In the narrow bylanes of Safranbolu market, Yemeniciler Arastai, I politely declined the offer to enter a blacksmith’s workshop. I was weary of incessantly being hassled by touts at the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, about 400 km west of here, and expected him to hard sell his wares were I to step in. But I was 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 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.
The Ottoman town of Safranbolu was bathed in the palette of sunset colours, when I stepped out of his shop. For the first time, at that moment, since my arrival in Turkey, I felt genuinely welcome into the lives and hearts of its people, and found myself falling in love with my 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. It is filled with quaint seaside villages, rugged mountain outposts and charming Ottoman towns, all connected by frequent and inexpensive dolmuses (minibuses) are interspersed across a verdant countryside dotted with Turkey’s iconic blue-domed mosques. I took a minibus to explore this part of the country. And I am filled with warm memories.
The Old Town of Safranbolu is the best first stop on a visit to this coast. It still has the 14th century influences, and sets the mood and pace for the rest of the trip. Here, you will find women clad in colourful hijabs (headscarves) basking 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. The town’s mountain slopes are filled with ancient Ottoman houses. Mesmerizingly, each house has identical slate roofs, large windows and rustic exteriors. You wouldn’t find fancy resorts, but some houses have been beautifully restored into pansiyons, small family-run homestays that offer unpretentious comfort and hospitality.
Yildiz Konark Pansiyon is a 400-year-old guesthouse. It is run by the amicable Genghis, whose family has lived here for generations. The house retains its typical Ottoman character with a wide courtyard, wooden interiors and fascinating relics such as gold studded swords and old wooden chests with ornate carvings. It reminds 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 once traded saffron on the spice route. It got its name from saffron. In the Yemeniciler Arastas, peddlers still sell perfumes and colourful handmade soaps made from the saffron. Now, the saffron is harvested 22 km outside of town. There is a cosy family-run cafe where I tasted a local variety of pilaf rice, delicately flavoured with saffron and accompanied by cecik, a yoghurt based dish garnished with cucumber and mint.
Though Safranbolu is 90 km inland, it’s residents speak of the sea fondly. People are drawn to the relaxed vibe and delectable seafood of Amasra. This town is located 101km northwest on roads that move through rolling plains and dense pine forests. As the dolmus enters the town, through the forest you can see the powerful Black Sea. From the coast you can see 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.
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 taste of which still lingers in my taste buds. A rickety bridge hanging over the Black Sea connects an island off the coast of Amasra to the lush Karadeniz mountain range. If you hike up to the mountains, you can watch a magnificent sunset.
The town Cide is about 74 km east and is nestled on a stretch of coastline, set against jagged sandstone mountains. Cide’s postcard shores are devoid of the customary beach shacks, seashell peddlers, fancy resorts. The best hotel in town is Yali Otel. At night, it is a mini carnival here with a flea market with colourful traditional Turkish gowns, dresses and scarves on sale complete with shisha and Turkish music.
Small towns are scattered all across the coastline, and dolmuses connect nearly every small village and town in Turkey. On the road from Amasra, 12km before Cide, a small winding road leads to Gideros Bay, where the Kure mountains part to reveal pristine turquoise blue waters. You can see the sea bed from the shore.
The Black Sea region is also home to some of the country’s most colourful countryside. It is a cooler alternative to Turkey’s scorching summer.
Ordu, is one of the apt towns to break your journey. Here, the landscape transitions from dense green forest land to rolling plains with gorgeous yellow sunflower fields to meadows dotted with wild purple grass. You will find chic cafes on the roads. Ordu is the focal point of northern Turkey’s hazelnut belt. The Sagra chocolate factory (Selimiye Mh) on the outskirts of town produces some of the world’s finest hazelnut chocolates and spreads, and its in-house cafe invites you to indulge. At night, Ordu’s trendy beach cafes is a place where you will find a lot of young crowd. There are live bands. Teleferik Café (Ordu-Giresun yolu) and Fergana Café (Atatürk Bulvarı) is ideal for delicious Turkish coffee, rosemint flavoured hookahs and conversation.
At night, if you take a cable car ride to the top of 450m-high Boztepe hill, you can witness the magnificence of the region’s lights against the striking contrast of the Black Sea.