Fed up with the endless construction works and tacky resorts on the Black Sea coast? Go Turkey
Anyone who has ventured as far south as Rezovo on the Bulgarian Black Sea coast has one tantalising memory: the enormous, completely empty beach seen from Rezovo's self-styled village square. It is huge, the sand looks extremely fine, and there is no one in sight: just the type of thing you could experience in Bulgaria before the Great Construction Boom of the mid-2000s. You don't get beaches like that in Europe anymore, you catch yourself thinking. They belong to Southeast Asia or the Caribbean, don't they; yet this one is right in front of you, within an arm's length's reach.
Trouble is that it isn't. It is across the Rezovo River, in Turkish territory, and despite various promises by a succession of post-Communist governments no bridge over it is likely to be built any time soon. To reach it, you have to do a 150-mile detour through the Strandzha. If you do, every minute of it will be rewarded.
The Orman, or Forest, Beach south of Kıyıköy has miles of uninterrupted sand
The northern Black Sea coast of Turkey is waiting to be discovered and in spite of some indications that nouveaux riches Bulgarians are already trying to buy properties there, nothing of the Sunny Beach or Sozopol sort is to be expected during the next five-six years. The coastline of Trakya, as most of European Turkey is known, remains frozen at least three decades ago in Europe's history of mass tourism. And the town of Kıyıköy is its crown jewel.
As you pass through one of the brick gates in the Byzantine fortress wall that divides Kıyıköy from the mainland, you may think that in this little town of 2,500 on Turkey's European Black Sea coast nothing ever happens.
If you spend just an hour at a table in one of the restaurants in the town centre, however, you'll witness more excitement than you'd see in a whole week in a Bulgarian town of the same size.
As I ordered lunch and took a sip of my first beer - the restaurant is içkisiz, meaning it doesn't sell alcohol, but allows you to BYOB - two street dogs became locked in a fierce struggle right in front of the mosque. An angry crowd gathered and the men attempted to break up the fight with kicks, brooms and shouting - all to no avail. Finally, the owner of a small grocery store across from the mosque poured water on the dogs. It worked.
Turkish men enjoy their tea in the late afternoon in Kıyıköy's central square
The reason for the commotion became clear just as my choban salad, the Turkish name for the Bulgarian ovcharska, arrived. A group of weeping men placed a coffin in the courtyard of the mosque. They left two sombre youngsters to stand guard by the deceased's head and then entered the mosque briefly. Afterwards they moved to the tea garden.
Shaded by chestnut trees and a tall statue of Atatürk, the garden is one of the most pleasant places to observe life in Kıyıköy. The town's three biggest streets all meet there. Traffic along them begins in the early morning with the street cleaning trucks that scrub everything and ends long after midnight, when the most passionate connoisseurs of tea and sunflower seeds finally head home.
Kıyıköy is getting increasingly popular with Turkish tourists
As I soaked up aubergine purée with a piece of bread, the crowd moved to the other end of the street. The cause of excitement this time? A girl's unsuccessful efforts to get her car out of a narrow side street. Three onlookers from three different parts of the street began simultaneously to give her mutually contradictory advice. A quarter of an hour later - by that time a square of superb Turkish white cheese, don't call it feta, had appeared on my table - the girl had managed to free her car… only to park it a little further down the wider street.
"Wider street" in Kıyıköy is a relative concept. Located on a cape, the former town of Midia - whose inhabitants until the 1920s were primarily Greeks - has never been roomy. There you can still find many of the wooden houses characteristic of its former inhabitants, similar to those in Nesebar and Sozopol. Unlike them, however, Kıyıköy has not been swallowed up by mass tourism. Even the Turks themselves ignore it. Most of the holidaymakers are not-very-well-off people who cannot afford even the primitive hotels in the centre. Instead they spend their holidays in the improvised campsites nearby, which look more like Middle Eastern refugee camps.
