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The Ottoman pleasures of Safranbolu

The Ottoman pleasures of Safranbolu
Picture the following scene. A beautiful town with cobbled streets set amid the hills and full of lovely old Ottoman houses built of wood and covered with pantiled roofs. Next, imagine that this same town still nurtures a lively bazaar where saddle-makers and copper-beaters ply their trades.

Then consider that it has its own distinctive cuisine, including a particularly tasty form of kebab. The icing on the cake is that the town can be used as a base for exploring several lesser known villages and monuments in the vicinity. It is, of course, Safranbolu, the “saffron town” that has won a UNESCO world heritage site listing for the quality of its intact Ottoman townscape.

The Turks know and love Safranbolu, not least because a visit requires only a short detour from the main ?stanbul to Ankara highway, making it an easy place to get to for a long weekend. Foreign visitors tend not to be quite so familiar with the town because many of them are in such a hurry to get from ?stanbul to Cappadocia or vice versa that they forget to check out the places along the way. This is a great shame because it means not only that they miss out on seeing a gem of traditional architecture but also on a rare opportunity to put up for the night in true Ottoman style since many of the old houses have now been converted into hotels.

The beauty of Safranbolu is a byproduct of a 17th-century trade route that used to run up from Gerede to the Black Sea. By the 18th century, the merchants who had prospered the most from this traffic were rich enough to be able to build themselves huge mansions not just in what is now the well-known Çar?? (Market) part of town but also in cooler Ba?lar (Vineyards) to which they would retreat in summer to take advantage of its hillside breezes. Many of these houses still survive, especially in Çar??, and a visit to one of them offers a remarkable insight into a lifestyle that has gone the way of the camel trains.

A growing number of Safranbolu houses are open to the public, and they tend to follow a fairly standard pattern. All of them are built out of wood and most soar to three-stories, with each of the upper floors jutting out above the one below, giving them a slightly top-heavy appearance. Behind sturdy wooden gateways there normally lurks a cobbled courtyard where agricultural equipment could be stored and where the household animals would be stabled — many properties still retain the wooden mangers that used to run along the lower walls, although the more imaginative hoteliers have usually converted them into something more suited to a breakfast room or other modern purposes. Wooden stairs lead up to wide hallways from which the various rooms frequently open off at oblique angles between cushioned sitting areas. The ceilings of the rooms and the central hallways are usually decorated with beautifully carved woodwork focused on a “göbek,” or sunburst ceiling rose. The walls, too, are elaborately carved with niches and cupboards, many of them designed for specific purposes such as storing pipes and tobacco. Not surprisingly given the cold of the Anatolian winter, the focal point of most rooms is often a stone fireplace with a finely carved chimneybreast.

If the houses open to the public seem curiously devoid of furnishing to Western eyes, that’s because the traditional Ottoman lifestyle required little in the way of permanent standing furniture. Instead, sedirs (bench seats) would run around the walls beneath the windows. The family would recline on these during the day, then at night bedding would be brought out from one of the wall cupboards and, hey presto, they would metamorphose into beds. Similarly, there were rarely permanent tables in the rooms. Instead, when it was time to eat, tray-type tables would be brought out from the cupboards and the family and their guests would sit down on the floor around them to eat.

Other distinctive features of Safranbolu houses include huge pools of water, which, to an outsider, look like swimming pools. In fact they were there to cool the rooms and to bring the refreshing sound of running water indoors; even if you don’t plan to stay at the Havuzlu Asmazlar Kona?? hotel, it’s still worth dropping by to take tea beside the glorious pool that occupies most of its ground floor. Many of the larger houses also boasted unique “safe boxes,” stone rooms built into the surrounding wooden framework where grain and other valuables could be stored in case of fire. Some of these rooms are so large that they now serve as sitting rooms or bars, as in the superior Gül Evi hotel.

Although the houses are the main reason to visit Safranbolu, it’s also fun to poke about in the bazaar. The most visited part of it is what was once the Yemeniciler Arastas? where leather shoemakers used to work. Today, though, their cute little wooden kiosks mainly tout souvenirs for tourists. To see Safranbolu’s remaining saddle-makers, copper-beaters and other craftsmen in action you need to wander away from the crowds and explore the backstreets to the south of the arasta.

Other sights to look out for include the Cinci Han?, a massive 17th-century caravanserai right in the center of town, which has been converted into a hotel. Nearby, the Cinci Hamam? (Turkish bath) is certainly worth a visit, although women may have to ask for a masseuse to be summoned to scrub them.

Most visitors stay just one night in Safranbolu. However, with more time on your hands you might want to take a taxi out to Yörükköy (”Nomad Village”), 11 kilometers to the east, which boasts a collection of houses at least as fine as those in Safranbolu, most of them long since boarded-up as their owners moved away to new lives in the cities. There’s not much to do here bar roam the cobbled streets and marvel at the architecture. However, Yörükköy does have a museum-house that is open to the public, who are conducted around it by a woman who gives the tour her all despite having not a single word of English with which to communicate with her foreign guests. On the way back to Safranbolu you could also stop at the pretty Cevrikköprü restaurant to try out kuyu kebab?, the local lamb delicacy, which is baked in a pit and then served with big flaps of bread to soak up the grease.

The more adventurous may also want to venture out into the countryside to visit the Bulak Mencilis Ma?aras?, a cave full of stalactites and stalagmites, 10 kilometers northwest of Safranbolu. Alternatively, you could organize a trip to the picturesque Byzantine ?ncekaya Su Kemeri, an aqueduct slung across the Tokatl? Kanyon (gorge) that was completely rebuilt in the 18th century.


Akçe Konak: 0 (370) 725 5000

Çe?meli Kona??: 0 (370) 725 4455

Gökçüo?lu Kona??: 0 (370) 712 6372

Havuzlu Asmazlar Kona??: 0 (370) 725 2883

Tarihi Yörük Pansiyon: 0 (370) 737 2153

Gül Evi: 0 (370) 725 4645


Most buses from ?stanbul and Ankara travel to Karabük, where you change to a minibus for the short transfer to Safranbolu. There you will probably be left in K?ranköy, the modern part of town, from where local buses run to Çar?? and Ba?lar. There is no direct public transport to Yörükköy, ?ncekaya or Bulak Mencilis Ma?aras?, but taxi drivers in Safranbolu will negotiate a return trip fare to include waiting time.


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