Artvin Nestled In The Clouds

We start our Artvin tour from Hopa. This town on Turkey’s eastern Black Sea shore is only 18 kilometers from the Georgian border. If you stay overnight in Artvin you can take a day tour to Batum, a city in the Acara region of Georgia.

Hopa’s nextdoor neighbor Arhavi is known for its cultural richness. Falconry is another favorite pastime in this town famous for its master woodcarvers. The hunters of Arhavi, who take to the mountains at the end of August when the tea harvest is over, keep falcons which they catch in special nets and then feed and train.

Leaving from Hopa on the shore, we reach Artvin after a journey of close to two hours through the winding valleys of the Kaçkar Mountains. Rising atop a steep crag, the thousand-year-old Livane (Artvin) Castle is the first thing to greet us in this city situated in the bowl of a deep valley. The city center of Artvin, which at first glance looks like a small, provincial town, consists of concrete buildings spread out along two parallel avenues. One of them, inönü Avenue, is the liveliest part of the city, which is abustle into the late hours of the night.

Statues of bulls stand out on the small square at one end of this avenue lined with shops. A few hours’ stroll will suffice for seeing Artvin city center. But listening to local Turkish folk songs at one of the touristic facilities in the form of a mountain house on the green hills overlooking the town is a special pleasure. The town’s modest market is also surprisingly rich. Apart from shops selling handmade bull figurines and other examples of wood carving, there are also delicatessens offering the famous local chestnuts and wild flower honey, village cheeses, pressed sheets of dried mulberry pulp (pestil), gum mastic, country salad herbs, and ‘butko’ olives, which are grown only in certain parts of the Çoruh river valley.

Judging by the metal weapons of war found in and around Artvin, the city’s history goes back to 4000 B.C. Most of the majestic castles and monasteries scattered through this mountainous terrain date to the 9th and 10th centuries. The city, which came under the rule of the Kingdom of Pontus in the Middle Ages, was added to the Ottoman territories by Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror. Ruled by the Ottomans for around 300 years, it then passed to Czarist Russia at the end of the Russo-Turkish War in 1878. The fate of this city, which, together with Batum, changed hands between the Russians and the Ottomans several times in the post-war years, was bound to a public referendum under the Treaty of Sevres.

Following the referendum Artvin became part of Turkey and Batum part of Russia. An Ottoman border town for centuries, Artvin was made a province in 1924 by a ruling of parliament, and today’s city center was built for the purpose of bringing order to this city where settlement had been scattered and diffuse due to the uneven terrain. Starting with the Palace of Justice, the oldest structures at the city center today are those built in the 1930’s. Artvin, which has lived amicably with diverse cultures for centuries, is acknowledged to be a model city with a low crime rate.

Transformed into a city of festivals every summer, Artvin is famous for its bull wrestling in the Kafkasör Highlands just 10 kilometers from the city center. Spread over a broad area covered in pine, fir and spruce trees, this highland boasts high-adrenalin mountain roads running alongside precipitous slopes and rugged cliffs covered in virgin forest with rare trails for off-road enthusiasts. Immediately next to the highland, Hatila Valley is home to the largest national park in Artvin province. Following the Berta River, a tributary of the Çoruh, we climb the 3,400 meter Karçal Mountains all the way to ?avşat to the east of Ardanuç and Yusufeli to the west. Proceeding left from the Ardanuç exit, the road to the village of Pırnallı brings us to the Porta Monastery, a 10th century Armenian church. The route through Köprüyaka, Ciritdüzü and Veliköy is spectacular with its lovely 100-150 year-old village houses of two or three stories, built of chestnut logs, surrounded by balconies on all sides and adorned with elaborately carved eaves and cornices.

The apse of the monumental church in the village of Cevizli is still standing. The section of the road after Veliköy is an unadulterated green paradise: deep valleys and vast steppes covered in pine, fir and chestnut trees, mountain villages that have never seen concrete, unspoiled rural life reminiscent of the Swiss Alps. The foothills of the Karçal Mountains further to the north are covered with semi-tropical rain forests and natural aged groves, acknowledged to be a world heritage protected site. Georgian is widely spoken in the villages. Two of the three national parks in Artvin lie secluded in the high-altitude valleys of ?avşat. Besides being a rare ecosystem with their endemic plant and tree species, wild life and mountain lakes, the Sahara and Karagöl National Parks also boast several days’ worth of hiking trails.  The ‘Black Lake’ for which Karagöl National Park is named is reminiscent of Lake Abant before it was opened up to tourism.

Characterized as among the masterpieces of Artvin’s rustic architecture, the 9th century Georgian churches are possessed of a rare style that has even influenced the classical European architectural tradition. Dörtkilise (literally, Four Churches), which is reached via a  stabilized road of 12 kilometers from the village of Tekkale seven meters from Yusufeli, is an elegant, almost cathedral-size building secluded among fruit trees. This structure, which, with the small church adjacent to it and the madrasa buildings, forms a religious complex, dates to the 10th century. The 12-kilometer-long road that starts from a mysterious medieval castle rising on a steep hill at the entrance to the village of Tekkale and runs to Dörtkilise through a verdant green valley with a river running through it makes a fabulous hiking trail. 

At Barhal, a forest village 36 kilometers from Yusufeli, is another church, built at the same time as the Dörtkilise and in a similar architectural style. A 10-kilometer-long steep slope going off to the right at the 23rd kilometer on the Yusufeli-Olur road leads to the village where the işhan Church is located. Hundreds of meters deep and covered in arid, dusty, desert-like soil with rock formations as far as the eye can see, Olur Valley gives way to a green oasis surrounded by fruit trees at the village of işhan. The thousand-year-old işhan Church is equally astonishing. The pointed oval dome of this church, one of the finest examples of Georgian stone workmanship, is exactly 32 meters high, and a portion of its wall and ceiling frescoes are completely intact. Before nightfall we return to Artvin, whose people liken their city to the Phoenix described in legends of the Caucasus. And they are right. One of Turkey’s most remote places, Artvin, like Hakkari, is distant and rugged but very attractive. And perhaps its allure lies precisely in its inaccessibility...

Turkish Airlines has daily Istanbul-Trabzon and Istanbul-Batum flights in both directions. Flights between Batum and Hopa are regarded as domestic flights and require no passport, only a national identity card.

Although Artvin does not offer many alternatives in the way of starred hotels, accommodations are clean and comfortable. Besides the three-star hotels at the city center, you may also choose boutique mountain bed&breakfasts.

The restaurants in the city serve up a veritable feast: Beet and ‘lor’ cheese soup, stuffed kohlrabi, ‘mıhlama’ (Black Sea fondue made of butter, cheese and corn flour in a copper pan), ‘kuymuk’ with clotted cream, honey lokoum, savory ‘Laz’ pastries, pickled green beans…