Monday, June 21, 2010

Monday, June 21, 2010 - No comments

Road Trip Chronicles #5: Safranbolu

It was only fitting that an evening rain greeted us as we pulled into Safranbolu. A little drizzle - or, better yet, a proper downpour - is a crucial ingredient to that cozy Black Sea ambience I'd been looking forward to this whole trip. I first experienced (and it is an experience) Safranbolu in 2004, and no town has ever enchanted me more, before or since. (I know, I know, I say that about every place I visit - but I really mean it this time!)

Arriving via the grim steel town of Karabuk, Safranbolu catches you by surprise - a storybook treasure nestled in a perfectly green valley. In the 18th and 19th centuries, wealthy families - mostly artisans - built gorgeous mansions of sun-dried mud bricks and wood. The houses in the main town, sheltered by the mountains, were used as winter homes, and most families had a second summer residence further up the hill In Baglar where the humidity is less and the breeze is...breezy. There are over a thousand well-preserved konaks (mansions) dotting the hills and the valley, and the town's charm has earned itself the honour of being a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

We found ourselves a cozy restored mansion-turned-hotel (complete with room key-chains in the shape of Safranbolu's wooden houses) and after some delicious manti (like tortellini with garlic yogurt sauce) for supper, we settled in for the night. (Sitting here writing in the sweltering Antalya summer heat, it is hard to believe that just a few weeks ago we were actually grateful that our hotel turned the heat on at night!) I went to sleep anticipating a day of being wooed and delighted by this little town, and I was definitely not disappointed. Sometimes I had to remind myself that we weren't walking through an elaborate movie set, and that the people strolling the narrow streets, plying their wares and offering their tasty treats were real people with real lives behind real doors, not just actors following scripts meant to charm our socks off. But with the artisans still creating much as they did in Ottoman times, the gingerbread-houses gracing the hillsides and the friendlier-than-should-be-legal characters we encountered around every corner, sometimes the line between fact and fairytale was justifiably blurred.

One of our first encounters of the day was with the firinci (baker). I stopped to snap a few shots of him taking his (pleasingly sesame seed-less) simits out of the oven, and he responded with enough samples to keep us full til lunch.

We were the first customers to enter Nuriye Abla's shop that morning, meaning that whatever we bought would bring her extra blessings. Not ones to shortchange anyone in the area of abundance, we stocked up big time on gorgeous wooden candle holders and bowls - perfect sizes (and prices!) to bring home as gifts. She insisted that we stop in and see her husband in his workshop where he makes everything they sell. "Look for the guy with the huge belly!" she said. We found him without any trouble at all. :) I loved the way his workshop smelled just like my grandpa's, and was especially intrigued by the lanterns he makes by poking holes in hollowed out squashes!

The nearby "ironworkers market" also gave us many tempting treasures to look at... (One can never have too many pretty Turkish coffee cezves, right? You never know, I might need to make ten cups at once one day!)

One of the refreshing parts about being in Safranbolu was the fact that they served some local specialties that were different than your standard Turkish fare. Instead of the usual doner and kebaps, there were things like yogurt and walnut covered pasta and meat-filled grape leaf wraps (as opposed to the rice-and-spice variety we have down here.) My favourite culinary experience, though, was the tray of Turkish coffee we were served when we needed a caffeine fix partway through the day. Not only did we each get our own cezve full of coffee, but there were rose petals and Turkish delight on the tray, and little thimbles-full of blackberry juice, and our water glasses had coffee beans floating in them!

One of the distinct features of Safranbolu is its old kervan sarayi - a resting place for camels and camel-riders as they made their way along the Silk Road that ran all the way through Central Asia from China. This one has been converted into an elegant hotel, but I could still imagine it full of stinky animals and jolly-with-wine men.

In the courtyard of one of the mosques sits this ancient sun dial. As we stopped to glance at it, a little old man who could only be described as "spry" leapt up and began to explain its workings and features. He was so excited, you'd have thought he was the one that designed it!

I was way excited when we stumbled upon a little gallery where a new photo exhibition was opening that afternoon. The name of the collection was "They Were Young Once, Too" and it highlighted crinkly-faced residents from the local nursing home. I loved getting to talk to the photographer and see how much he'd gleaned from these wizened old souls as he worked to capture the fiesty spirits and the tall tales that live on inside of those withered bodies. Highlight of the event: meeting the kaymakam (a local governmental official) and receiving a "marriage proposal by proxy" as he offered me my pick of the town. I shall never complain of a shortage of options.... :)

One of the most fascinating parts of the day was our visit to the Kaymakam House Museum - an old mansion where the rooms come to life with (slightly creepy) mannequins acting out scenes of the everyday world of an Ottoman official's family. It was fun to see the fancy costumes they would wear for wedding parties and the low cushions used for sitting and dining. For the sake of modesty, there were grates on all the windows so that the women could look outside without being visible from the street. My favourite bit was how between the selamlik (men's quarters) and the haremlik (women's quarters) there were spinning shelves built into the walls that allowed the women to serve the men the food without being seen. Oh, and who could forget the bathtub that sits inside a cupboard in the wall?

Apparently it was also customary for the most luxurious of the homes to have indoor pools - not for swimming, but for the purpose of cooling the rooms and "making a pleasant sound."

One more town to add to the list of "one day I'd like to spend a month or two here....." I'm going to need a very long life.