A trip to Safranbolu is a trip back in time to the grandeur of the Ottoman Empire. This tiny UNESCO preserved Ottoman town nestled in the hills of Karabuk Province, offers a magical glimpse of Turkish Black Sea life as it was during Ottoman times.
It’s peaceful, hilly streets, lined with glorious 200 – 300 year old timber-framed Ottoman houses and mansions are perfect for gentle, dreamy strolls and an other-worldly taste of how life used to be here in a typical Black Sea provincial town. Here in Safranbolu, if you choose to, you can completely switch off from the modern world, enjoying the peace, simplicity, hospitality and authenticity of Turkish life, culture and community as it was.
According to its World Heritage listing, Safranbolu was first established in the 11th century and by the 13th century had developed as an important trading centre and caravan station on the East-West trade route. Original buildings from those early days such as The Old Mosque, Old Bath and Süleyman Pasha Mosque, built in 1322, still exist in the Old Town today.
The town of Safranbolu flourished under Ottoman rule until the early 20th century, when the advent of rail transport brought about its eventual decline. Most of the Ottoman houses and mansions standing today were built during the 17th and 18th centuries – Safranbolu’s golden years as a template Ottoman town.
The town derives its name from its reputation as native home to the precious saffron herb. Saffron is still cultivated locally in the nearby area of Davutobası about 22km east of Safranbolu. Unfortunatley I didn’t have time to visit this area.
To make the most of a Safranbolu visit, you really should stay in one of its traditional Ottoman Konak hotels. They’re incredibly cheap, as Safranbolu remains a hidden gem, off the tourist trail.
The food is wonderful, especially the breakfasts (kahvalti). A typical Black Sea breakfast would include, boiled eggs, cheeses, tomatoes, cucumber, yoghurt, fresh breads, jams, juices, tea (the preferred morning drink of Turks) and coffee. Occasionally a unique Black Sea omelette of ground corn meal and melted mozzarella cheese would be presented in ceramic bowl. Really delicious, cok nefis. I loved the fact that meals are eaten outside, at every possible opportunity.
The people of Safranbolu, like the whole of this Black Sea region, are incredibly warm and friendly. A quick coffee stop is just as likely to develop into a game of tavla, a lesson in cezve technique, a tour of the markets and even new friendships.
The central market area in the Old Town is a charming labyrinth of cobbled alleys, artisan stores, souvenir shops and original stone and timber architecture from yesteryear. Of course it has a touristy feel, but it’s still incredibly beautiful and oozing with Turkish character.
Whilst in Safranbolu make sure to explore even further, seeking out authentic local villages with the help of locals. My konak host, Taylan, took me for cay in a spectacular nearby village called Yoruk Koyu, where we sat in the shade of a canopy, eating, drinking tea and chatting, surrounded by cats, dogs, chickens and rustic village splendour from another simpler time.
I recall the disbelief on Taylan’s face, when I told him how I’d be happy to stay right there forever. His dream was the opposite – to be living in a tiny bolt-hole flat somewhere in central London surrounded by 8 million people! Perhaps one day we can arrange a life-swap. 🙂
Safranbolu isn’t the easiest place to get to. I picked up a hire-car in Bolu and drove the 2 hour, 150 km, road trip (E80) east into Safranbolu without any problems. Long-distance buses are available from the major cities of Istanbul (6 hour, 25TL) and Ankara (3 hours, 25TL). Daily trains run from the nearest coastal city of Zonguldak (75km) to the nearby (8 km) steel-manufacturing city of Karabuk, just a short dolmus (bus) ride away.
Safranbolu might not be everyone’s cup of tea. If you’re looking for excitement, nightlife or endless tourist attractions, you may well be disappointed. If, like me, you’re searching for the real Turkish soul, authenticity, peace and natural beauty, you might want to visit.