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25 | Sinop Turkey

23 - 25 May (Thu - Sat)


Sinop Port gained strategic importance as protective walls evolved into a fortress under Greek rule. A café within that fortress, built 2,700 years ago, offered cherry soda (no beer during Ramadan). I had spent several days travelling along the Black Sea but now, in Sinop, I could walk along the coastline. On my last evening, I watched a Helesa tradition involving a street parade with community members carrying a small boat while singing or chanting – followed by a magnificent lightning storm at Sea.

The problem with these big modern buses - that offer comfort that competes and sometimes surpasses Western airline standards (no meal yet) - is not that they are too comfortable, rather, it’s that nothing ever happens. No overloading of passengers, no black market cigarette deals nor bags full of wet cheese or live chickens. Nothing. We travel, we arrive.

Oh' I could write about my comfortable ride between Ordu and Sinop on Thursday afternoon. My young seat companion had no English and seemed slightly nervous - I imagined he was returning home to his parents. He departed just before we arrived in Sinop. Material, it seems, is essential when writing journal-entries...

Welcome to Sinop

Entered Sinop’s fortress-walls about sunset and checked into the 5th floor of the Denizci Otel (the Waterfront Sailor Hotel). Views of a grand harbor at dusk from my alcove windows welcomed me as I unpacked and planned my visit.

Sinop, as a community, has a 2,700 year old history although evidence of civilisation dates back 4,500 years. This small city emerged as a fortified community under Greek rule around 700BC. The central area has always included a port with locals that are deeply engaged in life on the sea. The city rests on the narrowest-point of a peninsula that extends off the coast. Sinop began to have strategic importance as a fortified wall was built and enlarged to defend the harbor and protect the community. Over centuries this wall became a fortress that is delightful to explore.

The section I visited, near my hotel, offered stone-stairways and thick walls. Grand views of the city and harbor with the Burc Cafe and Bar at the top of one tower - loads of outdoor seating that would be a perfect way to spend a sunny afternoon. When was the last time you enjoyed a cherry soda - no beer during the month of Ramadan, the bartender sighed - in a cafe built 2,700 years ago! It was a grand moment - shared with so many seagulls riding the wind off the sea and swooping around the tower. This tower seemed to be a point of reference for these warriors of the wind (see pictures).

Exploring the Black Sea Coast

Off in the distance I could see a sidewalk that followed the Sea that became a park-like path, that then became a trail about the point where this small-city ends. I had travelled over 600km, right next to the Black Sea, mostly, and I enjoyed its beauty while travelling - and up-close in Batumi and Ordu - but I had not yet been with the Black Sea in its natural-state. Here was my opportunity.

Sidewalk cafes along the shoreline that drifted into a long narrow park. Eventually, the path climbed a hill looking down on the water but there were undeveloped paths - probably made by children - that dipped toward the water. I followed a path down until I found two-young lovers kissing - the girl had on a hijab, as the two had overtaken me earlier - and I withdrew without their noticing my brief intrusion. They had selected a beautiful and secluded setting on a sunny Friday morning. Another path was discovered and I went around them.

The coastline became part of a steep hill dropping into the ocean with only a path - made by hundreds of children - offering any order through this terrain. My path eventually opened into a park. No children but four large cows bedded down - perhaps they were resting from their morning grazing. The next village appeared and I turned around.

Antiquity and Artefacts 

Afternoon rain and I responded by visiting the Sinop Archaeological Museum. This community has been digging-up things and studying them for over 60 years. It is a rather impressive collection if you like artefact from antiquity - marble statues and columns, floor mosaics, very large clay pots, Byzantine religious objects, funeral stones, gold coins issued by Greek rulers, what's left of the Temple of Serapis (4th Century BC), and much more. Grand collection!

All this excitement sent me back to my hotel for a nap - I dreamt that I was the Waterfront Sailor - and when I awoke the sun was setting. I departed quickly, as I had not yet visited the public pier and a working harbor where fishing boats moor. Lots of people fishing off the pier, while the sun set.

Ramadan in Sinop

A fishing community is going to have a lot of bars but just like Ordu, all these business were dark and closed. Alcohol is not served during Ramadan, but alcohol is sold in little family-run corner shops that sell most anything. The distinction between serving alcohol and buying alcohol is a fine-line that borders on confusion but it represents a political compromise that Turkey can live with.

One - only one - cafe near Sinop harbor had tables in a garden setting that would serve meals and sold beer/wine. But they were not serving that beer/wine. So, patrons would order a meal at a garden table and then go inside to buy beer/wine and serve themselves. It was an interesting arrangement that seemed to go against Ramadan fundamentals. I would not have dined in this garden cafe if it was full of foreigners, as I worried that the Turkish morality-police might swoop down and take everyone away. But everyone looked Turkish so I took a seat. A most uninspired meal washed down with a fine Turkish beer.

A Helesa Tradition

Wondering around the city at night and there is a gathering of several hundred people walking down a main street singing or chanting some kind of song. I could see a police escort and so my first thought was a protest. But it was Friday night - who is going to organise a protest in the evening. So, I followed it along the sidewalk and eventually got to the front where people were carrying a small lit-up boat (see picture). So, I began asking people what this shared experience was all about. An older fellow said it was a festival and that is the only word he had. OK...

Barack, a third-year student working on a teaching degree at the local university - that should have been home studying for tomorrow's exam - was on a smoke-break outside the Sky Garden Restaurant. Barack worked on the door at this restaurant - and also at a night club that was closed for Ramadan. Barack said that this gathering of people had something to do with Ramadan but he knew no more. He was from Izmir and did not know local customs.

He had limited English - just enough to hold an intelligent conversation. Barack had to return to work and as he departed, he kissed me on each cheek. Well, that was a bit of a surprise! In reflecting on this moment, I don't think this was a gay-thing at all. In Turkey this is one kind of male greeting-or-parting ritual. It is as if I offered to shake-hands with someone that has never shaken-hands before.

Turkish men engage with each other in an interest manner. Often, I see two men walking together and one man will have his hands in his pockets and the other man will have his arm intertwined or resting inside the other man's arm. We do not usually see this kind of male behaviour in the West and I did not see it in China, Central Asia, Azerbaijan or Georgia. It seems to be the way that Turkish friends engage with each other and it seems like a health social custom to me although I don't think I will adopt it right away.

Well, I had been unable to get my question answered so I went into a small cafe and engaged Bepoe, my waitress. She was not really sure either but at the table next to me sat an older woman who knew the story and so Bepoe relayed understanding.

This gathering of people led by a boat is a Helesa tradition that has been conducted in Sinop during Ramadan for over 100 years. It involves the gathering of food in memory of ancient people who arrived by boat hungry.

A lot of work to obtain that bit of insight but the task engaged me with the local community and their culture...

That night there was a magnificent lightning storm over the Sea. I regret I did not capture any pictures - I didn't try - but it was very grand.

Sinop Wrap-up and by Bus to Ankara

The next day involved an eight-hour bus ride from Sinop to Ankara - Turkey's national capital. It was a very comfortable ride with plenty of movie choices at my seat (many in English) but I did not watch one, as I reflected on my experience in Sinop - a community that is certainly eligible to become a UN World Heritage City. It is my sincere hope that never happens, as Sinop would become overrun with tourist - many from the West - and cause the community to become jaded to these visitors. Sinop is just fine as a hidden jewel on the Black Sea.

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