"Sinop is paradise, it's the best city in all of Turkey. But not now! You must come back in the summer!"
This we heard over and over from residents of Sinop, where we enjoyed the best hamsi (anchovy) of our most recent trip to Turkey.
Frankly, we can't imagine wanting to return to Sinop in the summer. According to these boosterish locals the city's population of 30,000 bloats to 200,000 in July and August, when tourists descend on its campgrounds and fill its hotels. They come for beaches and sun, boating out of the city's idyllic harbor and, of course, fish.
No way. Not for us. Give us Sinop -- or any of Turkey's ocean or lakeside vacation spots, for that matter -- off season, when hotels are empty, restaurants don't require reservations, empty tables at tea gardens beckon, and the eye isn't assaulted by meters of flesh that shouldn't be seeing the light of day in the first place. For us, crowds are something to be avoided, not sought out.
We were in Sinop for only two days but would gladly have lingered a few more if we'd had the time. To be honest there's not much to do in Turkey's northernost city, but then tourist sites are not what floats our boat anyway. We did visit the city's 7th-century (BC) kale or fortress and, after inquiring for the key at the model boat shop across the street from its entrance, we had the ramparts to ourselves.
We stopped in at Sinop's Seljuk-era mosque and admired its fountain, took a spin through the city's medrese (and wished that we'd known earlier about the small cafe there serving local specialties), walked the U-shaped promenade around its picturesque harbor.
We drank glasses and glasses of tea, dividing our time between the various cay evi (tea houses) and tea gardens that face onto fishing boats awaiting their next trip out: one for grizzled fishermen, another that inexplicably morphed, around mid-afternoon, from old-timers' idling spot to young hipster hangout, and still another that offered free wifi (we didn't take advantage).
We chatted with Sinop's friendly, laid-back residents (another bonus of off-season travel: the unharried locals have time, and the inclination, to talk). We shopped for culinary souvenirs. (found, and carried back to Malaysia: strips tangy peach pestil -- fruit leather -- rolled around chopped fresh walnuts and doused with honey. And, of course, we ate.
Hamsi, mostly. And barbunya, forefinger-long red mullet dusted with flour and deep-fried. After our massive lunch at Mert's we hardly had inclination for dinner. But we did manage to sample two other Sinop specialties: nokul and cevizli mantisi.
Nokul are spiral pastries some 8 inches/20 centimeters across, made with several fillings. Üzmlü ve cevizli nokul hide dried grapes (raisins, obviously, but the raisins in Turkey taste so much more like actual grapes than the raisins in the USA do), chopped walnuts, sugar, and are well lubricated with butter. There's minced lamb in there too, just a wee bit, enough to render this pastry taste-androgynous. Is it sweet or is it savory? Both equally, and intriguingly.
According to this nokul recipe there yogurt and olive oil go into the dough, which is 'wet', soft, elastic, and chewy rather than crisp and flaky. Nokul are not snack-y bites -- they're huge and heavy, and one is easily enough feed 3 or 4 eaters (or 2 gluttons) for breakfast. Other fillings include cheese (peynirli) and plain minced lamb (kıymalı).
We're manti (Turkish 'ravioli') lovers from way back, so when Mert told us about the local version made with walnuts we made straight for his recommended source. Imagine a huge plate of minced lamb-stuffed ravioli (small portions are not found, it seems, in your average Turkish restaurant) tossed in soupspoon fulls of rich freshly churned butter. Add handfuls of crushed walnuts so fresh that they're fairly oozing oil.This meal, our last in Sinop before we hit the road for Kastamonu, nearly put us over the top. But it was well worth the physical discomfort.
Beyond the butter and walnuts (manti are usually sauced with yogurt and melted butter), what's a bit different about Sinop's manti is their shape -- like a boat's sail, as Mert says -- and their skins, which are lighter and thinner (almost like wonton skins) than those of versions we've eaten elsewhere in Turkey.
At Teyzenin Yeri (Your Auntie's Place), the cafe in Sinop known for serving the best cevizli mantisi, the dumplings are made right in the dining room as you eat. Thick yogurt is offered alongside and we accepted. But we left much of it uneaten -- the tanginess of the dairy fought too fiercely with the lovely walnuts and local butter.
So, there's plenty of reason to visit to Sinop, even outside of hamsi season. I know we'll go back.
But not in the summer. No way.