Travelling Turkiye – The Black Sea & Inland Train

With Red Roo having been booked and paid into the marina for a six month stay (which was our most cost effective choice given we needed to haul out and and to also get Turkish residency for the winter), we took advantage and used the time after winter and after all the boat jobs were done to travel Turkey. 

Oh, yes that reminds me … Turkey has had a name change since we have been here and it is now Turkiye (apparently abandoning the anglicised name its held for almost 100 years to more accurately represent the Turkish culture and civilisation, however some have reported it is purely to differentiate themselves from the bird Turkey). 

Regardless, we have certainly made the very most of our time here and have done a lot of travel in Turkiye and have much to share with you. Three blog posts in-fact so stay tuned over the coming weeks.

To put things into perspective Turkiye is a similar size (a bit smaller) to the Australian state of New South Wales.  Offical measurements being Turkiye 783,562 km² and New South Wales being 801,150 km².

We previously explored the South Coast and Cappadocia regions with our Canadian friends from SV Caffe Latte in December and late January (see old blog posts) and now we are off on our next (but not last) adventure to explore the north coast – The Black Sea, inland Turkiye on the tourist train, the capital Ankara and the well known city of Istanbul.  

The first part of the journey we were joined by our Aussie mate Noel who also has a boat here in the Marina, and our itinerary was planned with great assistance from our other Aussie/Turkish mate Adnan from Outback Travel & Tours.  Adnan spent 30 years living and working in tourism in Australia and is now back living in Marmais running his own company, a huge shout out to both Adnan and his son Goksel for their invaluable input into making our adventure awesome, they ensured we hit the best spots each day as well messaging daily with the local speciality menus we should look for and also which places would serve alcohol (very important information for two Aussie males travelling the country during Ramadan!!).

We flew from Marmaris (Dalaman) to Trabzon (via Istanbul) on the northern coast of Turkiye and the southern coast of the Black Sea … spoiler alert “it isn’t black”  – well actually it is at night!  Upon arrival in Trabzon we picked up our hire car and finished our travel day by driving a couple of hours west to set us up for the next day when the adventure really began.

Day one saw us visit the historic quarter and castle at Giresun, the view from the castle gave us our first good look at the Black Sea.  Noel summed it up “look at that brown river which runs into the Black Sea that is actually green and blue”.  We then headed inland up into Kuzalan Falls Natural Park to see the waterfalls and visit the natural travertines (terrestrial limestone mineral springs).

Our next stop was the Sumela Monastery.  This had been on Maree’s list to visit since arriving in Turkey and although it was closed and we weren’t able to go inside the visit did not disappoint. 

The Sumela Monastery

This Greek Orthodox Monastery dedicated to the Virgin Mary is believed to be have been built around 386 AD.  It is nestled in a steep cliff (some may say clinging to) at an altitude of 1,200 meters.  Over the centuries the monastery has been abandoned and in ruins several times and then restored by a new ruling Emperor.  It was also abandoned following the Greek/Turkish population exchange in 1923 and then in 1930 the wooden parts of the monastery were destroyed in a forest fire on the mountain.  The name if the monastery is believed to have been derived from the word “mela”, meaning “black” or “dark” in Greek as it is built around a natural cave on the steep slope of Karadag (Black Mountain).  According to legend, Virgin Mary appeared in the dreams of Athenian priests named Barnabas and Sophronios who lived in the 4th century AD and told them to find her icon painted by Saint Luke, and to do that they must follow the path she would show them to reach the Mela Mountain. They arrived in the region after a long journey where they found the icon Virgin Mary in a cave and built the monastery there.  Today it is a restored UNESCO World Heritage Site. 

It was a careful steep climb up to the gates of the Monastery due to heavy snow obscuring the path.
This picture is the easy bit at the end.

A shuttle bus takes you from the car park to the site, then there is a 1km walk to the actual monastery, and with the heavy snowfall in the region still very deep on the ground the climb up to the site was quite treacherous, actually it was enough for Noel to abandon his attempt and turn around not wanting to break a leg or wrist by falling.  Phil took off like a mountain goat and made it quite quickly to the site and Maree also managed to get to there although it took her a while longer, being very cautious on the climb, we returned to Noel with a bit of sliding down on our bums in the snow, I think coming down was actually harder.  Rather than take the shuttle bus back to the car park we asked if we were able to walk (about 3 km) and we told this was OK (although they couldn’t understand why anyone would want to walk) but this was where we got the best views as up close you couldn’t see the face of the buildings in the cliff – magnificent!

