Turkey’s northeastern Black Sea region, known for its green alpine landscapes, has a look and feel quite unlike anywhere else in the country. The region is rife with scenic lakes and mountain villages to explore. But with the area gaining popularity so quickly, has it been able to maintain its tranquil, traditional atmosphere? I visited the popular Ayder in Rize Province and Trabzon’s Uzungöl to find out.
Rize Province’s Ayder is one of the Black Sea region’s most popular destinations. And before my trip, a couple of Turkish acquaintances, one of whom happened to be from Rize, strongly recommended that I visit.
From my research, I couldn’t tell exactly what one was supposed to do or see there, other than enjoy the natural scenery. While long nature treks seem to be popular, I wasn’t up for one so soon into my long trip across Turkey.
While the day turned out to be enjoyable overall, I’m still just as confused about Ayder and its popularity than I was before my visit.
Departing from central Trabzon at 9 in the morning, I rode in a bus with 15 or 20 other passengers. Aside from myself, all of them were Turkish except for a group of three Arabic speakers.
Our first stop was at a river where visitors had the option of riding a zipline to the other side. It cost extra money and only a few people tried it. The rest of us passed the time sipping çay at a riverside cafe.
Before long, it was time to get back on the bus and head deeper into Rize Province.
The view from the bus was spectacular. And arriving at Ayder, we stopped to get a look at one of the area’s dozen or so waterfalls. At 1,300 meters above sea level, the weather felt more like autumn than the peak of summer.
The misty woodlands of Rize are not what most people imagine when they think of Turkey. But its rare alpine climate is its main selling point, especially among Arab tourists and Turks from distant parts of the country.
Traversing the Black Sea region used to be much more difficult. But after a coastal highway was put in place in 1987, the formerly wild and inaccessible highlands have seen a massive surge in tourism.
Next, we stopped by a large grassy field surrounded by shops and restaurants. It was around 12:30 in the afternoon, but our driver said to be back at the bus by 15:30. I thought I’d misheard him, but no. We would really have three hours to kill atop the plateau.
After a tasty lunch of locally-caught trout, I wandered around to see what all the hype surrounding Ayder was about. While the grassy area was clearly a popular spot for sitting and relaxing, there surely had to be something more to do around here, I figured.
And so I walked up and down the main road to see what I could find.
One thing I noticed was the abundance of traditional wooden houses that are unique to Turkey’s Black Sea region. A recent decree made it mandatory for all new buildings to be constructed of timber in order to conserve the region’s traditional feel.
But sadly, the traditional feel already seems far too gone. Walking a kilometer or two in either direction, I was surrounded on either side by touristy gift shops and cafes pumping out loud music. There were no other roads to walk down, nor were there nature trails of any sort.
The only thing left to do was pass the time with a book on the grass while sipping some çay.
Speaking of çay, it’s Rize Province that supplies the tea for the entire nation. If you’ve traveled around Turkey, you know how important çay is to Turkish culture. Walk into a shop or meet a random stranger, and you’ll likely be offered a glass or two.
Surprisingly, the first tea saplings, which came from Russia, weren’t even planted in Rize until 1935.
In the modern Republic of Turkey era, tea quickly replaced ‘Turkish coffee’ in importance. While Turkish coffee is still pretty common, it’s always been sourced from the Arabian peninsula, a region which the Turks lost control of with the fall of the Ottoman Empire.
After what felt like a long, albeit relaxing, three hours, it was finally time to get back on the bus. On the return journey, we briefly stopped at an old Ottoman-era bridge built over Rize Province’s Fırtına River. These elegant stone bridges have come to symbolize the region, and frequently make appearances on tourism posters.
All in all, it was a pleasant day, but by no means an exciting one. With so much to see throughout Turkey, this isn’t a day trip I’d recommend if you have limited time.
The following day, I took a trip to another highly-hyped destination in the Black Sea region: Trabzon Province’s Uzungöl. No tour companies were necessary this time, as it’s an easy journey by direct bus through a company called Çaykara Tour (more below).
Located around 100 km from Trabzon city, Uzungöl is the name of a small lake and the scenic town which surrounds it. Aside from a walk around the lake, prior research yielded little information on what there is to do there or just why it’s so popular.
Getting off the bus after a two-hour journey, I quickly encountered two of Uzungöl’s main landmarks: its historic stone bridge (much like the one in Rize) and its mosque. And before long, I could get a clear view of the lake itself.
Disappointingly, the atmosphere was far from tranquil. The level of development and commercialism surpasses even that of Ayder. And a busy road surrounds the entire lake, meaning you have to constantly mind traffic as you stroll around.
On the lake’s southern edge, I found a steep staircase which takes visitors up to a viewing platform – one of the few ‘attractions’ the village has to offer. While the view was excellent, the weather wasn’t on my side.
Looking at photographs online, I can see that many of them were taken from another vantage point from somewhere behind the mosque. I didn’t notice any signs indicating where this might be during my visit, but you might want to try climbing up the hill over there.
Back down, I decided to do a full walk around the lake. And I managed to find one more attraction tucked within a backstreet by the stream.
