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From the Bosphorus Straits to the Georgian border, Turkey’s Black Sea region remains an undiscovered and unique historic and geographic treasure of scenic seasides, hilltop towns, lush national parks and World Heritage sites. The Black Sea coast served as an important maritime route, and the ancient civilizations who ruled the waters left behind fabulous castles, churches, monasteries and mosques set in captivating historic seaside towns and amidst the enchanting inland mists of the rugged Kaçkar Mountains. This emerald necklace of mountain streams and forested trails preserve some of the country’s most magnificent virgin mountain forests, attracting intrepid trekkers, climbers, mountaineers and horsemen from all over the world.
At its westernmost point, the Black Sea region begins east of Istanbul in Bolu, whose centerpiece is Yedigöller or Seven Lakes National Park. With a climate that produces multi-colored forests of oak, alder, pine and hazelnut, the park entices visitors to travel through all four seasons of the year within the course of a short drive. Explorers can also discover hot springs, hiking and walking opportunities and, in winter, one of Turkey’s best ski centers.
The coastal town of Amasra, built atop the ancient port of Sesamus, has a Roman bridge, Byzantine city walls, 14th century Genoese forts and historic mosques. Nearby, along the sea, the fishing villages of Cide and Abana are popular excursions for those seeking a typical seaside meal, romance and the region’s special Black Sea inspired cuisine.
Just inland from Amasra is one of the region’s best-known attractions: Safranbolu. With its beautifully preserved and restored Ottoman konaks, or mansions, distinctively made of timber and stone, the town has earned itself a place on the list of World Heritage Sites.
Also inland is the town of Kastamonu, with its 12th century castle, beautiful handicrafts and coveted fruit jams. The expansive pastures in the vicinity offer some of the best trail riding in Turkey while the nearby Ilgaz Mountain National Park is noted for plentiful wildlife. The area’s most famous culinary tradition is a whole lamb cooked slowly in clay ovens.
As the only naturally sheltered harbor along the Black Sea, Sinop has been a port for 1,000 years and is still one of the largest on the Black Sea. The town takes its name from the Amazon queen Sinope and local mythology suggests that female warriors, called Amazons, lived in this region.
The town of Samsun is where Mustafa Kemal Atatürk drew up plans for what was to become the modern Turkish Republic. The hotel where he stayed honors him in its incarnation as the Gazi Museum. Not far away, at Bafra, are excavations dating back to the Iron Age Hittite civilization. The thermal springs of Havza, approximately 50 miles away, tempt visitors with another popular day trip.
Further east is Trabzon, a major trading port as far back as 7,000 BC and the largest city in the region. The town became an important feature of the famous Silk Route under the Venetian domination of the Black Sea and the Levant, and today visitor will find historic churches and mosques as well as other noteworthy landmarks. The Hagia Sophia dominates the city center, built by Byzantine Emperor Manuel Komnenus in the 13th century as a gift to his hometown and named after the jewel of the empire, the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. A villa once belonging to Atatürk can be found on the town’s periphery.
Just inland from Trabzon is the Sumela Monastery, a marvel of human ability built almost 4,000 feet above the forest floor into the cliffs of Mt. Mela. Its church, begun in the 4th century by the Greek monks, Barnabas and Sophronius and expanded to a monastery in the 14th century by Alexius III, has been restored and rebuilt over the centuries. It is one of the true treasures of the Black Sea region.
The lush area around Rize has the highest rate of precipitation in the country and as such, is lauded as the centre of Turkey’s tea production. This moist and moderate climate provides the perfect growing conditions for vast, terraced plantations of tea, and Turkey’s crop, both green and black, finds its way to the bazaars of Istanbul and to the cups of tea aficionados all over the world.
Not far away, in the alpine region of Zigana in the Kalkanli Mountains, is Uzungöl, an extraordinary 3,200-foot-long lake surrounded by forests and typical village houses that has become popular among campers, hikers and fishermen. Even more rugged is the Yusufeli conservation area, just inland from the Georgian border. This remote area of lakes and historic Georgian and Armenian churches also offers an unforgettable white water rafting experience as well as eco-tours on the famous Çoruh River.
Turkey’s easternmost outpost on the Black Sea’s is Artvin, famous throughout Turkey for its many festivals celebrating regional cultures and featuring music, food, costumes, dancing and other traditional celebrations. Visitors will also find other picturesque rural villages in the area as well as the Karagol-Sahara National Park, which is noted for its forests and lakes.
Many visitors come to Turkey’s Black Sea by cruise ship since several cruise lines offer itineraries that include one or two Turkish Black Sea ports. For a more in-depth experience, travelers can fly to Samsun or Trabzon from Istanbul or Ankara, and rent a car or four-wheel drive vehicle. Comfortable and friendly visitor accommodations are plentiful throughout the region except in some of the more remote mountain villages.
A highlight of a visit to the extraordinary Black Sea region is the distinctive culinary traditions. Black Sea cuisine strongly influenced by geography and climate, mountains and sea, meals often include the black anchovy, “hamsi,” corn, pickled green beans, an abundance of local vegetables and Akcabat Kofte (meatballs). Sweet helva, made with corn, butter and local honey, is another local favorite, as well as the vast variety of Black Sea and river fish (including farm-raised trout), considered by many to be the tastiest in the world.