The following day we awoke in a winter wonderland at Uzungol, meaning Long Lake.  The 1km long lake was formed by a landslide in the valley.  With the snowfall on the ground it was a very appealing view.  Having arrived after dark the evening prior we took time to enjoy the view and walked around the lake.

On the drive back down to the coast was along the valley and river which is very popular withe zip lining and white water rafting.  We passed some interesting old stone and wooden bridges, in fact at one bridge we found an abandoned esky which we soon claimed and filled with snow to keep our drinks cold.  It was a case of us bringing our own drinks everywhere as it was the month of Ramadan meaning those following muslim faith were fasting and alcohol wasn’t to be found the further out east we went.  

Driving along on our way to visit Zil Kale (an Armenian Castle & Chapel) we witnessed a small landslide fall across the road in front of us, so had to walk the last little bit to the castle.  By the time we visited the castle they had cleared the trees away that had fallen and we were able to walk back past the area and cars were now driving through.  When we reached the car (that was parked clear on the other side) we turned back hearing a loud noise and the side of the road embankment had now collapsed causing a much larger more significant land slide and road blockage.  

Back down on the Black Sea, the coast and foothills is know for its Hazelnuts. The area produces 70% of the worlds Hazelnuts. We stopped and tasted both the chocolate coated and the natural nuts.  They also grow a lot of tea in the area, and we passed kilometre after kilometre of tea plantations on the side of hills squeezed into any space.  Such inaccessible and steep hillside plots that it must be harvested by hand.  The houses up in the hillsides of the valleys also seemed to be stand alone structures with no roads into them.  This mystery was soon solved when we found the cable trolleys along the roads that went up to the houses! The area also noted for handcrafted knives and we purchased a new fish filleting knife.

We also dipped our toes into the Black Sea, and it was cold!!

We were all kind of excited by Day three as after some advice from Marina friends Mike and Carol we were leaving Turkey and crossing the border to enter the country of Georgia.

We parked the hire car at the border, and walked across stamping out of Turkey and into Georgia, we changed some money from Lira to Lari in the car park outside customs and took a taxi to the nearby town of Batumi.

What a wonderful day we had, Batumi the city of contrasts and immediately different from the neighbouring Turkey.  There were casino resorts on the foreshore, a gorgeous old town district full of wooden buildings and old tree lined streets, golden statues and theatres with neighbouring slum apartment accomodations.

Golden Statues and Modern Theatres next to Old Appartments

  We also stumbled across “The Quiet Woman’s Pub” which brought cries of absolute disbelief from both Phil and Noel, they just had to have a beer in there, and like the good woman I am, I was quiet whilst they drank their beer! 

They Don’t Believe It!

We found Georgia architecture impressive and the vibe was fantastic.  We walked the old town and the foreshore and hit on the major buildings/sites to see before finding a nice restaurant to enjoy a Georgian wine (or 2 … bottles) and some pork (it had been 5 months living in a pork free country).  To start with we tried the local specialty dish which is like a large dumpling, stuffed with various fillings, then indulged in the small serving of pork knuckle for three which was HUGE and we hardly made a dent in it.  We took it home takeaway and carried it back across the border with us to Turkey and kept in the much loved esky for lunch for the following day.

Day four saw us leave the Black Sea coast and head inland (south), we were in the Borcka Karagol Nature Park with an aim to visit Dark Lake, the main road had been ploughed and we climbed and climbed the mountain roads with stunning views of the snowy winter wonderland, when we were almost at the peak a local ute stopped and advised us we wouldn’t get much further and he was right, at the turn off to the lake (about 7k shy of the lake) the road became a two wheel track with snow lined up either side of the road much higher than our little rental Clio.  We weren’t going to make the lake. 

We continued inland and up through the valleys passing impressive infrastructure of massive walled dams, huge road tunnels through the mountain and all kinds of landscape, from dry dusty stone/rock, to green hillsides, to fields of snow. 

We arrived in the afternoon to Lake Cidir (frozen lake) and it was exactly as described – a frozen lake. 

There was some remains of an ice statue and the boys walked out some way on the lake.  During winter they often race on the lake and also offer horse pulled sleigh rides.  Whilst the horses were not there when we visited (although some small steaming piles of evidence did suggest we only just missed them) we were able to pose for photographs on the sleighs.  

Day five we spent at the Ani Ruins and in Kars before handing the hire car in and boarding the Dogu Touristic Train for a two days / two nights adventure.  

