Turkey is a country of incredible diversity packed into a relatively small package. Each of the country’s regions are distinct from one another, with different cultures, languages and accents, histories, landscapes, and traditions. While we’ve written guides for sights all over Turkey, the one region that we’ve really never given the focus it deserves has been the Black Sea, a region of lush mountains that stretch along the northern coast of the country, running from east to west. These mountains and the coasts that stretch out at their feet are lush with hazelnut trees, steep slopes covered in tea bushes, and, near the mountain summits, wide open slopes of green pastures.
It was finally time to visit the Black Sea.
But first, I had to get there.
After a 3-hour sleep I got up and went to the airport, making it to my gate in record time. While I was early, my flight was not. Instead, my flight was delayed and so I sat, waiting for plane and sunrise. By the time I boarded the plane I feared I might not make my connection.
By the time we had landed, taxied, and taken the bus from the plane to the gate at the world’s largest single terminal airport, I had missed my flight. The next flight was supposed to be 7 hours later and there was nothing I could do about it. With time to kill in the airport I bought a book to pass the time. The book was strange, dark, and overtly racist.
No, this trip was not starting well at all.
When the time for my flight finally came, I went to my gate only to find that this one was also delayed by another hour and a half.
Nearly nine hours later than planned, I was finally landing in the Black Sea town of Çarşamba. Stepping out of the plane I could immediately smell the salt in the air. Not the salt of a hot sea like the Mediterranean where I live, but the salt smell of cold water like the Black Sea or the one I grew up on in Canada.
Joining up with Fred once again, our plan was to start here in Çarşamba (which means Wednesday) and take the long way around over the mountains to the high pastures of Perşembe (which means Thursday). Sadly we were in Çarşamba on a Monday because on Tuesday there is a market called the Çarşamba Salı Pazarı which literally means “Wednesday Tuesday Sunday” though it actually refers to the town’s Tuesday street market.
Alas we didn’t have time to spend on silly word games.
Instead, we had to get to the town of Çakallı to eat some eggs in an eight hundred-year-old Caravanserai. The dish we were here to try was called menemen, a common egg dish made with peeled tomatoes and peppers that we had eaten hundreds of times. When our menemen came it was totally different than any I had ever tried before. The flavour was rich and almost heavy and the texture almost paste like. Here in Çakallı they cook the vegetables till they are completely smooth and then only egg yolks are added with a sprinkling of cheese. The yolks, cheese, and vegetables are mixed until smooth then sausage is added. I never learned what they do with their egg whites, but I suspect macarons or pavlovas are another popular food here.
Çakallı sits in the low pass through the Pontic Alps where we were surrounded by rolling hills rather than the soaring peaks of the mountains to the east. Even if there had been towering mountains, we likely wouldn’t have seen them in the heavy cloud and rain. At some points rain was coming down so hard we couldn’t see out the windshield and drivers were forced to pull over until the weather cleared up a bit.
Our first major stop was in the Town of Osmancık, a rural center that would be quiet apart from the roar of tractors and patpats making their way to and from the rice paddies in the late evening. Just as we arrived at the historic Koyunbaba Bridge the sky overhead burst into the brilliant colours of sunset.
The town of Osmancık straddles the Kızılırmak, the Red River, Turkey’s longest river and one of its historically most important. While the coast smelt of sea salt, Osmancık smelt of wet earth and swamp. At this point near its outlet, over 1000 kilometers from its source, the Kızılırmak River is full of silt brought down from far away mountains and plains. It’s this rich silt, deposited along the riverbanks that has made the area rich and fertile. The first person we met, was a 93-year-old farmer who had been growing rice along the muddy riverbanks for decades.
The next morning we woke early to visit the castle and go out in search of farmers working out in the rice paddies. While paddies were easy enough to find, farmers were a different story. By this point in the season most of the paddies had been planted and the waters had begun to recede as the rice-grass began to mature. Eventually we found some farmers attempting to keep suds from pouring out the top of a hopper on the back of their tractor. They were preparing to spray the paddies with herbicide, filling the tank on the back of the tractor with chemicals and water from the canals.
The wheels of the tractor were specially designed for rice paddies and looked more like giant cogs than wheels. Their narrow design kept them from crushing as much rice and the massive teeth helped them climb through the muck of the rice paddies. The tractors trundled through the paddies, churning up the mud as they rounded corners, the wings of the sprayers leaving a cloud of mist behind them.
Tractors and chemical spraying weren’t exactly the the idyllic image I had been looking for, but they are a key part of our world and certainly not the least idyllic scenes we were planning on visiting that day.
An aspect of life in Turkey that I find interesting is how much light industry there is producing goods for the local market. Whether it’s a small factory, a workshop, or just someone sitting in front of their house, you can see where everyday objects come from. I find the idea of the stories and processes behind even the most mundane objects fascinating as it’s not just the object but the lives of the people that produce them.
