Turkey - Beyond the Black Sea

Turkey - Beyond the Black Sea

Style: TravellerCultural discovery away from the crowds
Duration: 15 days
Type: PrivateExclusive departures for you, your friends and family


Eastern Turkey couldn’t be more different from its southern coast. Far away from cosmopolitan Istanbul lies a land that has long been at the crossroads of civilisations, with each of its visitors leaving their mark. On this tour we delve into some of Turkey’s most fascinating yet little known history as we embark on a journey that travels through the ancient Armenian empire in Turkey’s far eastern provinces. We explore the spectacular Sumela Monastery, situated dramatically in imposing cliffs, for an insight into the country’s Byzantine past. We spend time in a rural village as guests of a local family, keen to show us their traditions, many of which would be recognizable to travellers centuries ago. The ancient Armenian capital of Ani, perched up against Turkey’s eastern border, provides a reminder that this land has seen much change over the past centuries. We explore ancient churches and head to the remarkable ‘beehive houses’ of Harran, home to ethnic Arabs eking out an existence on the Syrian border for an utterly different side of Turkey. Best of all, this is a region that has not been swamped by the tourists that visit the more accessible sites of Turkey’s west, a region where you can really get to grips with Turkey’s complex and diverse cultures on a level that isn’t possible in other parts of the country. This is Turkey – undiscovered.

Day 1 - Ankara
Arrive in Ankara. The rest of the time is free for you to relax or explore Turkey’s capital. Overnight Elit Palas Hotel or similar.

Although Istanbul is the historical capital of Turkey, Ankara is the thriving modern capital, carefully designed by European urban planners in the 1920s. It has wide boulevards, wooded parks and shaded avenues and is home to all the apparatus of government as well as embassies and universities. It is difficult to imagine that only 90 years ago, Ankara was a small dusty town of 30,000 people famous only for its production of the soft angora wool produced by its resident angora goats. Indeed the name of the town was Angora rather than Ankara. Now it is a pleasant place to explore and the area around the castle and museum retain a historical feel. There is also a small bazaar which was the traditional centre of the wool trade and still today the traders (who now sell much more than wool) call out their wares and try to attract the interest of passers by.

Day 2 – Hattusas - Amasya
This morning we visit the Museum of Anatolian Civilisations before driving to Hattusas, the ancient capital of the Hittites dating back more than three thousand years. We explore the extensive ruins as well as the nearby temple of Yazilikaya with its superb reliefs, before driving on to Amasya to spend the night. Overnight Sehzade Hotel or similar. (BL)

Through history Amasya has always been described in the most glowing terms as one of the most beautiful Anatolian towns. Even today it is a lovely place to wander around, located as it is in the heart of the Pontic Mountains on the edge of the ‘Green River’. There are many pretty cafes along the edge of the river which are a great place to relax and admire the impressive rock tombs cut into the cliff face on the opposite bank. Those feeling more energetic can climb up to the tombs and are rewarded with great views back over the town. There are beautiful timbered houses with balconies overhanging the river dating back to the Ottoman period, many of which are in a bad state of repair but a few of which have been exquisitely restored and are interesting to visit. Otherwise you can sit back and chat with the many friendly locals who will readily introduce themselves.

Day 3 - Trabzon
A free morning in the charming town of Amasya gives us time to wander through its streets and perhaps visits its rock cut tombs or delightful old Ottoman houses. We then drive to Trabzon on the Black Sea coast. Overnight Sehzade Hotel or similar. (BL)

Trabzon is the largest port on Turkey’s Black Sea Coast and has seen a boost since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the resulting influx of traders and tourists. As you wander the streets you will hear Russian spoken and Cyrillic script is commonplace in shops and restaurants. Here you can enjoy exploring the myriad small bazaars and relaxing in a tea garden with a glass of hot sweet tea.

