Don't laugh, but I'm off to the Black Sea

Not many tourists make it to Turkey's Black Sea coast. But that's what makes it so beguiling, moody and intimate, writes Jeremy Seal

EVER SINCE Ankara, the bus had bristled with raised Turkish eyebrows. Somebody eventually double-checked my ticket.

"Sinop!" the man exclaimed, slapping his thigh. "He's going to Sinop." And the entire bus dissolved into laughter.

Be warned; tourists headed for Turkey's little-visited Black Sea do tend to cause amusement, such is the tourism monopoly enjoyed by the country's Aegean and Mediterranean coasts. Certainly the Black Sea coast boasts few of the usual tourist attractions. Old Greek Trabzon may have the famed frescoes at Aya Sofya cathedral and the Greek Orthodox monastery of Sumela clinging to a precipice 25 miles out of town, but the initial impression is of a more neglected, industrial and plain, rainy coastline than its southern counterparts.

Still, as my fellow passengers soon assured me, the Black Sea had other things going for it. "The air's so good," said one, slapping me across the shoulders, "you won't get drunk no matter how much raki you drink." "And the fruit," exclaimed another. "The figs!" "And the water's not nearly so salty as the Mediterranean," said a third.

Neither does the Black Sea suffer from the usual resort hawkers pushing everything from carpets, leather jackets, boat trips and meals; the only Black Sea attempt on my wallet was from one of the many Russian prostitutes, or Natashas, plying their trade in Trabzon. It goes without saying that the excess rash of hotel developments, discos, bars and boutiques that has broken out along Turkey's Mediterranean and Aegean holiday rivieras is entirely absent here. The tourism facilities may be second-rate, but then the spirited figures of Black Sea legend - Jason and the Argonauts, the warrior Amazons and even Rose Macaulay's indomitable fictional Aunt Dot of The Towers of Trebizond - were famously unconcerned with creature comforts. Like-minded travellers should find Turkey's northern coastline beguiling, moody and intimate; every bit as different, in short, from the White Sea - the Turkish name for the Mediterranean - as their contrasting names imply.

Here are mountain-backed coves, tea and hazelnut plantations, and the grand but decaying architecture of the fishing ports, promontory castles and former Greek communities that extend for 750 miles east from Istanbul to the border with Georgia. As we descended from the thickly wooded hills, a late-summer landscape of mocha-coloured farmland unfolded. Muezzins called from mist-shrouded minarets. Sheaves of tobacco were hung across clotheslines to dry, and maize cobs hung from scrolled wooden eaves. On the balconies below, elderly men with slicked-back, Brilliantined hair nurtured thick shrouds of cigarette smoke.

The bus drew up at Sinop, a dilapidated but picturesque promontory paste- up of castle walls, wooden Ottoman facades draped in fishing nets and rusty freighters. The only sunbathers on the beach were the cattle, their chins propped upon the sand as if reading airport novels. The odd cormorant splashed sporadic patterns on the water.

In the morning, I found the Rus Pazar (Russian market), a lugubrious hall in the middle of town. Ferociously made-up women from Crimean Yalta and Georgian Batumi and Tbilisi, who were either disinclined to sell their bodies or realistic about their fading prospects, instead presided over stalls stacked with plastic hairbrushes, Russian dolls, vodka bottles, lampshades and even tractor parts. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, every Turkish Black Sea town has attracted such a market; they are like hard-knock schools where former Soviet citizens learn the first cruel lessons of capitalism.

"The Soviets, they are the only people who seem to want to come here," explained a regretful Olgun, the Turkish captain of the trawler Mehmet III, who waved me on board as I wandered Sinop's quayside. Olgun's crew were stowing nets. Later that day, Mehmet III would leave in search of palamut (bonito). A couple of months later, as the water turned cold, the crew would start fishing for the ravaged remnants of the Black Sea's renowned hamsi (anchovy) stocks.

Later, I found Sinop's ruined Byzantine Balatlar Church, a tottering assemblage of walls where scraps of smoky, once sky-blue fresco clung. A passing student called Ahmet stopped to talk. "When I was a child, these frescoes were lovely," he recalled. "Now only drunks come here and make fires to keep warm." As we wandered towards town, a man dressed only in underpants and a sailors' hat crossed the road in front of us. "That's Tarzan," said Ahmet. "Used to be a famous engineer. Then he lost his job. His mind followed."

