Eastern Turkey: Trabzon, Artvin, Erzurum, Kars & Ani July 3 – 8, 2019
I have been to Turkey four times and all the countries bordering it at the east and the southeast namely i.e. Georgia, Armenia, Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. But I have never been to Eastern Turkey. As I have to fly Turkish Airline to Moscow to catch a flight to Anadyr on July 21, I take this opportunity to make a stop-over and tour around Eastern Turkey. I ask friends to join and only Kylie comes along. We book a 12-day tour of Eastern Turkey from July 5 to 12. The trip through the Upper Mesopotamia, the cradle of civilisation, is most interesting and exceeds my expectations.
July 3 Monday: Hong Kong – Istanbul, Turkey – Trabzon
We decided to fly a couple days earlier before the airfare would go up after early July. The travel agent Alkans Tour kindly provided us with accommodation in Trabzon for two nights before the tour began on July 5. We departed Hong Kong around midnight on Turkish Airline and arrived in Istanbul around 5:30 am. As I had not checked through to Trabzon, I had to pick up my luggage and checked in again. Kylie who already got her boarding pass at the Hong Kong Airport, could go to the domestic departure hall direct.
Anyway, it was a blessing in disguise. I was able to mull around to explore the new Istanbul Airport and considered the best option to catch my flight to Moscow on July 20. As the airport hotel charges over €140 a night, I rule out spending the night of July 19 at the airport hotel. My next best option would be to take an early flight to Istanbul on July 20. I keep all options open and would decide after discussing with our guide Sabahattin of Alkans Tour.
Our plane to Trabzon was delayed for over half an hour and did not depart till 11 am. It was after 12:30 pm when we landed. I picked up my luggage at the domestic airport while Kylie’s luggage was missing. What happened was that her luggage had to be picked up at the international airport which is located at the other side of the airport complex. By the time we met up with our driver Burhan and arrived at Usta Park Hotel, it was after 2 pm.
As our room was not yet ready, we sat at the lobby and discussed with Burhan what to do the next day. Burhan does not speak English and we had to phone Sabahattin to work out the itinerary and price. Kubra, a nice local girl from the hotel who speaks English and some Chinese, also helped with the translation. Finally, we agreed to take Burhan’s car for €90 to see four attractions. Kubra kindly offered to take us around after work at 5 pm.
Our hotel is centrally located: next to the Meydan Park and close to everything. The first thing we did was to take a shower and freshened up. Then we went out to find a money changer and got 5.61 Turkish lire (TL) to 1 USD.
Trabzon located on the Black Sea and founded some 4,000 years ago, was historically known as Trebizond. It has been an important trading post on the Silk Road and a melting pot of religion, languages and culture for centuries and a trade gateway to Persia in the southeast and the Caucasus to the northeast. It became the capital of the Trebizond Empire beginning in 1204 till the conquest by Sultan Mehmed II in 1461.
I like Trabzon which is bustling and lively. The main street is lined with banks while small local shops, tea houses and eateries are everywhere. There are many attractions including museums, market, mosques and churches. I however find the cheerful and care-free atmosphere most enchanting. I can picture what Marco Polo might have seen while visiting the city in the 13th century.
We strolled aimlessly in the city centre for over an hour. While on the way back to the hotel to meet Kubra, we ran into her on the main street. We were keen to have fish. Kubra took us to a nice seafood restaurant. We had a fresh seabass and a fish soup for 68TL.
After dinner, we returned to the hotel and watched sunset from the restaurant on the seventh floor. Fairly good though not spectacular!
Then, we strolled around the park, watching men dancing and locals hanging out. We picked up a lot of nice brochures from the Tourism Office and looked at desserts and olive oil from local shops. We were exhausted and went to bed early. I had an excellent sleep.
July 4: Excursion and City Tour
We got up early and had a breakfast on the seventh floor. I watched the calm Black Sea while enjoying my breakfast. Our tour did not begin till 9 am.
Our first stop was Sumela Monastery of the Black Virgin (located about 48 km from Trabzon in the Altindere National Park). We drove a short way up the Zigana Valley and passed through Macka. We paid 5TL for a short ride from the car park to the monastery The money was well-spent: otherwise we might have to spend 45 minutes on the hike.
Anyway, we had to walk ten minutes to reach a viewing platform. I saw a rock church, a few chapels and the back of the high-rise monastery blocks perching on a 300m-high cliff. I guessed the rock church and chapels were the older part of the complex. We could not enter and tour around the monastery.
On the way to the bus stop, we stopped at a ruin with a chapel. From here, we had spectacular views of the photogenic monastery and the landscape.
I learnt more about the interesting history of the monastery from Sabahattin the following day. This has been a monastic site as early as the 4th century AD. According to the legend, two Athenian Greek priests found a miraculous icon of Virgin Mary in a cave on a mountain. This icon was said to be made by St Luke in Athens and carried by angels to Trabzon and put into this cave. In 386 AD, the two priests decided to create a house for the icon: this cave or hollow today forms the centre of the monastery. But it cannot be seen from the viewing platform.
