For most people, Trabzon is not the first choice when travelling in Turkey. They say it's only for people who can see green. Nowhere in the world is there such a green color.
The slopes of the nearly 4,000 meter high North Taurus descend steeply to the Black Sea. So steep that to see the town you have to look up, not ahead.
Because of this almost sheer wall, the climate in Trabzon is incredibly humid, even in mid-August a wave of mists descends the mountain valleys and gets stuck between the blocks.
In Trabzon there is almost no flat place. The airport and the main boulevard were built on the very narrow strip by the shore, and the apartment blocks climb up the slope. There are not many streets between them, but long, long staircases.
For someone who has not specifically checked, it must be strange that on the opposite corner of the Black Sea is a city of almost a million people. And even stranger is how clean, settled, and livable this city is, which is more reminiscent of French towns on the Riviera than an oriental city.
Once upon a time, and not too long ago, Trabzon was the centre of the world. When the Crusaders captured Constantinople in 1204, the Byzantine Empire broke into 3 parts: the Empire of Epirus, which Ivan Asen II defeated at Klokotnitsa, the Empire of Nicaea centered on the present-day city of Izmit, and the Empire of Trapezoun, the strongest and most developed of the three Byzantine states.
The former Trapezund is today's Trabzon. It is not clear when it was founded, it is probably one of the oldest cities in the world. It was the capital of the Pontic kingdom, for which the Black Sea was an inland lake. It was ruled by that Mithridates, of whom you may have heard that from infancy his mother gave him all sorts of poisons in small doses, so that he might become accustomed to them and not be poisoned like most of his predecessors. When he grew up, of course, they tried to poison him many times, but failed, and there was talk that he was immortal.
When Constantinople, the Second Rome, fell, it was logical that Trapezund should become the new centre of the world. The memory of this is preserved even today - in many languages there is an idiom "to lose Trapezund", which means to get completely lost, to wander without direction and meaning.
As befits a successor of Constantinople, in Trabzon the local rulers of the Komneni dynasty built their "St. Sophia". Yes, much smaller than the one in Constantinople, but still larger than that of their rivals in Nicaea. In Trabzon's "St. Sophia" in splendid condition are preserved frescoes from the fourteenth century and even a layer from the thirteenth century, invaluable examples of an iconography very different from that of Constantinople, much more mystical and martyr-like, with characteristic faces of an anthropological type that we have not seen in our icons and that is still to be found, though very rarely and vividly in these places.
But more impressive even than Hagia Sophia is the Kizlar Monastery. Its' church is in a cave, and on its damp walls are preserved icons from the 13th and 14th centuries. The cave church is a must photo spot for local brides.
Religion does not matter here, the newlyweds are Muslim, but no wedding is complete without photos in the temple.
Even more Instagrammable are the photos from the ruins of the monastery, from which you can see the sea and the center of Trabzon.
And when we said center, God willing any city should have a downtown like Trabzon. Most of it is a park. With an amphitheater, lots of playgrounds, a river and a waterfall. The locals claim that there are even deer and foxes walking around in the park.
The cleanliness is remarkable. Not only for a Balkan city, even for a Swiss city it would be remarkable. As in any Turkish city, the streets are very lively, but not overwhelmingly so like in Istanbul and Izmir.
Nominally, the standard of living in Trabzon is not among the highest in Turkey if you look at it in terms of income and purchasing power. But because of the extremely well laid out urban environment and general life style, Trabzon is among the most preferred cities to live in. It is no coincidence that it is over-represented in Turkish politics (Erdogan himself is from the neighbouring city of Rize) - it is believed that Trabzon politicians have proven they can govern, and they are disproportionately in the highest echelons of power in Ankara and Istanbul.
One of the most impressive buildings is the Ataturk Mansion. In fact, Atatürk stayed in it for only one night. He said he liked it very much, but shortly afterwards he gave it to the Trabzon municipality.
It is impressive how well planned the city is. Most of the blocks are 14 storeys high, arranged so as not to obstruct each other's view, different enough so that the city is not boring and uniform enough so that it doesn't become an unprincipled patterning.
Perched between them, slightly off-center, is the old Ortaköy neighborhood, a reminder of a time before 1922 when there were many Greeks in town. Their houses are now the finest cafes and restaurants with dramatic views of the city descending to the sea.
Locals claim that more tea is produced in the Trabzon area than in the whole of China. This, of course, is not true, but the sheer audacity of comparing one city to the whole of China is telling. Because of the humid and warm climate, so much and so much quality tea grows here that this industry is the heart of the economy of this city of almost a million people. As all along Turkey's Black Sea coast, hazelnuts are everywhere and plentiful. But most impressive is the third most important sector of the economy - the production of football players.
Locals claim that half of Turkey's best football players are from Trabzon. I have no football knowledge and there is no way for me to check, but it is obvious that football is a religion here. The flags of the local club Trabzonspor are everywhere, at least half of the children, and even adult men are wearing the jerseys of this team. Trabzonspor is the current champion of Turkey and the only team outside of Istanbul to enter the "Big Four", always having the strength to challenge the Istanbul greats Galatasaray, Fenerbahce and Besiktas.
And the public transport stops look like this:
Although far from Bulgaria, Trabzon is very accessible for travel. There are many flights from Istanbul that make a convenient connection to flights from Bulgaria, and the prices are the same as for domestic flights. The journey from Istanbul to Trabzon takes a little longer than from Sofia to Istanbul, and the views of the high plateau-framed Turkish Black Sea coast are stunning.
Just to see Trabzon is worth the trip, but no one goes there just for that. Fifty kilometeres from the city, high in the mountains is one of the greatest treasures the human eye can gaze upon.
The monastery of Sumela
The Sumela Monastery is reached by the valley of the Altindere River, and if you have not had your fill of dark green in Trabzon, here is the real abundance. Mediterranean pines with soft needles fight for light with ferns like from a bygone geological age on the banks of a crystal clear full-flowing river fed by numerous waterfalls. Then the road veers off to the left and begins a serpentine climb up to the cliffs. Not on, but in the rocks themselves is the monastery, and the first question that comes to mind is how they managed to build it in such a location in the first place.
And it was built as early as 386, during the reign of the last Roman emperor, Theodosius, who a few years later split the empire in two and gave his sons Arcadius and Honorius one half each to rule.
The monastery was founded by two Athenian priests, Barnabas and Sophronius. They separately dreamt of a cave in which was hidden an icon of the Virgin Mary, painted personally by Luke the Evangelist. They met near the cave, told each other of their dream, found the icon and decided to build a church around the cave, and later the whole monastery complex was built around it.
In this cave and on the walls of the church that encloses it are some of the most stunning icons in the whole world.
When I set out for Trabzon, I wanted to see it most of all. But I saw many more things, which I will talk about in the next text.