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Garden in the mountains "Gümüşhane"

‘This land is blue water in Antalya, an arid field in Poshof, and a green garden in Gümüşhane,’ declaimed one poet. Turkey’s mountainous northeastern province of Gümüşhane is truly a place of luxuriant orchards and gardens, although these have declined in extent in this century. The province is famous for its crisp, juicy and fragrant apples, many varieties of pears, mulberries used to make delicious fruit pastes, and vitamin rich rosehips which grow wild in abundance. Gümüşhane takes its name (House of Silver) from the silver mines which have been worked since 3000 BC, and was known as the City of Silver (Argyropolis) in Byzantine and Roman times. These and its strategic position on the Silk Road meant that it retained its economic vitality right through to the 19th century. However, depletion of the silver deposits combined with a series of foreign invasions sparked off migration away from the province, and stemming the population drain is the foremost challenge facing Gümüşhane today.The geographical position of this small city lends it a conflicting character which is one source of its fascinating diversity. Facing Turkey’s interior on the one hand and the Black Sea coastal region on the other, continental and maritime climates compete for its possession. The bare rocky landscape of the south is in startling contrast to the lush green forests of the north, and even the colour of the soil changes. This is matched by cultural contrasts, as for example in the musical instruments used in the different regions.The best way to describe Gümüşhane is to begin at the famous Zigana Pass, whose rigours challenged those attempting to reach the city. This notorious pass was once feared by those travelling the road from Trabzon on the Black Sea to Erzurum, and from there on into Iran, but today it is circumvented by a tunnel approximately 2 kilometres in length delving through the heart of the mountain. The tunnel not only allows travellers to avoid the inhospitable Zigana Pass, but has reduced the Trabzon-Gümüşhane road by 25 kilometres to 100 kilometres through hazelnut groves and glossy leafed elms. But to see the Gümüşhane landscape at its magnificent best, you should avoid this monument to modern technology and take the ancient road, where you can see the ruins of old stone hans where merchants and their caravans used to find warmth, food and shelter at nights.Just before the entrance to the tunnel a road leading off to the right takes you up to the Zigana Mountain resort, scene of skiing in winter and grass skiing in summer, and a favourite picnic spot. Behind Zigana is Kadırga Yayla, best known of the two hundred alpine pastures in the province. On the third Friday of July every year 35,000-40,000 people gather here for the traditional yayla festival.The provincial capital, Gümüşhane, spreads along either side of the Harşıt River which flows down a deep valley between the Alemdar and Kuşakkaya mountains, both rising to 2000 metres. The old city of Gümüşhane to the southwest was in the 17th and 18th centuries home to twice the present population. Here the houses rise in terraces against the steep mountain slopes, looking out over the new city. Gümüşhane was founded in the 16th century on the orders of Süleyman the Magnificent when he halted here during his Persian campaign and saw the silver mines and beautiful scenery. Communities of Greeks, Armenians and Turks coexisted peacefully here over the centuries. I wandered through streets lined by Greeks houses made of stone with bay windows and ornamented windows and doors, and past wooden Turkish houses with their wood carved decoration and gardens filled with fruit trees. A melancholy mood of nostalgia lay over them.Traditional Gümüşhane houses, which are to be found in both the old and new cities, generally have two storeys and are made of wood, stone or adobe. They all have gardens and large spacious interiors. Their doors, door knockers, window pediments and cornices are intricately decorated. Their roofs are steeply pitched, as they are everywhere throughout the province, to prevent snow building up in winter, and are made of metal sheeting. But in the village of Sarıçiçek are two houses quite different from any other in the province. This difference is not obvious from the outside, but lies within and in the story behind them. In the 1870s a carver and his apprentice started work on the interior of a house, beginning with the fittings for the guest room. The two fell out, and the apprentice started work on another house in the village. The two worked for three years without seeing or speaking to one another. When they had finished the apprentice’s carving was pronounced the better, at which his master laid down tools and left the village. The rivalry between the two craftsmen is immortalised in rooms which are extraordinary masterpieces of the art of woodwork and woodcarving. Ceilings, cornerpieces, cupboard doors, the arches around the walls and the columns are all exquisitely ornamented, and painted in many colours by their owners to preserve the wood.In Gümüşhane history is ever present. Ancient forts stand watch high on bare mountain tops and crags, stone bridges still carry travellers across the rivers, and ruins mark the sites of long since abandoned ancient cities.The former Greek village of İmara facing groves of rustling poplars was once the area’s largest settlement and commercial centre. Only 60 of the original 550 houses, a monastery known to local people as Kızlar Monastery, and a scattering of churches now remain.Near the village of Çakırkaya 12 km from Şiran is a rock church and numerous chambers hewn entirely from the rock. This settlement, whose origins date back to before the Christian era, is one of the foremost ancient sites in the region and also worth visiting for the incredible view soaring up to the sky.Going in the opposite direction this time, down into the bowels of the earth, another spectacular sight is the Karaca Cave, whose fame rivals that of Gümüşhane itself. The cave is not famous for its size but for the huge number of stalactites and stalagmites of extraordinary colours and forms which set your imagination racing. This was my first visit to a cave, and now I am eagerly awaiting the opportunity to visit the recently discovered Akçakale Cave, also in Gümüşhane, and apparently several times the size of Karaca.Tomara Waterfall is another spectacular and lovely sight not to be missed. Water from a single spring pours through courses it has carved through the rocks, to roar over the 10 metre drop into the stream below. We placed the fruit we had brought with us to cool in the ice cold water, and with the soothing melody of the water in our ears and the fall in its beautiful green setting before our eyes, it tasted marvellous.Now I come to the place that left the deepest impression on me in Gümüşhane. This was the Örümcek (Spider) Forests. What I saw on the Kürtün road seemed to presage the sights to come. The road through green forest and mountains passed cottages precariously perched on the steep slopes. I looked at them in wonder and a little enviously. From time to time they disappeared behind a curtain of mist. We began to climb into the mountains along a winding track, up and up seemingly endlessly. We stopped to drink water from a mountain stream, pick blackberries, and taste hazelnuts offered by village women busy harvesting this year’s crop. A simple greeting was enough to win the hearts of the people we passed. The eyes of a village woman who shared the plums she had gathered in her skirt with us seemed to reflect the landscape around us, so green, clear and bright were they.But there was no time to loiter. Before the mist settled in we had to reach the place where Europe’s tallest firs grow. Beside these 400 year old trees are Turkey’s tallest cedars. The mist was becoming slowly thicker as I walked beneath the shade of the gigantic trees. I heard the plash of water from close by, and following the sound discovered a tiny waterfall. Otherwise the woods were silent, and the air misty and saturated with moisture. Turning my eyes from the awe-inspiring height of the canopy of trees above me, I looked down at the ground and saw tiny bright red strawberries glistening amongst the leaves. I popped one in my mouth, then another, and another. The idea of following the trail of strawberries deep into the forest and leaving everything behind was almost irresistible. With difficulty I overcame the temptation and walked slowly back.

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