The eastern coast of the Black Sea sees far more visitors than the western half, partly because it holds more of interest, and partly because it’s easier to get to. Trabzon, with its romantic associations and medieval monuments, is very much the main event. With good air and bus services, it makes a logical introduction to the region, and is the usual base for visits to Sumela monastery, the only place in this chapter that you could describe as being overwhelmed by tourists. Other forays inland, however, are just as rewarding – particularly the superlatively scenic Hemşin valleys, home to a welcoming, unusual people, and the northern gateway to the lofty Kaçkar Dağları.
Other than Trabzon, the coast itself between the Georgian frontier and Samsun offers little apart from fine scenery and swimming opportunities that become increasingly restricted. Giresun and Ünye are the most attractive and feasible towns. It’s best appreciated with your own transport, but even without it you’ll face few problems. The towns are close together, and served by endless relays of dolmuşes; just about every route is covered, so you can safely ask to be set down at an isolated beach in the near certainty that another minibus will pick you up when necessary.Read More
- East of Samsun: the coast to Trabzon
The monastery of Sumela
The monastery of Sumela
At the start of the Byzantine era, a large number of monasteries sprang up in the mountains behind Trabzon. The most important and prestigious – and today the best preserved – was Sumela (increasingly signposted as Sümela), which clings to a cliff-face nearly a thousand feet above the Altındere valley, 46km south of Trabzon, in precisely the sort of setting that has always appealed to Greek Orthodox monasticism. Despite the usual crowds, often rainy or misty weather, and the rather battered condition of its frescoes, Sumela still rates as one of the mandatory excursions along the Black Sea.
If you don’t have your own vehicle, you can make the hour-long journey to Sumela from Trabzon by taxi or on a tour. However you arrive, aim to spend at least three hours at the site, allowing for a good look around and a spot of lunch by the rapids which flow through the valley below. The monastery itself is linked to the valley floor by a newly paved road, as well as a commonly used, recently widened and often slippery woodland trail (30min).
The name “Sumela” is a Pontic Greek shortening and corruption of Panayia tou Melas or “Virgin of the Black (Rock)”. She has been venerated on this site since at least 385 AD, when the Athenian monk Barnabas, acting on a revelation from the Mother of God, discovered an icon here said to have been painted by St Luke. He and his nephew Sophronios found the holy relic on a site that matched the one in his vision – a cave on a narrow ledge, partway up the all-but-sheer palisade – and installed it in a shrine inside.
A monastery supposedly grew around the image as early as the sixth century, but most of what’s visible today dates from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Over the centuries the icon was held responsible for countless miracles, and the institution that housed it shared its reputation, prompting even Turkish sultans to make pilgrimages and leave offerings.
Six years after Sumela was hastily evacuated in 1923, along with all other Greek Orthodox foundations in the Pontus, it was gutted by fire, possibly started by careless squatters. In 1931 one of the monks returned secretly and exhumed various treasures, including the revered icon of the Virgin, now housed in the new monastery of Sumela, in northern Greece. Since 1996, the monastery has been undergoing restoration. The work done thus far is in reasonable taste, extending to proper ceramic canal-tiles for the roof. Most important of all, the surviving frescoes have been consolidated and cleaned.
- The Hemsin valleys
When you pass what was once the eastern limit of the Trapezuntine Empire, around 35km east of Rize, you enter the territory of the Laz, the Black Sea’s most celebrated minority group. While Turks often use the term “Laz” as a catch-all description of all residents of the country’s eastern Black Sea coastline, strictly speaking the Laz themselves are a distinctively Caucasian people who speak a language related to Georgian, 150,000 of whom inhabit Pazar, Ardeşen, Fındıklı, Arhavi and Hopa, plus certain inland enclaves. The men, with their aquiline features and often reddish hair, particularly stand out; they also distinguish themselves by an extroversion unusual even for the Black Sea, and an extraordinary business acumen. Laz own and operate a sizeable chunk of Turkey’s shipping, and the resultant worldly exposure has made them relatively modern in outlook; the women are out and about in Western garb from Fındıklı east, and the men, too, seem better dressed in the latest styles.
It seems likely that the Laz are descended from the ancient Colchians (from whom Jason supposedly stole the Golden Fleece). The Laz accepted Christianity in the sixth century and almost immediately got embroiled in protracted wars with the Byzantines, whose governors had managed to offend them. No power managed fully to subdue them until the Ottomans induced conversion to Islam early in the sixteenth century. Like their neighbours the Hemşinli, they generally practise their faith without the dour piety of some of their countrymen, though they are now well integrated into the national fabric.
Perhaps too well integrated – Lazuri, the spoken language, is under threat, as until recently no systematic transcription system existed. The Turkish authorities have strongly discouraged any attempts to study the language in situ. Despite being declared persona non grata, German linguist Wolfgang Feurstein finally compiled the first Turkish–Lazuri dictionary, complete with a specially devised alphabet, in 1999.
Thanks to a climate that’s perfectly suited to its cultivation, tea is king east of Trabzon. The tightly trimmed bushes are planted everywhere between sea level and about 600m, to the exclusion of almost all other crops. As picking the tender leaves is considered women’s work, during the six warmer months women can be seen humping enormous loads of leaves in back-strap baskets to the nearest consolidation station. Each year, nearly a million raw tonnes of tea is sent more or less immediately to the cutting, fermenting and drying plants whose stacks are recurring regional landmarks.
Oddly enough, tea is a very recent introduction to the Black Sea, the pet project of one Asim Zihni Derin, who imported the first plants just before World War II to a region left badly depressed following the departure of its substantial Christian population in 1923. Within a decade or so, tea became the mainstay of the local economy, overseen by Çaykur, the state tea monopoly. Despite the emergence of private competitors since 1985, and the Chernobyl accident, which spread radiation over the 1986 crop, Çaykur is still a major player in the domestic market. Export, however, seems unlikely, as supply can barely keep pace with domestic demand.
The border with Georgia
The border with Georgia
The 540km Black Sea coastal highway continues for a final 20km beyond the industrial port of Hopa, which holds a limited selection of decent accommodation, to the Turkish–Georgian frontier. Set by the Turkish and Soviet revolutionary governments in 1921, the crossing was virtually inactive between 1935 and 1988, a casualty of Stalinist, then Cold War, paranoia. Since the gates have opened, and especially since a 2011 agreement that allows Georgian and Turkish citizens to cross passport-free, it has become a busy 24-hour way-station. The Turkish border post is in a modern building, with a bank, insurance counter and a small café-restaurant. Minibuses on either side transport passengers to Hopa and beyond (Turkey), or Batumi and Tbilisi (Georgia).