Black Sea Coast
Our route today takes us through the Pontic Mountains to the Black Sea Coast, and the change in scenery is dramatic. The climate, the landscape and the plants all change and the scenery is a lush green that is seldom seen elsewhere in Turkey. There are few sandy beaches but the coastline can be dramatic and the inland valleys are stunningly beautiful. Fishing is a key industry and the narrow coastal strip that stretches from Samsun to Trabzon is also home to Turkey’s hazel nut industry, providing the main source of income for most families. As we pass Samsun we arrive in the land of the Amazons, the mystical female warriors of ancient times.

Day 4 – Sumela Monastery
Visit the stunningly picturesque Sumela Monastery, situated 300 metres up a rock face and with a variety of frescoes. This afternoon we travel back to Trabzon and visit the Byzantine church of Aya Sofya. Overnight Horon Hotel or similar. (BL)

The Monastery of Sumela is 48km inland from Trabzon and is one of the highlights of Eastern Turkey. Clinging to a precipitous rock face, with densely forested slopes below and the sound of rushing mountain streams, the monastery is often shrouded in mist and takes on an almost haunting quality. A steep zigzag path takes you to the impressive façade and you can explore the ruins behind with their frescoes and the crumbling remains of the monks’ cells. Sadly the monastery has been badly vandalised over the years, with chunks of frescoes having been removed or defaced, but the spectacular setting and the still impressive remains make this a wonderful place to visit.

Day 5 - Karakoy
Travel along the Black Sea coast to the village of Karakoy, where we will stay for two nights as guests of a local family. This offers an unparalleled opportunity to experience rural Turkish life, and gives us superb insights into the daily lives of the people who live here. The people here are very welcoming and we can expect to be invited into people’s homes to share tea, and maybe something stronger, with them! We also get to taste the authentic home cooked food of this region. Our stay in this community is one of the highlights of this tour. (BLD)

Day 6 – Karakoy
We explore the village and surrounding area on walks, meeting local people as we go who are generally as curious about as us we are about them. Karakoy is situated amidst stunning scenery on the slopes of Mt Sahra and is surrounded by forests rich in wildlife including mountain goats and bears. The energetic can walk to the top of the mountain, but there are also a number of far easier and very pleasant walks to be made, and nearby are some pretty Georgian churches. (BLD)

Day 7 – Kars – Ani
We leave our hosts behind and head to Kars, our base for exploring the ancient Armenian capital of Ani. Right on the border with Armenia, Ani holds some excellent examples of 10th century architecture and a superb collection of churches, cathedrals and palaces. Overnight Simer Hotel or similar (BL)

Kars and Ani
Kars does not have the best reputation, with guidebook descriptions of the city varying from ‘the armpit of Eastern Anatolia’ to the marginally more benign description of a ‘desolate agricultural and garrison town dominated by a permanently lowering sky and fierce, wet weather’. The reason that we visit is in order to make an excursion to the incredible ghost city of Ani, not far away. But in fact the town of Kars can be interesting to explore in itself – most travellers find themselves getting disorientated in the streets which were once occupied by the Russians and still bear the mark of Soviet planning but occasionally you come across beautiful old Russian houses, 10th century Armenian churches and Ottoman Mosques.

Ani itself is a haunting place to explore. It is entirely encircled by giant city walls over a kilometre in length and was the ancient capital of Armenia. It was an important spot on the Silk Road with a population of over 100,000 and a thousand years ago was the third largest city in the world, after Baghdad and Cairo. But in the 14th century an appalling earthquake destroyed much of the city with its famous churches and cathedrals and it was abandoned. Walking around today, it is not difficult to imagine the thriving city that once stood there and the awful impact that one of Turkey’s great earthquakes must have had.

Day 8 – Mt Ararat – Ishak Pasa - Van
Visit Mt Ararat, supposedly the resting place for Noah’s Ark after the Biblical flood. We then head to the stunning Ishak Pasa Palace, sitting atop a plateau and with a wide variety of architectural styles that combine to produce one of Turkey’s most splendid monuments. Later we head to Van to spend the night. Overnight Buyuk Asur Hotel or similar. (BL)

Mt Ararat
As we drive to Van we pass the biblical Mt Ararat, the highest mountain in Turkey at 5,122m and the legendary resting place of Noah’s Ark. It is an impressive sight rising from the plain in a near perfectly symmetrical snowcapped volcanic cone. Once viewed it is easy to see how such a dominant geographical feature has attracted myths, legends and mystic significance. It is an extinct volcano and is home to Kurdish nomads who take their herds there in summer time for pasture on Mt. Ararat. We may see their black goat hair tents dotted through the landscape as they graze their sheep.

