Crossing the mountains, uniting the night to the day to reunite, walking for miles regardless of the age, carrying the load without minding the back pain, sharing the fields with the bears…
Eastern Black Sea wants elbow grease, expects patience. Makeshift, wooden, suspended bridges and cable cars to transport loads or people stretch from one side of the Çoruh River to another. These are the lands where it is impossible to cut corners. This becomes even more obvious only by looking at Artvin. In order to reach the city center, you need to climb up a 3-kilometer road, which is a never-ending winding one. In fact, the ball used to roll until it reached the Çoruh River when it was kicked out of the soccer field during a game in the İskebe neighborhood. New settlements now stop the ball.
A keepsake from our father: Atabarı
At night, the streets of Artvin are deserted, but different tunes of the Black Sea sound from a wedding hall. City people are dancing horon arm in arm. Next is “Atabarı”, which has become the symbol of Artvin. The story is as follows: the Artvin dance group, which has represented Turkey in the Balkans, participated in a local dance festival held in İstanbul in 1936. While the team presents the so-called “Artvin Bar” show at Beylerbeyi Palace in the presence of Atatürk, Atatürk cannot stand the enthusiasm of dance and joins the dancers. This local dance, which has become synonymous with Artvin, has been called “Atabarı” since then, and today the people of Artvin murmurs the following lines: “There is garden, there is vineyard/ There is quince, there is pomegranate/ There is Atabarı/ a keepsake from our father.” It’s really an exciting dance that makes it hard for people just to sit and watch.
Loyal to traditions
One can see that the people of Artvin are making an effort not to give up their cultural heritage completely. According to one of the marriage traditions in Artvin, the bride does not sit down for a while after entering her mother-in-law’s house until one or more of the elders of the house gifts her a fruit tree or a breeding animal. I don’t know if such traditions are still valid today, but if you look at the wedding halls in Artvin or the atabarı parties held on weekends, the tradition continues. Another tradition in the culture of Artvin people remained the same is the Kafkasör Bullfights Festival… This festival, which is considered to be one of the rare festivities of Anatolia, is held on the Kafkasör Plateau on the first weekend of July. In the ’50s, at least one person played accordion in every household. Now this number is very small. In the cool silence of the Kafkasör Plateau, an accordion is played by the fireplace: “We came from the same land / We are all similar / When there is love/ Why fight?”
Artvin, since the Republic’s early years, remains among the top ten cities with the highest literacy rate in Turkey. Artvin, which is always complaining about the migration of educated young people, is actually a disparate Black Sea… Not only with its nature but also with its historical and social structure, too… It is like a different region of its own. Its geography is full of unimaginable surprises; bare steep cliffs might transform all at once to the medieval churches of the remote villages; deep, creepy canyons turn into the garden of Eden where the trees are embellished with fruits; green plateaus turn into yellow steppes. In general, if there is a reward at the end of the journey, another reward here is the road itself. Because the most untouched corners of the Eastern Black Sea, the most stunning views, the most natural lives are here. So it’s worth all the difficulties. Twisting roads are plentiful, transportation is difficult and slow. The accommodation is modest but communication is so warm and genuine. Especially if you had the chance to stay in one of the wooden houses of the Black Sea and get to know the people and taste the local food, you will probably not be satisfied with only one visit.
The abundance of the fast running river
Yusufeli is the center of tourism in the region… Figs, grapes, cranberries, pomegranates, almost all crops grow in fertile lands and orchards of wooden houses. There are rice fields towards İspir. Yusufeli is an ideal base for rafting on the Çoruh River. The road, which continues from Artvin to the southwest to Erzurum, passes through a magnificent strait along the Çoruh River for 105 km and reaches Yusufeli. Yellow-red bare cliffs and green, gushing from the edge of the river, create a striking contrast. This farthest district of Artvin is a harbinger that you leave the Black Sea behind and arrive at the gates of Eastern Anatolia with its climate and geography. Çoruh, which is 368 km in length reaching to the Black Sea in Batumi by dividing Artvin into two, is sourced from 3239 m high Mescit Mountain in the north of Erzurum and is considered one of the three fastest running rivers in the world. The section of the Çoruh River between Yusufeli and İspir is one of Turkey’s best rafting courses. Kaçkar Mountains, the fourth highest peak of Turkey, are in the northwest of Yusufeli, which is established in the valley where Çoruh and the Barhal Stream join together, at an altitude of 3937 meters. Kaçkar Mountains extending from Rize-İspir road to Hopa-Artvin highway are accepted as one of the 200 priority conservation regions of the world by international environmental organizations. 550 of them being endemic, about 2,300 plant species, more than 230 bird species, glaciers, alpine lakes, and the natural habitat that preserves its purity, it is Turkey’s most promising trekking route. Another tourist attraction of Yusufeli is the Georgian churches from the 9th century, spreading into untouched nature. Bagratoğulları, one of the Armenian feudal lords who ruled the people of Çoruh Valley, Georgians, built monasteries and monumental churches in this region.
The silence of wood, green, and the lake
Şavşat, 71 km from Artvin, has the quiet city title of the International Cittaslow Association. Even though it is likened to the Swiss Alps, with its impressive nature that does not require a comparison, it is seen with a different face in every season. Aside from its silence, no one builds a wooden house in Şavşat any more, but those who are still standing in settlements such as Ciritdüzü village, Meşeliköy and Veliköy set people’s minds at rest. Next to the beautiful wooden houses of Cevizli village, there is a 10th century Georgian church. Şavşat includes Karagöl. Spruce and pine trees reflect in this lake, which is located in the Sahara National Park, 27 km away from Şavşat. There are goldfish and carp in the lake. The scenery surrounding the road is worth seeing as well as the beauty of the lake, which takes on another ambiance when it is snowy or frozen. Walking around the lake is a must. The lake is beautiful both in full moon and in the morning. In the morning the wildlife goes down to the lake to drink water. Şavşat Castle, Arsiyan Plateau, Yavuzköy and Papart Valley, and the Efkar Hill, where the author Fakir Baykurt used to climb while he was teaching here in 1957-59, have legendary views.
Valley of castles
The valleys to the east of Artvin are nothing less than those around Yusufeli. Passing through the magnificent Köprüler Creek strait going to Ardanuç is a chilling experience. The high-walled canyon is guarded by Ferhatlı Castle, one of the most powerful medieval castles. It is said that there are over thirty castles in the Çoruh Valley. When you take the exit right after the 29th km of Artvin-Erzurum road, Ferhatlı Castle is 5 km away. The best view of the castle is from below, over the road… However, if you still want to go to the castle, you need to walk or ride a vehicle for 1.5 km on the narrow path ahead. When you climb the castle, you can look at the amazing strait below. The Cehennem Creek Canyon, which is 10 km from the exit, is said to be the second-largest canyon in the world after the one in Colorado in America. The walls of the canyon, which is formed by rivers, carving the volcanic rocks, are 100-150 m high and continue twisting in a solitary and majestic way. 12 km after the exit, at the single entrance of Ardanuç, there is the Castle of Ardanuç, where the Bagratoğulları lived from the 810s to the 1000s. The castle, which looks like a cake, was passed to the Ottomans in 1548 and today it remains impressive.