The Uzungöl Dursun Ali İnan Müzesi (20 TL as of 2020) is a modern museum dedicated to the history and culture of the region. It’s a decent museum in any weather, but it’s especially convenient if you need to wait out a downpour.
The museum goes over the ancient history of the area along with things like local architecture and crafts. Not merely dedicated to Uzungöl, you’ll also learn a lot about Trabzon Province as a whole. Seeing as how the main museums in Trabzon’s city center were closed during my visit, this was a nice find.
One of the more interesting bits of trivia regarding Trabzon is that it was briefly occupied by the Russians in the early 20th century. And the museum contains some compelling info and artifacts from this overlooked period.
Back outside, I still had a couple of hours to kill before my return bus to the city. Fully circumventing the lake, there wasn’t much else to do other than sit down for a meal and a few cups of tea.
While Uzungöl is undoubtedly beautiful, I don’t quite get the hype. As I would discover again and again throughout the rest of my travels, Turkey has so many other stunning attractions with just a fraction of Uzungöl’s fanfare.
I visited Ayder with the tour company Sumela Tour which I arranged at their office in central Trabzon. It only cost 100 TL (roughly $13 at the time) with no meals included.
If you don’t want to take a tour, you can reach Ayder by minibus from the town of Pazar (1 hr) or from Rize city (2 hrs).
If you’re visiting the region in June, you may want to check out the Çamlıhemşin Ayder Festival, where you can see displays of traditional dance and dress.
While most tour companies offer tours to Uzungöl, you can easily get there by bus.
In Trabzon, there’s a small bus terminal that’s downhill and next to the highway which runs along the coast. It’s clearly marked on the Maps.me app as ‘Bus to Uzungöl.’
This is NOT the main otogar (bus terminal), nor is it the dolmuş terminal that’s near Meydani Park.
Depending on where you’re coming from, this area can be tricky to access due to the varying elevation of Trabzon city, but you should figure it out eventually.
The company running these buses is called Çaykara Tour. While they have a timetable online, it was out of date. The timetable seems to be frequently changing, but you can expect a bus to run every 90 minutes or so.
If you’re visiting in summer, the buses are likely to fill up fast. While I got there at 9 am, the next bus was sold out so I had to wait until 10:30 to depart.
Arriving in Uzungöl, I decided to get a return ticket immediately so that I wouldn’t get stranded. Three or four hours there is plenty.
Neither Ayder nor Uzungöl were particularly thrilling destinations. But perhaps it’s unfair to judge them without having done any trekking, one of the Black Sea region’s most popular activities.
According to Wikitravel, if you base yourself in Ayder, you can go on one-day treks to villages such as Yukari Kavron or Huser Yaylasi.
As for Uzungöl, it’s supposed to make a good base for trekking in the Soğanlı mountains or Haldizen valleys.
Unfortunately, I’ve been unable to find any in-depth trekking guides for either area. And during my visits, I didn’t spot a single person walking around with trekking gear. But if you do manage to find out more information and want to give trekking a go, the season lasts from May to September.
Regardless of when you visit, you can expect a high chance of rain. If you’re looking for a drier trekking experience in Turkey, consider Cappadocia or parts of the Lycian Way trail on the Mediterranean coast. Unlike the Black Sea region, there are tons of detailed guides online about trekking routes you can take in these places.
The most convenient place to stay in Trabzon would be somewhere nearby Meydan Park. This gives you easy walking access to all of the locations mentioned above, and there are plenty of restaurants and tour agencies around here as well.
However, when looking online, you’ll likely notice how few central hotels are actually listed on sites like Hotels.com or Booking.com. Strangely, all across Turkey, many hotels don’t bother to have any sort of online presence.
The cheapest private room I found on Hotels.com was a hotel called Bordo Hotel. It was about 15 minutes on foot from the otogar (bus terminal), and twenty minutes on foot from the city center.
This worked out well for me because I was arriving overland from Georgia and didn’t have a SIM card upon my arrival. I liked the idea of being able to just walk to the hotel.
Bordo is situated in an ugly part of town, along a main highway where there’s nothing but auto parts shops. But the location was walkable enough from the center, and my room was surprisingly quiet. The downsides were lack of English spoken by the staff, no laundry service and no breakfast (the cafe area was being renovated).
I was paying 90 TL a night, which during my stay, was around $13 or $14. But with the Turkish lira in freefall, local prices in Turkey are constantly changing.
While the Turkish government isn’t quite as extreme as China when it comes to online censorship, you’ll probably want a decent VPN before your visit.
I’ve tried out a couple of different companies and have found ExpressVPN to be the most reliable.
Booking.com is currently banned in the country (at least when you search for domestic accommodation). However, there are actually quite a few Turkish hotels listed on there anyway. And many them don’t even appear on Hotels.com, which isn’t banned in the country.
Over the course of my trip, I ended up making quite a few reservations with Booking.com and was really glad I had a VPN to do so.
Another major site that’s banned is PayPal. If you want to access your account at all during your travels, a VPN is a must.
While those are the only two major sites that I noticed were banned during my trip, Turkey has even gone as far as banning Wikipedia and Twitter in the past.