A short drive out of Osmancık Fred and I came to a street lined with rows of brick factories; great heaps of grey mud, chimneys, and stacks of red brick filled the view in all directions. We drove through the industrial park, peering in, trying to figure out which one to try, and building up the courage to just walk in and make the admittedly odd request to take pictures in their factory. Seeing smoke rising out of the chimney and a constant rush of activity we stopped to try our luck.
After assuring the owner that we weren’t from some labour rights group and were genuinely interested in seeing the people and processes behind the common brick, we got permission to go in!
The factory was chaos, men and women shouting over the sound of the equipment, machines and carts were buzzing back and forth from conveyor belts to sheds to ovens, and men pouring with sweat were hauling wheelbarrows of hot ash out of the empty kilns. While work was fast paced everyone turned to joke with us or answer questions except the women who fled the camera. While the work was hot and heavy, the people were quick to joke and smile.
Leaving the brick factory behind Fred and I made our way to a more conventional tourist sight. We were headed to the city of Amasya, a small city with a strong Ottoman character. While there are many cities out there full of Ottoman sights, there are few like Amasya. The city of Amasya is set in a narrow canyon-like valley with the Yeşilırmak river flowing through the center. On either side stately Ottoman houses lean out over the water. Amasya served as the cradle of Ottoman Sultans who were given their chance to learn rulership as governors of Amasya. Princes and nobles built mosques, madrasahs, and tombs in the city, gifting the little city with grand buildings and beauty. Serving as a unique backdrop to the Ottoman city are the Tombs of the Pontic kings, a set of rock-cut tombs carved high in the cliffs above the city from the 3rd century BC.
We spent the day wandering the old streets, hiking the castle, visiting the historic sights, and trying the local dish, the Amasya version of Keşkek.
After a day of exploring Amasya, we set out with the sunrise to search for something a little more like the true nature of the Turkish Black Sea. In the early morning we left the still sleeping city and passed out of the narrow valley of Amasya and upwards into the mountains that separate central Turkey from the coast. As the road made its way upwards dry grasslands gave way to thickets of short pines and beech trees. The road continued up until we were just below the mountaintops, with clouds rolling slowly off their heads. Eventually even the trees gave way to the open pastures of the yayla, the high summer pastures, spotted with the occasional clump of shrubs covered in bright yellow flowers.
In the open landscape you could spot flocks of white sheep grazing on just about every hilltop, with a shepherd keeping watch somewhere nearby. We had made it to the Perşembe Yayla, the summer pastures known as “Thursday”.
For this region the Perşembe Yayla is relatively flat, and the streams here wander back and forth, lazily making their way downwards before joining rivers and rushing down to the sea. Along the road we met shepherds with weather worn faces who told us about the area, how the people here spend half the year in the village here and the other half down in the lower mountains once the snow begins to fall.
Further down the road we stopped to meet a second shepherd named Hami. We had been admiring how white his sheep were compared to the muddy sheep of Bitlis that we had seen a couple of months before. As we walked over to say hi, he pulled out a kaval, a traditional shepherd’s flute.
With a sea of green grass, the cold air filled with the sounds of sheep, and the grey clouds passing just overhead, we could not have asked for a better image of pastoral life in the yayla.
After a chat we left him with a gift of pomegranate and pistachio Turkish Delight. The pistachios, which usually come from Gaziantep, must have sparked a memory and Hami Bey suddenly broke into a long and passionate recitation of a political speech he had memorized when he had done his military service in Gaziantep many years ago. Between his thick accent and missing teeth, it took me a moment to figure out what he was talking about. Also, I hadn’t been expecting any political speeches just at that moment.
After a short hike to a secluded waterfall of ice-cold water we made our way to a village in the midst of the Perşembe Yayla. Even though tourists hadn’t started arriving yet, the village was full of people who were moving up for the summer season with their flocks. The village was a hub of trade, dried grains and beans were sold in heaps, others were selling spiked dog collars, and, most importantly for us, still others were selling fresh gözleme, the Turkish version of a quesadilla made with a dry powdery cheese and herbs.
While we could have spent at least a day here in the yayla, we were feeling the time lost to the Turkish airlines delays and had to begin the long slow drive down to the coast. The moment we began to descend from the “Thursday Yayla” we found ourselves back in the trees. Beech and alder grew thick and leafy. A little lower and we came into hazelnut country, with steep slopes rising up like walls covered in the short tangle of hazelnut branches. The road was narrow, often washed out in sections, so the chance to stop and take a picture was rare. When we came to villages the road was equally narrow, only now there were cars parked on either side and massive semi-trucks were attempting to squeeze between. After an hour of dizzying descent, we caught a glimpse of the sea below. While the mountains were still buried deep in cloud, the coast and the sea was hot and sunny, feeling almost jungle like with the steep lush hills rising behind.
After a stop along the coast for a bowl of soup and a visit to the shop of a master boat builder (read the full story about that visit here), it was a race back to the town of Wednesday to catch our flight home. Arriving just in time, we learned that, once again, the flight was delayed until further notice.