The Black Sea Region
Our second group trip- and my final trip- was a five-day exploration of the Black Sea region in northern Turkey. Which means it was really a 600-mile bus ride of craziness, laughter, and amazing cities that most tourists have never heard of.
The worst part of this trip was the first thirty seconds of waking up at 5:30am to catch the bus to the airport. We flew Turkish Airlines to Sinop Airport, a tiny airstrip with a terminal that doesn’t even have a bathroom, and proceeded to the nearby city. 65,000 people live in Sinop, located on an isthmus that is also the most northern part of the country. At first sight, it looks like a tourist town, and really should be that way, except that it gets very few tourists (and zero international tourists) outside of the occasional cruise ship. It has water on three sides, a downtown located within a castle with restaurants and shops, and several small historical attractions that can entertain for a day. We visited several of these, including an active archaeological site where they’re digging up a Byzantine-era gym and church, as well as the old jail that functioned until a few decades ago. We also ate at multiple restaurants, including one of the many manti restaurants, a ravioli-like dish covered in yoghurt sauce, of which Sinop is famous for. That much was evident as we agreed the manti was far better than the kind we eat in Istanbul.
Later in the day, we arrived at the Antik Hotel, a resort on the coast of the Black Sea. Several members of our group decided to take a dip in the freezing waters, and most of us also congregated in the hotel’s slightly-warmer pool. We also ate dinner in the dining room, a second-floor area with panoramic views of the sea.
The next morning we bid Sinop farewell and began our bus tour. Our first stop was Samsun to see the place where Ataturk landed to start his war of Independence. Unfortunately, the ship is a replica, but the surrounding gardens are beautiful, and we spent 15 minutes wandering around. We continued on to our lunch stop, the #4 Pide café in Turkey. Pide is like pita bread with cheese, meat, peppers, and eggs on top. The traditional kind is more of a wrap, but the new trend is “open” and boat-like. Either way, it was delicious and even the native Turks agreed it was better than they’ve ever had before.
That was about it for Samsun- nothing more of importance was located within the city- so back on the bus we went, and found ourselves pulling up to the hotel in Amasya. This city (population about 100,000) is inland and tucked into a valley between four or five mountains. The views were dramatic- the city streets following a river, and a few feet beyond lay a sheer rock wall hundreds of yards tall. It’s hard to put into words how amazing everything looked and our astonishment as we drove through. The city has kept much of its Ottoman charm, so many of the buildings- including our hotel- are restored upper-class houses and palaces.
After four hours in a bus, we all took free time to wander around and discovered that ice cream with freshly-made waffle cones is the popular treat, to which we happily indulged. Amasya has two major east-west streets running parallel to the river and is not terribly big geographically, so our ice cream was the bulk of the exploration. Turns out we needed to “explore” six or seven more times throughout the course of the two days we were there!
Amasya is known as the “City of the Princes” due to the fact that the second-favorite son of the Ottoman Sultan would live there beginning around the age of seven to receive an education and learn how to govern. The prince would grow and develop, as well as better his understanding of the Ottoman millets, or different religious groups. When the Sultan died, the tradition was for all of his sons to race back to Istanbul. The first to arrive and secure the treasury (and the army’s salaries) would be the new Sultan. Since each son was educated in a different city, the distance to Istanbul determined which son was sent where- the favorite went to Bursa, the closest city (two days closer than Amasya). The least favorite found himself in Trabzon, close to present-day Georgia. Still, several second-favorites inherited the crown before the practice was done away with- spying and trickery en route were expected, if not encouraged. Amasya is also known for its cave tombs- temple look-alikes that important figures were buried in, and are still the stand-out features overlooking the city.
We spent the day touring the city, including seeing the caves, a museum, two mosques, and a madrassa. The madrassa was especially interesting, as not many westerners get to enter one. There, teenage boys sit and memorize the Koran (Muslim holy book) for hours each day. And they’re not just memorizing it- they are memorizing it in Arabic, a language they don’t speak. It’s something I couldn’t imagine doing and thankful I don’t have to. As for the boys, my honest observation is that some of them would have rather been doing other things.
The other interesting thing that happened in Amasya took place on our first evening. It turns out that the city is full of Beşiktaş football supporters, and that the team was playing for the championship that evening. At around 9:30, while we were waiting for our dinner to be cooked in a restaurant, they won. Suddenly, supporters poured out of watch parties, jumped into their cars, and started driving up and down the main street, exploding fireworks and lighting sparklers, and honking. While people like our chefs only participated for about 45 minutes, celebrations were still ongoing when I went to bed at midnight.
Day four of our trip started with us being late to the bus as usual, and then a very long drive to Bogazkale, though not a boring one. We stopped in Çorum for a local treat and a great vocabulary word: leblebi, a Turkish snack consisting of roasted chickpeas. The store we got them from had plenty to choose: everything from regular, to chocolate, honey, soy sauce, corn, peanut, and more. They also had roasted peanuts and corn- though I stuck to the local treat. It was all super cheap (5 TL got you a bag as long as your arm) and delicious. Most of our supply is gone, just three days later.
We had one site to see en route as well: Alaca Hoyuk, a 3,000 year old city and the oldest thing we’ll see all semester. Walking through it was a cool experience because it was well preserved, and you’re able to figure out how these people lived. Most of the remains belong to temples, grain silos, and metalworking shops, and our tour didn’t take longer than an hour.
Our final day started with the “big ticket” site of the tour: Hattuşa, the capital city of the Hittite Empire. The Hittites were one of the four powers during the Bronze Age, controlling territory from Greece to Syria and enemies of the Assyrians, Babylonians, and allies of the Egyptians around the time of Tutankhamen. Hattuşa was the crown jewel, with 50,000 residents, four miles of mud brick walls, temples, and seven ornate gates. The Hittites didn’t mess around, either- in order to make their city impenetrable, they built 300-foot artificial hills as a foundation to the walls in some of the weaker spots. This also required a tunnel for citizens to come and go without climbing the steps (which still exist and are a royal pain in the butt). The 4,000-year old tunnel is still standing and open to the public. Other points of interest include a very smooth green stone from Egypt in one of the temple areas, and visible city streets that are as wide as modern ones. They even had some of the earliest versions of windows in the temple of the sun god. The Hittite empire collapsed in 1,000 BCE when their enemies started using iron weapons.
Just as we were leaving Hattuşa, our guide (the archaeologist of the site) received a phone call from a local construction company tasked with clearing mud out of a river. They had found a rock with carvings on it and wanted him to come and see it. We had the wheels and were invited along. The rock had a cross- or rather, the corner of a design (it was not a religious symbol) and greek writing, signaling Byzantine-era. After some photos, we left and began our drive to the Ankara airport to go home.