On Friday the 21st, we reached Trabzon and saw the mid 13th-century Byzantine church of Aya Sofya, whose frescos are shockingly lurid for the period – its Ascension has abstract geometrical patterns that look more out of the mid 20th century than the 13th. We went to the Atatürk Kö?kü, a Disney fairytale mansion in a perfectly-kept garden – Atatürk stayed there on three occasions, so it’s like a George Washington house. I paid admission and gave the guard a million ($4) and waited for change, which was not forthcoming, because, as the guard explained, this was the higher admission rate for foreigners. Even after Elif told him that we’re Turks, he insisted that although I had an extended stay visa that I, at least, should pay foreign rates. Dilek screamed at him, calling him all sorts of names. The guard finally capitulated, but this triggered a nasty fight between Co? and Dilek; Co? was embarrassed that Dilek would fight with a government official, and he pouted and refused to go to the upper floor of the mansion, sulking in the garden.
In the Rough Guide a site off the beaten path – the 15th-century former Armenian monastery of Kaymakl?, reachable only by a rough dirt road and a bit of hiking. I couldn’t believe how abandoned it was – it was in a tiny village of a few families and was actually being used by one of them as a hay-barn. As we walked up, a group of children let us inside, and we crawled on the bales to see the top frescoes inside – Jonah and the whale, Christ coming into Jerusalem, and several images of hell. I wonder: how does paint survive this long? It does seem interesting to me that the Armenian and Georgian churches (non-Muslim sites that are not obvious tourist attractions) have been left to be tended to by the locals. Perhaps the Turks don’t want to call attention to Armenian settlements lest Armenians claim land rights, but they’re too embarrassed to destroy the monuments, leaving it up to the local elders to be the ones to lose face if the monument goes to ruin. Elif says that the government even pays a small sum to some local to take care of it, and if that guy chooses to turn it into a hay-barn, so be it – but maybe the hay and its inaccessibility may preserve it even better than if it were a tourist attraction.
We then visited the famous (and thus preserved) 13th-century Greek Orthodox monastery of Sumela, clinging to the rock cliffs. We ate nearby some local food – a melted cheese and corn meal dish which tasted Mexican, as well as a crepe which would have had anchovies had they been in season. The drive up to the monastery was terrifying due to the steep, narrow road and to Co?’s driving. We walked back down the hill rather than to ride with him. The frescoes of the church were much-vandalized but still beautiful. The sign by the monks’ original toilets said “Original Bathrooms (Do Not Use).” Rule of thumb: if you see an enclosed area on a popular archeological site in Turkey, you can bank on there being a piss smell inside. Driving back from Sumela was like something out of an Indiana Jones film – we passed a rock quarry and then just as we turned the corner, we saw out the rear window huge boulders from it crashing onto the road right behind us.
Co? then had the bright idea of searching for local rice pudding for which the Laz are famous, except that we weren’t far enough east for there to be any Laz around, so we ended up driving two hours up mountain roads until we found a place that advertised “Famous Rice Pudding.” It was watery. Finally, we decided to go back to Trabzon to see the Russian Market. Unfortunately, Russian tourists have stopped coming to Turkey for many reasons (including the Russian economy crashing even faster than Turkey’s; the closing of the Turkish casinos by the Refah party; and the fact that Turkish men’s reputation for treating every Russian woman as if she were a natasha) – Elif says they’re now going to China instead. So, after eating at a Laz restaruant without Laz, we now were at a Russian Market without Russians. Co? bought binoculars, which took an hour until I told him how incredible the ones he was considering were, and I told the seller we’d buy them if he’d throw in a pair of AAA batteries for Elif’s mom.