Living History While Traveling in Trabzon Turkey

It about three  years ago when we found ourselves traveling through Turkey during Ramadan.  Turkey itself is a wonderful place to travel but what we found difficult was that as we headed further east, to the more religious parts of the country, we encountered the Muslim holiday of Ramadan.  During the holiday, Muslims traditionally don’t eat during the day and instead pig out at night.  Trying to be sensitive, and challenged by what food options were available to us, we tried to do the same which left us hungry during the day and awake at night as our busses made frequent food stops.

This past week we read an article in The Economist detailing how a Byzantine Monastary was being used as a Mosque to celebrate Ramadan.  The article took me back to that time on the trip, travlling through that very city during this same very holiday.  Although we didn’t visit this specific site, The Hagia Sophia of Trabzon, we were passing through during Ramadan and did visit another Byzantine Monastery, the Sumela Monastery.  The site was itself quite beautiful and, as a tourist site, made a nice reprieve for us from the restrictions of traveling during Ramadan.  Reading the Economist article I am left to wonder if it may to find a day when its own purpose is changed to another religion.  This is something that happens all the time, especially in the Middle East, but I just can’t help to wonder what the future holds for sites such as this.

I intend to offer no opinion regarding the cultural and religious politics of that region of Turkey, but instead just want to offer a few photos from the Sumela Monastary






Cruising Turkey’s Blue Coast

Turkey’s blue and turquoise coast is a glistening stretch of turquoise water, small inlets and hidden ruins.  Although you can travel the blue coast on land, the experience is much better by sea.   After all, who doesn’t love to be lulled to sleep by the waves?


We booked a cruise from Fethiye –Olympos (you can also book in reverse) on a gullet, or a traditional wooden sailing boat.  Between sleeping on board and sailing from beautiful turquoise lagoon to beautiful turquoise lagoon it was a lovely vacation to travel – but it came with plenty of warnings.  Like everything on the road, tourist adventures are a little bit of buyer beware.  We stocked up on plenty of information before arriving in Fethiye on tour companies, boats, things to look out for and warnings about short-cuts that some operators take.  Armed with that information we had an amazing experience along Turkey’s blue coast and so can you.  Here’s what we learned:

  • Get recommendations from others who have taken cruises recently.  Captains and tour operators can change ownership quickly so it’s best to have a recent recommendation.
  • Don’t go with the cheapest operator!  We learned this the world over, but the cheapest operator often skimps on something- food, water or maybe even a crew that doesn’t speak English!  Be prepared to pay a fair price for your cruise, if someone is 50% cheaper, trust us, you’ll know why within the first 24 hours onboard.
  • Ask about what is included, and get it in writing.  Many Turkish blue cruise prices do not include alcohol – if this is important to you do some quick calculations before you get on board.

Like anything in tourism, going in with the right information can make the difference between having an amazing, once in the lifetime experience and an experience that could have been better. Although many tour operators will sell Turkey blue coast cruises from Istanbul, it is best to wait until you are at the coast to book your tour (if you can wait!) as you’ll be able to check out the outfitter and ask questions yourself.


IF YOU GO:  Turkey’s blue coast is incredibly popular with tourists, but that doesn’t mean it is overcrowded.  We found that the beaches and lagoons were not crowded with boats, most of the cruise we were the only boat in a harbor. There’s also a beautiful hiking trail, called the Lycian Way that follows the coast to Anatalya if you get a little sea sick. Don’t miss a chance to explore the various Lycian ruins along the coast.  From sarcophagi near Fethiye to the ancient city of Olympos and the mythical flames of the chimera, the area is rich with cultural heritage sites that are well worth the visit.

Exploring Goreme and Capadoccia

Goreme is probably best known as the city from where to explore Capadoccia’s famous rock formations, but there’s actually a lot more to see in and around Goreme than just interesting rock formations. After reading this post, it may be time to look for some last minute flights and go for a long weekend.

The rock is the most unique aspect of the region. Hardened lava, the rock is relatively easy to carve and became the most popular building material in the region. Instead of building up, the local people built in and down. That’s right; they dug into the rock to create expansive cities, monasteries and churches. Monolithic buildings (made from one rock, also called rock hewn) are rather unusual in the world, and there are only a handful of examples of ancient monolithic architecture. We were fortunate enough to see monolithic churches in Lalibela, Ethiopia and in Goreme, Turkey and the city of Petra in Jordan.

The rock hewn churches in Goreme are unique mostly because of the incredible painting and decoration that remains on their walls. They are considered to be some of the best examples of post-iconoclastic Byzantine painting in the world. More than 1,000 churches have been found in the area, some with complete Byzantine wall-paintings, while others, even after restoration are still severely chipped, showing signs of older paintings underneath.

Rock Hewn Chuch in Goreme Capadoccia Turkey

If you go to Goreme:

Take a trip out to see the rock formations or better yet take an air balloon ride at dawn. Then head out to see the underground cities (you can rent a car relatively inexpensively in Goreme or take a tour). The Goreme Open Air Museum, where most of the churches are congregated is a short walk from town. We rented mountain bikes in Goreme and took to the foot paths and canyons in the area, eventually having to hike our bikes out of the canyon in an unpleasant uphill scramble.

