A Day Trıp to Maçka, Sumela Monastery (Monastery of Vırgın Mary) and Zıgana Pass

Maçka is one of the first towns you have to visit near Trabzon because of the ancient monastery of Sümela, most unique tastes in the region and the experience of passing through the infamous Zigana pass to see the contrast colours of evergreen and brown-ish tones all at once. One of the most popular venues around Maçka (if not the first) is the Sumela (Sümela) Monastery. The glorious monastery is located in Altindere National Park at Maçka subprovince of Trabzon. Its foundation dates back to 4th century (AD). While you reading this article you’ll find further details about the monastery. In case you decided to visit the monastery by car (and we strongly recommend you to do so), you will have a chance to discover mountain villages and hidden gems they might offer.

You might ask “how I will go to Sumela in case I haven’t rented a car”. Luckily there are many ways. Firstly, you can take a mini-bus from “Çömlekçi” district at the city centre to visit Sumela Monastery only. Another option is to look for an organised tour. A third option is to call a taxi, although it is an expensive option.

Morning

Maçka is just a short-drive from Trabzon city centre. Under normal traffic conditions, you should be able to reach the town centre within 30 minutes. The views on the road are astonishing (especially if you are travelling during summer or early autumn). There isn’t much to see in the town centre, so you can just skip it and head to “Meryem Ana” (a.k.a. Sumela Monastery) road. If you haven’t taken breakfast in Trabzon (I hope you haven’t!) you can stop by “Sümer Restoran” for a delicious Turkish breakfast (with some local touches) right next to Coşandere River. We recommend you to opt for the standard “kahvaltı” (breakfast consists of cheese, olives, cream of milk, honey, marmalades…) and to ask for a “kuymak” (a local dish made with cornmeal and cheese) and “patates kızartması” (french fries) as extras. You will be served a large pot of “çay” (black tea) as complementary.

If you had your breakfast already, get ready to visit the Sumela Monastery. After another short drive, you’ll reach the entrance of Altindere Valley National Park.

Entrance fee for cars is 11TL. The national park is larger than you might guess! The monastery is roughly 5 km from the toll booth. There is a cafe/restaurant on the way. And an observation point with one of the best views of the monastery. You will also pass through some beautiful waterfalls and other natural formations.

The monastery has a history goes back to 4th century. It had been built by request of Emperor Theodosius I. Its location, stone carving methods used, legends and icons and frescos gained worldwide popularity. The monastery has been through numerous disasters such as fires, despite being restored each time. After the fall of the Ottoman Empire and foundation of the modern Republic of Turkey, it has become desolate for a long period (due to the population exchange between Turkey and Greece). After a few decades, the touristic attention helped the monastery to regain popularity. Today it is a popular venue for tourist as well as a religious pilgrimage destination for Orthodox Christians from Greece, Russia and other countries.

“The Rock Church” is the most important part with for impressive frescos of biblical scenes. Woefully, only a fraction of them (some from the 9th century, but most of them are newer ones from the 19th century) have survived until modern times, but it is still highly worth-seeing. As the name suggests, the monastery is not just the rock church. Monks had resided in the monastery, therefore it has a guestroom, a kitchen, a bakery, a fireplace, a holy well and a library.

Lunch and Afternoon

Eating grilled lamb in restaurants aligned through Zigana pass road is a weekend ritual for locals. We recommend “Saadettin Usta” and “Katibin Yeri”. In both restaurants, you should try grilled lamb as the main course. You will be asked to choose either lamb chops (kemikli, literally means with bone) or boneless (kemiksiz). Both are delicious, but chops are always tastier. Meat is sold in units of kilos (uncooked weight, will be less on your plate); a standard meal is around half a kilo per person. These restaurants also serve decent meatballs, but I would prefer Akçaabat-style meatballs back in the city. In Katibin Yeri you should also try their mixed salad as a side dish. Both restaurants also serve Sütlaç (rice pudding) for dessert, but just skip it and try it in Hamsiköy (a small village famous for Sütlaç). You’ll find more details about Hamsiköy below.

Hamsikoy (Hamsiköy) is roughly 20 minutes drive from the main road, on the old Zigana pass road. At times when old road was the main road, this village has been popular for stopovers, due to its location and famous Sutlac. Although the road is not that busy nowadays, tourists (and also locals) make a detour to taste the best Sutlac. When you reach the village, you’ll see many cafes and shops selling sutlac, but for the best authentic “Hamsiköy Sütlacı” we recommend “Osman Usta’nın Sütlaç Yeri”. Sütlaç can be eaten with or without cinnamon and/or hazelnut.

If you still have a few hours until sunset, you can opt for the unbeaten path and visit “Pilav Mountain” (“Pilav Dağı” in Turkish) to breathe the fresh air of forests while enjoying marvellous views of mountains and valleys. The road to Pilav Mountain is not the one with the best quality, yet you can make it there in a regular car, not to mention an SUV. When you reach Pilav Mountain, you will see road signs to “Yavuzyılmaz Tesisleri” (a.k.a. “Yates”). Owner of the hotel (and restaurant), Mr Selim is a retired engineer originally from Maçka, Trabzon. He says “I turned back to my village to fulfil my dream, to make this village a joyful venue”, and he made it as far as I have seen. The restaurant and its tranquil garden will make you feel refreshed. If you haven’t eaten lunch before, try their delicious “Sac Kavurma” (fried lamb with vegetables). If you have already eaten, it is also a great idea to order a full pot of çay and relax in the garden.

Important Notes

-Sümela Monastery was closed for visits due to a renovation project at the time this article is written. After years of renovation efforts, the site is expected to be opened with underground parts discovered recently. However, if you are already in Trabzon, don’t hesitate to visit the national park, for refreshing trekking routes covered with forests and picturesque views of the monastery, although from a distance.

-Altitude is very high at the peak (2,032 metres) and the road allows you to descend to sea-level very fast. This is more than enough to make you drowsy. If you are the one driving the car, pay attention as much as possible and consider buying a coffee or having a break if you need to.

-The road you are going to use, in most parts, is very good in terms of quality. However, some parts are still under construction (as of 2019). So, better be careful and pay attention to road signs.

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