When the first Turkish nomads arrived in Anatolia during the tenth and eleventh centuries, the landscape – rolling grassland dotted with rocky outcrops – must have been strongly reminiscent of their Central Asian homeland. Those who choose to trek through the region today are an equally hardy bunch, braving long journey times, occasionally tricky roads and seasonal temperature extremes to visit towns, cities and sights far less heralded than their counterparts in South Central Anatolia. However, visitors prepared to do a little digging will find it one of Turkey’s most rewarding and undiscovered quarters. Ankara in particular, the provincial town that found itself suddenly elevated to become capital of the entire country, feels surprisingly untouristed despite being the political and social centre of modern Turkey.
Elsewhere, charming Safranbolu, north of Ankara towards the Black Sea coast, and Amasya, northeast of Ankara, boast some of Turkey’s most beautiful ensembles of Ottoman buildings. Directly east of Ankara, the former Hittite capital of Hattuşa, with its temples and fortresses, is simply jaw-dropping, while there’s some terrific Selçuk architecture in far-flung Sivas and Divriği.
Little SAFRANBOLU is, quite possibly, the one place in Turkey where you’ll be glad your hotel room has a squeaky floor. Hundreds of the whitewashed, half-timbered houses built here during Ottoman times have opened up as guesthouses. With few modern buildings to speak of, it’s essentially an entire village where architectural time seems to be standing still – an old-world feeling heightened by its setting in a gorgeous rural valley. Such charm has endowed Safranbolu with a near-constant stream of “Ottomania”-seeking domestic tourists, and a growing number of foreign adventurers. Perhaps significantly, it’s especially popular with visitors from China and Korea, two countries where traditional wooden housing has largely gone the way of the dodo.
Despite Safranbolu’s popularity, its old way of life stays remarkably intact. Apart from a bazaar of souvenir shops, few concessions have been made to the twenty-first century. Most of the town remains slightly, and very pleasingly, run-down – heaven for the swallows that squeal and wheel their way from eave to wooden eave.
Many travellers, indeed, forget quite how small Safranbolu is. A short walk in either direction from the centre will soon see you in the countryside, while even in town the backstreets – particularly those that head up to the park – are home to real people living real lives, away from hotels and scented souvenirs.
Whitewashed wooden houses are a distinctive and enduring legacy of Ottoman rule. Many Turkish towns feature a smattering of such buildings, while sizeable clutches can be found as far afield as Albania and Bosnia. The houses were often masterful pieces of design, exhibiting a flair for function and a use of space that prompts some to draw comparisons with Japanese design of the time – think built-in cupboards, carved ceilings and central heating, as well as plumbing systems able to draw cooking, cleansing and waste-disposal processes from a single stream of water.
Larger Ottoman mansions would have three or more levels and over a dozen rooms. The ground floor was often used as stable-space, though thanks to ingenious design the smell would not waft through to the upper floors, which were themselves split into male (selâmlik) and female (haremlik) quarters. Other features to look out for are interior courtyards, revolving cupboards and conical safe-rooms, as well as one innovation found in many Safranbolu hotels: tiny bathrooms located inside what appears to be a cupboard.
Safranbolu is famed for growing saffron, and even took its name from the precious herb. Although production fell to almost nothing before a recent revival, it’s now quite possible to buy some to take home, or sample its taste in locally made sweets such as safran lokum and helva. You can purchase them – or munch free samples if you’re feeling cheeky – in the ubiquitous pastanes. A number of local restaurants claim to serve meals made with saffron, but beware – many simply colour the food (and, in many cases, “saffron” tea) with Indian Yellow dye.