A short visit creates warm memories in Trabzon, Turkey's city on the Black Sea.
Huge bowls of molten cheese, homemade bread slathered with butter and honey, and a side of graffiti dating back to the 1200's -it's just an ordinary morning in Trabzon! My visit may have been short on time but it was long in experiences. I visited one of the most intriguing buildings in the country - and of course I just had to start with a meal in the sunny courtyard next door. Is there any better way to get acquainted with a city than by enjoying a great meal ?
A large city on Turkey's Black Sea coast, Trabzon once occupied a pivotal spot on the ancient Silk Road before morphing into a modern day melting pot of cultures. It's long been a gateway destination to Iran and the Caucasus and has significant geo-political importance. But for my part I was simply eager to get to know the county beyond Istanbul and expand on my knowledge of Turkish history and cuisine. And for that, Trabzon was the perfect host.
Join in the meal... if you can find it.
If you find yourself in Trabzon and in search of a great meal, I heartily recommend that you follow in my footsteps - as long as you're okay with vague directions! You should have no problem making your way to Trabzon's Hagia Sophia (Ayasofia) - it's the most famous building in town. Less well marked is the courtyard style, open air restaurant adjacent to the Hagia Sophia - and that's where you want to go for an epic breakfast.
My online searching has turned up the probable name of "Sofyapark Cafe" but I can't promise you that's right. Don't be put off by the heap of masonry bits (um, are those tombstones?) Just make sure to bring your appetite!
A good breakfast starts with molten cheese.
At the open air restaurant, my colleagues and I feasted on all the ingredients of a traditional, rustic Turkish breakfast. There was an amazing pot of buttery, melted cheese that was fantastic with the homemade bread. I also slathered the same bread with the country-style butter and local honey (the area is famous for it!) Eating outside around a communal table does wonders for your appetite - and your ability to disregard all nutritional advice and common sense!
Most dishes were on the heavier side - like an egg dish that was shaped like a giant pancake but tasted like an omelette, and a savory hot tomato stew. There was also unmelted cheese (similar to a feta) and sliced meats. There were a few healthy offerings, like sliced cucumbers and tomatoes, which were delicious. And it was all accompanied by Turkish tea and coffee.
Thanks to the sunshine, the great food, the company of friends, and the unique setting, this was my favourite meal in Turkey. There's just something about a hearty breakfast that gets you excited for a day of exploring!
Common name, unusual history.
After breakfast, we headed next door to investigate the Hagia Sophia. The name may confuse you at first, as "Hagia Sophia" often refers to the world renowned building in Istanbul. But the name is more common than than you think. The word "Sophia" comes from Greek and refers to wisdom or holy wisdom. "Hagia Sophia" literally means a church of holy wisdom. You'll find churches with this name in English as well (Saint Sophia) and there are several "Hagia Sophia"s around the world. But none are quite like the one in Trabzon.
Trabzone's 'Sophia' is anything but ordinary. It just doesn't share a name with its Istanbul counterpart - both buildings have an intriguing history of serving two religions. Built as a church in the mid 1200s, Hagia Sophia Trabzon was converted to a mosque sometime in the late 1400s or 1500s.
It continued to serve the public as a mosque until World War I, when it temporarily acted as a hospital, before once again resuming religious functions. In 1964, it began its life as a museum, until 2013 when it began serving duel functions as a museum and, once again, a mosque.
Exceptional art examples.
The fascinating history of a building serving two faiths would be reason alone to pay a visit, but that's only the beginning of Hagia Sophia's incredible history. It is considered one of the finest examples of Byzantine architecture in the world. And in its early days as a Christian church, it was decorated in beautiful frescoes. Fortunately, when the building was converted to a mosque, the frescoes were not destroyed but simply covered with whitewash.
Today, the condition of the surviving recovered frescoes varies widely and some are in a very fragile and fragmented state. But art lovers with a keen eye will be able to detect evidence of the perspectives that would evolve to eventually define the Renaissance. These frescoes are some of the earliest examples of pre-Renaissance art in the world. For a building famous for receiving religious pilgrims, the Hagia Sophia is a worthy destination for art history pilgrims as well.
When the building functions as a mosque, the frescoes and artwork are covered with fabric, carpets, and panels in keeping with Islamic tradition. Visitors are welcome when religious services are not taking place and, as the building is considered a museum during those times, female guests are not required to wear a headscarf. However, as this is a religious site sacred to two faiths, I would recommend dressing modestly as a show of respect and to ensure the comfort of all other guests.
You'd expect an important building that's nearly 800 years old to bear a few scars from the millions of visitors and worshipers over the centuries and Hagia Sophia is no exception. You can see graffiti dating from the late 1200s, including many ship and sailing motifs on the exterior of the building . Apparently Hagia Sophia was a popular last stop for sailors before setting out to sea. Keep a keen eye open for them, but don't succumb to the temptation to add your own!
Istanbul is an intoxicating city with a strong pull and it is so tempting to spend all your time in Turkey in just one spot. But I'm so glad I had the opportunity to explore another part of the country and Trabzon was the perfect place to make some new Turkish memories. Like Istanbul, this is an area where the number of things to explore likely exceeds your travel time but I found that even a short visit was very rewarding.
What slightly-less-than- famous cities have you explored during your travels?
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My time in Turkey was sponsored by Turkish Airlines and I thank them for their support. All writing, research, and opinions are my own.