The Greek Orthodox Monastery of the Virgin Mary, better known as Sumela Monastery, 46km south of Trabzon, is one of the Black Sea coast's historical highlights. Founded in the 4th century AD, it was abandoned in 1923 after the creation of the Turkish Republic and the 'exchange of populations'. Its highlight is the main church, with damaged but stunningly coloured frescoes both inside and out. Undergoing extensive renovation at the time of research, it was due to reopen in spring 2017.
Sumela (the name is derived from nearby Mt Melat) clings improbably to a sheer rock wall, high above evergreen forests and a rushing mountain stream. It's a mysterious place, especially when mists swirl in the tree-lined valley below (most of the time) and the call of a hidden mosque drifts ethereally through the forest.
Visit early or late to avoid the hordes of Turkish tourists. At the entrance to the Altındere Vadisi Milli Parkı (Altındere Valley National Park) there's a ₺10/5 charge for cars/motorbikes. About 2km further on are a shady riverside park with picnic tables and a restaurant.
The main trail to the monastery begins over the footbridge past the restaurant, and is steep but easy to follow. You'll ascend 300m in about 30 minutes, the air growing noticeably cooler as you climb through forests and alpine meadows. A second trail begins further up the valley. Follow the concreted road 1km uphill and across two bridges until you come to a wooden footbridge over the stream on the right. This trail cuts straight up through the trees, past the shell of the Ayavarvara Chapel. It's usually much quieter than the main route and takes the same amount of time.
You can drive almost to the monastery ticket office. The 3km drive is challenging at busy times, with cars coming the other way on the narrow mountain road. En route are waterfalls and a lookout point, from where you can see the monastery suspended on a cliff face high above the forest.
From the car park it's a 300m walk 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. The two-part church, formed from a natural cave and also built in the shape of an extended apse, 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 has been substantially restored to showcase the various chapels and rooms used by pious types in earlier centuries. Continuing restoration in no way detracts from the experience, although on busy days the views of the building will likely be more memorable than touring its cramped interiors.
Driving from Trabzon, take the E97 highway south and turn left at Maçka, 29km from Trabzon. The monastery is also signposted as Meryemana (Virgin Mary), as it is known in the area.