A Short Trip to the Black Sea

Last Friday was a public holiday in Turkey – thanks to Karl Marx, the Second International and Tayyip Erdoğan. It was the first long weekend we’d had for a while, so Dilek and I decided to forego the pleasures of tear gas and water cannons in Taksim Square, and instead headed out of town on a tour of the western Black Sea region.

Old Ottoman houses in Safranbolu

Old Ottoman houses in Safranbolu

Time was short, and driving in Turkey on holiday weekends is another joy one can do without, so we enrolled in a two-day guided tour of Safranbolu and Amasra. It was a pretty full-on itinerary involving close to a thousand km in a coach and one night in a hotel – but definitely well worth making the effort. Tour arrangements were impressively efficient, and our guide extremely knowledgeable and good-natured.

A sparrow-fart start on Friday morning and a five-hour journey got us to our first destination in the early afternoon. Safranbolu is a small city located some 90 km from the Black Sea coast and 200-odd km north of Turkey’s capital Ankara. The region we were visiting was known in ancient times as Paphlagonia. It’s a rugged, mountainous landscape with fertile valleys, renowned for its hazel nuts, plums, cherries and pears. The Paphlagonians, apparently, were one of the ancient peoples of Anatolia, and warranted a mention in Homer’s Iliad for allying themselves with the Trojans in their war with the Greeks, brought about, as you’ll recall, by Orlando Bloom’s romantic kidnapping of Diane Kruger. Some classical authors suggest the Paphlagonians, consoling themselves for picking a loser, went on to found the city of Venice.

The kiss that launched a Hollywood blockbuster

The kiss that launched a Hollywood blockbuster

Be that as it may, our first port of call has had many names over the millennia of its existence. Whatever the Paphlagonians may have called it, it became Theodoropolis to the Pontic ‘Greeks’ and Saframpolis to the Byzantines. After the arrival of the Turks, the city was known as Zalifre and later Taraklıborlu before assuming its present appellation. There’s not a lot of pre-Turkic history to be seen nowadays. The one surviving Orthodox church, converted to a mosque after the departure of its congregation, was built in 1872 – so it’s more a tribute to the religious tolerance of the Ottomans than a reminder of Byzantine glories.

The city’s claim to fame these days, and its magnetic power for tourists is the picturesque old town centre with hundreds of Ottoman-era houses and mansions in various stages of restoration and dilapidation. So uniformly impressive is the architecture of Safranbolu’s buildings that the city features on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage sites. The old town was actually built in a valley and our first stop was the summit of Hıdırlık Hill which overlooks it. In fact the hill has its own intrinsic interest, taking its name from the Hıdrellez Festival which celebrates the coming of spring throughout the Turkic world.

Interior of Yörük Köy house

Interior of Yörük Köy house

Islam in Turkey is decidedly different from that in neighbouring Arab and other Middle Eastern countries. No doubt there are many reasons for this, but one is the influence of Turkic and Anatolian folk beliefs. On Hıdırlık Hill, for instance, there is an open-air praying area more reminiscent of Alevism than orthodox Sunni Muslim practice. The Hıdrellez ceremony includes ritual leaps over a fire, and prayers and incantations aimed at curing of sickness, wish fulfilment and finding a wife or husband. Another characteristic of Islam in Turkey is the influence of Sufi philosophy with its mystical focus on personal spiritual development rather than outward shows of religiosity.

After descending into the town itself we spent a couple of hours wandering around the maze of winding streets in the old market area with a guided tour of one of the old mansions. In Ottoman times the market was organised according to a guild system where practitioners of particular trades, such as shoe-makers, located themselves in certain streets. The only one really surviving to the present-day is that of the ironsmiths, where locks and ornamental door-handles are still manufactured by traditional methods. Before departing we paid an obligatory visit to the premises of Imren and Co., purveyors of lokum (Turkish delight) to the discerning for 73 years. Their most famous product is a sweet flavoured and coloured with saffron, produced locally and the source of the town’s name.

Crocus sativus - source of saffron spice

Crocus sativus – source of saffron spice

Turkey is not a big producer of saffron, but the local product is considered by aficionados to be amongst the world’s best. The word is said to derive from Classical Persian, and evidence has been found of its use in Assyrian and Sumerian societies dating back 4,000 years or more. The product itself is obtained by drying the stigmas of the saffron crocus. To produce one kilogram requires approximately 150,000 flowers and around 40 hours of labour to collect, which explains why saffron is said to be the world’s most expensive spice; that kilogram costing anywhere from $1,100 to $11,000 depending on quality. Its culinary and medicinal properties have made saffron a much sought after ingredient over the centuries, and a dispute over ownership of a shipload of the stuff is said to have caused a 14-year Saffron War in Europe back in the 14th century.

