I’ve been to very few places where I could truly feel like I was travelling back in time. One of these, without any doubt, is the quaint town of Safranbolu, in north-eastern Anatolia, Turkey.
I seldom visit the same place twice, but for Safranbolu I made an exception. What makes Safranbolu unique is its extraordinary architecture: the whole old town is made up of beautiful Ottoman buildings, most of which date back to the 17th century, when this important caravan station on the Silk Road reached its apogee. Safranbolu’s architectural style became a model for cities throughout much of the Ottoman Empire—in fact, I’ve seen similar urban patterns throughout the Balkans as far as Albania.
I fell in love with Safranbolu at first sight. Approaching it by car, you are immediately stunned by the sight of the countless red-roofed houses clinging to the steep slopes of the canyon.
The downside of this superb topography is that Safranbolu experiences quite harsh winters. At the time of our visit, in late January, the surrounding mountains were snow-capped, patches of snow dotted the roofs and the streets and, despite the sunshine, the temperature was constantly around zero.
The cold, however, didn’t prevent us from exploring the city—on foot, of course. Driving around the steep, narrow and labyrinthine cobblestoned alleys is not something you want to do unless you have to.
Getting to and leaving our hotel by car was the only unpleasant moment of our visit. As all the hotels and B&Bs in Safranbolu, ours too—the Sarı Konak Hotel—was hosted in a typical two-storey Ottoman house with white walls and finely carved wooden window fixtures and balconies. The interior was as pleasant to the eye as the exterior, richly decorated with antique furniture and paraphernalia which transported us to a long-gone era.
Faithful to the reputation of the Black Sea people, Cengiz, the owner of our hotel, was extremely helpful and kind as were all the shopkeepers and the staff in the restaurants. Browsing the eye-catching shops exhibiting all kinds of local products such as soap, jams, souvenirs, wooden and iron handicrafts—and the ubiquitous tea and dry fruit—is one of the most enjoyable activities in Safranbolu. While doing this, we were repeatedly invited to enter the workshops and see the artisans at work, or treated with lokum (Turkish delights) and glasses of tea.
Safranbolu owes its name to the saffron, which has been cultivated in this region for centuries. Justly, the locals are very proud of their precious spice and tend to add it into everything they make, from soap and scents to food and tea. So make sure you try at least a glass of saffron tea in one of the charming courtyards tucked away from the alleys.
Although the whole old town can be considered an open-air museum, there are a few buildings that deserve your attention. The Old Mosque, the Süleyman Pasha Medrese and the Old Bath, all built in 1322 as parts of the same complex, are impossible to miss as they stand right in the heart of the historical center. (On my previous visit I visited the Turkish bath and got a massage, and I definitely recommend it!)
Near this complex rises Safranbolu’s most impressive building: Cinci Han, a sturdy yet elegant caravansary which nowadays serves as a four-star hotel. Several konak (mansions) have been turned into little ethnographic museums where you can learn what life in this region of Turkey was like back in the Ottoman days. The one we visited, Kaymakmaklar Gezi Evi, had excellent exhibitions, but with unfortunately little or no explanations.
A steep but not long climb finally took us to the distinctive Old Clock Tower and the City History Museum, located on a wide terrace where once stood Safranbolu’s castle. The views from here are gorgeous; however, for even more stunning ones, head to Hıdırlık Tepesi, the highest hill overlooking the city.
There you should enjoy a cup of tea or coffee, soaking in the vista of one of the most beautiful towns you’ll ever see.