remembered he was scared of heights, so we walked.

Back down in the city we wandered around the shops, picking up some art supplies from one shop and wonderful corn bread and walnut bread from another of the small shops that line Adnan Menderes Blvd.

Aydin is a pleasant city; it’s pleasantly small, pleasantly clean and pleasantly civilised with a friendly population that is modern and injected with the energy and enthusiasm that comes from being a university town.

I’ve always liked Aydin, I find it easier to cope with than Izmir which is truly massive and hard for this country girl to grasp, and I like its attitude and its friendliness, I like that it wants to engage with you but doesn’t want to sell you anything.

Back on the train the carriages were packed, country housewives with numerous bags returning from city shopping, families heading off on duty visits and students going home for the weekend. One young wife, unable to find a seat for her young child asked two business men to move, they did, and they didn’t even moan about it. And the simit seller was still smiling. Really, trains are cool, in Turkey!

A little update – One of my Facebook friends sent me a link to this really useful site after I wrote this articles. It shows all the main routes in Turkey and tells you how to book and has pictures of the carriages and advice for train travel – The Man in Seat 61 It recommends the sleeper train services across the country and judging by the happy and unruffled guest who arrived here the other day off the overnight sleeper from Ankara it is indeed a very civilised way to travel

This article was first published on the website of House Elements, a boutique rental business for sale in Aegean Turkey. To learn more about this sustainable, low impact project and the turnkey business it offers please click here:- House Elements

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Where does it all go wrong? Avoidable mistakes when starting a business abroad

I grew up on the Costa Del Sol and by the time I was sixteen I had seen pretty much every expat business mistake under the sun; I’d seen the alcoholics who bought bars, the wishful thinkers who thought Irish bacon was a unique selling point, the clueless in a kitchen who thought running a restaurant was a good idea and the really mediocre artists who would sell their soul to the devil for a single customer.

Since those long ago summer days of sunshine (accompanied by the sound of cement mixers!) I’ve been in a few countries and I’ve seen the same mistakes repeated over and over again. I’ve watched people work themselves into the ground in climates that physically broke them; I’ve seen divorces, suicides, even a murder; I’ve see alcoholics by the score and the sad road home for many dreamers. And yet I still admire them, they gave it a go, and I can’t ever knock that, I just wish they had hesitated, just for a day, a week, and thought about a few things, specifically these things.

Play to your strengths:- It is frequently said that if you can’t cook don’t buy a restaurant, but it is rarely said if you don’t understand commercial quantities, portion control, consistency and the fact that your stock is dying on you as soon as you buy it, don’t buy a restaurant. A lifestyle business, which is what most people move abroad to open, requires a wider skill set than any other, you are a Jack of All Trades, and if you don’t have those skills already you kind of need to acquire them, preferably before you start.

We do need to be brutally honest with ourselves in these circumstances, we need to admit what we’re crap at and find some way to make up that shortfall and we need to maximise our resources so we get to use the stuff we’re good at from the word go. If you have no building experience don’t buy a business that needs extensive renovation, get something turnkey and get on with what you are good at, your head and your bank balance will thank you for it.

Stop trying to fit square pegs into round holes:- I hear it a lot, “I want to come to Turkey and open an Irish bar/Indian restaurant/dog grooming parlour/nuclear fusion laboratory, how do I do it?” this is kind of the wrong way to look at thing, it’s probably a better idea to come to Turkey and see what it needs in the place you want to be and see if you can fill a niche with your skills, passion and imagination here. If your idea of what you want to do is so fixed that you cannot respond to the local market then chances are you will fail. The market dictates the business not vice versa.

So you research, from a variety of sources, on the ground, not on an internet forum (!!!), and you form a plan and you make it in response to the place you intend to operate in because British rules don’t apply here, Irish rules don’t apply here, only here applies here!

“If you build it they will come” only works for Kevin Costner (and he had a budget!):- I’m not sure how long Kevin Costner hung around on that field of dreams nearly going bankrupt (whilst being impossible handsome) but one day of that sort of stress is too long for me. Complacency in marketing doesn’t pay the bills and just owning something and telling all your Facebook friends about it isn’t enough. Marketing is where most people fall down in business, particularly a new small business, because when money is short they slash the marketing budget and start to believe the lies about social media marketing!

You need a business plan and that includes a marketing plan and an advertising budget and you need to be clear on your unique selling point and who you are targeting in your marketing and how to reach them.