Our day’s itinerary took in two other places of note in the area. The first was Tokatlı Canyon, a geological feature best appreciated from an impressive glass-floored viewing platform cantilevered vertiginously over eighty-metre cliffs. The other was Yörük Village, a smaller edition of Safranbolu old town; its houses a little more dilapidated but somehow more atmospheric in consequence. Yörük in Turkish refers to the semi-nomadic culture of farmers who take their herds from the lowland winter village to upland pastures in the summer. The original inhabitants of this village were of Turkmen stock, settled there after the rise of the Ottomans. They were followers of the Sufi dervish Bektashi sect, and signs of their faith can be seen in the houses and public buildings, including the communal laundry whose 12-sided stone worktop is said to represent the twelve imams of Shi’ite and Alevi belief. Related to their religion or not, who can say, but the villagers also have a reputation for bread-making, and many migrated to Istanbul where they established successful bakeries.

Tokatlı Canyon

Tokatlı Canyon

Our accommodation for the night was in the new city located some two km from the old town. The name of our tastefully designed hotel, Zalifre, was, as you will recall, one of the earlier names of Safranbolu. Apart from tourism, the local economy has been boosted recently by the opening of a large state university – whose influence can be seen in the lively town centre with its modern cafes, bars and nightclubs. A few kilometres down the road is a huge steel works set up in 1939 as one of the new republic’s first ventures into heavy industry.

Another early start on Saturday morning took us over forest-clad mountains to the town of Amasra on the Black Sea coast. Fast-flowing braided rivers rush through deep valleys carrying snowmelt waters to the sea. The potential for dams to produce hydro-electricity is irresistible, and much of this landscape will be under water in a few years.

Amasra is another town that has been continuously inhabited for millennia on account of its natural harbour that provides refuge from the sudden violent storms sweeping across the Black Sea from the north. The Greek name Amastris is said to derive from a niece of the last Achaemenid Persian King Darius III, whose rule was terminated in 330 BCE by the world-conquering depredations of the youthful Alexander.

Amasra on the Black Sea

Amasra on the Black Sea

Thereafter the town passed into the hands of the Romans whose empire morphed into the Christian Greek-speaking Byzantine entity, causing much confusion in the minds of British schoolboys and politicians. Crimea and Ukraine are a short 300-400 km hop across the Black Sea to the north, a geographical proximity leading to much conflict between Russia and the Byzantines, and later the Ottomans. Amasra was sacked by the Rus in 830 CE, and became briefly part of the minor empire of Trebizond in 1204 before the Seljuk Turks moved in. They in turn were superseded by the Genoese, wandering far from their Italian homeland in search of trading opportunities. The Roman Catholic Republic of Genoa controlled the town for 200 years and it was from them the Ottomans seized it in 1460, not from the Orthodox Christian ‘Greeks’.

Amasra was a walled town, and ancient inhabitants bridged the short gap to the larger of two offshore islands, turning the site into a peninsula. Much of the old fortifications remain, including the citadel, rebuilt, of course, over the centuries. You can see reused stones from earlier times, including Genoese crosses and coats of arms, and a time-worn but recognisable head of Medusa beside one of the gates.

A church and chapel survive from Byzantine times, though converted for worship by the newer faith. A market area caters for the tourist trade, selling an interesting range of wooden crafts, some of which are not made in China. There is also a produce market selling preserves, jams, pickles and what not made from local fruit and vegetables, as well as dairy products, butter and cheese, for which the Black Sea region is also noted.

A view from Ağlayan Ağaç

A view from Ağlayan Ağaç

Spring comes a little later in this part of the country, so we were a little disappointed not to get the full show of wild flowers – but the weather was fine and warm, and there were plenty of picturesque vistas, especially from the hilltop district known as Ağlayan Ağaç (click for 360° panoramas). The name means ‘The Weeping Tree’ in Turkish, and the tree itself is a very old cypress that apparently actually sheds tears occasionally during the springtime. The sadly prosaic scientific explanation is that the phenomenon is caused by moist sea air condensing on the leaves of the tree and falling in droplets. Nevertheless, a simple tea garden and a marvelous view over the town and the Black Sea coastline east and west make the steep ascent worthwhile.

Our tour ended with lunch in a seaside restaurant, and a meal of fish accompanied by fresh green salad and locally baked bread. We still had a six-hour coach ride back to Istanbul, but we can definitely recommend the experience and the tour company, etstur.

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