A bright, fine day finally greeted us and we went to find transport out to the Sumela Monastery. Before we went to the dolmüs stop we had some sickly chocolate cake at a patisserie and bought some cherries from a fruit stall.
The drive up to the national park where the monastery is located took us along a wide shingle riverbed which gradually steepened as we moved further into the hills. We stopped for a ½ hour break in the town of Maçka, built where two rivers join and where the steep, scrubby hills were broken by sheer bluffs of hexagonal basalt columns. By the time we reached the entrance to the Altindere National Park, where the monastery is located, we were once again following a steep and cascading stream, its water leaping over the boulders as it rushed downwards beneath the thickly-forested hills.
At the monastery car park there was a cluster of shops selling tourist tat and souvenirs, overpriced food and sugary drinks so we skirted around the stalls and began the climb up the steep path leading up to the monastery. Away from the roar of the stream and the noise of tourists, the silence of the forest closed in upon us as we climbed, sunlight breaking through in places to throw dappled patterns of gold onto the forest floor. Sometimes the canopy of trees closed fully over us; sometimes it opened to give us a breathtaking views of the steep wooded valley stretching up through green alpine meadows to a skiff of fresh snow on the high, rocky tops.
Our first glimpse of the monastery came as we reached the foot of the huge bluff it is built under, the dull brown rock towering hundreds of metres above us, and soon, after getting in for “student” price we were able to see the amazing extent of the monastery which is built on a rock ledge under the huge overhang of the bluff. The view was magnificent and it was easy to see why the monks had retreated there for peace and tranquility. The heart of the complex was the chapel built at the very back of the cavern created by the overhang and decorated with hundreds of well drawn and well-preserved frescoes, many of which however had been defaced by graffiti1.
We sat amongst the ruins for a while eating some pastries and looking at the forest out across the valley through the forlorn and crumbling window frames of the monastery. Much of the more modern parts of the facade were built in the 17th and 18th centuries but the origin of the monastery as a whole goes back to the 4th century when Byzantine monks built it as a haven for an icon of the Virgin Mary.
After we had looked around the ruins we climbed a steep stairway out of the monastery and took another path leading around the hill to a small ruined building sitting out on a point with a superb view of the monastery and the huge bluff. Linda and Kelly returned to the car park by the track we came up but I followed another path down through a heavy stand of pine trees, the floor of which was carpeted with a thick layer of damp pine needles. At the bottom of the track a narrow wooden bridge spanned the steeply falling creek, its waters roaring and crashing over huge boulders and at that point the path joined the road. I wandered down the rough potholed road, stopping to take photos when the trees parted to reveal the monastery above or when brightly coloured flowers caught my attention. Another bridge crossed the river at head of a steep drop where the creek churned and foamed it’s way 200 meters down the valley sending up a thick spray and filling the gorge with its thunderous roar. Finally, the stream leveled out again as it passed the tourist shops, gushing over moss-covered rocks and sending its sound up through the trees.
The bus dropped us back at Trabzon at 3 p.m. and after a bit of a rest Linda and I set off to buy a pair of jeans for me. After 2 hours of searching we found a pair that I liked and bought them along with a fake Lacoste shirt for 65,000TL.
1In Islam, it is forbidden to depict living creatures, including humans, in art. That is the reason why so much Islamic artwork consists of scrolls, calligraphy and depictions of plants and fountains. Many frescoes throughout the Islamic world have been defaced by having the eyes scratched out or painted over in order to remove the profane depiction of living things without completely removing the entire artworks.