Traveling Back in Time in the Turkish Countryside

21 – 24 September 2010, Safranbolu, Turkey

Regardless of how much we enjoyed our time in Istanbul, we were excited to move on. Prices in Turkey’s capital are higher than the rest of the country and we were curious to see how people live outside the city. Hoping for a respite from the large tour groups dominating Istanbul’s popular sites, we reserved a room in Safranbolu, seven hours east of Istanbul and more likely to be frequented by Turkish tourists than foreigners. Nestled along a picturesque canyon and filled with the country’s best preserved Ottoman architecture, Safranbolu seemed like a comfortable place to kick back for a few days.

Bus travel in Turkey is reputed to be efficient, affordable and comfortable but six months of miserable bus rides had left us feeling cynical. Expectations low, we waited for the bus to Safranbolu while enjoying our lunch of fruit and freshly baked bread. The bus pulled up right on time and we were thrilled to discover a modern bus with spotless interior, designated seats for each passenger and no one standing in the aisle. As the bus got going, we were overjoyed to find that it only made regularly scheduled stops rather than slowing down every five minutes to pick up passengers on the side of the road. The biggest shocker of all may have been the cleanliness of the bathrooms when we stopped for a break. We hadn’t seen bathrooms this clean since we left Japan! Normally after traveling by bus, we arrive at our destination feeling tired, cranky, dirty and sweaty but after seven hours of traveling on Turkey’s smooth roads, we arrived in Safranbolu feeling rested and content.

Safranbolu’s primary attraction is the old town and we spent much of our time simply wandering through the area’s narrow cobblestone streets. Filled with historic Ottoman wooden houses, many of which have been beautifully preserved, it was easy to envision the way Turkey may have once looked. September is the start of Safranbolu’s low season so it almost felt like we had the place to ourselves as we passed by countless sweet shops selling Turkish delight and small stores filled with locally made handicrafts. As we browsed through a blacksmith’s shop overflowing with unique metalwork, he seemed just as concerned with offering us tea and showing us pictures as he did with making a sale. This was one of our first encounters with Turkish hospitality and as we traveled throughout the country, we realized that situations like this are exceedingly common.

We woke to picture perfect blue skies on our last full day in Safranbolu. Eager to take advantage of the weather and curious to see the surrounding countryside, we filled our daypacks with the essentials and set off on foot from our hotel. Our final destination was Incekaya Aqueduct, about four miles from the city. We hoped to follow the gorge but never found a path so ended up walking through town instead. This was a blessing in disguise as it gave us the opportunity to see Safranbolu’s less touristy areas and interact with people along the way. We continued to be amazed by the friendliness and generosity of the Turks we met; everything from buying a bottle of water to glancing at our map resulted in friendly banter. At one point, an older man greeted us on the street and invited us to join him for tea. Stepping into a shaded courtyard filled with men smoking, drinking tea and playing Tavla we were greeted by a few curious stares but no one seemed to mind that we obviously weren’t regulars. Our companion did not speak English so we sipped our tea and communicated through hand gestures and smiles before he graciously paid the bill and we went our separate ways.

After reaching the outskirts of Safranbolu, we walked through a couple of tiny villages but never saw any signs pointing us in the direction of the aqueduct. Just as we began to doubt its existence, we rounded a corner and saw its arches looming high above the canyon walls. An impressive 116 meters long, Incekaya Aqueduct was once used to bring water to the area’s residents. Although it hasn’t been used for hundreds of years, it was restored in the 1790s and has retained its beauty. Having worked up an appetite, we found a spot in the shade and settled in for another lunch of fruit and freshly baked bread topped with peanut butter. Stomachs full, we crossed the gorge atop the narrow walls of the aqueduct and spent some time exploring the area. After taking photos and relishing the peacefulness of our secluded spot, we reluctantly headed back to Safranbolu.

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