Narrow streets adorned with picturesquely cock-eyed cobblestones. Wooden houses whose upper storeys reach out towards each other as if inviting neighbourly conversation. A market hemmed in with neat little shops and shaded by hanging vines. It’s everyone’s fantasy of an Ottoman townscape, but it’s also Safranbolu, the miraculously preserved settlement midway between Istanbul and Ankara that qualifies for UNESCO world heritage site status. Not surprisingly, Turkish people pour in on weekends in search of a trip down memory lane.
The way they lived then
In these days of concrete conquest, when the answer to every housing problem appears to be to build it high and build it cheap, Safranbolu is a nod to a time when life was slower and less complicated. Here, in the 18th and 19th centuries, whole families lived together in huge houses whose every detail evokes a lost way of life. Stonewalled ground floors acted as stabling for the animals, while wooden upstairs rooms combined
all sorts of functions that we like to keep separate today. Most came equipped with a sedir (divan) that ran around the walls and doubled up as seats and beds. Cupboards built into the walls concealed the bedding during the day as well as the low tables round which families ate their meals sitting on the floor. The most extraordinary cupboards of all, to modern eyes grown used to capacious ‘wet rooms’, were those that housed the washing facilities – gawp in amazement at the mannequin squeezed inside one in the Kaymakamlar Evi to get the picture.
Visitors usually head straight for the Çars¸ı, the most undamaged part of Safranbolu in the bottom of the valley. Most completely miss the higher part of town called Bag˜lar (Orchards), where some of the houses outstrip their lower neighbours in splendour. Like their rural cousins, the urban residents of Safranbolu lived a nomadic lifestyle, retreating to Bag˜lar in the summer to take advantage of the cooler air. In making the move, they didn’t want to risk the loss of their wheat stores or other valuables, so most of the Çars¸ı houses included a stone safe room, the Ottoman equivalent of a panic room, where such things could be stored away from the risk of fire. Before you shrug off the idea of fire, you may want to know that the centre of Çars¸ı is currently disfigured by the relics of what was the Hatice Hanım Konag˜ı Mark III until the flames took hold three months ago.
Given that it was the houses that earned Safranbolu its tourism spurs, it’s hardly surprising that a couple are open to the public. Yet only the Kaymakamlar Evi really justifies the admission fee, and the truth is that you’ll get a much better idea of what the houses used to look like by staying in one of the ever-growing number of house-hotels. First off the block, and still in many ways the most delightful, is the Havuzlu Asmazlar Konag˜ı whose finest feature is the glorious dining room with tables set round what looks like an indoor swimming pool, but was actually designed so that the sight and sound of water could soothe frazzled brows.
Combining Ottomania with the hip hotel look is the gorgeous Gül Evi, the work of award-winning Turkish architect Ibrahim Canbulat. He has thought long and hard about the problem of how to insinuate modern beds into rooms whose proportions were never designed to include such items (unlike those hotels that cram in four or five beds, thereby entirely destroying any sense of what the rooms originally looked like). The
hip hotel is located downstairs, where the stone safe room has been converted into a cosy bar beside a restaurant that feels rather like an American diner.
Up in Bag˜lar, the Gökçüog˜lu Konag˜ı is a vast sprawl of a place whose every corner reveals some new detail of a forgotten lifestyle: in the kitchen, a special corridor allowed cats to roam in search of mice, while upstairs, a revolving cupboard enabled female members of the household to pass food to male members without being seen.
The other Safranbolu
Had your fill of Ottoman detail? Head uphill to what was once the local government office (Hükümet Konag˜ı) and is now a fine museum, complete with reconstructions of old shops in the basement. Right beside it, the clock tower offers panoramic views of the townscape and the chance to inspect a clock mechanism manufactured in London two centuries ago. Afterwards, you can stop for a meal at the old prison (cezaevi), which has been turned into a breezy café.
No prizes for guessing that Safranbolu takes its name from the saffron that used to be produced from locally grown crocuses. Recently that crocus connection has been revived, and now you cannot only stuff your suitcase with the actual stuff, but also with saffron-flavoured Turkish delight too. This is a great place to dip your spoon into a dish of zerde, a popular (if luridly coloured) saffron-flavoured dessert.
The blue plastic bags
Elsewhere in the world the movement to cut back on plastic bags may be gaining ground fast, but in Safranbolu they seem determined to undermine all the good it might do. They insist that visitors don galofl (blue plastic bags) on their feet not just to visit the museum houses, but also to get to their hotel bedrooms (and sometimes even to the reception desk to inquire about vacancies). Yes, we know shoe-removal is part of Turkish culture, but we’re all going to have to adjust our cultural norms in face of global warming. To do your bit, hold on to one pair and reuse them as you make your way from house to house.
Need to know
Fly to Ankara via Istanbul with Turkish Airlines from Dhs2,123 return (www.turkishairlines.com). Buses from Ankara to Safranbolu take around three hours and cost Dhs46. Alternatively, hire a car and shave an hour off the journey.
Where to stay
Get a slice of local hospitality by staying in this restored Ottoman property with wooden floors and traditional ornaments and carpets.
www.havuzlukonak.com (+90 224 443 3370)
This beautiful 19th century mansion comes with scenic gardens, high celings and antique furniture.
(+90 370 725 2883)
Where to eat
Esra Café Bar
Try this traditional Turkish eatery, which features indoor and outdoor seating and lively music performances in the evening.
Market Square, Manifaturacilar Carsisi, Izzet Pasa Camii Yani
Aquarius Café & Bar
This restaurant can cater for large parties (big enough for an intimate wedding). It boasts a bar, a banquet hall, a restaurant and garden which seats around 100 people. The kitchen dishes up Anatolian cuisine from the local area.
Hukumet Sokak 46 (+90 370 725 4645)
History and geography
• The town has a population of approximately 50,000.
• The area features more than 1,000 historical sites, including museums, mosques, Turkish baths, tombs and fountains.
• The village of Davutobası, to the east of Safranbolu, still grows some of the finest saffron in the world.
• Safranbolu is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site thanks to the abundance of well-maintained Ottoman houses in the area.