Amasya: Two-day guide to the historic Black Sea city

There is no way to describe and do justice to the natural beauty of the Black Sea, but if you are looking for a place that blends the best of Mother Nature and the history of former civilizations, Amasya seems like a tailor-made destination

As usual, you have found yourself utterly bored and craving an injection of history right to the aorta. Books and made-for-TV documentaries just are not cutting it. The stack of discount guidebooks purchased from secondhand booksellers is piling higher. You want a history heart attack: Let’s go see an old city and touch it with our own two hands. This week’s guide to getting out will plan your weekend getaway to a 2,500-year-old Hittite town, an Ottoman spa on a river, and the tombs of some Pontic Greek kings. And, surprise, it is all in the same place. Turkey’s good for that kind of mix. Welcome to Amasya. Here is your weekend guide.

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DAY ONE

Take the one-hour flight to Amasya airport. If you were feeling particularly masochistic you could take the 14-hour bus, and if you do that, do not take the 14-hour bus to Samsun like I did, and then have to get another bus two hours in another direction to correct yourself.

You may be asking yourself, what is this improbably named place, and why does an enormous statue of a hand holding an apple stand guard at the highway outside of town? What, you have not heard of Amasya apples? I am a bit surprised, to be honest. They are found in every market in Istanbul starting in early fall. Amasya apples are widely known for being small, crisp, and pleasing to the palate, and they are a native variety to Anatolia. There is even a 2,000 year old Roman mosaic in Amasya’s Yavru village, just nearby the center. The orchards here account for 10 percent of the nation’s total apple crop. So pick up some apples at a bazaar (if you get lucky, some of the last tricklings of the apple crop will be available in Amasya’s markets) and explore a little bit before you get in.

The city of Amasya is gorgeously set in a winding river valley, nestled into rocky cliffs on one side, and at the foot of a roll of green mountains on the other. On the green mountain side of the river is the modern town, where most of the residents live; on the other, narrower side, a stretch of Ottoman-style houses from the 1800s are trapped between the river and the cliff. Their facades are white with brown wooden trim, and looked perfect for a colony of Dutch gnomes. The cliffs loom up precipitously, where you can see stairs and ancient Greek tombs cut into the rock face. At night, the city turns on a great deal of tinted lighting all pointed at the houses and the caves, so the residents of the modern town of Amasya can look across the river at the tourist things that made their city famous, and enjoy the view. Your first stop should be the old side of town.

Here most of the locals have clued into the huge amounts of tourism flowing their way – many of the tourist’s menus had either German or even Korean on them – and converted the beautiful antique homes into restaurants, hotels, and the like. I managed to find an Ottoman restaurant perched above the river on stilts, and I feasted on lamb and roast vegetables. Both the Emin Efendi Konakları and the Grand Pasha have riverside seating for their huge restaurants, and despite the grandness of the name, the Pasha has better prices for functionally the same food. I then poked my head into the antique hotels along the riverbanks until I found one within my price point. İlk Pansiyon and Şehr-i Zade Konağı offer river view rooms at reasonable prices. Outside my window, a wooden water wheel creaked and groaned as it spun through the Yeşilırmak River below. Pretty excellent.

Now it is time for you to clamber up through a cave channel carved into the wall. That is the path to the castle, and the tombs, tombs above you. The tombs resemble the Parthenon, if the Parthenon were flat as a postage stamp; the fortress looks remarkably like Helm’s Deep, the fortress from “The Lord of the Rings” movies. It is a bit of a hike along the road and then along a path, but are you not on vacation? Get out and get some exercise, hike up to a pile of protective stones.

But do not stop there! Keep going up! The view gets better! Just like ancient Lycia, the Greek kings of the Anatolian Black Sea wanted some fearsome name recognition and some long-lasting monuments to their rule. The tombs themselves are small indents into the rock face, decorated with flat pillars and flat lintel stones. I climbed up while it was still light, sat on graffiti-encrusted stone steps and looked out at the city while the call to prayer wailed and echoed in the valley below.

When you are all the way up top at those tombs, look off to the left – you might be able to see a fortified castle on a hill across the river. That’s the Harsena Kale, built during the Bronze Age to defend the valley. Back in days of Greco-yore, the fortifications for the Harsena Castle went all the way down to the river in eight separate walls. It must have been a bustling place – if you are feeling bustly yourself, you can hike back down, cross the river, and walk the 3 kilometers up the road to see it up close.

For dinner you have got to head to a Türkü Evi to take in some local culture. If you walk to the far end of the old part of town, you will be drawn in by the noise. For the unfamiliar, Turku is folk music, poetry set to the twangy banjo-like bağlama. The musical scale they use is different from western music, and different again from Ottoman Şarkı, a classical, courtly music developed during the Ottoman Empire which influenced the whole of the Arab world. Turku is something else. They are usually tunes about shepherding, or lost love, or field animals, or harvests, and you will hear electro versions of them played at any good Turkish wedding. And, interestingly from a western perspective here, the words are often more important than the tune. Content as I was to stuff myself with roasted meats, I got a mixed grill and a plate of bulgur pilav and listened to the musicians sing their mournful tunes.

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DAY TWO

First we are heading to the Amasya museum. The town’s archaeological treasures are all here from every stratum of its long history. You will find a great variety of standard Greek and Roman stuff, but that is not my favorite part. My favorite exhibits are the ones that make you feel like you have suddenly warped to an Incan tomb in South America. Here in the archaeology museum, they have 700-year-old mummies. Actual mummies! No gilded sarcophagi though nor jars of organs – these mummies were preserved with a more rudimentary technology. What else: They have got a skull with hammered gold bent across its eyes and around its brows. They have got a figurine of a dwarf wearing a conical hat, supposedly he’s the Hittite storm god. It is easy to forget Anatolia’s bizarre pagan origins, and the material remnants of the Hittites and other cultures here in Amasya make them hard to ignore. Of course, the museum also has the requisite antique weapons and coins and other Greek and Roman things. They have even got the exquisitely carved original doors to the Gök Medresesi in town (which you can see in person, if you would like) but I like to emphasize Turkey’s colorful history, too. And best of all: Informational panels in English!

You thought mummies were squicky enough: Your next stop is the Sabuncuoğlu Medical Museum. I have never quite been a place like this. It is a bit like you crossed a wax museum with a cheap slasher film with a middle-school diorama, and then put the whole thing in an old mental hospital. What could go wrong!

But really, the building is a beautiful old building established as a place where the mentally ill could rest and get proper treatment. It is evidence of a civilized age. Now, a collection of doctors and curators have put together a singularly interesting series of exhibits: Every room boasts a collection of mannequins in Ottoman dress, performing mock surgery. There is plenty of antique surgical instruments on display – and if you cannot read the Turkish labels, often the instruments have a gory little illustration accompanying it so its intended use cannot be misunderstood. The museum prompts reflection. What did we even do before modern medicine? Before we could see into the living body with CT scans and ultrasounds? Before we had antibiotics or thousands of other life-saving drugs? When an impacted tooth could literally kill you? Spend an hour or so pondering these unknowables as you inspect these tools, most of which were cutting edge technology at the time.

And sadly, that is two days of time, if you are on the bus. You will have to plod back to the bus station and glumly await your trip back home. Those who were smarter than me and got plane tickets can spend the rest of the afternoon lounging on a wooden patio, munching apple after apple, absorbing the glow of a riverfront view at sunset. I hope you dream of mummies.

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