From the northern end of the Bosphorus just east of Istanbul to the frontier with Georgia, the Black Sea region is a real anomaly, guaranteed to smash any stereotypes you may hold about Turkey. The combination of damp northerly and westerly winds, confronting an almost uninterrupted wall of mountains south of the shore, has created a relentlessly rainy and riotously green realm. That said, while the coastline may have cooler water temperatures and cloudier skies, semi-tropical heat still sets in during July and August. The Black Sea (Karadeniz in Turkish) was – and indeed still is – an important maritime route; the ancient civilizations who ruled the waters left behind castles, churches, monasteries and mosques. Alongside these, the region’s charm lies in its craggy beauty, empty beaches, vibrant seaside towns unspoilt by tourism, and its low-key vibe.
Although the region’s characterless central portion is dominated by the hulking port of Samsun, the coast west of the strikingly sited town of Sinop, towards the Byzantine/Genoese harbour of Amasra, is filled with attractive villages and deserted beaches. To the east of Samsun are the old mercantile towns of Ünye and Giresun, and the ancient port city of Trabzon (Trebizond), which has more historical attractions than any other destination on the Turkish Black Sea, including the spectacular nearby monastery of Sumela.
Emerging north of Ankara as mere humps, the coastal mountain ranges attain world-class grandeur by the time they reach the Georgian border. Until recently they made land access all but impossible and provided refuge for a complex quilt of ethnic subgroups, pockets of which still exist among the Hemşin valleys and the Kaçkar Mountains. Today these regions provide excellent trekking opportunities and rural retreats among the misty forests, glassy lakes and babbling streams. Black Sea cuisine is strongly influenced by geography and climate. The Black Sea anchovy (hamsi) has a cult-like fan base as far as Istanbul, and the region produces excellent dairy and locally grown hazelnuts, walnuts and cherries. With the exception of the winding and slow western section between Sinop and Amasra, bus and dolmuş links are excellent along the D010 coastal highway.
The ancient Greeks ventured onto the Black Sea, or as they called it, the Pontos Euxine, 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, the Aegean cities founded numerous colonies. These became the ancestors of virtually every modern Black Sea town, whose names as often as not are Turkifications of their ancient monikers. The region made its first brief appearance on the world stage when a local Pontic king, 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 (see The arrival of the Turks) 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. For two and a half cultured (and ultimately decadent) centuries, the empire-in-exile of the Komnenos dynasty, centred on Trebizond (today’s Trabzon), exercised influence grossly disproportionate to its size.
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 came to an end under the Ottomans, though even they entrusted semi-autonomous administration of the Pontic foothills to feudal derebeys (“valley lords”) until early in the nineteenth century.
The equilibrium was upset when the Black Sea area entered the history books for the third time, as a theatre of war. Imperial Turkey and Russia clashed four times between 1828 and 1915, and the Tsarist regime gave aid and comfort to various regional separatist movements after 1877. Between 1918 and 1922, Greeks attempting to create a Pontic state fought with guerrillas loyal to Atatürk’s Nationalists. Following the victory of the Republic, the Greek merchant class was expelled, and the Black Sea experienced temporary economic disarray, verging on famine during the 1930s.
Most of the credit for the modern decades of recovery must go to hamsi (the Black Sea anchovy caught here in large numbers during winter) and hazelnuts – Turkey meets some 75 percent of the world demand for hazelnuts, and the Black Sea coast is the principal area of production.
The most visible sign of the post-Soviet era, since Turkey’s eastern border opened up in the early 1990s, is a coastal highway and a further bout of urbanization. The Black Sea and its six bordering countries – Bulgaria and Romania to the west, Ukraine to the north, Russia and Georgia to the east, and Turkey to the south – today is a major trade hub, with a bottleneck exit point through the Bosphorus Strait.