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.
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).
Just east of Samsun, the Black Sea coastal plain, watered by the Yeşilırmak delta, widens to its broadest extent. The area was once thought to be the land of the Amazons, a mythical tribe of women who cauterized their right breasts to facilitate spear-throwing and arrow-shooting, and who only coupled with men – their neighbours the Gagarians – during two months of the year, sending male babies to the Gagarians to rear. Nowadays the delta is home to rather more conventional Black Sea Muslims, who are welcoming enough to members of either sex.
Thanks to a new series of tunnels, the main highway heads well inland, through an especially fertile stretch of Turkey’s interior, and thus bypasses the deathly slow coastal road.
Founded in the second century BC by the Pontic king Pharnaces, GİRESUN is among the most pleasant stops between Samsun and Trabzon. With an imposing hillside location and a main street that strides straight upwards instead of shadowing the coastline, the town centre is narrower than others, and offers a welcome respite from the noise and pollution of the coastal highway.
A small, friendly place, just over 100km east of Samsun, ÜNYE, the ancient Oinaion, makes a thoroughly pleasant overnight stay. It still holds a few grand buildings that date from Byzantine times and its eighteenth-century heyday as a regional port, including a former Byzantine church on the main square, Cumhuriyet Meydanı, that now serves as the Soysal Eski Hamam (daily 5am–midnight: women only Mon–Sat 11am–5pm; men only all other times).
The seafront is home to a leafy park, a pedalo hire station, and a pier that was built for leisure rather than commerce or fishing, a rarity in these climes. If possible, time your visit for the burgeoning Wednesday market, where gold-toothed farm women sell hazelnuts (harvested in August) and unusual edible plants (described under the catch-all term of salata), alongside churns full of milk and cheese.
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.
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.
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 most scenic and interesting of the foothill regions east of Trabzon are the valleys of the Fırtına Çayı and its tributaries, which tumble off the steepest slopes of the Pontic ranges, here known as the Kaçkar Dağları. Between the mountains and the sea lie a few hundred square kilometres of rugged, isolated territory known simply as Hemşin.
If your level of commitment isn’t up to multi-day treks that require you to camp out in the high mountains, consider the track that heads southeast from Şenyuva, a typically dispersed community of occasionally impressive farmstead dwellings 6–8km above Çamlıhemşin. The best accommodation here is at Fırtına Pansiyon.
Beyond Şenyuva, the route is blocked by snow for much of the year, so it’s only advisable during high summer. Pokut, a 3hr walk from Şenyuva via Sal, is fairly representative of the more substantial Black Sea yaylas, with handsome woodwork capped by mixed tin-and-timber roofs rising from stone foundations. For the first night’s lodging, try Poket Yaylasi.
The following day you hike east to Hazindag (Hazıntak), a handsomely clustered settlement just above the tree line, then briefly follow a majestic river canyon on a corniche route south before veering up and southeast to the primitive rock-and-sod cottages of Samistal. Weather permitting, the ridge above Samistal offers spectacular views of the main Kaçkar summit ridge. You then double back west to Amlakit, with its Pansiyon, or drop in stiff zigzags from Samistal to Aşağı Kavron, which is linked by minibuses to Ayder.
If you stay in Amlakit, a final day of walking would see you use a direct trail north to Hazindag and thence back to Pokut and Sal (there’s a steep path northeast through cloud forest direct to Ayder, but it’s presently in bad condition). Alternatively, keener trekkers can carry on south from Amlakit for 45min on a rough road to Palovit (2300m), and thence to Apevanak Yayla (2500m) en route to the true alpine zone.
With their fair skin and strong features, the people of the Hemşin valleys, known as the Hemşinlis, tend to look more Caucasian than Turkish. According to competing theories, these outgoing, gregarious people are either ethnic Armenians who arrived here at or before the time of the Georgian kingdoms, or natives descended from the Heptacomete tribesmen of old, who, through contact with “true” Armenians, adopted a dialect of Armenian and were nominally Christian or pagan until the early nineteenth century. Although most Hemşinlis are now Muslim, they wear their religion lightly: you’re unlikely to be blasted out of bed at dawn by a muezzin around here, and, despite stern little signs in local shops warning that “alcohol is the mother of all ills”, the men in fact are prodigious drinkers. This tendency is aggravated by the environment. This is by far the dampest and mistiest part of Turkey, with the sun in hiding two days out of three and up to 500cm annually of rain in some spots. The result is cloud-forest vegetation, with everything from moss-fringed fir and alders down to marsh species and creeping vines clinging to the slopes.
