A Journey To Turkey’s Georgian Monasteries
Most of the wonderful places in the world are ones we’ll only ever experience through articles and pictures. No matter how fortunate or flexible you are, there will always be destinations that are too obscure or too complicated to get to; I have lists and lists of places like this, and I revel in the thrill of reading a really good piece about an inaccessible place. If I can’t go there, I’ll let my imagination fly free.
Sometimes, however, I not only get to travel to these places, but I get to write the article that inspires the wanderlust. I was thinking about this recently as I read a 20-year-old article in Cornucopia (a cultural magazine that focuses on Turkey, for which I am their online arts editor and an occasional contributor) about the Black Sea, specifically about the splendid churches tucked into the forested landscapes east of Trabzon. The article talked about the dearth of dependable information on the churches, and the difficulty involved in actually getting to them.
The author might have been writing this 20 years ago, but it’s still mostly true. My travel companion Emma and I found almost nothing on the internet about the churches and monasteries we sought. Though there are new shiny roads, it still took seven hours to drive from the Trabzon airport to our pansiyon in Barhal, and even more driving on winding mountain ways to reach the churches. It was a journey into this strange and wonderful corner of Turkey that few people visit, to see these magnificent structures that few seem to care about.
Back in the comfort of an Istanbul tea garden a year later, reading this article in Cornucopia, the mention of Oshk Vank– the grandest of the monasteries we saw– made my heart jump a little. I went there. I saw that. We drove those winding roads, through purple stone cliffs and autumnal valleys. We hiked up hills past shepherds tending their flocks to reach Dortkilise’s overgrown walls. We circled Ishan Kilisesi with our guide Ahmet, whose persistent mumbling of “cok kotu, cok kotu” (very bad, very bad) clued us in to the fact that the restoration of this church had gone very, very wrong.
We wrote about these churches for BBC Travel, so now there’s one more small drop of information in the world about Oshk Vank and Dortkilise and Ishan Kilisesi than there was before. They’re still hard to get to, truly a journey in the throwback sense of the word. I’m glad we went. Even a year later, the thought of that place fills me with wonder.