It came as something of a surprise when so many Turkish friends, mostly from Istanbul, warned me off travels to this area. “It’s not safe, you’ll end up at the bottom of the Black Sea!”
Luckily, I love a challenge. And I’ve also learned (eventually!) to follow my own gut instincts in life. In this case, my instincts sent me in the direction of the Istanbul bus terminus where I would start my Black Sea adventure travelling as Turks do, by coach.
The plan looked something like this: Take a coach from Istanbul to Bolu. Pick up a hire car (pre-booked, with GPS) in Bolu and spend the next 2 weeks exploring this region in a loop from Bolu through to Safranbolu (4 nights), Yenice (1 night), Amasra (1 night), Zonguldak (1 night), Akcakoca (2 nights), and finally Kdz. Eregli (4 nights).
I was surprised to discover that Turkey is not particularly well-served by inter-city trains. It’s geography, like Australia or the US, would seem so well-suited to it. Instead, I discovered an extensive network of inter-city coaches.
One hour into my Ulusoy coach trip I knew I’d made the right choice. A chubby, rosy-cheeked, Turkish “aunty”, dressed in the traditional prints and scarf of Turkish village life approached me.
“Borek, borek” she implored whilst shoving a square press-seal box insistently into my rib cage. Ohhh yes, this was the Turkey I came to find!
Lessons learned: Do it, travel by coach. What a fantastic opportunity to meet locals. Smile, talk, take snacks you can share, eat soggy borek when it’s offered to you.
In the main, driving in Turkey was what I expected. If anything, the roads were better than I’d hoped for. The long, dark tunnels burrowed through the hills around Zonguldak kept me on my toes. As did the many roadworks. I learned that drainage might also present challenges as one heavy downpour resulted in road-top rips which tugged at the car’s steering. Sought refuge at the next petrol station where bemused staff plied me with complementary glasses of steaming cay whilst the floodwaters subsided!
Beware the dolmus! One of the journey’s highlights was my encounter with a Safranbolu dolmus. Buoyed by the ease at which I’d found my way from Bolu to Safranbolu, I set off for the local markets calm and relaxed at the wheel. Whack!! A kamikaze side-swipe from what had appeared to be a stationary dolmus.
Three hours, a police station, 4 Turkish policemen, 3 dolmus drivers, 6 phone translations and a dozen random civilian interventions later, life was good again. The senior police office calmly tore up the accident report we’d spent hours crafting, smiled warmly at my ‘interpreter’ and shook our hands. “All good, nothing to worry about, go and enjoy the Black Sea”. A deal had been struck between the police, the dolmus driver and the car rental company.
Lessons learned: Beware the parked vehicle ahead, use of indicators and mirrors before pulling out seems optional. Make sure you always have access, at least by phone, to a translator. A bilingual friend from Istanbul really saved my skin on this and other occasions.
I booked most accommodation online from London. It was cheap, about £20 – £30 per night (2015). Service was fantastic everywhere. In Safranbolu, I stayed in an incredibly beautiful wooden Ottoman style house (konak). Delicious local breakfasts were served each morning in the garden. The host became a friend and took me sightseeing in nearby villages.
In Zonguldak, I almost needed ropes to traverse the cliff face down to where the hotel room was nestled. Spectacular views. In Kdz Eregli, a waterfront room for less than £20 per night came with exceptional service and a prized jar (gift) of local Osmanli Cilek Receli from the owner on departure.
Lessons learned: Fantastic, cheap accommodation, wonderful personal service.
Health and Safety
As a keen hiker, a day of exploring the spectacular trails and scenery of the Yenice Forest were going to be a highlight of this journey. Instead, some light rain and greasy, unstable, wooden steps down from a viewing platform took me to A&E at Karabuk hospital. Honestly, if not for the fear of broken back bones, I’d never have considered a hospital visit way out here. Expected the worst – language, time, cost, cleanliness. Wow, what a surprise! An immaculate facility, immediate service (X-rays), lovely staff, several English speakers, and manageable cost (about £100, refunded on travel insurance). This is the only experience I’ve ever had with Turkish healthcare, so I’ve no idea how typical this might be. Certainly on this occasion – as good as anywhere I’ve ever been, certainly much better than London.
Lessons learned: Look where you’re going, don’t take construction and safety standards for granted. Make sure you have good travel/health insurance, take contact details with you.
The people of the Black Sea were everything I’d hoped for – friendly, warm, helpful, genuine, kind. I was only here for 2 weeks. Yet in this time – we talked, drank cay, played tavla, they showed me how to make real Turkish kahve, they tried to teach me saz, they introduced me to friends and families, they gave me mementos, they gave me books, they offered me jobs (teaching English), they took me to lunch, they took me sightseeing, they helped me when I was stuck, and they asked for absolutely nothing in return. When I tried to pay tips or bills, they placed a hand on their heart, shook their heads and refused.
Would I do it again? Absolutely!