The mountain range rising from the Black Sea coast is nicknamed the Black Forest of Turkey. The mountains are heavily wooded, and the highway that weaves its way up one and down another gives wider, lesser, deeper, more colorful views at every turning. The government is also busy with a road project including dozens if not hundreds of tunnels that will cut the drive from Erzurum to Trabzon by several hours.
High on a beautifully wooded mountain near Trabzon stands the Sumela Monastery. The story has it that two fourth century Greek monks shared a vision that came in a dream. Go forth from Athens and build in honor of Mary. So they began their search for the perfect site, found this cave far from home, and built. Mary was born in a cave, and she gave birth in something like a cave: this cave honors her and reminds us. The two monks toted the building stone from the quarry kilometers off. That is, this legend perfectly matches the stories of the building of the Kalabaka monasteries some hours by bus north of Athens. The frescoes are horridly pocked by vandals, but you can still see the changes in style and interpretation that occur between the 4th century and, at least, the 14th. Seeing a Renaissance Florentine church here is quite a surprise.
To see all this, you take a bus uphill from the town; When that vehicle can no longer navigate the twists and curves with no guard rail, you switch to a Mercedes small bus equipped with a driver who’s driven the short route probably 8000 times. When the mini-bus can go no further, you must hike for half an hour to reach the monastery. Along the way, you can stop to listen to the buskers playing Piazolla.
The climb, mind you, produces shock waves in your knees.