Hemşinlis are renowned for being intrepid and independent. They also have a special genius for the profession of pastry chef and pudding-maker: the top sweet shops (pastanes) of major Turkish cities are usually owned and/or staffed by natives of these valleys. But to fully understand the Hemşin mentality you need to visit at least one yayla, or summer pastoral hamlet.
Yaylas are found in the uplands throughout Turkey, but in the Kaçkar in general – and especially Hemşin – they’re at their best. Tightly bunched groups of dwellings, usually stone-built to waist height, and chalet-style in timber thereafter, albeit with metal roofs, they begin just at the tree line and recur at intervals up to 2700m. They’re inhabited only between late May and early September, when the snow recedes. Their tenants come from as far away as Holland or Germany to renew attachments to what they consider their true spiritual homeland. Traditional summer activities include making yoghurt, butter and cheese, and (increasingly) catering to trekkers’ needs.
No other Turkish city except İstanbul has exercised such a hold on the Western imagination as TRABZON (ancient Trebizond). Travel writers from Marco Polo to Rose Macaulay have been enthralled by the fabulous image of this quasi-mythical metropolis, long synonymous with intrigue, luxury, exotic customs and fairy-tale architecture. Today the celebrated gilded roofs and cosmopolitan texture of Trebizond are long gone, replaced by the blunt reality of a bustling, modern and initially disappointing Turkish provincial capital of over 400,000 people.
While modern Trabzon sprawls in all directions, its heart remains Atatürk Alanı. A plane-tree-shaded square ringed with tea gardens, restaurants and patisseries, it’s now closed to traffic on two sides, which mercifully reduces the former necessity of making an Olympic-style sprint through traffic to reach it. To the west lie the two areas most worthy of exploration: the Bazaar and the Ortahisar district. A poke around their cobbled alleyways will unearth tangible evidence of Trabzon’s former splendour, as will a visit to the monastic church of Aya Sofya, home to some of Anatolia’s most outstanding Byzantine frescoes.
Trabzon was founded during the eighth century BC by colonists from Sinope and Miletus, attracted by the readily defensible high plateau or trapeza (“table” in ancient Greek) after which it was first named “Trapezus”. Although the city prospered under both the Romans and Byzantines, Trabzon’s romantic allure derives almost exclusively from its brief, though resplendent, golden age during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, when, after the sacking of Constantinople, it became the capital of the breakaway Trapezuntine Empire. Its wealth grew when the main Silk Route was diverted this way because Mongol raiders controlled territory further south.
Someone had to transport all the goods that accumulated at Trebizond’s docks, and this turned out to be the Genoese, followed soon after by the Venetians as well. Each demanded and won the same maritime trading privileges from the Trapezuntine Empire as they received from the re-established empire at Constantinople. Western ideas and personalities arrived continually with the boats of the Latins, making Trebizond an unexpected island of art and erudition in a sea of Turkish nomadism, and a cultural rival to the Italian Renaissance city-states of the same era.
Unfortunately, the empire’s factional politicking was excessive even by the standards of the age. One civil war in 1341 completely destroyed the city and sent the empire into its final decline. It was Mehmet the Conqueror, in a campaign along the Black Sea shore, who finally put paid to the self-styled empire; in 1461 the last emperor, David, true to Trapezuntine form, negotiated a more or less bloodless surrender to the sultan.
In late Ottoman times the population and influence of the city’s Christian element enjoyed a resurgence. The presence of a rich merchant class ushered in a spate of sumptuous civic and domestic building. But it was a mere echo of a distant past, soon ended by a decade of world war, the foundation of the Republic, and the steady transference of trade from ship to rails.
Today the outlook for Trabzon remains uncertain. While both port and town have been overtaken by Samsun to the west, Trabzon now benefits from the transhipment of goods to the Caucasian republics and onwards to Russia.
