Overlooked by most visitors to Turkey, this is a wonderful place for the independent traveller, a cultural goldmine, with fabulous food and stunning scenery and architecture. It now has a decent bunch of boutique hotels, and motorways make it easy to reach.
The area between Zonguldak and Samsun – once mellifluously known as Paphlagonia – includes the historic towns of Safranbolu, Amasra, Kastamonu, İnebolu and the small natural harbour of Sinop, one of the few safe havens on Turkey’s 2,000-kilometre Black Sea coast. It is a piece of Turkey aching to be discovered by the independent traveller. So Cornucopia’s advice is simple: hire a car in Istanbul or Ankara and go.
The coast itself, once you reach it, is famously hard to drive round (and you should only ever swim where others are swimming – the undertow is lethal). It is separated from the interior by daunting mountains, but not far to the south these mountains spill onto the fiercely continental central-Anatolian plateau. So the area to explore is sandwiched between coast and plateau. Having said that, what remains is almost a country within a country, and historically often was so. There are glorious valleys, ravines, mountains, plains, forests and meadows. Many of these are exceptionally beautiful, fertile and full of cultural surprises – for instance, one of the largest Roman cities in Turkey, Pompeiopolis, lies unexcavated near Taşköprü; the tiny Mahmut Bey Mosque in Kasaba, a village outside Kastamonu, is surely the most movingly lovely medieval mosque in Turkey; and another Kastamonu village has, well, the second-largest walnut tree in Europe – while next door grows the legendary naked plum.
The flora is also rewarding, partly because the micro-climates are so numerous and varied. The plain of Samsun is sun-drenched tobacco country – and also produces the reeds used to thatch Lincolnshire cottages. Bartın, where they once built the sturdiest wooden vessels in the world, is famous for Roman snails, thanks to the rain. Taşköprü has the most pungent garlic in the world. Tosya grows some of the best rice in the land, and sells the best chestnut honey in the world.
Architecturally the konaks – or mansions – are the area’s crowning glory, and fortunately a few families have poured their energy and resources into rescuing them, or at least preserving them for others to rescue. Best known are those in Safranbolu and Kastamonu, but there are hundreds of others in remote villages that were once centres of rambling estates. All are begging to be loved, brought back to life and filled with huge families, if only for some of the year.
Easy by car or bus from Istanbul or Ankara.
The coast roads as far as Sinop are tortuous and time-consuming, hence the coast’s glorious isolation. The inland highway from Gerede to Samsun is superb. Hours can be spent studying maps and deciding at which point to cut north. Actually all the roads are rewarding. The road over the Ilgaz Mountains to Kastamonu is the most dramatic.
Ingredients are the thing here. Local cooking (yöresel mutfak) is robust and delicious – think Yorkshire pudding plus. Probably avoid such Istanbul classics as vineleaf dolma. This is not olive oil country. On the coast the fish is wondrous. Unfortunately this is not wine country either – even though some of Turkey’s best wines are produced not far off in Tokat and east of Ankara – and very few places in each of the towns described in this guide serve alcohol. Hotels are the best bet. The Uğurlu Konak in Kastamonu, for example, has an attractive garden. But you can always find an Efes or a rakı a local ‘Tekel Bayı’ (Monopolies shop).