Explore The Black Sea coast
Extending from just east of İstanbul to the frontier with Georgia, the Black Sea region is an anomaly, guaranteed to smash any stereotypes held about Turkey. The combined action of damp northerly and westerly winds, and an almost uninterrupted wall of mountains south of the shore, has created a relentlessly rainy and riotously green realm. It’s not unlike North America’s, or Spain’s, northwest coast. The peaks force the clouds to disgorge themselves on the seaward side of the watershed, leaving central Anatolia beyond the passes in a permanent rain shadow.
The short summer season means there is little in the way of organized foreign tourism and backpackers, archeology groups and trekkers form the bulk of visitors. Yet, in those months when the semi-tropical heat is on (July and August), you’ll certainly want to swim. The sea here has its own peculiarities, just like the weather. It is fed huge volumes of fresh water by the Don, Dnieper and Danube rivers to the north, and diminished not by evaporation but by strong currents through the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles. The resulting upper layer is of such low salinity that you could almost drink it, were it not for the pollution of recent decades.
The coastal ranges begin as mere humps north of Ankara but attain world-class grandeur by the time the Georgian border is reached. Until recently they made land access all but impossible, and provided refuge for a complex quilt of tribes and ethnic subgroups which still exist among the Hemşin valleys and the Kaçkar mountains making the eastern end of the Black Sea one of Turkey’s most anthropologically interesting regions. Even so, travelling around largely consists of soaking up the atmosphere and you rarely need worry about missing important sights. Aside from the old mercantile towns of Ünye and Giresun there really aren’t any major attractions outside the ancient port city of Trabzon (Trebizond) with its nearby monastery of Sumela.
By comparison the region’s middle portion is dominated by the hulking port of Samsun and consequently lacks character. However, head further west from the evocatively located town of Sinop to the Byzantine/Genoese harbour of Amasra and the area is full of attractive coastal villages and deserted beaches, as the infrequency of bus and dolmuş links shelters the area from mass tourism.
The ancient Greeks ventured onto the Pontos Euxine (as they called the Black Sea) at the start of the first millennium BC. They fought with the local “barbarians” and occasionally, as in the semi-legendary tale of Jason and the Argonauts, got the better of them. Between the seventh and fourth centuries BC numerous colonies of the Aegean cities were founded and these became the ancestors of virtually every modern Black Sea town, whose name often as not is a Turkification of the ancient moniker. The region had its first brief appearance on the world stage when one of the local Pontic kings, Mithridates IV Eupator, came close to expelling the Romans from Anatolia.
With the arrival of Christianity, relations between natives and imperial overlords hardly changed at all. Only the Byzantine urban centres by the sea became thoroughly Hellenized. The Byzantine defeat at Manzikert in 1071 initially meant little to the Black Sea, safe behind its wall of mountains; the fall of Constantinople to the Fourth Crusade in 1204 had far greater immediate effects, prompting the Black Sea’s second spell of historical prominence. The empire-in-exile of the Komnenos dynasty centred on Trebizond (today’s Trabzon) exercised influence grossly disproportionate to its size for two and a half cultured (and ultimately decadent) centuries.
After Manzikert, Turkish chieftains had begun to encroach on the coast, especially at the gap in the barrier ranges near Sinop and Samsun; the Trapezuntine dynasty even concluded alliances with them, doubtless to act as a counter to the power of the Genoese and Venetians who also set up shop hereabouts. Most of this factionalism was brought to an end under the Ottomans, though even they entrusted semi-autonomous administration of the Pontic foothills to feudal derebeys (literally “valley lords”) until the early nineteenth century.
The equilibrium was upset when the Black Sea area entered the history books for the third time as a theatre of war between imperial Turkey and Russia. These two clashed four times between 1828 and 1915, with the Tsarist regime giving active aid and comfort to various separatist movements in the region after 1877. Between 1918 and 1922, Greeks attempting to create a Pontic state fought with guerillas loyal to Atatürk’s Nationalists. Following the victory of the Republic, the Greek merchant class was expelled along with the rest of Turkey’s Greek Orthodox population, and the Black Sea experienced temporary economic disarray, verging on famine during the 1930s.
Most of the credit for the last few decades of recovery must go to the hamsis, as the locals are nicknamed (after the Black Sea anchovy formerly caught here in large numbers during winter). Enterprising, voluble and occasionally scandalous, they have set up mafias in the shipping, property and construction industries throughout the country, much of which is funded by industrious hamsis overseas. The opening of Turkey’s eastern border in the early 1990s brought a new supply of goods to the region’s doorstep, most visible in the form of thousands of prostitutes, or natashas as they’re colloquially known. Most of the latter have now departed, due in part to Turkey’s economic woes, and a new coastal road and bout of urbanization is the most visible sign of the post-Soviet era. A recent discovery of vast beds of oil and gas reserves may give the Black Sea region a further boost.Read More
Crossing to Russia, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan
Crossing to Russia, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan
At present, all non-Turkish travellers need to buy a visa for Russia in order to go from Turkey into Russia. The local consulate is unlikely to prove too helpful in this matter, and it is easier to obtain a visa in your home country than in either İstanbul or Ankara. Citizens of Australia and New Zealand still need a visa from the Georgian consulate to visit Georgia although most other nationals, including those from the EU, US and Switzerland, may enter visa free.
In the wake of severe economic conditions affecting all countries concerned, trans-Black Sea services to Russia (Sochi) have been drastically reduced; contact one of the ferry agencies in Trabzon (see “Listings”) for the most current information. Azerbaijan Airlines offers regular flights to Baku in Azerbaijan.
Overland bus services have been less affected with several services a day running over the border to Batumi. The Georgian frontier is crossed either at Sarp, or (for onward connections to Armenia and Azerbaijan) Posof which only opened in 2001 for non-local traffic. It’s easy enough to do the trip to Georgia in smaller chunks, taking a dolmuş or taxi from Sarp to the border and then arranging local transport on to Batumi on the Georgian side, from where several daily buses run to Armenia.