As the publican sets 10 köfte (best in the Balkans) and a bowl of yoghurt so thick that the spoon stands up in it on my table, the mourners take the coffin and carry it towards the cemetery. Situated at the entrance to the city, it is a convenient if gloomy landmark if you're looking for the turn off to the St Nikolay rock monastery, the northern beaches, the town's only modern hotel Endorfina or the humble yet enthusiastic estate agent.
The best beach in Kıyıköy is north
In Bulgaria rumour has it that after the coast was covered in concrete from Obzor to Tsarevo, Bulgarian contractors began buying up land on the Turkish shoreline to repeat their "success" there. Local inhabitants have also got wind of this and in every seaside town - such as Kıyıköy and Iğneada - estate agencies have sprung up. For now, however, the Bulgarian invasion seems more fiction than fact. After all, the border checkpoint between Rezovo and Beğendik has yet to appear despite promises, so for now the only way to go from the Bulgarian to the Turkish Black Sea coast is via Malko Tarnovo.
In the meantime, as I sprinkled hot pepper over my köfte, a veritable parade passed by me: a bus heading for Vize, a new Mercedes with a Hamburg license plate, three sailors who parked their boat in front of the mosque for repairs, and two little old ladies with black headscarves and skirts to their knees. Th is part of Turkey is one of the few places in the country where the conservative White Party did not win a majority in the September 2007 parliamentary election.
As I finished off my last köfte, the funeral party returned. The men left the coffin in the mosque - Muslims bury their dead in a shroud only - and went back to the tea garden. A few minutes later two lorries full of watermelons stopped on the street and unloaded part of their haul right onto the pavement. Th e next day was market day and by morning the town centre was swarming with hundreds of people buying and selling bathing suits, towels, peaches and apricots, grapes and olives, tin graters and brooms.
Kıyıköy's harbour and southern beach
Kıyıköy offers more than just the pleasure of returning to an idyllic Balkan past, however. Nearby you'll fi nd some of the most magnificent beaches in Europe, on a par with internationally acclaimed destinations such as Koh Phi Phi and Krabi. They combine soft sand, crystal water and dramatic cliff s covered with greenery that plunge into the sea. Most of them are empty.
Of course, every pleasure has its price. Despite the proximity of the sea and the fact that the Greeks called their city Midia due to the abundance of midi (mussels) don't order seafood in the local restaurants. Otherwise you may spoil your warm and pleasant memories of Kıyıköy.
The köfte, however, are a different matter - and cheap. A hearty lunch for two will set you back all of 15 Turkish lira, or about 15 leva.
Just don't forget to arrive in Kıyıköy with enough lira in your pocket as the town doesn't have a cash machine. If you run short, you'll have to travel the 60 km, or 37 miles, to Vize or try to root out the local under-the-table money changer - who, like the town itself, may provide you with more excitement than you bargained for.
THE EMPTIEST BEACHES IN EUROPE
You can spend 10 days in Kıyıköy and visit a different beach everyday. The ones near the town itself are the easiest to reach. South of the cape at the mouth of the River Pabuçdere, you'll find local fishermen, the tents of Turkish holidaymakers and herds of buffalo that swim in the firth every evening. For that reason most people prefer the northern beaches, near the firth of the River Kazandere. If you cross the rocky outcropping north of it, however, you'll find yourself on a long and usually empty beach. If Bulgaria hadn't lost the second Balkan War of 1912-1913, this strip would have been within its borders. But perhaps this was for the best. If it had ended up in Bulgaria, this magnicent stretch of coastline - and its fossils! - would already be covered by concrete.
The best of the best: Çilingöz beach, south of Kıyıköy
The best beaches in the area, however, require a car - preferably a 4WD. Ahmed, the owner of Endorfina, can organise an outing for you to some of the hidden beaches to the north, complete with a lamb roast. If you prefer to blaze your own trail, leave Kıyıköy and take the first dirt road, which is on the left at the sign for the Çilingöz campsite. This is not an easy drive, but every fork from it leads to beautiful empty beaches. Çilingöz is the best of them, and its campsite is so well organised and the food in the restaurant is so delicious that it's worth staying there for a night. From there, if you're a strong swimmer or have a boat, you can explore the nearby beaches that are accessible only by water.