The monastery church of Aya Sofya (Haghia Sophia) ranks among Turkey’s most romantic clusters of Byzantine remains. It seems certain that there was a pagan temple here, and then an early Byzantine chapel, long before Manuel I Komnenos commissioned the present structure between 1238 and 1263. The ground plan and overall conception were revolutionary at the time, successfully assimilating most of the architectural trends, Christian and Muslim, prevalent in contemporary Anatolia. Converted to a mosque after 1461, Aya Sofya subsequently endured leaner and more ignominious times as an ammunition store and then as a hospital during the Russian occupation in World War I, before it was restored in the early 1960s.
The church is laid out along a greatly modified cross-in-square scheme, with a dome supported by four columns and three apses at the east end of the triple nave. Before you rush inside to view the famous frescoes, take a moment to study the finely sculpted, albeit weatherworn, frieze illustrating Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, the only one of the three friezes that adorn the south portal that wasn’t tampered with by the Ottomans when they re-consecrated the church.
In their fluidity, warmth and expressiveness, Aya Sofya’s original frescoes represented a drastic break with the rigidity of earlier painting, and compare well with the best work of their century, and the next, in Serbia and Macedonia as well as in Constantinople itself. Of the frescoes in the central apse, a serene Ascension hovers over The Virgin Enthroned between the two Archangels; on the north wall of the same apse appears The Miraculous Draught of Fishes. The southeast apse is thought to have once held Manuel I’s tomb. The Pantocrator in the dome was unhappily beyond repair, but a host of angels swirls around him, just above the Apostles.
The narthex, whose ceiling is divided into three sections by stone ribs, is almost wholly devoted to scenes from the life of Christ. The central zone exploits its complicated quadruple vaulting by depicting each of the Tetramorphs, symbols of the Evangelists, accompanied by seraphim. Alongside, such miraculous episodes as The Wedding at Cana, a decidedly adolescent Child Jesus Teaching in the Temple, Healing the Blind Man at Siloam and Healing the Canaanite’s Daughter (complete with vomited demon) fill the south vault, while Feeding the Five Thousand and Calming the Storm on the Lake of Galilee grace the north vault. The north portico is taken up mostly by Old Testament scenes, including The Sufferings of Job and Jacob’s Dream. Between 1957 and 1964, technicians restored dozens of these frescoes to their former glory. Well lit – no flash photography is allowed – and accurately labelled in English, these are compulsory viewing even if you’ve only a passing interest in religious art.
An ensemble of sunken masonry just north of the church was once the baptismal font; the square belfry to the west is a 1443 afterthought, indicative of the strong Italianate flavour of the waning empire. If the tower is open – a rare event – you’ll find that the frescoes within are not nearly of the same quality as those in the church proper.
The small museum consists of a village house built and furnished in typical Black Sea style, and a 1920s-vintage serender or grain crib on stilts, with wooden discs at the top of the stilts, to prevent mice attacking the stored grain. Adjacent to that is a gift shop and pleasant café, covered in wisteria and offering tea and snacks, including the popular local dish muhlama, a Black Sea-style cheese fondue.
At present, all non-Turkish travellers need to buy a visa for Russia in order to pass from Turkey into Russia. The Trabzon consulate currently issues visas to European Union passport holders, but no others (Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the US included). Visas cost US$70 (3-day wait) or US$120 (same day), and passport holders need to complete an application form (available at the consulate), invitation or proof of accommodation, and proof of medical insurance.
Trans-Black Sea services to Russia (Sochi) have increased in frequency over recent years; contact one of the ferry agencies in Trabzon for current information.
Citizens of most countries, including Australia, Canada, EU, New Zealand and the US, may enter Georgia visa-free for up to 360 days. From İstanbul, both Azerbaijan Airlines and Turkish Airlines offer 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 can be crossed either at Sarp, or at Posof, for onward connections to Armenia and Azerbaijan (see By bus). 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.
The trip to Uzungöl (Long Lake) is the second most popular excursion out of Trabzon, after Sumela. Were it not for the mosques, you could be in Switzerland. The scenic lake, at just under 1100m, has a bazaar district around its outlet and is best seen by renting a mountain bike from one of the teashops.
Uzungöl makes an ideal base for rambles southeast up to the nearby peaks of Ziyaret (3111m) and Halizden (3376m), with a chain of glacier lakes at the base of the latter. It’s a very long day’s hike there and back – though you can go partway by car to save time – so take a tent and food for two days if at all possible.