Road Tripping in Northeastern Turkey- Trabzon and Erzurum

Although we'd originally planned to drive around the Black Sea coast in late May/early June, drawn by tales of its wonderful food and beautiful beaches, a lingering pull towards the ruins of Ani led Faisel and I to plan a much different route. We covered a lot of ground in seven days, stretching time like a rubber band so that days felt like weeks. Like all trips I've taken in Turkey, I left feeling inspired and awed by the history, refreshed by its natural beauty, and warmed by the hospitality and kindness of the people we encountered along the way.

Sumela Monastery

Sheep on the road

Kral- shop with mouthwatering pestil and köme we found along the highway.

Gnom, gnom, gnom....

Can anyone ever get tired of hazelnuts? 


Our trip began and ended in Trabzon. We stayed near Altindere National Park where the Sumela Monastery is located. After checking into a charming wooden hotel by the river, whose rooms smelled like resin, we took a brief hike up to Sumela Monastery, which to our dismay was closed for restoration and would remain so until September 2016. We hit the road early the next day on our way to Erzurum, intrigued by its Seljuk architecture.

A highlight of being on the road were all of the köme and pestil shops along the way. We stopped at one to use the bathroom, not knowing what either of those words signified, where the owner promptly offered us some samples. Köme and pestil, it turned out, are a variety of treats made with mulberry fruit leather and hazelnut paste or whole walnuts covered in fruit leather. The hazelnut paste ones induced that special eyes rolling in the back of your head kind of delight also brought on by a bal and kaymak combination. I bought a box of triangle shaped hazelnut bombs and rationed them for the duration of the trip.

We got to Erzurum, a historical city that was once a stop on the Silk Road, in the early afternoon. Erzurum is also a ski resort town and we were there off season, so we were able to get a great price in a very nice hotel at the foot of the mountains overlooking the city. There were not many tourists there, certainly not any western tourists (we saw one group of French tourists the entire time we were there), and it seemed that most people were staying at our hotel for a shoe convention. Our bellies soon pushed us out to explore Erzurum and seek out some of its local fare.

We landed on the Erzurum Evleri, an agglomeration of 11 traditional houses that had been restored and turned into a restaurant. Past the entrance, where you dropped off your shoes or covered them with disposable booties, the restaurant opened into small nooks of low-lying tables surrounded by cushions. Its collection of antique jewelry, furniture, cookware, and other old objects was impressive, and a trip down its halls felt like a proper museum visit. We were escorted to an empty room with tables and chairs and ordered a meat stew and mantı. We enjoyed the meal so much, that we decided to go back for their breakfast- a jaw-dropping spread of fresh, local products such as pekmez, honey, cherry jam, and tahini, alongside various cheeses, tomatoes and olives.

The pekmez especially, had a rich, smoky flavor, and we liked it so much that we asked the owner of the restaurant whether we could buy some. The restaurant had a small shop with other items for sale, but alas, no pekmez. The owner, however, assured us that it was easy to find.

"You can find pekmez anywhere!"

When we asked him to elaborate,  he gave us directions for Şok market. I initially thought he was describing a small, local market, and then realized he meant the Şok market chain that is found everywhere in Turkey- one that sells very cheap and discounted goods.

"Really? The same pekmez?" I asked incredulously.

He assured us with much head nodding that we would find the very same pekmez, so we shrugged our shoulders, imagining an area of the Erzurum Şok dedicated to local products. We bought a few dubbed traditional Turkish music CDs on our way out and went to seek out this promised ubiquitous pekmez. Şok was a few streets away and we scoured the aisles for pekmez, only to find the usual brands. Thinking that we must not have realized how delicious this discounted pekmez could be, we bought a jar. To our dismay, it turned out to be the syrupy and overly sugared pekmez we had thought it would be- a far cry from the home-made one we'd had with breakfast. Perhaps, we reasoned, he thought that as tourists we wouldn't know the difference.

We set out to visit some of Erzurum's historical sites. We wandered into Ulu Camii, a mosque that dates back to 1179 and was decorated with elegant pointed arches and an ornate stalactite dome. We soaked up the tranquil atmosphere and then headed out to visit the Cifte Minareli Medrese, which unfortunately was also closed for renovations. We admired its double-pillared structure and the elaborate carvings on its outside walls. While walking around its perimeter, we were beckoned by a friendly jeweler who was setting up a new studio and shop.

I had also heard about jewelry specific to Erzurum before going and was on the lookout for some. There is a stone called oltu, which is very lightweight and soft, and polishes up to a deep black. Jewelers from Erzurum cut it and set it, often overlaying a thin layer of cut silver with varying designs. Holes are drilled into the oltu, where the silver layer is attached with a thin silver peg to the back of the setting. The jeweler very kindly showed us the stone and the process of shaping. The stone itself is so soft that it can be scratched by a sharp blade. I asked him about the process of adding the silver sheet onto the stone and he said that it is a very delicate process, since the stone is so brittle, that requires an experienced master. He said that unfortunately, many of the pieces sold in stores are made with a fake stone (essentially a type of plastic) that won't break when drilled into. I asked him if there was any way to know and he shrugged, saying one had to be an "ustu", or master to know. He gave us a small sample of the oltu stone as a gift and sent us on our way.

Later that evening, we walked past the Rüstem Paşa Kervansaray- a structure dating from the 16th century and built by Süleyman the Magnificent that had been turned into a jewelry center. The sheer amount of jewelry and choice was overwhelming. Most of the shops were also small jewelry studios, where the shops wares were produces. We walked into one shop by chance to inquire about the price of earrings. I showed the jeweler that I also made jewelry and he then showed us the process for cutting the oltu and the silver pieces that he was cutting to lay on top. I enjoyed seeing the steps in the process and left with a pair of his earrings.

I stopped to sketch the back of the Cifte Minareli Medrese, enjoying representing architectural forms that were new to me. The next day after visiting Yakutiye Medresesi- a beautiful structure with a stalactite dome and whose small former classrooms are now filled with anthropological items from the region- I sat on a bench to draw its elaborate criss-crossing patterned column. A group of veiled and giggling schoolgirls came to sit next to me, on a break from class. They chattered and passed around a bag of fresh sunflower seeds, kindly offering me some as we exchanged smiles.

I could have spent a few more days in Erzurum, mostly to draw and to keep exploring the city, but we only had a week for our road trip and were eager to reach Kars and visit Ani, which we'd heard so much about.

Çifte Minareli Medrese- Erzurum

Erzurum Evleri restaurant

Erzurum Evleri restaurant

Erzurum Evleri restaurant

Erzurum Evleri restaurant

Çifte Minareli Medrese

Ulu Camii, Erzurum

Ulu Camii, Erzurum

Ulu Camii, Erzurum

Ulu Camii, Erzurum

Çifte Minareli Medrese, detail

Jeweler in Erzurum across the alley from the Çifte Minareli Medrese
Earrings from Erzurum

A chunk of oltu stone, Erzurum

Çifte Minareli Medrese, from the back

The Three Tombs, Erzurum

Erzurum Evleri

Yakutiye Medresesi, Erzurum

Yakutiye Medresesi, Erzurum

Yakutiye Medresesi, Erzurum

Yakutiye Medresesi, Erzurum

Clock tower at the Erzurum Castle

View from the clock tower in the castle


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