Turkey’s north coast is not as well-known as its southern coast for two reasons: it is much colder up here and the south coast has more Greek and Roman ruins. The water is also cooler all year round so it is mostly Turkish tourists that visit this place. However, Turkey’s silk road is up north along with many pretty medieval Turkish towns. That shouldn’t put you off though, there are plenty of ancient cities along Turkey’s Silk Road, and here I will give you an itinerary of my own road trip. The drive from Istanbul to the Georgian border is one of the most scenic drives in the world, taking in Amasra, Samsun, Kastamonu, Safranbolu and of course the biggest city of Turkey: Istanbul.
I only managed to drive as far as Inebolu because I only had four days for my return journey from Istanbul. From Inebolu I turned south towards Kastamonu and Safranbolu and back to Istanbul. Nonetheless, I have seen many amazing places along the road, much of it steeped in history. Whereas the south coast is filled mostly with ancient history, up here you will find out about Turkey’s Ottoman past.
Sile on the Black Sea Coast
I picked up the car at Istanbul airport late in the evening and parked up in Sultanahmet where I was staying. Parking was surprisingly easy, most hotel’s have private or street parking. I set off on the road trip early in the morning but with Istanbul’s notorious traffic jams it took almost three hours to get out of the city.
My first stop after Istanbul was Sile. Sile is a nice peaceful town on the Black Sea coast with some historic ruins. Today it is a district of Istanbul but it took nearly two hours driving to get here even from the outskirts of the city. There has been a fishing village here since 700 BC and a lighthouse since the Ottoman period. Today, Şile is a beach resort for people from Istanbul. It has a nice atmosphere, without the expense of travelling to the Mediterranean Sea.
Driving on towards Akcakoca I decided to take the narrow roads and drive along the seashore. It proved a bad decision because it was full of sheep and other animals slowing me down.
Tip: use the main, wider road if there is one, otherwise you might risk missing the really exciting places due to lack of time.
Because of taking the narrow roads, it was already dark and I was very tired by the time I arrived in Akcakoca. While still in Istanbul the call to prayer at the Blue Mosque woke me at around 4AM so I was exhausted and I just wanted to sleep.
Akcakoca and the Modern Silk Road Corridor
Akcakoca is part of what the government calls the Silk Road Corridor. What the government is doing is upgrading the road, rail, electricity and other infrastructure in the region. They are also building a huge motorway and a gas pipe link between Russia and Turkey. These were all along my route which was quite interesting to see. The problem is the quality of the road work is very shoddy and the first torrential rain washed the brand new road away! It was terrible – see images below. Given that it is a freshly built road, it is just beggars belief that it caved in less than a year after opening.
Akçakoca attracts local and foreign tourists with its sea, sand, fishing port and various fish species. It is famous for its religious architecture, mountain strawberries, chestnut honey and hazelnut, as well as the healing beaches that run along the coast for kilometers.
There were plenty of hotels to choose from but not many had the front lights on. I picked one which was a high-rise and had some cars in the car park. May is still the low season and turned out the owners were keen to get just about anyone in to stay. The night cost only £30 and when I accidentally flashed my press pass looking for my ID they even offered free dinner!
Amasra: From Iliad to its Ottoman Past
Amasra is an ancient Greek city, turned Ottoman hot-spot and now tourist resort. The town is so old it was even mentioned by Homer in the Iliad. The town continued to prosper due to its location as a port on the Black Sea. Ships arriving from the Mediterranean and sailing on to Greek colonies in the North of the Black Sea stopped here. It continued to be important in the Roman times where Traian, the emperor featured it on some gold coins. Following a giant leap in time we arrive in 1453 when the Ottoman’s captured Constantinople and the Byzantine empire fell.
The Greeks that still lived in Amasra fortified the city and built the still remaining christian church. The city fell under Turkish rule soon after the fall of Constantinople and began flourishing again as a port city. It managed to keep its Greek heritage well into the 20th century when the population exchanges meant millions of Greeks had to leave the country.
The city is absolutely beautiful even today with structures dating back hundreds of years. It has a couple of nice minarets and bridges as well as some nice fish restaurants. The only downside is that the rubbish dump is right next to the tourist car park and the sea, so on stormy days the trash is washed right into the sea. If that’s not enough, the rubbish heap welcomes all the tourists, which is not a very welcoming sight.
Arriving in Inebolu
Inebolu is another coastal town along the road. It was here where I spent my second night in the B&B of a Turkish family. If you don’t like making plans, it is easy to just turn up and ask for a room. In the low season there will be plenty of rooms but in the high season I imagine one needs to book in advance.
