Touring Turkey’s Black Sea region by mini bus
Turkey’s old town of Safranbolu seems stuck in a 14th-century time warp. (Shivya Nath)
“Teşekkür ederim” (thank you very much), I said politely as I declined the offer to enter the blacksmith’s workshop in the narrow by-lanes of Safranbolu’s market, Yemeniciler Arastası. I was weary of incessantly being hassled by touts at the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, about 400km west of here, and expected him to hard sell his wares were I to step in.
But fascinated by the stunning display of metal crafts in his shop window, I stood a little longer, and finally gave in to his disarming smile. After a quick tour of his workplace, he poured me a cup of çay (traditional Turkish black tea served in small curved glasses) and never once tried to sell me his curious creations, such as metal shields, swords and miniature figurines. Instead, we sat looking out into the spacious courtyard, with him chatting animatedly in Turkish and me in English, both of us laughing and smiling at whatever we could deduce from each other’s hand movements.
As I stepped out of his shop, the Ottoman town of Safranbolu was bathed in the hues of sunset. For the first time since my arrival in Turkey three days ago, I felt genuinely welcome into the lives and hearts of its people, and found myself falling in love with my serene surroundings, vastly different from the bustling city life of Istanbul.
The Black Sea rages along the north coast of Turkey, and in striking contrast to its reputation for inhospitable waters, the Black Sea region is home to some of the country’s warmest hospitality. Charming seaside villages, rugged mountain outposts and quaint Ottoman towns – all connected by frequent and inexpensive dolmuses (mini buses) – are interspersed across a verdant countryside dotted with Turkey’s iconic blue-domed mosques.
The Old Town of Safranbolu is an apt first stop on a visit to this coast. Stuck in a 14th-century time warp, it sets the pace for the rest of the trip – women clad in colourful hijabs (head scarfs) bask in the afternoon sun, old world cars traverse the narrow lanes, and foreigners are so rare that the local shop owners are delighted to offer you tea and conversation.
Ancient Ottoman houses adorn the town’s mountain slopes, each with identical slate roofs, large windows and rustic exteriors. There are no fancy resorts, but some houses have been beautifully restored into pansiyons – small family-run guesthouses that offer unpretentious comfort and hospitality.
Yildiz Konark Pansiyon is one such 400-year-old guesthouse, run by the amicable Genghis, whose family has lived here for generations. The house retains its Ottoman character with a wide courtyard, wooden interiors and fascinating relics such as gold studded swords and old wooden chests with ornate carvings – reminders of the conquests of the Ottoman Empire. It is these well-preserved houses that have earned Safranbolu the status of a Unesco World Heritage Site.
Safranbolu was named after the saffron it once traded on the spice route, and peddlers in the Yemeniciler Arastas still sell perfumes and colourful handmade soaps made from the saffron harvested 22km outside of town. Nearby, Bistro Bindalli is a cosy family-run cafe where travellers can sample a local variety of pilav rice, delicately flavoured with saffron and accompanied by cecik, a yoghurt-based dish garnished with cucumber and mint.
Though 90km inland, Safranbolu’s residents speak fondly of the sea. And many are drawn to the relaxed vibe and delectable seafood of Amasra, located 101km northwest on roads that cut through rolling plains and dense pine forests. But just before the dolmus enters town, the forests clear out to reveal the Black Sea in all its powerful glory. Visible from the coast are hidden alcoves and tiny uninhabited islands strewn across the turquoise waters, while inland, majestic Genoese forts and crumbling Roman ruins decorate the lush mountain slopes.
The residents of Amasra are fiercely proud of their town, with an incredible range of local Amasra products, including Amasra fish, a delicately spiced preparation of the daily catch, and Amasra salad, a floral display of seasonal fruits and vegetables, including a formidable amount of beetroot. The trend of eating locally is visible across the Black Sea coast, with residents choosing to endorse “made in Turkey” products over their foreign counterparts, even though Istanbul is home to some of the world’s most international cuisine.