Ishak Pasa
The Ishak Pasa Palace is one of the most evocative and photogenic sights in the Middle East. It lies in the hills above the ruins of Old Dogubayazit with dramatic views over the plains below. It was from here that Ishak Pasa surveyed the trade caravans which plied the old Silk Road and grew rich on the taxes that he charged for their safe passage. It is said that he asked an Armenian architect to build him the most beautiful residence in the world. The palace was thus constructed, with its fusion of Armenian, Georgian and Turkish styles, and the Pasa promptly ordered that the architect’s hands be cut off to prevent him from designing anything further in the future.

There has been a settlement on the lakeshore at Van since about 900 BC. In fact it was at the heart of the Uratian civilization, a little known kingdom, but one powerful and advanced in its day. Following fighting during World War I virtually nothing remains of the old city save the impressive rock citadel. Lake Van is an unusual place. It is home to a unique breed of swimming cat – attractive-looking animals with a white coat and frequently one yellow eye and one blue. There are many theories as to why Turkish Van cats should happily immerse themselves in water when most felines avoid the stuff if at all possible – one suggestion is that they like to cool off in a region where summer temperatures are fierce. Another unusual thing about Lake Van is that the lake, the largest in Turkey, contains a very high amount of sodium carbonate (the element used in washing liquids). This gives it an unreal, almost fluorescent blue-green colour and a unique property - on sunny days the locals can be found washing their clothes in the lake itself, without having to use any washing liquids or detergents. There is only one kind of fish that can live in the strange water and if you are feeling brave you can visit one of the local restaurants to try out its unique soapy flavour.

Day 9 – Akdamar Island – Tatvan
An excursion by boat to Akdamar Island on Lake Van to visit the Church of the Holy Cross. Continue to Tatvan, a small town on the shores of Lake Van. Overnight Kardelen Hotel or similar. (BL)

Akdamar Island
From the lake’s southern shore a small motor boat takes less than 20 minutes to reach the tiny island of Akdamar, a wonderful excursion. You are free to enjoy the solitude of the island itself and also see its only building, the Armenian Church of the Holy Cross, adorned with delicate carvings of biblical scenes.

Day 10 – Hasankeyf - Mardin
Drive to Mardin via the medieval ruins at Hasankeyf. The ruins are evidence of a number of past civilisations basing themselves here, including Selcuks, Arabs and Turkmens. On arrival in Mardin we take a tour around the old part of the city to admire its citadel, Arab architecture and mosques. Overnight Artuklu Kervansaray or similar. (BLD)

The chances are that you may not have heard of Hasankeyf but if this spectacular ancient city was located anywhere other than in a remote South Eastern corner of Turkey, it would be thronging with tourists. As you approach the city the remains of the 12th century Selcuk stone bridge can be seen marching across the Tigris and the mountains rise up sheer beyond the river, crowned with an ancient palace. There are tombs, bathhouses, water systems, mosques, temples and churches, stairs and passageways to explore and you can also visit the extensive caves many of which have been inhabited for over 4,000 years and some of which still are, the cave dwellers living without electricity or running water. Unfortunately this whole area will be submerged within a couple of years due to the building of a huge dam on the Tigris.

Mardin, with its old style houses and paved alleyways is one of the most enjoyable towns we visit on this tour. It retains an old fashioned way of life and atmosphere and has many narrow alleyways and hidden streets that spill down the side of the hill. There are lovely old Arab-style houses which, though somewhat decaying, still give an idea of how wealthy and splendid this town once was.