You need more than one string to your bow:- I like diversification, it helps me sleep at night. I like the whole concept of Income Streams, because I know that we are held hostage to whim and circumstance. All it takes is one bomb, one law change, one political change, one natural disaster and we can kiss goodbye to a substantial chunk of our income and our cash flow can be shot before we get a grip on it. So I believe we should diversify, not put all our eggs in one basket, appeal to the widest possible demographic, be flexible in our business and responsive to how the world changes and have a backup.

Britain and Ireland endured a huge recession and businesses up and down the coast of Turkey suffered because their business model was totally tailored to the budget holiday maker from those countries and that market suddenly had no disposable income, and so those businesses went bust in a period of huge economic growth for Turkey! I lost a booking this weekend on my Kirazli studio because of Hurricane Sandy, there is nothing I can do about it, it’s not a risk I could insure against, but it is a loss I can mitigate by having alternative forms of income, and that helps, loads.

The sunshine shows up the cracks:- People dream of a business in the sun for all sorts of reasons and sometimes they think it will make everything that is wrong at home better, but it doesn’t, under the bright sunlight the cracks show up more clearly. Moving abroad doesn’t heal marriages, it doesn’t make your kids less stroppy, it doesn’t make you rich and it doesn’t stop drinkers drinking, philanders philandering and shopaholics blowing the house keeping on shoes. You move abroad when you are happy and calm and stable and in a good place head wise, you don’t move abroad when your head is messed up, it will just get messier, in a foreign language, a long way from home.

I’m depressing myself now! I keep remembering all the insane things I have seen over the years.

Look it’s really simple, you can move abroad and have a nicer, less stressy life, you can have time to learn new things, time to enjoy hobbies, sunlight, beaches, warm summer nights and bright clear winters. You just have to be sensible about it. I’ve been here seven years and it works for me. I don’t have the totally perfect life, I’m not rich, I still have had tragedy and pain, but I’m still here and I get to work long and hard at the things that I love and according to a very old and very wise definition, that is what happiness is!

This article first appeared on the website of House Elements, a turnkey business for sale in Aegean Turkey – to visit the House Elements website please click HERE

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Once more, with Feeling! Introducing House Elements, a turnkey business for sale

The village in Spring
I’ve been wanting to write this for ages, about a year actually, because a year ago a bit of me that had been off in a corner crying since Phil died stopped sobbing and trailing streamers of snot, pulled itself together as much as is ever going to be possible and thought “It doesn’t end here!” and started to imagine again.

I write (purple prose), I cook (will create a meal from nothing much), I show people Turkey (the real bit, not the boom boom, “hey lady you Pamela Anderson’s sister?” bit), but more than anything I build homes. I make the pictures in my head real by building them. From Pembrokeshire to the Mexican Caribbean to the valley of Kirazli I have taken seemingly unpromising bits of real estate and made them shine.

I love it, all of it, the dreaming in the beginning, the planning where you press though the fog to form the project, the dirt and the complicated juggling of the building of the thing and then the fact of the finished building when it is all over. I give birth to buildings where other women give birth to babies; it’s a very similar thing, apart from the weight, all the hard work makes me thinner!

Anyway, about a year ago that building things bit of me woke up and the old addictions started looking for a fix and we decided to look, casually, for a new project.

It all stemmed from the studio really, we started renting it out and people loved it. They loved that it had character, they loved that it accommodated couples who would have rattled around in bigger villas but didn’t want to stay in a bland hotel room and they loved that it was in a real, living and working village.

The reviews were good, the bookings started stacking up and it was obvious that there was a significant gap in the market here, for small character properties that weren’t hotels and weren’t resorts, that were home stays in Turkey, letting independent travelers see life here but still be really comfortable.

The beautiful foothills of the Menderes Massif in Autumn

We talked it over with guests who had become friends and checked that we weren’t being totally bonkers about our perception of the tourism business in Turkey and they contributed lots of great input and confirmed what we were thinking – for single travelers, women and couples who have grown out of backpacker lodges but who aren’t yet ready to totally trade their towel (Hitchhikers of the Galaxy geek reference) for an AI wristband and who want to relax somewhere authentic and real and never have someone try to flog them a carpet accommodation choices can be thin on the ground.

With all this in mind we decided to think seriously about a new project and we were actively looking for a property that would work in this sector of the market when I wrote this blog post back in March – Buying Village Houses

Old adobe brick in 50cm thick walls
We ended up finding a house we liked in that village I wrote about in the blog post. A cute little cottage on 800 square metres of land, small but with potential to grow and add further units on the land and we went down the buying road and agreed a price and we were on the way to the village to meet the mapping engineers and map the land when the owners pulled out.