The monastery had a renowned monastic community partly because of its remarkable location and the ascetic principles characterised by the early years of Christian monasticism. The monastic community here had played an important part in the many political and religious debates and conflicts during the Byzantine period and during the Kingdom of Trebizond. While Sumela’s political influence ceased after 1461 under the Ottoman rule, its religious community continued until the breakup of the Ottoman Empire. The present buildings probably date from the 12th century and the frescos from between 1710 and 1860.
In the latter part of the First World War Trabzon was occupied by Russian forces and the Christian communities became involved in the ethnic struggles that preceded and accompanied that occupation. In 1923, as a part of the post war settlement between Greece and the new Turkish Republic, the Christian population of Turkey was exchanged for the Muslim population of Greece (with a few exceptions). The buildings which had fallen into a dilapidated state, have been restored recently. On August 15, 2010, Istanbul’s Greek Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew held the first mass since 1923 on the occasion of the feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos to commemorate the “falling asleep” or ascension of the Virgin Mary into heaven.
We drove back to the city and went to Hagia Sophia. Built between 1238 and 1263 as a Greek monastery church, it was converted into a mosque in 1511 after Sultan Mehmet conquered Trabzon. It is one of a few dozen Byzantine sites still extant in the area.
The building was restored in 1958-1962 and opened as a museum after 1964. The main building and the bell tower built around 1426 are still under restoration. Visitors come to appreciate the architecture and the beautiful frescoes on the walls of the western entrance.
Our third stop was the Sera Lake which has a length of 1200m and an average width of 150m. It was formed in 1950 when the area of the Sera River was blocked by a landslide. While the lake is a favourite spot for locals, we are not impressed. Our country parks and reservoirs are more picturesque. Anyway, Burhan had fish for lunch, Kylie had tea while I had two scoops of ice cream.
The last stop was the Atatürk Pavilion. Located in a small pine grove in the Soğuksu district, this house was built as a summer house in 1923 by a banker Konstantin Kabayanidis. This elegant building with European and Western Renaissance influences, has commanding views of Trabzon, the surrounding areas and the Black Sea. The banker presented it as a gift to President Atatürk who stayed here for two nights in 1930.
On the way to the hotel, we saw the fortress and the Ortahisar (the largest and oldest settlement in the city) from a distance. Burhan dropped us off at the hotel shortly around 3:30pm. The sun was still very hot. We took a short rest and had an early dinner near the hotel. Again, we had a fresh seabass and a trout for 60TL. Delicious and cheap!
We spent the next three hours exploring the city on foot. We deliberately got ourselves lost in the labyrinth of narrow alleys soaking in the atmosphere.
We found ruins of the city walls and enjoyed ourselves in the market. We stopped at bakeries to watch how they made bread.
Kylie found a couple of herbal shops and bought olive soap and essence oil.
We saw many traditional inns from the Ottoman period. Finally we found Alacahan a three-storeyed stone building which has been nicely restored.
We had a great day!
12-Day Eastern Turkey Tour
Day 1: Trabzon – Adyer – Zikale – Artvin 250km
Today, we would meet up with Sabhattin, our guide cum driver. I have talked with him over WhatsApp many times. His family-run tour company is based in Van. He drove 700km to Trabzon and did not arrive till midnight. No doubt, he looked tired and yearned a dozen times.
We set off shortly after 9 am and drove along the highway D010 next to the Black Sea. We had a brief stop at a tea plantation and tasted the tea. We did not buy any as the quality is not as good as those in China.
We turned off D010 after Rize and drove along Firtina Creek. There are several Ottoman bridges and we stopped a couple times to take photos of the bridge.
We had a pleasant drive to Ayder a lovely pastoral highland which resembles the Swiss Alps. Arab tourists who love this region for its sea and green landscape, have come leading to over-tourism. Today, Ayder is messy and built-up with numerous guesthouses, hotels, restaurants, cafes, playgrounds and swings, and souvenir shops. Traffic congestion is a problem.
The weather was unstable with showers. We had a short walk to look at waterfalls. Though I was not hungry, I was tempted to have river trout from the area. We therefore stopped in a restaurant facing a waterfall to have a grilled trout (20TL for one). The fish was fresh though too salty.
We drove down from one valley and followed another valley to see the picturesque and strategically located Zikale Castle.
The atmospheric medieval castle possibly built in the 14th-15th century is one of the most important historical structures in the area. Sitting at an altitude of 1,130m at the edge of a cliff overlooking the Firtina Creek in the Firtina Valley (Stormy Valley), the castle consists of outer walls, middle walls and inner castle. There are garrison quarters and a head tower.
We left after 4:30pm and had a brief stop at look at an Ottoman bridge which has a high arc.
We were back on highway D010. After Hopa which is close to the border with Georgia, the road turns south running parallel to the mountain range which forms the border between Turkey and Georgia.
We followed the river Chorokhi and saw Borcka Dam and later Artvin Dam. We were relieved when we finally arrived at the new Grand Artvin Hotel around 7pm. We had a spacious room.
After dropping our luggage, we followed Sabahattin to a food court next to the hotel. I had yoghurt drink and chicken for dinner.