Monday, 21 August 2017

Turkey’s Gateway to Europe: The Balkan Villages

Text by Yusuf Meriç | Photographs by Yavuz Sarriyildiz   
Turkey is known for its many and diverse faces: from the bustling metropolis of Istanbul, through the beach resorts on its Mediterranean and Aegean coasts, the windsurfers’ paradise island of Gökçeada, the lime-water pools of Pamukkale, Cappadocia’s fantastic sand cones and eastern Turkey’s melancholic landscapes that belong to past times.

Paradoxically, a face of Turkey that is little known to Europe is the one that belongs to the European continent, its gateway to the Balkans and Europe. Yusuf Meriç goes on a trip through Turkey’s Balkan villages, located in the Kırklareli Province in western Anatolia, along the border with Bulgaria. During his trip, he finds that these villages will work their way into your heart with their tolerance and friendliness and their love of people and nature.

For millennia Kırklareli has acted as a bridge between Anatolia and the Balkans, and all roads leading there are pleasant: along the banks of rippling streams to the Bulgarian border through oak groves, fruit orchards and fields of sunflowers impatiently awaiting the summer sun... Past dry river beds with mysterious caves... And most of all, along the banks of the Kaynarca River, which bursts forth suddenly from among the rocks, guided by villages near crystal clear springs...

Wild Purple Rhododendrons

Known as ‘Kırkkilise’ or ‘Forty Churches’ until it fell into the hands of the Turks in 1368, Kırklareli is a town that has suffered countless incursions and invasions in its history and, for this reason, conceals much of its richness and beauty under the ground.

Our road extends to the border through a typical Thracian town immediately east of the city centre. The Yıldız or, as they are more widely known, the Istranca Mountains, which run parallel to the sea in north-eastern Thrace, renew a person both physically and spiritually with their clean air, fragrant forests, gigantic rustling trees and therapeutic springs.

Close to half the land in the town, which was a leading centre of viniculture in the past, is farmland today. But the most beautiful aspect of this green world are the eye-catching wild rhododendrons like islands of purple between the giant trees. Dubbed zelenka by the locals, these wonders of nature herald the coming of spring to the Balkans when they bloom.

Purveyor of Beans to The Palace

Our first stop among the border villages scattered like a pastoral painting through the foothills of the Istranca’s is the village of Armutveren. There are no words to describe the pleasure of stopping at Nusret’s Coffeehouse here in this charming village known locally as Paşpala and getting caught up in a conversation with the villagers to the accompaniment of a glass of freshly steeped tea.

This village, whose population is gradually declining since it is unable create jobs for its young people, is a genuine cultural treasure with its historic riches and natural beauty. Judging by what the local people say, this is an historic settlement inhabited by Turkish immigrants from the Balkans known as Pomaks. Almost all the village residents came here and settled during the Balkan War.

Besides forestry and livestock, farming is among their traditional sources of livelihood. Taking is name, ‘Armutveren’ or ‘Pear-giving’, from the fragrant, juicy pears that are plentiful in the region, this village is also famous for its legendary green beans. Not only did Armutveren’s beans spice up the tables of the Ottoman palace, they haven’t lost a bit of their flavour even today.

Last Light of The Village of Darkness

Another border settlement just next door to Armutveren is the village of İncesırt, a natural wonder reminiscent of an island of green between Turkey and Bulgaria. With only seventy people left according to the last census, and only 55 according to the local folk, this village is a nostalgic settlement stubbornly resisting time’s depredations. The village primary school, 50 kilometres from Kırklareli and 25 kilometres from the township of Demirköy to which it is attached, closed long ago due to a lack of pupils. It is like a poetic oasis for weary urban dwellers with its profound solitude, tranquil atmosphere and unspoiled nature.

For those unwilling to content themselves with İncesırt’s bittersweet, wistful air, there is another alternative: Karanlıkköy, literally ‘the village of darkness’. Three kilometres from İncesırt, this enigmatic and seemingly abandoned village surrounded by forest is just a few kilometres from the Bulgarian border.

Despite boasting a total of thirty households, smoke rises here from only one hearth today. Like the others who fled long ago, the village’s last residents came and settled here in the population exchange between the Balkan countries in the twentieth century. The last residents, who live here alone like virtual border guards, proudly explain how Ataturk settled them here. With its abandoned village houses, its historic mosque resembling a museum ruin, its natural beauty and its friendly faces, Karanlıkköy more than deserves to be used as a rare film set.

A Natural Museum

Another treasure hidden away in the matchless beauty of the Istranca Mountains is Dupnisa Cave, located on the edge of a forest of monumental trees and reached by turning off the Demirköy-İğneada road at the sign for the village of Sarpdere. The cave, which harbours an underground river in its deepest recesses, reaches up to 3.5 metres in depth and is extremely impressive with its extraordinary stalactite and stalagmite formations.

Walking parallel to the river, when you reach the top of the forest in which the cave is located, a spectacular rock bridge will suddenly appear before you. Created without the help of human hands, this natural bridge, which affords access to the mouth the cave, is reminiscent of an arched Roman bridge. You will begin a hair-raising and mysterious journey the minute you set foot in this cave, which was opened to tourism in 2003 and whose first few hundred metres can be toured easily thanks to a special elevated and lighted platform. The low, flat mouth of the cave, which is known locally as the ‘Sulumağara’ or ‘Watery Cave’, widens a few metres further on, and the height of the ceiling suddenly rises. The sound of water dripping from the ceiling mingles with the ripple of the stream flowing through the cave, which is noteworthy for its deep troughs and corridors to right and left. Without a match in Eastern Europe, the Sulumağara, which harbours eight species of bats numbering some thirty thousand, has unfortunately suffered a rapid loss of its natural beauty after being opened to tourism.

A Village That Prolongs Life

Leaving the Dereköy Dam behind us, we head north now to the border with Bulgaria. A settlement exhibiting the typical beauty of the region, Kula is a border village of 90 people attached to Kırklareli.

Tables are immediately set for us in this village where we encounter warm hospitality. Local specialties like beet molasses, pickles, macaroni and couscous were already prepared in the homes before the coming of winter. The big kitchen stoves, known here as petchka, are a fixture in almost every home, used both for heating and for cooking food.

In the spring and summer the women work in the gardens and fields while the men for the most part are engaged in forestry. Giant baskets of corn are picked and dried on the roofs of the houses. There is scarcely a household in the village without a plethora of hens and a rooster. What’s more, as in the other local villages, tea in the village coffeehouses is brewed over a wood fire. Perhaps for this reason one can’t get enough of its taste! Since everything is so natural in this village of abundant oxygen, people also tend to live longer of course. So much so that Kula has earned a reputation in the neighbouring villages as ‘the village that prolongs life’!

And in the villages of Kırklareli just as in Kula, the ‘Hıdrellez’ Holiday and Kakava Festivals that take place in early May have a special significance in the local culture. Celebrated until recently with a big Kakava bonfire built along the banks of the river, the festivals have tended to shift to the urban areas in recent years. But be it spring, fall or winter, the border villages of Kırklareli are possessed of a spirit and an utterly different beauty found almost nowhere else in Turkey. Just the ticket for those who dream of a unique and colourful world, outside the realm of the ordinary and expected, far from prying eyes... Now solitary, now teeming with activity, it attracts for precisely that reason.

This text is courtesy of SkyLife, a monthly magazine published by Turkish Airlines.

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