Day 36 (1): The Sumela monastery and the coastal road out of Turkey

Trabzon Travel Blog

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The walk up to the Sumela monastery
People I met here and/or travelled with: Audun, Jens (Norway), Chan (South Korea), Grace (Australia)

Trabzon is not a particularly nice place. However, I had one good reason for coming here. Actually, I had two good reasons for coming here! First was the obvious one: from here it would be easy to find transportation to Georgia, my next country.
But the foremost reason was the Sumela monastery which is located some 40 kilometres from Trabzon.

This Greek Orthodox monastery was built during Byzantine times and abandoned in the early 20th  century when most Greek communities were ousted from the newly created Turkish state.
The setting is magical, the monastery clings on a sheer rock wall in a canyon, several hundred metres above the valley floor.
The first glimpse of the monastery


I had booked transportation via my hotel and was quite surprised to find a minibus full of tourists pulling up in front of the hotel. Where were all these people when I wandered around town last night?
Here in Turkey's far east the travellers you meet are of a different kind than the ones I met in Cappadocia or around the Mediterranean. Back west most people I met were on a one or two week trip around Western Turkey, whereas here my fellow travellers were a far more diverse bunch. Two Norwegian couples (all journalists) who were travelling around the eastern rim of the Black Sea, from Turkey up to Georgia, through the de-facto republic of Abkhazia into Russia and finishing in Odessa.
Views over the valley
A Korean guy on a year-long cycling tour from Korea to Portugal. An Australian girl on her way back home after spending two years in London.
All very interesting people.

We were dropped off at the bottom of the valley, rather than at the car park near the monastery, and we had a nice 40-minute climb up to the monastery. It was a great walk. After yesterday's rain I welcomed the return of the sun. The steep trail snaked through the trees offering occasional glimpses of the valley floor and the mountains beyond.
The first view of the monastery was terrific. Seeing it perched high up along the rock face made me wonder: how on earth did they get it up there all these hundreds of years ago?
It also made me wonder why this place was not on the World Heritage list. Surely this was a stunning wonder of the world in need of protection?

The answer came when I arrived at the monastery itself.
Sumela monastery
As stunning as it is to see from a distance, so uninteresting it is from up close. Behind the stunning façade the residential buildings of the monastery were in ruins. 80 years of providing shelter for shepherds and their herds had done more damage than hundreds of years of attempted muslimification and a short occupation by the Russians. In recent years massive restoration works have been undertaken using modern building materials, thus nullifying its bid for world heritage enlisting.
Apparently the local government wants to transfer the monastery into some kind of congress centre. Interesting idea, but the rigorous restoration works meant that over 85% of the monastery is currently off-limits to visitors.

The only part that can be visited are the main courtyard, some offices and the 4th century cave church, which is completely covered in frescoes, both inside and out.
Entering the Sumela monastery
The frescoes have been badly damaged by Muslim iconoclasts and bored shepherds and their catapults alike.
I must say, the inside of the monastery was a bit of a anti-climax after such a great walk up and the views from below.

I can recommend anyone to visit the Sumela monastery and walk up the trail. Though in my opinion you shouldn't bother paying the entrance fee to visit the inside - it is just not worth it.

Once back down I joined the Norwegians for one last Efes beer. I was leaving for Batumi this afternoon, and the Norwegians were heading in the same direction tomorrow morning, so this was our last chance to sample some of Turkish excellent pilsener.

Back in Trabzon I picked up my bags at the hotel and took a taxi to the otogar, where I could hop on the bus to Batumi with only minutes to spare.
remains of the frescoed church
Perfect timing indeed!

The road along the Black Sea coast was nothing short of stunning. As ugly and uninviting as Trabzon is, so picturesque and inviting looking are the other coastal towns I passed on the road to the border.
The mosques here seem more elaborate too than their counterparts elsewhere in the country. A bit of showing off towards the Christian neighbours?

