Even I, a citizen of Turkey who fangirled over a Turkish TV show filmed in Trabzon for two years, could solely think of tea and hazelnuts and something about people having houses for the winter, kışla, and separate houses for the summer, yayla, when the Black Sea area was mentioned.
I only realized how embarrassing it was to know absolutely nothing else about an area of my own country -which is greatly praised for its national pride- when my family decided to go on a road trip towards Rize.
Apparently, the drive from Istanbul to Rize was 14 hours minus the stops on the way. So we decided to break it into two days. On the way, we listed things we knew about the Black Sea; the vast production of tea and hazelnuts, rain, the Laz people, the musical dialect that is completely different from the Turkish spoken in Istanbul, and the Sümela Monastery. But how did they live with so much rain up on the steep mountains with very little means of transport? Who were these Laz people anyway? Who built the Monastery? And many other questions, with answers we did not have, clouded our minds. Thus the goal of the journey was set; find the answer to all these questions.
The Black Sea area of Turkey encompasses the whole Northern coast all the way from Bolu to Artvin, which nears the Georgian border. So naturally, once we reached the coast, the view was mysteriously captivating. On our right were the mountains so gigantic and green, and on our left was the endless Black Sea spilling over the horizon. With Cem Karaca singing Askaros Deresi on our speakers, we had quite a lively trip for an hour or two until my mom’s regular coffee cravings kicked in near Ünye. That is when we started searching for a proper cafe. By proper I mean a place where when you order an americano, they do not give you a cup filled with hot water and a few drops of coffee, but rather the other way around. Finding a Starbucks in that small town was out of the question, but we still had hopes about Kahve Dünyası. Much to our luck, the GPS thought we should be able to find not one, but two in a few kilometres. Each three of us were happy and restless to get our hold on caffeine after a 7-hour-long drive. You can call it dramatic irony or foreshadowing, but regardless of what it identifies as, we were devastated to find that the cafes we were hoping to find did not exist, and the GPS simply lied to us. Hence comes the first tip; bring a portable coffee maker along while visiting the Black Sea to avoid any type of distress.
After staying at the Kubaliç Hotel in Ordu, which has great service and comfort but has awful coffee at breakfast, we began our second part of the drive. The destination was Sümela Monastary in Trabzon. The monastery’s construction dates back to the 4th century, making it one of the oldest monasteries in Christian history. It is said that two priests, Barnabas and Sophronius, from Athens, had the same vision during their sleep; they had an insight that they would discover an icon of the Virgin Mary in the Church of Santa Maria. After sharing the coincidental vision with Saint Nectarius of Constantinople, they start their journey of finding the Church of Santa Maria which was vividly described to them by Luke the Evangelist in their sleep, who had also commanded them to build a monastery on the Mela mountains. And thus was built the Sümela Monastery…
The monastery was further developed by General Belisarius at the request of Emperor Justinian but it could only take its current form in the 13th century. When Trabzon was taken over by the Ottomans, the rights of the monastery were preserved. The monastery’s location is marvellous, but to our luck, it was covered in fog (see Figures 1 & 2).
Figure 1: Sümela Monastery without the fog
Figure 2: Sümela Monastery on the day of our visit
Next up was our seemingly unreachable hostel, ‘Kendini Koruyan Mahalle’. The name translates to ‘The Self-Protecting Neighborhood’ and immediately reveals the upcoming atmosphere. What makes it unreachable is that the only means of transport is a long climb up the mountain, preferably with an off-road car, followed by a cable car. Even the introduction to the hostel was striking; first came the immediate change of the road beneath us from creamy asphalt to rocks and dirt and bumps, which was, obviously, not fit for our car. This trial with our misfit car resulted in it skidding, me clutching the handle of the door so hard that it hurts, my mom gasping, and my dad cursing. So tip two; if you ever visit hostels in Çamlıhemşin, either come with an off-road car or use the plane.
The second shock came when we saw that the hostel was actually on the other mountain and we had to use the tiny cable car to get there. With suitcases.
The hostel is run by Metin bey, his wife and daughter, and consisted of 3 bungalows, one of which was a tree house. With this, they aimed to keep the hostel as simple as possible, providing a space of tranquillity for the visitors. The hostel is one of a kind with its hospitable owners, a family of friendly cats, and the location, surrounded by mountains covered by trees, where the phone signal doesn’t reach. It’s a complete package of detox. Before, Metin Bey’s family used the house as their yayla, the summer house. The neighbourhood, where the houses are merely connected by an almost unseen path, used to contain 50 people, but the new generations preferred comfort in the big cities rather than switching between yaylas and kışlas. Now the neighborhood only belongs to Metin Bey’s family and one other.
Up on the hills, they have their own fields. Almost everything is farmed by them. They had to sell their cows and goats as they consume a lot of time to look after, but their chicken remain and are protected from the coyotes of the mountain by a radio playing songs typical of the Black Sea. It makes the coyote think, according to Metin Bey’s wife, that someone is home.
Their friend, Cengiz Bey, helped us travel to two yaylas 1800 meters up the mountain, the Kaçkarlar waterfall, many hiking spots, and the mansions built by Russians who ran from the Bolshevik Revolution. We had an amazing time full of tranquillity and liveliness, our only antagonist being the fog. One can experience four seasons in a single trip in Çamlıhemşin.
For those who like trekking, hiking and being interbedded with nature regardless of the number of bugs and the loss of phone signal almost at all points of the trip, Kendini Koruyan Mahalle is one of the best places to be.