It happens, it’s normal, it’s just part of the whole buying in a Turkish village thing, and you just grit your teeth a bit and go back to the beginning and start all over again. But as we were on our way to the village anyway we decided to carry on and look at one of the other buildings we had viewed there previously, it was a very large house, and we had loved it but decided it was too big for what we had in mind at the time.

Old walls and old fig tree
The building is sprawling; it’s on multiple levels, it has charming original features we can keep, it has a large private courtyard and beautiful mature fig tree. It’s position within the village gives access to extensive and stable infrastructure, it has good access, the boring necessity of brilliant road links and it’s right on the edge of the playground of the Aegean, perched between mountain and sea.

It’s a stone, old fired brick and adobe building – adobe is a wonderful material to build in and it ticks all the right boxes in my attitude to houses, it produces something that really belongs to its landscape, it’s traditional, it’s about as natural as it gets and it’s a fantastic natural insulator. A building like that takes me further down the road I have been traveling for the last decade or so, more sustainable, more in keeping, more natural every time.

So we viewed the house again, clambering all over it and getting happily dirty. The elderly owner gamely doddered from the tea shop and again hopefully offered up his much creased tapu and map. I photographed everything in sight from every angle, just in case, but I felt, with a heavy heart, that this was just too big a project. It was bigger than the last boutique tourism project we had built in Kirazli back in 2006, I could see it working as an off-plan project for someone wanting to relocate to Turkey but the world has changed between then and now and I didn’t know if people even considered that kind of thing now. Reluctantly, again, I said “No” to the property and we went home and the ancient owner went back to the tea shop.

Lake near the project
And then Nick started nagging me. He doesn’t nag much – apart from about things like dyson vacuum cleaners and garages and motorbikes – but this time he really nagged, he wanted this project, he thought it had legs, so to keep him quiet and because knowledge is never wasted, I did my homework.

I read the advance development plan for the area, I checked out the geology, I ran “what if’s” on spreadsheets and put myself under serious brain strain researching the history, methodology and recent breakthroughs in building in adobe. Every practical objection I could think of was overturned in the research.

Yet still I dithered, mainly I think because I was scared, not of the project, the more I learnt the more it made sense to me, but because people don’t seem to love property any more and I thought people would laugh at me if I said I was doing another off-plan (dirty word!) development and I’m more fragile than I used to be about stuff like that.

A month or so later, when we were out exploring the area we drove past the house and the huge original 16 foot front doors were off and I felt a stab of pain, someone must have bought it, it would be knocked down and some hideous concrete bunker built on the land.

Fifteen minutes up the road I made my mind up, I couldn’t let it go. We pulled over at the side of the road up above Aydin, parked up overlooking the sweep of hills down to the Menderes plain and we phoned the emlak who said the house hadn’t been sold. So we went back to the village and found the ancient owner in the tea shop and we went to his garden and negotiated over tea and fruit and we bought it. Just like that.

Draft floorplan of House Elements
Well not really just like that, it took six months between checking all the legal stuff, negotiating the new laws, wading through bureaucracy and the snail slow speed of communication with someone who is nearly 90 years old, only reads Arabic Turkish and who doesn’t own a mobile phone and is scared the foreigners are going to rip him off (novelty!).

But eventually it all got done and this week I became the official owner of yet another wreck and I’ve already had six months to draft out the plans and the costings and source the really innovative stuff this project needs.

It’s an October morning in Turkey, the sky is that beautiful rich saturated blue of Autumn, a few high clouds are floating overhead wondering if it’s worth clubbing together to try and generate a rain shower. It seems unlikely they will bother; the day is warm, the sunlight less harsh than high summer but it still heats the roses enough to make their scent waft across to where I am sitting with my back against an old brick column, with my sketchbook on my lap, looking at an overgrown courtyard, looking at old walls and weathered terracotta roofs, looking at a twisted fig tree, looking with my eyes half closed, dreaming the details into existence.

Ladies and Gentlemen, let’s take it from the top and do it all again, once more, with feeling:-

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We are proud to present House Elements, a natural adobe residence which will produce four rental apartments and a two bedroom owner’s house built around a courtyard pool and garden.

Combining ancient construction methods using stone, reclaimed fired brick, new adobe brick and lime mortar with modern reinforcing technology of epoxy soaked carbon fibre rods this super insulated property will give someone a turnkey business in Turkey working in a vibrant and growing sector of the tourism market.

If you want to move to Turkey and you’re too young to just sit in the sun and get wrinkly and you’re too sane to bung your cash in the bank and watch the interest rate go down and you’re passionate about showing people this great, big, amazing, infinitely varied, country then come talk to me, I think I have something for you!

For more about House Elements please see it’s own website here:- House Elements