Image by Barış Atasoy Five Hundred Pixels
The Greek Orthodox Monastery of the Virgin Mary, better known as Sumela Monastery, is one of the Black Sea's highlights. It has been shut for restoration though since 2015. Check the latest information in Trabzon; on our last visit locals were doubtful work would finish by the original 2018 reopening date.
While shut, you can still get views of the monastery, clinging improbably to a sheer cliff, high above evergreen forests, by driving the road up to the car park.
Sumela (the name is derived from nearby Mt Melat) was founded in the 4th century AD and abandoned in 1923 after the creation of the Turkish Republic and the 'exchange of populations'. When the monastery is open again, the main church, formed from a natural cave and built in the shape of an extended apse, is the high point of a visit here. It is covered both inside and out with colourful frescoes depicting everything from the Virgin Mary to the Last Judgement. The earliest examples date from the 9th century, but most are from the 19th century. Sadly, many have been defaced, some deliberately and in recent times.
The monastery's cliff-edge position is itself a highlight as well and the building has a mysterious, ethereal feel especially when mists swirl in the tree-lined valley below (most of the time) and the call of a hidden mosque drifts through the forest.
At the entrance to the Altındere Vadisi Milli Parkı (Altındere Valley National Park) there's a ₺6 charge for cars. About 2km further on are a shady riverside park with picnic tables and a restaurant. From here it's another 3km to the car park, up a winding, narrow mountain road (challenging at busy times with cars coming the other way). There are waterfalls and a lookout point, from where there are excellent views of the monastery suspended on the cliff high above, en route.
Currently, with the ongoing restorations, the car park is the end of the line though you can get another good view of the monastery from the small Aya Varvara chapel just past the car park. An audiovisual presentation about the monastery plays on a loop inside the chapel. When the monastery reopens, it's a 300m walk from here along a very rough and steep trail to the ticket office and monastery complex, sheltered underneath a hefty outcrop. On the way to the main church you'll pass the remains of a 19th-century aqueduct, a guards' room, a library with a fireplace, a kitchen, a bakery and a vaulted refectory. Visit early or late to avoid the hordes of Turkish tourists.
From Trabzon, dolmuşes to Maçka (₺4, every 20 minutes, 29km) depart from the minibus ranks on Çömlekçi Caddesi, downhill from Atatürk Alanı. From Maçka, a few dolmuşes trundle the 16km to the riverside park below Sumela (departures are erratic due to the monastery being shut). A return trip by taxi from Maçka to Sumela costs around ₺60.
When the monastery is reopened, bus companies Ali Osman Ulusoy and Metro run buses from Trabzon (₺25 return, one hour), leaving at 10am and departing from Sumela at 1pm/2pm in winter/summer. Eyce Tours in Trabzon runs organised tours.
Driving from Trabzon, take the E97 highway south and turn left at Maçka. The monastery is also signposted as Meryemana (Virgin Mary), as it is known in the area.