The 1000-year-old Monastery of
the Virgin Mary at Sumela
is among the most impressive
sights of Turkey's Black
Sea coast, but unfortunately it is closed until 2017 for restoration work.
It's not just the monastery itself that is the attraction, it's the entire expedition to see it: the monastery's alpine setting,
clinging to a sheer rock cliff in
the midst of dense evergreen forests loud
with the splash of chill mountain streams,
comes as a surprise for those who think
of Turkey as a land of rolling steppe.
Closed Now, But When It Reopens...
When Sumela reopens to the public, perhaps in 2017, the excursion to Sumela is best done
as a half-day or full-day excursion from Trabzon,
47 km (29 miles, 1 hour) south of Trabzon (map).
To avoid the crowds, arrive early in
the morning— particularly if you want
avoid summer weekends when the crowds
and traffic—on the narrow roads—can be intense. You may want to bring a picnic lunch to enjoy next to the pretty stream in the gorge.
(Once a year, on August 15th, a Greek Orthodox service is held at the monastery, and special permission from the Ecumenical Orthodox Patriarchate is required to enter.)
The monastery is not yet handicap accessible because of the rough path and many steps to the entrance, and steps within the compound, but perhaps the restorations now under way will make the monastery handicap-accessible.
The fresco-covered Rock Church at Sumela...
Driving from Trabzon
Follow signs for Sumela Manastırı south along Highway E97/D885 to the town of Maçka, where you turn left onto a narrower road leading up into the gorge.
The land around the monastery is now
preserved as Altındere Valley National
Park. You will reach the park entrance, where you'll pay a TL15 admission fee per car to enter the park.
You'll pass several trout hatcheries benefitting from the cold mountain stream. Small restaurants offer trout meals to hungry travelers.
You arrive at the base of the cliff with the monastery high above you. Here is a small parking area with several restaurants, tea shops, and free picnic tables perched right over the gushing stream—a very appealing location.
Driving Up to the Monastery
You can drive, or take a minibus dolmuş, up the steep hill to the monastery. The road is narrow and winding, with many blind corners and stretches only wide enough for one vehicle. Look for traffic ahead, and use a pull-out to let others pass (as they should do for you).
Along the drive you'll follow the dramatic gorge and the stream, which you cross on bridges several times. At one bridge the stream becomes a waterfall—you may want to stop for a look.
About 3/4 of the way to the top is a viewpoint with a fine view of the monastery clinging to its sheer rock cliff. There's room to stop.
At the top there is very little parking. You may have to park in a suitable place on the narrow road and walk the rest of the way to the monastery path.
Hiking Up to the Monastery
From the restaurants at the bottom of the cliff you can hike up to the monastery if you wish. It's a 1-km (6/10 mile), 35 to 45-minute climb in which you rise
250 meters (820 feet).
Entering the Monastery
||Fresco of a queen on the Rock Church...
From the end of the access road, where you park, it is a walk of 10 to 15 minutes up and along a path that can be a rough climb at times.
Much of the path is stone steps, with more steps up to the entrance where you buy your admission ticket (TL8).
After that comes another long flight of steps up to the door, then another long flight down on the opposite side.
Touring the Monastery
As for what there is to see—although the monastery is large, particularly when seen from a distance, only a small area is open to visitors. The Rock Church is the main attraction, with its frescoes dating from the 1300s to the 1700s. Several small service rooms (kitchen, library, etc.) open onto the inner courtyard.
The most prominent part of the monastery, the large building facing out from the cliffside, was lodging for monks and pilgrims. It dates from 1840, and is not open to the public.
—by Tom Brosnahan