Out and about from Trabzon
Even after their rivals for the throne managed to seize the city back in 1261, the rulers of the breakaway Empire of Trebizond stayed put here. It wasn't until 1461 that the Ottomans pushed them out and seized it for themselves.
But Byzantine culture had left a lasting mark on Trabzon. It wasn't until 1924 that the last Greeks were forced by the terms of the Treaty of Lausanne to “return” to Greece, while Turks from Greece came to take their place.
For centuries, Trabzon sat at the end of one of the Silk Road trails, its port bustling with merchants exporting the silks and spices of the East and dispatching by road the less exotic produce of the West. Right into the 20th century, camel trains were still a common sight around town.
Today Trabzon is an exciting, energetic city brimming with self-confidence and with a distinctive atmosphere born of its long contact with Russia and the Caucasus. The exquisite Byzantine church of Hagia Sophia (now converted into a mosque) and a pair of elegant museums aside, the town center is not big on historic sightseeing. Very little is made, for example, of the role once played by the Fatih Cami as the Church of Panagia Khristokefalos where the breakaway Byzantine emperors were crowned; most other reminders of the Byzantine era, including the old palace, go utterly ignored.
But Trabzon remains a great place to stay with lots of pleasant local restaurants and tea gardens, and a lively bazaar to discover in between trips out to explore the surrounding area.
The number-one drawcard that pulls tourists by the busload into this area is the Sumela Monastery, clinging like a limpet to a rock-face deep in the glorious pine forest of the Altındere National Park. After the last of the monks left at the time of the population exchange, the once-flourishing monastery fell into ruins. Recently, though, it has been effectively rebuilt, which makes it easier to imagine how life might have been lived on the mountainside if harder to remember just how old the original building was.
To understand that, you need to step inside the rock shelter at the back of the site and look up at its colorful Byzantine frescoes. For it was here that in the fourth century Saints Barnabas and Sophronius claimed to have found an icon of the Virgin Mary painted by St. Luke, one of the four evangelists who had been born in what is now Antakya. Despite the difficulty of reaching the site, a shrine rapidly grew up here. Work on expanding it continued well into the 19th century as can be seen from the somewhat battered frescoes adorning the outside wall of a smaller church on the site making it look rather like a church from deepest Transylvania.
To get the most out of a visit here, it's probably best to come alone so that you can take your time over the climb up to the monastery, then take a good look round before perhaps pausing for lunch in the national park.
Second in popularity only to the monastery as a day-trip destination is Uzungöl, the “long lake” that nestles in the mountains to the east of Trabzon, inland from the small town of Of, known mainly for the piety of its residents. Uzungöl is often promoted as a second Switzerland, evoking images of pretty, pointy-roofed chalets grouped picturesquely around the water. Unfortunately, reality comes with a great deal more concrete, although recent years have seen an attempt to improve things by wood-facing some of the older buildings.
These days, Uzungöl finds particular favor with visitors from Saudi Arabia; “they love the greenery and the rain,” a local hotel receptionist explained.
If you're staying in Trabzon for a few days, you might want to head out west to visit the small town of Akçaabat, which is best known for its tasty köfte, served with aplomb at a string of large sea-facing restaurants along the main road.
For most people, that's about as far as a trip to Akçaabat goes, but really the thing to do is to struggle up the steep hill behind the town center in search of the lovely old Ortamahalle, the part of the town where the Greeks used to live in delightful wooden-framed houses clustered around the early 14th-century Church of the Archangel Michael.
As with Trabzon, so with Akçaabat as it appears that the locals have preferred to forget their Byzantine past: On my most recent visit, the church was open to visitors, although nothing had been done to protect its beautiful mosaic floor or provide any information about it. On the other hand, the lovely houses were being restored and will no doubt provide wonderful new homes with sea views for better-off Akçaabatlıs. In due course, no doubt the church, too, will receive more attention.
Vakfıkebir is known throughout Turkey for producing mouth-wateringly delicious bread in loaves the size of cartwheels. If you are in Trabzon on a Monday, it's worth popping out here to take a turn around a sprawling riverside market. Then you can treat yourself to a sandwich you won't be forgetting in a hurry.
Beyond Akçaabat and Vakfıkebir is the small town of Tirebolu where a castle, probably built by Genoese traders in the 14th century, perched on a rock, dominates a pretty fishing harbor. It won't take long to look around here, which means that you can come by bus, then hop on and off at Vakfıkebir and Akçaabat on the way back to Trabzon.
The Black Sea Highway roars along the eastern Black Sea coast, a boon to truckers in a hurry to get to Georgia, a nightmare for more or less everyone else. The highway was built on reclaimed land, a fact that's easy to forget when you're in the towns along the way, but that becomes more obvious if you side-trip east to Sürmene to visit the stunning Memişağa Konaği, a huge mansion with a wooden-framed superstructure attached to a stone ground floor, that is known locally as the Kastell. When it was built in the 19th century, the mansion would have sat in enviable tranquility with its wooden shutters opening onto a glorious vista of the Black Sea. Now it's stranded inland astride a bluff above the highway.
The Memişağa Konaği is theoretically open to the public, although you may have to ask around for the caretaker. Inside it showcases marvelous examples of the sort of painted woodwork that once adorned the walls and ceilings of the homes of the Black Sea wealthy. Stroll back in the Trabzon direction towards the center of Sürmene, and on the outskirts you'll find a cluster of the sort of solid wooden mansions that would have been the homes of the more middling class of merchant. Now, of course, they're expensive to maintain and most are standing empty.
Beyond Sürmene lies Rize, the capital of Turkish tea-growing country with a museum to show off all the fine packaging that has been used to market the product since it was introduced to the area in the 1930s by Zihni Derin, whose bust sits outside the Tea Research Institute to celebrate his achievement. Like Trabzon, Rize is a town that is more focused on looking forward than back, but the tea museum is housed in a fine restored Ottoman house in the town center and the remains of a castle still protect the western flanks of the town. Come here to get a taste of the Laz and Hemşin cultures that live on in the coastal towns and hidden valleys beyond Rize, quite literally if you order one of the tasty local delicacies, lahana çorbası (cabbage soup), mıhlama (cheese fondue) or mısır ekmeği (cornbread).