I must say that Turkey was full of surprises. I'd expected a nice country, but had not expected a country this diverse and beautiful. Well, 20 million foreign tourists a year can't be wrong, I guess.
Travelling is easy, thanks to the excellent public transportation.
That said, none of the overnight buses I have taken have been particularly comfortable. For whatever reason Turkish buses are not meant for sleeping.
inside the church
While buses are generally reasonably comfortable they do seriously lack in legroom. For someone just shy of two metres this is a bit of a problem. A problem, which I - strangely enough - never encountered on buses in South America, even though people are a lot smaller there. But apart from the legroom, it is also not done to close the curtains, so all night you have the light of passing street lights giving you unwanted impulses. Well, and speaking of lights, the buses stop every hour or so, and then all lights in the bus are turned on again (as is the music) so even if you did manage to doze off, they'll make sure your sleep is not too deep.

And even though people speak surprisingly little English outside Istanbul and the main coastal towns, it is easy enough to get by with minimal Turkish.
old aqueduct which transported water from the mountains to the monastery
But for the most part a smile and being able to say hello and thank you in Turkish will get you a long way. Most of the people are generally friendly and eager to help.
I must say that I liked the east more than the west. In the east the people are much more friendly and not as spoilt by tourism.

I do have some mixed opinions about the Turks themselves. Most of them are nice, but they are also opportunistic and not particularly honest when it comes to tourism. But in general meeting Turkish people throughout the country had been among the highlights of my trip, even if English is hardly spoken outside the main touristic areas. Sure, Turks are chauvinistic, so every once in a while I came across one who lectured me that I should learn Turkish if I was to travel in Turkey. Or at least, that is what I think they said.
stunning surroundings of the monastery

With their chauvinism comes an almost obsessive pride of their country. And Turkish people can be very persistent. I mean, when you meet a Turk, don't you dare don't you there refusing their suggestions. Quite a few times when I visited a site some people, eager for a conversation, came to me and told me to take pictures of a mosque this and mosque that. And they seemed really offended if I didn't do so. persistent “take photo! Why not? Why not take picture. You must take picture!”
The excellent day I spent with Ismail in Urfa had been full of such moments. Not to mention the künefe incident. While these were by no means bad experiences, these do make visiting Turkey and meeting Turks an exhausting experience at times.

While at the time it was fun spending another week in Eastern Europe, I really regretted not having that extra week to spend.
The rest of the Black Sea coast is so much nicer than Trabzon
There is just so much to see and do here, three weeks is nowhere near enough. Three months would be more like it

It's not so much that I had wanted to stay longer at the places I visited. With the exception of Istanbul and Göreme maybe. It was more that there are so many other places I would have loved to have visited. Every time I opened the Loneley Planet I saw something that I though “oh, wow, I wanna go there”. I managed to squeeze some places in which were not in my original itinerary (Nemrut Daği, Diyarbakır, Urfa).

I'm sure I will return to Turkey some day. The Norwegian couple I met at Sumela were right: It's easy enough to go back to Turkey some day, or even visit different regions on different trips. (Like they were doing, this was their fifth time in Turkey). And it's true, already plans are being made for a return to Turkey in 2012.

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The walk up to the Sumela monastery
The walk up to the Sumela monastery
The first glimpse of the monastery
The first glimpse of the monastery
Views over the valley
Views over the valley
Sumela monastery
Sumela monastery
Entering the Sumela monastery
Entering the Sumela monastery
remains of the frescoed church
remains of the frescoed church
inside the church
inside the church
old aqueduct which transported wat…
old aqueduct which transported wa…
stunning surroundings of the monas…
stunning surroundings of the mona…
The rest of the Black Sea coast is…
The rest of the Black Sea coast i…
The Sumela monastery
The Sumela monastery
View from above
View from above
remains of the frescoed church
remains of the frescoed church
inside the church
inside the church
inside the church
inside the church
clouds are rolling in - is it goin…
clouds are rolling in - is it goi…
view of the entrance of the sumela…
view of the entrance of the sumel…
Trabzon
photo by: eye_snap