Tarzan reflected the pervasively mournful, derailed mood I would encounter all along the coast. There was the city of Samsun, where Ataturk landed in 1919 to lead the nation's triumphant emergence from the ruins of the Ottoman Empire; Samsun now boasts nothing but its own Russian market and a dowdy yacht club with just three yachts. At the fishing village of Bolaman, I found ruined wooden Ottaman mansions, and fleets of fishing boats with what I took to be the same name scrawled across their sterns until I remembered that Satilik means "For Sale". Olgun's bullishness belied an industry in terminal decline.

I worked my way east, pitching onto the long-distance buses, fuggy with cigarette smoke, that connected Ankara with Samsun and Trabzon, or the cheap, frequent minibuses that serve local stretches. There were water buffalos, attractive little harbours, scraps of scruffy shingly beach and buses which had been driven into riverbeds to be lovingly washed.

At Giresun, a pretty port arranged around a hilltop castle, I asked the hotelier at the Kit-tur Hotel about the best local beaches. "Beaches?" exclaimed Oznur dismissively. "We Turks don't really like beaches. We prefer the yayla." The notion seemed to inspire him. "Come on," he said, grabbing his car keys and giving himself the day off. "Let me show you the yayla."

The yaylas - high mountain pastures - are up there alongside Ataturk, baklava and cigarette smoking in the Turkish estimation, and none are more renowned than those above the Black Sea. This enduring national affection, which derives from the time when Turks commonly summered their stock on the high pastures, continues to draw the people of Giresun to the local yaylas of Kumbet, Bektas and Kulakkaya.

The road inland climbed through ash and oak woods into a land of goatbells, soft green grass and stone houses surrounded by piles of hazelnut shells (the region supplies the world with 70 per cent of its hazelnuts). The 7,000ft yayla village of Bektas, 25 miles south of Giresun, had already been abandoned by most of its summer residents. In the tea houses, only a few white beards remained. We were the only guests in the village's hotel, the Karagol, an improbable but welcome haven of alpine warmth where we ate mutton stew before the fire as the mournful caretaker spoke of the great snow drifts that would engulf the hotel in the weeks ahead.

The next morning, we set out across the yayla on foot. A huge kangal sheep dog, whose collar was studded with mean blades to protect it from the region's wolves, fixed us with a baleful glare. The remains of a dead eagle dating from the spring had been crucified along a fenceline to deter others from taking the lambs. We stopped to drink fizzy mineral water from a natural spring. A group of shawled women then emerged abruptly from a pine wood, and handed us blobs of resin which they had been collecting from the trees for use as scented chewing gum. Oznur's pockets soon bulged with the rosehips he had picked for his wife.

That evening I reached Trabzon, a bustling town of leafy squares, blacksmith's markets and cobbled lanes above the sea where sailors jostled in beer halls. It was about 10 o'clock the next morning that the prostitute propositioned me. I deferred, explaining that I was on my way to see the frescoes at the Aya Sofya cathedral. She threw back her henna-coloured head, laughing at the gulf between our plans for the morning, and turned on red-wedge heels in the direction of the docks.

black sea Fact file

Getting there

Turkish Airlines (0171 766 9300) has daily flights from Istanbul to Samsun and Trabzon.Single tickets bought in London are pounds 54 and pounds 74 respectively; they are cheaper in Turkey. There are regular bus services from Istanbul to Samsun (approx 12 hours; pounds 12) and Trabzon (16 hours; pounds 18).

The renowned Turkish Maritime Lines ferry which used to run from Istanbul to Samsun and Trabzon no longer operates. A visa costing pounds 10 is issued upon arrival in Turkey

Tours and where to stay

New company Pontic Tours (01548 550449) specialises in trips to the eastern end of Turkey's Black Sea coast and hinterland. Explore (01252 344161) has a 20-day Turkish Black Sea and Goreme tour. For tailor-made holidays, contact Simply Turkey (0181 747 1011) or Metak (0171 935 6961).

The Karagol Hotel, Bektas (454 314 0169), and Kit-Tur Hotel, Giresun: (454 212 0245); about pounds 15 per head per night.

Further reading

`Discovery Guide to Eastern Turkey and the Black Sea Coast' by Diana Darke (Immel; pounds 12.95); `The Towers of Trebizond' by Rose Macaulay (Fontana, pounds 5.99). Jeremy Seal's `A Fez of the Heart; Travels Around Turkey In Search of a Hat' (Picador pounds 6.99).

Further information

Turkish Tourist Office; 0171 629 7771. Their brochure service (calls charged at 50p a minute) is 0891 887755.

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