Foodie Friday: Drinking Yogurt Milk

The first time I tried the stuff was a few weeks before we landed in Turkey.  We were going to a Persian restaurant in Florida with some friends and the waiter suggested we try some of the Iranian doogh, flavored with mint, on the house.  The cup that was poured for three of us try ultimately made it around the table of 12 with no one willing to try more than a sip.

Then we got to Turkey, managed to couchsurf in Istanbul, and it was served again and again and again.  Down the hatch it went each time.  I grew to like the stuff, Jillian, not so much.

The Turkish version, ayran, is the word you might have heard of before.  All over Turkey it was served to us with meaty dishes.  On its own, I still think the stuff is aweful, but with a nice plate of spicy kebab it is a perfect match.  It is served on menus basically anywhere the Ottoman Empire went and according to some sources, McDonald’s even includes it on its standard menu in the region.

The beverage is a simple mix of yogurt, water, and usually a bit of salt.  Then it might be flavored with a variety of other things such as minced cucumber, chopped mint leaves or even garlic.  Often it is served out of a pitcher but it is so popular that it comes bottled in the store alongside cans of coca-cola.  Sometimes it is even foamy to help you with your stylish milk mustache.

We drank it for the last time for sometime to come (the next likely chance will be the Indian version called lassi) while in Yerevan as we ate more traditional food than we could shake a stick at.  Our Couchsurfing hosts made sure we had a chance to try everything imaginable and this included the local style of aryan, called tahn, with cucumber mixed inside.  The flavors in the meat dishes that went along with the drink were strong and spicy and my aryan went down without a problem…Jillian however, opted for the juice.

If you try it, take a bite of your meat first, then start to drink the ayran…it is a bit of an acquired taste.

Trabzon & Sumela Monastery

IMGP6720From atop Nemrut we could almost see to Iraq and Iran. Ok, not exactly, but the fact was we were pretty close. Unfortunately, political situations being what they are, our silk road journey had to continue north instead of south. From Nemrut we headed to the Black Sea, on the err “Northern Silk Road.”

The Black Sea coast is beautiful, not at all like the sandy beaches of the Mediterranean, it rises quickly into the hills. Hidden among the hills are a number of old monasteries and churches, many of which pre-date the Ottoman empire and are decorated in magnificent byzantine frescoes. Northeastern Turkey, although still predominately Muslim, is home to a number of Greek Orthodox Christian’s as well, many of whom originated in Georgia or Armenia. Although many religious figures were exiled and run out of Turkey nearly a century ago, Christianity continues, and just recently a historic visit by the Greek Patriarch to Northeastern Turkey prompted the home for a potential thaw in religious relations.

IMGP6678Sumela Monastery, the grand dame of monasteries in the area, is tucked into a cliff overlooking the magnificent Alt?ndere valley. Set 1000 feet above a river, the monastery looks like something out of a fairy tale on first glance. Small but beautiful, we explored the site from top to bottom. Badly vandalized over time, the vibrantly colored frescoes still survive today. For me, the graffiti atop the religious scenes was actually the most interesting thing about the Monastery and I found myself wanting to photograph the medieval frescoes with “I was here” written in Greek, Russian and any number of other languages more than anything else. Graffiti, although incredibly destructive, is interesting. In Egypt we saw a “Napoleon was here” message in one of the Temples, and although I would never carve a message myself, it is interesting to see historical messages left over time.

Although Christian communities still exist in Turkey, the area is still predominately Muslim. Ramadan observance requires Muslim’s to abstain from eating, drinking, smoking or other distractions during daylight hours. About an hour or two before Iftar, the break fast meal, the streets fill with people rushing about to purchase sweets, food and drink for the big meal. In Trabzon there was a palpable excitement in the area at this time, and the sleepy streets where shop keepers had napped away the afternoon were suddenly full.IMGP6671 One evening we found ourselves in downtown Trabzon five minutes after the breaking of the fast. Not another soul was on the street, a single car passed us, driving at break neck street, rushing home to eat. We laughed to ourselves, knowing that had we been fasting, we would have been the same way. As tourists we’re not expected to fast during Ramadan, but we are courteous and careful about eating in the open, especially in more religious areas. On the coast and in the major tourist areas there’s no problem with openly eating and all the restaurants are open and full. In fact, in these areas a number of Turks don’t keep the fast themselves and the atmosphere is lively all day. In the more rural areas the streets are quiet during the day, very little commerce goes on, and we’ve found ourselves surreptitiously eating in the back of stores, Church courtyards and ducking behind bus seats.

If You Go: Trabzon is easily accessible and serves as the gateway to Northeastern Turkey and the Kaçkar Mountain range. Hiking and camping opportunities exist in the area, but come prepared with most of your own gear. Onward transportation to Georgia is very frequent.  Nearby Ayder is a popular summer vacation spot for Turks who come to enjoy the hot springs and day hikes.