Turkey's Texas Tea: The Red Clay of Avanos

With a tradition of pottery making that dates back to Hittite times, Avanos has made its name out of red clay. At one time, the craft so permeated the culture of the city that every household had a pottery wheel or workshop. Now the most prominent feature of the town, besides the unsightly terra-cotta sculpture in the town center, is the word chez, as something about this particular corner of Cappadocia acts as a magnet for French nationals. As a base for explorations in Cappadocia, I couldn't recommend Avanos less. For 2 hours of poking in and out of ceramic shops, I have only slightly better things to say, if only regarding the region's distinctive terra-cotta pottery and the admittedly spectacular Ottoman ceramic reproductions.

The city, carved into the rock like so many other ancient Cappadocian towns, sits along the banks of the Kizilirmak (Red River), the longest river in Turkey. The river takes its name from the color of the water, stained by the red clay exclusive to the region, an abundant source of the raw material necessary in pottery production. Currently there are about 30 pottery shops in town, most of them boasting the same techniques used by the Hittites. But although Avanos has its own homegrown brand of terra-cotta urns, a vast majority of the classic Iznik and Kütahya designs are mass-produced using clay from Kütahya and marketed as valuable high-quality "Iznik reproductions." Sure, it's fascinating and fun to participate in a dirty demo on the kick-wheel, but it's all part of the sales pitch, as are the endless fabrications about quality -- seems the art of Turkish salesmanship extends beyond the fringes of carpeting to the delicate surfaces of these ceramics. Worse, I have yet to successfully hand-carry a sample home, as many of the plates are much cheaper quality than the price might indicate. Charge it, have it shipped in a hard-sided box, and pay the bill only after the piece arrives safely on your doorstep.

One of my personal favorites is the "special family design" creations at Kaya Seramik House and Güray Çömlekçilik, Eski Nevsehir Yolu 18 (from Avanos center, ceramic center is just outside of town on the old Nevsehir road on the right; tel. 0384/511-5091; www.gurayseramik.com.tr). The showroom, stocked chock-full of traditional and one-of-a-kind designs, takes up 12 caves carved into the rock on the road out of town. Note to the budget-minded: These are far from cheap.

Sirca, Alaeddin Camii Yani (tel. 0384/511-3686), claims to have the largest collection of ceramics in Turkey, employing more than 100 people. Sirca also has an original line of Byzantine and religious decorative designs: classical repros of vases and the like decorated with symbols from Hittite mythology or in the Greek style.

Break up your visit with a meal over at Bizim Ev (Orta Mah., Baklaci Sok. 1 behind the Sarihan; tel. 0384/511-5525; daily 9am-midnight). It's got four atmospheric dining areas, including an indoor terrace, an outdoor sun patio, and an upstairs "back room" mellowed by stone, arches, and kilims. Order the bostan kebap, a decadent dish of shredded beef and eggplant covered in cheese and baked in a clay pot, or the uncannily juicy tavuk sis (roasted chicken), all at prices too reasonable to believe.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.