Coasting 1: The Black Sea
The beaches are not always the most exciting -- there are few swathes of unspoiled sand to match those of Australia, California or Polynesia, for example -- but there are plenty of erstwhile fishing villages-turned-holiday resorts and many hideaways where history wraps itself neatly around tourism development.
Turkey has three separate stretches of coastline -- the Aegean, the Mediterranean and the Black Sea -- each with their own particular attractions. This week we're kicking off our explorations with the Black Sea.
The Black Sea coast -- an overview
Turkey's Black Sea coastline stretches all the way from İğneada in western Thrace to Hopa/Sarp on the eastern border with Georgia. Few travelers bother with the Thracian stretch even though there are fine sands at Kıyıköy, near Vize, and at Kilyos, near İstanbul, where in summer a string of beach clubs a la Çeşme open their doors.
For most people the Black Sea coast really means the stretch that heads east from İstanbul, kicking off from what is effectively the beach suburb of Şile, then striking east through Ağva, Amasra, İnebolu, Sinop, Samsun, Ünye, Ordu, Giresun, Trabzon and Rize. From Şile to İnebolu the winding road makes for extremely slow traveling. From Samsun to Hopa, though, the Black Sea Highway carves a quick and busy path towards Georgia and the Caucasus.
Although there are plenty of small beaches along the coast, few are truly unspoiled and many feature black volcanic sand. Frequently wet weather even in summer also tends to militate against this being the best choice of destination for a pure beach holiday.
In terms of other attractions the most inviting places to stay are Ağva, Amasra, İnebolu, Sinop, Ünye, Ordu, Giresun, Trabzon and Rize. Beyond Rize the action moves inland from the coast to the Kaçkar Mountains and their foothills. The towns east of Rize are completely bereft of historic monuments.
Once known only to a select few, Ağva is now an increasingly popular weekend retreat for "İstanbullus,” with a string of pleasant small hotels lined up along the banks of the slow-moving Göksu River. There's a beach here too, and attractive coastal scenery at nearby Kilimli Koyu. Do yourself a favor and visit midweek for cheaper prices and less of a party scene.
Perched on a headland between two sizeable harbors, old Amasra hunkers down behind city walls dating back to Byzantine times, which were extensively rebuilt by Genoese traders whose coats of arms can still be seen above the entrances. From a distance, it's a picture-postcard setting. Close up, the architecture is something of a hodge-podge and there are surprisingly few really interesting hotels, this being predominantly still a Turkish family-holiday destination where cheap prices tend to be the most important consideration. From Amasra you can easily pop inland to visit the market at Bartın or to see the fine old Ottoman houses of Safranbolu, a World Heritage site.
Until recently the small town of İnebolu was not really somewhere you would have wanted to linger. Now, however, not only have many of its lovely maroon-and-white-painted wooden houses been restored, but the authorities have decided to make a great deal more of the role their citizens played in the Turkish War of Independence (1919-22) when they formed a crucial link in the supply chain that conveyed munitions inland to Ankara via Kastamonu. A way marked İstiklal Yolu (Independence Way) now commemorates the route taken by the heavy-laden ox carts.
Like Amasra, Sinop sits on a headland, and it too retains extensive stretches of the old city walls that once ran right along the seashore. Sinop has a couple of fine museums, a Selçuk mosque and madrasah (school) and a string of pleasant fish restaurants, but its most intriguing “attraction” is probably the old prison that squats beside the walls as you come into town. This has been left largely as it was when it was decommissioned in 1979. Some will lament the lack of "interpretative" signboards. Others will find its unvarnished state peculiarly evocative.
Like İnebolu, the port town of Samsun used to be somewhere to whip through as quickly as possible, preferably without stopping. Now, it too has been given a makeover to emphasize its role in the events leading up to the Turkish War of Independence, with a replica of the steamship Bandırma in which Atatürk arrived in town as just one of its new attractions. For those interested in more ancient history, the original settlement of Samsun was at Amisos, just west of the center, where a funicular from the shorefront Amazon Park now offers access to a pair of stone-cut tombs hidden inside matching burial mounds.
The speed of the Black Sea Highway makes it tempting just to whiz through Ünye, but actually this is one of the better places to break your journey with some lovely stretches of beach within easy reach of a town center where old Ottoman mansions are being given a much-needed makeover. Uzunkum to the west of town is said to be the longest stretch of sand along the coast, and a short drive out of town leads inland to the remains of the lofty Ünye Kalesi, a castle atop a plug of rock with tombs dating back to the first century B.C. carved into it.
A built-up modern town, Ordu has a waterfront that is dominated by a huge redundant 19th-century church now used by the local university for administrative purposes. There's a dusty small museum in the Paşaoğlu Konağı and fine views from Boztepe, accessible once again by a funicular. Café society is also alive and kicking in Ordu, although sometimes the musicians find themselves struggling to make themselves heard above the roar from the Black Sea Highway.
In the heart of hazelnut-growing country, Giresun is home to another vast redundant church that, this time, has been turned into a fine local museum. High on a hilltop, the ruins of a castle make a fine lookout point. Otherwise, Giresun also makes a great base for a trip inland to see the spectacular remains of Şebinkarahisar Castle.
Of all the Black Sea towns, Trabzon probably has the most going for it. Most people come here to make a side trip inland to Sumela, where a much-photographed ruined monastery clings to the pine-tree-covered mountainside like a limpet. Those who linger will discover that the town is also home to a second Hagia Sophia, this time a 13th-century church built on an isolated headland and thickly covered with spectacular frescoes. After the Ottomans occupied what had been known as Trebizond, the last stronghold of the Byzantine emperors, the church was turned into a mosque. For most of the 20th century it served as a museum, but recently the controversial decision was made to turn it back into a mosque.
Trabzon is home to Trabzonspor, one of Turkey's most successful and popular football teams. It also has a great bazaar where you can buy some fine local styles of jewelry. The Atatürk Köşkü is worth visiting more for the beauty of the building and the surrounding garden than for its exhibits. Some might say the same for Trabzon Museum. Of the once-magnificent Byzantine palace, only the shattered walls survive.
Once you reach Rize you have arrived not only in the part of Turkey populated by a Laz-speaking minority group, but also in the area where much of the country's tea is grown. A visit to the Çay Araştırma Enstitüsü (Tea Research Institute) is therefore de rigueur, as is a visit to the Çaykur Tea Museum, sponsored by the company that owns almost all the local tea plantations.
East of Rize, a road heads inland from the town of Pazar to Çamlıhemşin following the wild course of the Fırtına River, a favorite of white-water rafters. Take this road and you find yourself heading for the Kaçkar Mountains, a beautiful world away from the concrete overdevelopment that mars the rest of the coast all the way to Hopa.