Day 11 – Mt Nemrut
We drive to Kahta, and from there up Mt Nemrut to see the astonishing collection of stone heads dotted about its slopes, dating back to the 1st century BC. Overnight Zeus Hotel or similar. (BLD)

Mt Nemrut
Back in the 1st century BC, this region was home to the Commagene people, who inhabited a small kingdom wedged between the superpower forces of the Parthians and Romans. Their leader, Antiochus commemorated his rule by building a monument to his own greatness atop Mt Nemrut. Still evident today, this monument is now the most spectacular sight in South Eastern Turkey as the giant stone heads of Antiochus and an assortment of Hellenistic and Babylonian deities stare out at the dramatic landscape which used to be home to the Commagene kingdom.

Day 12 – Harran - Urfa
After a free morning in Mardin we drive to Urfa, the city of the prophets. En route we stop at the unusual beehive style houses of Harran, home to ethnic Arabs and Kurds and one of eastern Turkey’s more remarkable sights. We also visit the Neolithic site of Gobekli Tepe, an impressive set of ruins dating back more than 10,000 years containing carved reliefs of animals. Overnight Manici Konagi or similar. (BL)

The village of Harran contains the last surviving examples of mud built ‘beehive’ houses that were once common in this area. With origins dating back to Biblical times, it is an important archaeological site and supposedly where Abraham lived before his journey to Canaan. Inhabited for around 6000 years it has seen more than its fair share of invaders. Rising to prominence as an Assyrian trading town, it has since been part of the Roman, Seleucid, Median and Parthian empires, and holds the remains of an old crusader fortress. Harran faded from history when it was sacked by the Mongols but is dotted with numerous remains providing evidence of the cultures which once held sway here.

Urfa is also known as Sanliurfa or “glorious Urfa”, so named after the inhabitants successfully defended their city against French invasion post-WWI. Home to a diverse community of people, it is common to hear a mixture of Arabic, Kurdish, Turkish and Armenian spoken here. The city is believed to be the birthplace of the prophet Ibrahim (Abraham) and is a sacred place of pilgrimage for Muslims. The legend states that after angering the evil ruler King Nimrod, Ibrahim was thrown from the battlements of the castle into a burning pit. At the last moment God intervened transforming the fire into water and the wood into fish, enabling Ibrahim to land safely. The lake still exists today and is home to thousands of carp which must be the most well fed fish in the country! But don’t be tempted to try your hand at angling, let alone partake of the fish flesh as the locals predict you will go blind if you do.

Day 13 – Gaziantep - Antakya
We visit the Roman mosaics of Zeugma in Gaziantep before heading to Antakya, one of the first Christian communities of the world. Here we visit the cave church of St Peter, dating back to the 1st century, and

explore old Antakya. Overnight Orontes Hotel or similar. (BL)

Antakya was founded in the 4th century BC, known as Antioch and part of the Seleucid empire. It went on to play an important role in the Roman and Byzantine empires and was a key location for early Christianity, with one of the first churches ever built. Antakya has been plagued by earthquakes – having grown to a large city and a major staging post on the Silk Road it was razed to the ground in the 6th century, with more recent earthquakes in the 19th century. Antakya was captured by Crusaders, Mamluks and Ottomans, and following the First World War was administered by the French before passing back into Turkish hands.

Day 14 – Ankara
Fly to Ankara where the rest of the day is free to explore the Turkish capital, or simply relax and reflect on our adventure. Overnight Elit Palas Hotel or similar. (B)

Day 15 – Ankara
Tour ends. (B)

Tour style: Traveller


Arrival and departure transfers
All accommodation on twin share basis
Services of English speaking guide / tour leader
Meals as listed (B – Breakfast, L – Lunch, D – Dinner)
Entrance fees for sites listed as part of the itinerary


International flights
Any airport taxes
Travel Insurance

Please note that you should also read the Country Notes in association with this itinerary for practical information about your trip and the destination you will be visiting.

The itinerary and supplementary information has been compiled with care and provided in good faith. However it may be subject to change, and does not form part of a contract between the client and Undiscovered Destinations.