Inebolu is a typical Black Sea port town with many fine examples of traditional domestic architecture. Like most northern towns, it has Greek routes. Its original name was Ionopolis and served as port town for Greek merchants.
The Silk Road through Safranbolu in Turkey is the historic caravan trail through leading from Iran, India and China to Europe. It allowed Safranbolu to trade and prosper and enabled people of different religions to come into contact over millennia. The journeys and conquests of Alexander the Great probably created the Silk Road. The next step in the development of the road was when the Romans developed a liking for silk. The Byzantines took this to the next level and finally the Seljuk Turks did even better. They improved roads and built hundreds of beautiful caravan-serais to encourage trade with the east.
Kastamonu, a Turkish Market Town
According to the UNESCO, the silk road follows this direction in the north: Trabzon, Amasya, Kastamonu, Izmit, Istanbul and Edirne. On my way back to Istanbul I stopped at Kastamonu and Safranbolu, two of the most amazing places on the Silk Road.
Kastamonu is another ancient town in the former Turkish empire. The first record of the local castle is from the 11th century when Isaac I Komnenos, Byzantine Emperor ordered its construction in 1057. The fortress’ name was Castra Komnenon. The town and the surrounding area developed into a rich agricultural region, also serving as a stopping station for the caravans. The old town has some very pretty houses and winding roads up and down the various hills.
The city is also home to a major market where the villagers bring their fresh produce on a daily basis. I was there on a Friday and it seemed to be a big market day. The market covers several streets and has two major multi-story halls. At the center are the old fashioned restaurants where I had the most amazing meat-filled bread. Everyone seemed very friendly and if you stop at a stall to buy something, they will invited you in for a cup of tea.
I spent quite a few hours in the town, first walking around the historic district then up to the castle. I had lunch at the market hall then headed out to Safranbolu. If you would like to read more about Kastamonu, please click this link.
Safranbolu and the Caravanserai
The road to Safranbolu is a four lane highway from Kastamonu, so it was quite easy to get there. Safranbolu is a UNESCO world heritage site. The entire town has been preserved as it was 600 years ago! I was quite fascinated to see the old houses and streets, as well as the blacksmiths, ice cream makers and saffron sellers.
Part of the town is the medieval industrial district with carpenters, blacksmiths and tailors lining the streets. At the center of town was the original historic caravanserai. The walls of the building were at least two meters thick and it had only one gate. At the center courtyard was the original water fountain and stairs going up to the higher levels. Stepping through the door really felt like a step back in time. They were playing original Turkish music and staff dressed up in historic dresses.
Once I checked in and parked the car I went for a long walk around town. It doesn’t matter which way you start, it is all preserved and just looks fabulous. The UNESCO site says this about the town: “Safranbolu was an important caravan station on the main East–West trade route from the 13th century until the advent of the railway. The Old Mosque, Old Bath and Süleyman Pasha Medrese originate from 1322. During its apogee in the 17th century, Safranbolu’s architecture influenced urban development throughout much of the Ottoman Empire.”
The city has three districts: Çukur, the market place area of the inner city, the area of Kıranköy, and Bağlar. Walking around the entire city takes a good day and is well worth a visit.
The Blacksmith and the Ice Cream Stall
My favourite part of town was the blacksmith shop and the ice cream stall. The blacksmith allowed me to make my hands dirty and help him out in his hard work. Watch the video below to see me create a huge nail. After the hard work I stopped off at the ice cream stall where they sold ice cream made using original recipes from hundreds of years ago. It tasted absolutely delicious.
The Gypsy Wedding and the Turkish Bath
I was there on a Saturday and it happened to be a gypsy wedding in one of the houses. When I walked past and looked what was going on they invited me inside. At the end of the video below you can see what the wedding was like. They were very friendly people and invited me for dinner which was great.
After the impromptu dinner I headed back to the caravanserai and then to the bath. The bath house originates from the 14th century and is simply breathtaking. As soon as you walk in history will surround you. Nothing at all has changed in the building in over 700 years and locals still use it as their ancestors did. I spent a couple of hours in the steam room, sauna, cold room and even got a massage, then went back to sleep.
The drive to Istanbul should have been an easy one, but I didn’t realize I needed a motorway ticket to exit. I also had no idea how to register, so unfortunately I received a fine afterwards. Make sure to tell the letting agency that you are planning to use the motorways and buy the appropriate ticket before you enter.