The Ani ruins were a pleasant surprise as all though the Mediterranean we had been visiting Roman and Greek Ruins but the ruins at Ani are Armenian and significantly different to any we have previously visited.  It is the remains of a Medieval Armenian city and was the capital of the Armenian Kingdom between 961 and 1045.  It is often referred to as the city of 1001 churches.  There were quite a few church ruins.  We paid extra for the headset audio guides and spent about 4 hours at the site visiting each building/ruin.  We had clear views of Armenia across the river/gully and could see the border patrol and watch towers.  The famous Silk Road trading route from the Far East Asia to Europe ran through Ani, today you can see the remains of the bridge over the river and a the ruins of what was the main commercial street. Maree and Noel were excited to shop on the silk road, however neither purchased anything!  Maree also snapped the picture of the trip taking a picture of a Turkey in Turkiye.

After returning the hire car in Kars we had 5 hours until we were due to depart on the tourist sleeper train at 10:30pm.  We thought this was perfect as Adnan had told us of a restaurant in Kars that is famous for its goose.  We planned on settling in there for a nice meal and hopefully a drink until it was time to take the train.  We had a tour of Kars in a taxi finding the restaurant as they had moved to a new location, under the city castle!  Upon arrival at 5pm we asked for a table and were told yes but you must leave by 6pm for we are booked out.  We were disappointed but went with it as we had been looking forward to the goose all day.  It is boiled and then finished by cooking in the high temperature tandoor oven, and our disappointment with only being able to stay an hour was soon forgotten as we were able to drink wine with our meal (only the second place all holiday that served alcohol).  Then just before 6pm the waiter returned to invite us to stay (they must have had a cancellation), and informed us that they actually had a show coming in performing traditional Turkish dance and music, BUT we would have to pay 60 lira each to stay and watch ($6 Aussie Dollars) PERFECT, we gladly accepted, and ordered a second bottle of wine – which the waiter had to go off and ask permission for us to have.  Two bottles with dinner – outrageous … but it was approved and we were most happy.   The show was hugely entraining and a real performance of music, high energy dancing and almost gymnastics, with some blindfolded knife throwing thrown in as well as traditional guitar and folk songs as well.  What a great end to our road trip.

Our evening in Kars eating Goose and Turkish Dancing
Phil & Noel Settling in for the Tourist Train Ride

We made the train, and settled into our sleeper cabins, had a night cap (using the ice from the esky for a Raki) and were looking forward to waking up for the next part of our adventure – the tourist train from Kars to Ankara (the capital).  Two nights and almost two days.  We had two cabins which transformed from seats to beds, our own mini fridge and sink, and a shared toilet at the end of each carriage (one end was the squat toilet the other end a traditional western toilet seat).  The train journey was really great.  A diverse mix of landscape, following the Euphrates River, which starts in Turkey and the river mouth ending in Iraq 2,800km away . During the day the train stopped twice for three hours to allow us side excursions to view waterfalls, copper markets, the Divrigi UNESCO mosque and hospital. It was so nice to sit back and relax and just take it all in (with our BYO wine or beer in hand).

The Tourist Train we travelled from Kars (right) to Ankara (left)

The train journey ended in Turkiye’s capital Ankara, which is where the Ataturk Mausoleum is.  Since arriving in Turkiye it has been hard for us to understand the peoples absolute love and devotion (maybe obsession is an appropriate word also) for Ataturk.  EVERY town has multiple statues dedicated to him, every house/business displays at least one large framed photograph of him if not a shrine, they even have his signature on their cars (stickers).  We understand he was a wonderful leader and he made significant change for the citizens making Turkey more progressive and improving conditions, but it is also overwhelming to us, and once arriving at his memorial the magnitude of his legacy is undeniable, it is hard not to be impressed by its sheer size and grandeur – it is simple, yet powerful.

In very simple terms Ataturk led Turkey to become a country that could be sincere to their muslim faith yet embrace western cultures and modern ideas, technologies and ways of living.  He no longer oppressed the population and encouraged Turkey to thrive.

We visited the mausoleum then said farewell to Noel who was flying back to Marmaris and his boat.  Maree and Phil were travelling onward to Istanbul (Noel having already visited recently).   To be continued in our next post …

3 Comments on “Travelling Turkiye – The Black Sea & Inland Train

  1. Wow, another enthralling account of an amazing journey – oh to be young again and perhaps try for ourselves. But living the adventure through your eyes (and the camera) is wonderful, long may you continue. Forwarding this to both Karen and Mark for them to read and enjoy. With all love as always Wendy & Mike

    Liked by 1 person

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