Turkey’s Wild and Rugged Black Sea Coast
Photos courtesy the Turkish Tourist and Culture Office of New York
Encompassing much of the country’s northern boundary and isolated by the rugged Kackar mountains, the narrow coastal Black Sea region of Turkey is well off the beaten path of many international travelers but treasured by those who discover its unique charms.
In addition to fascinating reminders of Turkey’s extraordinary history, the region is renowned for its magnificent coastline, scenic seaside and hilltop towns, World Heritage sites, lakes, national parks and some of the wildest natural landscapes in the country that draw intrepid trekkers, climbers and mountaineers from all over.
It should not be surprising that the Black Sea’s history was shaped by the nations that ruled the seas. Ancient Greece, the Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire, Genoese, the Venetians and, until the early 20th century and afterwards Ottoman Empire, all put their cultural imprint on the region. They left behind castles overlooking the sea, churches, monasteries and mosques and distinctive architecture – much still intact or lovingly restored.
Today, visiting Turkey’s Black Sea by cruise ship (a number of lines based in North America offer itineraries that include one or two Turkish Black Sea ports) is one option, but for a more in-depth experience, travelers are advised to fly to Samsun or Trabzon, two of the larger towns, from Istanbul or Ankara, and rent a car or four-wheel drive vehicle. Comfortable and friendly accommodations are plentiful except in some of the more remote mountain villages.
Though the coastal areas are blessed with moderate temperatures year-round, weather in the mountainous interior can be colder, therefore spring time is the most popular season for exploring the mountains.
Traveling from west to east through the Black Sea region, you might begin in Bolu. From coastal beaches to its famous multi-colored forests of oak, alder, pine, hazelnut and many more varieties of trees, visitors can virtually travel through all four seasons of the year within the course of a short drive. Yedigoller or Seven Lakes National Park is the centerpiece, but explorers will also discover hot springs, hiking and walking opportunities and, in winter, one of Turkey’s best ski centers.
As early as the 6th century BC, the coastal town of Amasra went by the name of Sesamus, and today offers a number of historic attractions, including 14th century Genoese forts, a Roman bridge, Byzantine city walls and historic mosques. Nearby, along the sea, the fishing villages of Cide and Abana are popular excursions, particularly known for their seaside restaurants.
Just inland from Amasra is one of the region’s best known attractions: Safranbolu. Its beautifully preserved and restored buildings from the Ottoman Empire, including konaks, or mansions distinctively made of timber and stone, have earned the town a World Heritage Site designation. Other reasons to visit include the Koprulu Mehmet Pasa Mosque and the Kazdagi Mosque, Turkish baths, Shoemakers Street (the town once supplied the Turkish army with shoes) and the scenic Market Street.
Also inland is the town of Kastamonu, with its 12th century castle, ethnographic and archaeology museums, and famous handicrafts, including fabrics, tablecloths, woolens and fruit jams. The expansive pastures in the vicinity offer some of the best trail riding in Turkey, and nearby Ilgaz Mountain National Park is noted for its deer, foxes and bear as well as culinary traditions that include whole lamb cooked slowly in clay ovens.
Back on the Black Sea coast, the town of Samsun is where Mustafa Kemal Ataturk drew plans for what became the modern Turkish Republic; the hotel where he stayed became the Gazi Museum. Samsun also offers an Archaeological and Ethnologic Museum, with an impressive collection of antiquities, and not far away, at Bafra, are excavations dating back to the Hittite Iron Age civilization. The thermal springs of Havza, approximately 50 miles away, are another popular day trip.
Continuing eastward, Trabzon is the largest city in the region and a cruise port dating back to 7,000 B.C. It remains a major trading port, evolving from an early Greek colony to an important cultural center on the busy Black Sea. Under the Venetians, the town became an important feature of the famous Silk Route before the rule of Ottomans in 1461. Today visitors will find historic churches and mosques as well as other landmarks, including a villa belonging to Ataturk on the town’s periphery. Built by Maneul I in the 13th century, Ayasofia Church sits on top of a hill in the center of the city; the origins of the Church of Saint Eugenios, now the Yeni Cuma Mosque, are lost in time.
Just inland from Trabzon is the Sumela Monastery, a true treasure of the Black Sea region. Begun in the 4th century by the Greek monks, Barnabas and Sophronius, and built high into the cliffs of Mt. Mela, the monastery has been restored and rebuilt over the centuries.
Not far away, the alpine region of Zigana in the Kalkanli Mountains is renowned for its natural beauty and popular for day trips. The 3,200-feet high alpine lake at Uzungol is popular among campers, hikers and fishermen, who prize the lake’s trout. Even more rugged is the Yusufeli designated conservation area inland from the Georgian border. This remote area of lakes and historic Georgian and Armenian churches offers white water rafting as well as ecotours on the famous Coruh River.
Offering more cultural comforts is the nearby town of Artvin, which is famous throughout Turkey for its many festivals celebrating regional cultures and featuring music, food, costumes, dancing and other traditional celebrations. The most popular is the Bull Fighting Festival. Visitors will also find other picturesque rural villages in the area as well as the Karagol-Sahara National Park, which is noted for its forests and lakes.
Visitors to the region will also discover unique culinary traditions such as Black Sea cuisine, including the roots of the world-famous Turkish tea. Strongly influenced by geography and climate, mountains and sea, food featured in this region includes the black anchovy, or “hamsi,” corn served in endlessly interesting ways, pickled green beans, an abundance of other vegetables and Akcabat Kofte (meatballs). Sweet helva, made with corn, butter and local honey, is another local favorite, as are a great variety of Black Sea and river fish (including farm-raised trout), considered by many to be the tastiest in the world.
The Turkish tea industry is based in the town of Rize, where a moist, moderate climate provides perfect growing conditions. While green tea is exported all over the world, travelers should be prepared to enjoy the local favorite, the strong, smoky black variety that, traditionally served with sugar, is as much a social event as it is a beverage. But tea is not the only appeal of Rize and its surroundings. Not far away are the dramatic Kackar Mountains, with their waterfalls, highlands and peaks – magnets for hikers and climbers. Glacial lakes are adorned with yellow rhododendrons, found nowhere else in Turkey at these altitudes, and Mt. Kackar itself, one of the world’s ecological treasures, is home to bears, wolves, lynxes and mountain goats.
For more information on Turkey and its Black Sea region, contact the Turkish Culture and Tourist Offices in New York at (212) 687-2194; Washington, D.C. at (202) 612-6800; and Los Angeles at (323) 937-8066. Information is also available at www.tourismturkey.org.